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October 21, 2020
Akaash Maharaj on how the Mosaic Institute is building engagement with different communities during the pandemic.
Tell us about the Mosaic Institute. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?
Mosaic is a Canadian charitable institution that advances pluralism in societies and peace amongst nations. We operate through Track Two Diplomacy, and bring together people, communities, and states, to foster mutual understanding and to resolve conflicts. Our unique contribution to global affairs and inter-cultural understanding is that we begin our work with diaspora communities in Canada, convene them together across the divides of international conflicts, help them understand one another’s perspectives, and in doing so, help them acknowledge our shared humanity. We then create opportunities for those communities to join hands in common efforts to resolve or at least mitigate conflicts abroad.
For us, success is rarely a question of persuading people to agree with one another on all aspects of bitterly contentious disputes, but instead, to find was to disagree constructively, and to protect one another’s human rights as a way of protecting their own human rights.
We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how the Mosaic Institute is responding to the crisis?
On the one hand, the pandemic has lain bare the extent to which our interests as individuals are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of every other member of society, and that we can not be healthy, prosperous, or successful individuals, unless we build health, prosperous, and successful societies. On the other hand, the pandemic has made it no less clear that those with the least are being called to sacrifice the most, either by continuing to work in public-facing activities that bring high risks and low remuneration, or by being stripped of their livelihoods altogether.
Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. How does this relate to your work?
Physical distancing has only increased the appetite for social interactions, especially amongst Canadians who were already isolated or confined by poverty or powerlessness. Mosaic is working to bring such people together, especially across ethnic, cultural, and confessional divisions. If a community’s hunger for human interaction is at least partially met by other communities from whom they have been historically alienated, this may build bridges of social cohesion and unity between them that could outlast the pandemic.
What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?
Discrimination in Canada is often far more subtle than in other countries. It has learned to speak the language of virtue, even as it practices the most appalling vices. Public and corporate actors will mouth the words of inclusion, precisely to mask their practice of racial, class, and gender exclusion. As a result, discrimination in our country is strangely insidious: it strengthens its grip on the body politic, even as many citizens insist that it is an imagined phantom.
Part of the response must be for social-purpose organisations – including Mosaic – to pay no attention to the words or the expressed intentions of public figures, and to instead place our emphasis entirely on a critical assessment of those figures’ actions. Part of the response must be fostering a culture that rejects the tyranny of low expectations, a tyranny that persuades citizens to mute their criticism of hypocritical political figures, out of fear that a still worse breed of politician would benefit from such criticisms.
Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? This could be related to your work or something you see happening in the sector.
I have been deeply impressed and moved by the work of our colleagues at the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem. Israeli and Palestinian doctors have pooled their efforts to provide ophthalmic services in Jerusalem, irrespective of the patients’ ethnic or confessional identity or ability to pay. The core identity of the hospital emphasises our duties to one another, and the fact that we become our better selves by fulfilling those responsibilities.
Tell us about how the Mosaic Institute is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?
There is a surprisingly widespread misconception that online video engagement activities are necessarily more accessible, because they do not require travel. In reality, virtual barriers can be as restrictive as physical ones: not all communities have extensive access to high speed internet service, to computers, or to quiet work areas.
During the pandemic, the digital divide was exacerbated by the closing of public libraries and schools. We are in discussions with technology firms about the possibility of creating systems to make basic computer equipment available in deprived communities. We are also examining regulatory options that would compel large telecommunications firms, as a condition of access to the Canadian market, to provide low-cost internet access to Canadians of modest means.
Are there specific asks the Mosaic Institute has for the broader sector — things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?
Like virtually all not-for-profit organisations, we are grappling with the fact that funding agencies have embraced project funding models, and abandoned core funding. We need to find a way to better persuade funders that investing in institutional capacity and resilience is not only productive, but the only effective and efficient way of ensuring that organisations can continue our work at times of crisis and convulsion, when that work is most desperately needed.
Mosaic Institute is a Canadian charitable institution that advances pluralism in societies and peace amongst nations. We operate through Track Two Diplomacy, and bring together people, communities, and states, to foster mutual understanding and to resolve conflict. Over the past ten years, Mosaic has convened Chinese and Tibetan youth leaders, for discussions on peaceful co-existence on the Tibetan Plateau; assembled Sinhalese and Tamil representatives, to create strategies for reconciliation after the Sri Lankan civil war; called together survivors of genocides, to break cycles of trauma; and established programmes in schools and universities, to nurture the next generation of leaders in pluralism. Follow @MosaicInstitute.
This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!
Akaash Maharaj is CEO of Mosaic Institute, and leads its work strengthening pluralism within societies and peace between nations. He also serves as Ambassador-at-Large for the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, and has addressed the United Nations on international prosecution of Crimes Against Humanity. Outside of his professional life, he is an national athlete, and was a triple gold medallist at the International Championships of Equestrian Skill‑at‑Arms. He earned his Master of Arts from Oxford University, and was the first overseas student elected President of the student government in the history of the 900 year‑old University.