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Intergenerational responsibilities in difficult times: the story of the Faculty of Education's “Generational Bowl”

May 30, 2024

A shallow, black-rimmed bowl of white and red petals is pictured from above, sat upon a wooden surface. The Generational Bowl symbolizes the Faculty of Education’s commitment to serving and protecting future generations of children. The bowl serves as a living compass in meetings and decision-making, reminding us of our accountabilities to the future we are shaping.

The story of the bowl

A "nexus event" represents a critical juncture where multiple factors converge, often leading to significant change or impact. This term accurately captures the current complex challenges that our faculty, the university, broader society, and the planet are currently facing. These challenges form part of a larger meta-crisis affecting multiple sectors, particularly evident within education. Currently, the education sector is grappling with increasing mental health challenges among students and teachers, a rise in school violence, high attrition rates among educators, declining enrollment in teacher education programs and a growing disconnect between the curriculum and the evolving realities of schools and society. Similarly, the higher education sector is confronting serious budgetary constraints as many Canadian universities struggle with financial pressures due to external factors and shifts in public perception of the role of academia. In response to these pressing issues, in February 2024, most faculties and units at UVic were tasked with implementing budget reductions to navigate this complex landscape.

Budget reductions often manifest as traumatic events within academic institutions. They can lead to a heightened sense of vulnerability among faculty and staff, prompting defensive responses as individuals and departments compete for limited resources. This competition can strain relationships, exacerbate enduring unproductive conflicts and create new discords.

The overall morale of the institution can suffer significantly with pervasive insecurity and dissatisfaction among community members. Since tenure-track faculty members enjoy job security, staff are left vulnerable to layoffs, fostering a sense of inequity and resentment within the academic community.

We had faced budget reductions recently, and understandably, there was significant concern within our leadership team about navigating the complexities of the budget reductions once again. Dr. Vanessa Andreotti, our recently appointed Dean, was selected for her deep commitment to relational leadership, with a strong emphasis on equity, diversity, inclusion, decolonization and climate education. Recognizing the need for a different approach, Dr. Andreotti reached out to Indigenous knowledge keepers for their unique perspectives on decision-making processes that could align with her mandate. The consultation set the foundation for this "story of The Generational Bowl", a narrative that reflects our collective journey through these tumultuous times.

This story illustrates how a symbolic bowl became a focal point for reaffirming our Faculty's commitment to serving society, embracing relational wisdom and fulfilling our ecological and intergenerational responsibilities.

Moving together with a different compass

Following advice from Indigenous mentors, we initiated our first budget-focused leadership team meeting with a smudging ceremony, intended to clear our minds and hearts. This practice, which aimed to help us to decenter our personal interests and instead focus on our collective responsibilities, would precede all subsequent meetings. We were also instructed to create a living symbol that would serve as an ethical compass for our decision-making process; that is how The Generational Bowl came into existence.

A red bowl was placed at the center of the meeting table, and we were each given strips of paper. The first task was to write the names of children we know personally who are under 17 years old (Generation A). As we placed their names in the bowl, we called their names out loud, evoking a personal and tangible connection. Following this, we identified broader groups of children we felt connected to or who were underserved—such as Indigenous children, non-binary youth, children caught in conflict zones, children with disabilities and mental health challenges, children in care and other groups —adding their names to the bowl in a second round. The third round extended our consideration to children who were not already in the bowl, children coming after the children in the bowl and non-human children who are integral to the life-support systems that the children in the bowl depend upon, broadening our perspective on whom our decisions would impact.

We then covered the bowl with petals from red and white roses, symbolizing a blanket of protection, compassion and healing—ultimately reflecting our responsibility toward the future. We were tasked with considering these children as witnesses to our budget conversations, urging us to make decisions that would benefit them in a decade.

This bowl served as a living compass in our meeting space throughout the month, steering our discussions. It was a constant reminder of our duty to look beyond the immediate concerns of individual departments and programs, to consider who we are in service of and the future we are shaping.

This approach helped unify our leadership team, encouraging a collective vision focused not on preserving the status quo but on serving future generations. Through this shared focus, we grounded ourselves in the awareness that we are in a unique moment in time, when as a faculty, we can contribute to something far greater than individual ambitions. 

The bowl activated a call to ecological and intergenerational responsibilities which manifest as being accountable—not to ourselves, our disciplines, departments or careers, but to an educational sector, a broader society and a planet in crisis.

Sharing the compass with the faculty community

To inform and consult with faculty and staff, we hosted an in-person 'Faculty Futures' session with all faculty and staff invited to attend and participate. We brought the bowl with us, recounted its creation and encouraged participants to mentally add more names of children and groups they felt affinity with, extending the bowl’s symbolic reach. Members of the leadership team then took turns to present the immediate and broader budgetary challenges confronting our faculty.

We framed these discussions not as conflicts to be battled over across the table, but as shared challenges to be faced together, from the same side of the table. We also emphasized the need for a systemic approach to these challenges, discouraging the protective defense of personal preferences and territories.

We encouraged our colleagues to adopt a holistic view, considering the well-being of the entire faculty and the broader community we serve. This approach aimed to cultivate a shared understanding and commitment to facing these challenges as a community, not as adversaries competing for resources.

By viewing the issues from a systemic standpoint, we hoped to facilitate a more inclusive, compassionate and effective process, fostering a deeper connection and shared responsibility among all members of the faculty.

In the closing activity of our Faculty Futures session, we placed the bowl in the middle of the room. Participants were arranged in a fishbowl formation, with faculty and staff who self-identified as early-career seated in an inner circle around the bowl. This circle included an empty chair, referred to as the "ancestral chair". The remaining participants, including mid-career and senior staff and faculty, were seated in an outer circle, playing a witness role to the conversations within the inner circle. The early-career group was tasked with having a conversation about the changes needed within our immediate Faculty community and the university at large—not for personal career advancement, but to enable them to fulfill their own responsibilities towards future generations as symbolized by the bowl.

The discussion in the inner circle was both profound and emotional, as participants talked about their commitments to human and non-human generations already inheriting a world in crisis and those yet to come. They confronted the daunting realities of climate change, biodiversity loss, economic instability, the housing crisis and the increasing destabilization of collective mental health—issues that present unprecedented challenges for incoming generations.

The conversation touched on systemic barriers that hinder early-career faculty and staff commitments and institutional change in general, such as entrenched bureaucratic processes and inflexible disciplinary perspectives, as well as traditional academic paradigms that do not prioritize regeneration and holistic wellbeing. They discussed how the university has contributed to worsening problems and how it could change to support better health and well-being for all. The circle allowed participants to explore deeper aspects of their roles and the impact of their actions on those coming after them.

This conversation underscored the need for a transformative approach in higher education, one that aligns academic and operational practices with the urgent demands of ecological stewardship and mental health support that can help us to better navigate the uncertainty and complexity of current times.

After the inner circle's conversation wrapped up, those in the outer circle were invited to occupy the ancestral chair, but with a specific condition: they should speak not as themselves but as representatives of something beyond their individual identities and interests. To determine their readiness to speak from this perspective, participants were asked to attune to physical sensations—such as changes in heart rate, sudden warmth or coldness, sweaty palms, goosebumps, or involuntary movements—which might suggest ancestral or other non-self forces prompting them to speak. As individuals spoke from the ancestral chair, they brought forward insights from different viewpoints, including the voices of children from the bowl, of deceased Elders and of a warming planet asking us to do better.

The bowl as a living compass

The presence and symbolism of the bowl have played a crucial role in helping us confront the broader realities facing our faculty, community and beyond. Although our immediate challenge was budget reductions, the bowl revealed that responding responsibly to the crisis in our sector and society requires more than financial adjustments.

We need a cultural change that can unite us and inspire renewal and regeneration. The pandemic exacerbated our community's fragmentation, but the bowl's invitation to come together and sit on the same side of the table represents a call from the future. This call urges us to turn towards each other, not away, so that we can find a way to work collaboratively in service of others to fulfill our role as a public institution.

In the face of the educational sector's crisis and unprecedented societal challenges, the bowl continues to serve as a constant reminder of who we ultimately serve. It encourages us not to shy away from adversity but to face it with resilience and a sense of shared responsibility, where, as leaders, we each felt both insufficient and indispensable to the task at hand. The Generational Bowl shows us that a different form of leadership and community building are possible, although both require more time and different intellectual, affective and relational work. Although we had to have difficult conversations and make difficult decisions, guided by the bowl, we managed to find a pathway forward that we believe could bring us all together around the common goal of serving the future rather than protecting the past.

As we continue to navigate these challenging times, the bowl remains a central living compass in our ongoing cultural transformation. The image of the bowl is now displayed prominently in the Dean’s office as a symbol of our commitment to rethinking how our faculty can operate, ensuring that our actions today will benefit the generations of tomorrow. This cultural shift is crucial for turning our current strategies into a sustainable reality, guiding us in making decisions that honor our obligations to future generations.