When one of Canada’s leading thinkers on civic engagement, Sevaun Palvetzian, talks about what drives her, she focuses on the unseen, the invisible or the marginalised.
“At some point this got in me and I started studying history,” Sevaun says, “particularly social history and who wasn’t in the history books, who’s not getting written about. I was always fascinated by the margins. What is it that takes you to leaping from the margins and into the story? And then what enables you to not only be in that story but have a lead role in that story. It fascinated me my whole life.”
If the invisible and the marginalised fascinated Sevaun, it has been her quest for ways of helping society to identify, support and engage those individuals that has been central to her work. Now, Australian audiences will get a chance to hear Sevaun explain her world view when she appears as a keynote speaker at Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit in Canberra on 18-19 September.
Sevaun is CEO of CivicAction in Toronto, a small organisation that thinks large about civic engagement, leadership, the role of government and the importance of community and collaboration. She comes from a rich north American tradition of civic thinkers but perhaps more pertinently, she is also an “outsider”.
Sevaun is the eldest of five children, descended from an Armenian grandfather who was fleeing the genocide in his own country. Half of Toronto, where Sevaun lives with her own family, is foreign-born. “Depending on how you arrive and who you are when you arrive - that is [either] a refugee, or a person of wealth - it shows where you’re going to sit on the sidelines of society,” she says.
Social change has meant those on the sidelines don’t have to stay there. “It used to be that if you acquired enough letters behind your name, a formal education, you were something: you got a good job, benefits, that meant you got the house, a good environment for children…all of that is changing,” Sevaun says. “The world of work is changing, the gig economy is changing, everything is changing…. Who used to have power and how you got it is changing too. For me, I love that in some ways, because those who have been and could have been chronically resigned to the sidelines, don’t have to be any more.”
What does have cachet in this redrawn society is authenticity, the capacity to be yourself amid the clatter and clutter of social media.
“Social media has made it harder to discern what’s real,” Sevaun says. “We present to the world the top coat of the nail polish – we crave it (authenticity) because it is further and further away from us, our regular life. We’re sick of leaders – and that is why sometimes these messed-up leaders appeal to us - who seem to have their craft together so much. They’re not accessible to us. You don’t see yourself in perfection.
“So, when [former US president] Bill Clinton says, ‘I apologise, I’m human, I falter’, we like that, we like things that are broken. So, we’re clamouring for authenticity…And the first person who turns up like [US president Donald] Trump and hangs all this crap out, we can’t help but become addicted to it because it’s so different.”
Sevaun joined CivicAction after working as the director of the Ontario Place Revitalization project, and before that as communications director and separately, strategic director in two arms of the Ontario government. She has been innovative, launching in 2005 a government-wide strategy to identify and employ future leaders. Sevaun has also worked at the University of Toronto, the World Bank Group, and Presidential Classroom, a Washington-based civic education organization.
But it has been her work at CivicAction – an organisation supported by a mixture of corporate donations, some high net wealth individuals and specific government grants - that is built on exploring ways of engagement and collaboration. Her view about this is succinct: “The antidote to populism is engagement.” And that observation underpins her understanding – and hope – for what current governments can do.
Sevaun acknowledges that governments are not good at bringing those at the margins into the centre. She spent 10 years working in senior executive roles in government and says she was probably wrong to believe that government was “a collaborative body that takes care of everybody.”
“I thought that government was the one sacred place where data, research, and smart analysis would matter, and I think I was wrong,” Sevaun explains. “Government is both the carrot and the stick. It can’t be neutral. It’s the group that protects the most vulnerable on one hand and on the other manages the books, which are often in opposition to each other. “And how can you collaborate when every four years – in our model – there’s an election and all the table settings change,” she says.
But perhaps most telling is the sense that governments “…have spoken down to people” during the past decade. “They’ve said ‘You don’t know what you need…let me do it for you…you don’t really understand what’s coming. I do. Trust me.’ Hang on there. I don’t care if you’re the Queen of England or John who sweeps the floors of my children’s school or a colleague from Civic Action, I don’t care who you are, none of us likes being talked down to,” Sevaun says.
“And so governments got a little too suffocating by their own carbon dioxide and their own task forces, and their own relevance, and their own exactness and their own expertise, and many parts of the population just checked out: “to hell with this, you don’t speak for me. That’s not helpful! You don’t really get my problems,” she says. “So governments got out of touch and that’s a recipe for populism.”
So, what can cut through that? Who are the players who come to the table unencumbered by agendas? Sevaun says that philanthropy – now, more than it did 10 or 15 years ago – has a role to play, to build connections between sectors, factions and population groups. “To fuel and funnel and at times fund, the opportunities for the usual and the unusual suspects to come together,” she explains. Philanthropy’s role, in some ways, is to act as the honest broker, free of association with any particular interest. “Because outside groups like mine – and I can tell you there aren’t many versions of CivicAction around the world –there are very few groups that are not tied by an umbilical cord to a sector and philanthropy and philanthropists are one of those,” Sevaun says.
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