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United We Can: A Reflection on the Theme

17 September 2020

By Craig Davis, President and Head of College at Pearson College UWC

As I am writing this the air outside my window is acrid, smoke filled and heavily polluted. We have hit the highest danger point on the air quality index and outside activity has been curtailed. Raging forest fires in Washington State and Oregon are the cause as wind brings pollutants over the Salish Sea and into Canada and Pearson College UWC. 

This is a visceral and palpable reminder that borders, countries and regions are irrelevant when it comes to the huge global challenges facing us today. In my previous life, sat in Singapore facing the regular haze that would drift over from the slash and burn clear cutting of the Sumatran rain forests, I would enviously look at the Pearson website depicting our beautiful forested, waterside campus and anticipate a life for my family free of air quality concerns. Irony is often an opportunity to recognise important life lessons and of course the causal factors behind both uncontrollably intense forest fires or the zoonotic transmissions responsible for Covid-19, are the same. Climate change, habitat loss and the underlying business practices linked to them, such as the well documented impact of Palm Oil production in S.E. Asia, are a global problem that nobody can escape. We are all affected and there is no climate migration haven.

So, this awareness also provides hope for us in the UWC movement. Our values, deliberate diversity and network of transnational schools is the very expression of the need for collective, global response. Even though our movement was framed in a post-war context that sought to create an educational structure to help prevent future global conflict, its mechanism can equally help to tackle our environmental crisis. The disrupted cycles of short-term national government tenures and party political campaigns often means the required swift responses to crises fall short. 

Alternatively, the work of bodies such as the World Health Organisation or prioritised mandates offered by the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals seem more appropriate to our times. The world, and quite literally the earth, needs a UWC ‘united we can’ approach more than ever. We have already demonstrated this in our collective sharing of restart plans, safety protocols and best practices over 18 schools and multiple time zones. At every level, whether it be collective UWC student action or Heads of college meeting regularly to formulate strategic responses, the most impactful interventions are the result of effective collaboration. The key here is ‘effective’ because as we know from past criticism of the United Nations, sometimes the scale of international cooperation can create it is own problems of overly bureaucratic, slow and blunted responses. Here at Pearson we have addressed this issue head on with respect to both ‘Anti Racism’ and our own commitment to Indigenous reconciliation. As a collective we have committed to avoiding the pitfalls of what I recently called  ‘IB lite education’ where the need for provocative educational discussion, concrete political engagement and uncomfortable challenges to power relationships, is replaced by a form of bland relativism packaged in terms of safe but ineffective values statements. On that front our Pearson students and alumni are holding our feet to the fire which unlike the forest blazes nearby, are very welcome indeed.

I am extremely hopeful that the UWC movement can continue to play a pivotal role in helping to create creative solutions to our growing climate crisis alongside our commitment to Indigenous reconciliation and anti-racist action. These will be Pearson College UWC’s goals moving forward as we seek to maximise the place-based experiential opportunities our campus affords to provide every student with a visceral engagement with the natural world that will stay with them long after they leave. The overlap with Coast Salish First Nation ethics focused on generational commitments to land stewardship that embed sustainability at the core of every practice, continues to inform our Pearson culture. We have much to learn from our Sc'ianew neighbours on whose land Pearson College UWC resides, and maybe it is our growing ‘united’ partnership with sustainable Coast Salish traditions that have worked with the environment since 9000 BC, that can help us provide solutions to our global challenges.