Mount Allison University’s Global Brigades group hosted the annual Global Brigades exchange this past weekend, a cross-Canadian event that brought together sixty students from the various Global Brigades chapters across the Atlantic Region. Representatives from other parts of the country were unable to attend.
Students also had the chance to work with the organization’s co-founder and ‘Chief Empowerment Officer’ Steve Atamian, who took an active role in the various workshops, before delivering a talk focused on the topic of “The Role of Volunteers in Global Development.” A dialogue then followed the talk between the ‘CEO’ and the attendants.
This discussion-based approach was held in high regard by the organizers, as significant attention was put towards providing the opportunity for discussion and in encouraging conversation between participants, explained Alex Whynot, the president of Mt. A’s Global Brigades chapter.
This focus seemingly manifests itself in the organization’s philosophy: “The idea of empowerment is really embedded in our organization from the student level, to the community level, to every aspect of it,” Atamian said. “To maintain that culture and to really create an inclusive culture of critique and improvement, my role is to keep fostering a movement and not dictating to a movement.”
Indeed, with upwards of 30,000 university student members, Global Brigades is the world’s largest student-led health and sustainable development organization, something that, according to Atamian, is instrumental in setting them apart: “The opinions of the students are heard […] it’s not just a top-down bureaucratic organization and we take a lot of pride in that.”
Development organizations such as Global Brigades are frequent targets of criticism—like accusations of possessing the ‘white saviour complex’—something Atamian is acutely aware of: “I think that is going to be a constant area of improvement. In the pre-brigade preparation, in the curriculums that we’ve prepared, we have to emphasize that we’re not here to save. It’s all about partnership […] the students are getting more out of it than they are receiving. As an institution, we have to make sure that there are tools and templates to make that happen,” explained Atamian.
“I think that students are inherently more open-minded to having even a slight conversation about it and going there with a change mentality,” he said.
Given Mt. A’s position within the organization, along with what Whynot described as Atamian’s easy-going nature, he found it easy to reach out to him through email.
“In my view, Mt. A is a leader within our organization,” Atamian noted. He said that the campus group has a strong voice within Global Brigades. “Their Global Brigades participation on campus is like five per cent of the student body […] I don’t think you’re going to find that on any other campus in the world.”