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Ryerson Leadership Lab

September 25, 2020

Karim Bardeesy and Braelyn Guppy on seizing activation opportunities in a pandemic. 

Tell us about the Ryerson Leadership Lab. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

The Ryerson Leadership Lab is an action-oriented think tank working at the intersection of public policy and leadership development to make progress on our most pressing civic challenges. Through leadership development, civic convening, and policy and research activation, we are building a new generation of skilled and adaptive leaders and change-makers, at all ages and stages, to create a more trustworthy, inclusive society. 

We aspire to cultivate power and knowledge and connect it to existing power. We hope to develop capacity for sustainable change-making and find places for direct action into the issues that matter to all of us. We are one of the only Canadian think-tanks working in this hybrid space to combine the need for research, leadership, and public policy literacy together to make change. 

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how  Ryerson Leadership Lab is responding to the crisis?

When the full force of the pandemic started to set in and physical distancing measures were implemented, we did our best to pivot to new streams of engagement and activation. I’ll offer two examples of work that we are doing in new ways at the Ryerson Leadership Lab.

In collaboration with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Matthew Mendelsohn, we launched First Policy Response, a project bringing together the best social and economic public policy ideas to keep us afloat during the immediate crisis and prepare us for an equitable recovery. Through this channel, we have been sharing original commentary assessing gaps and opportunities for governments and institutions to deliver more supportive programs for Canadians. We have broadened the conversation by convening participatory, online town halls featuring leading thinkers and practitioners and people from across Canada. Recently First Policy Response created a contributors’ fund to better enable pitches and submissions from people in these groups, with a priority on Black and Indigenous writers and contributors. The fund will also support writers and contributors from other under-represented groups, including people of colour, people with disabilities, youth and unemployed people or low-wage earners. We immediately saw an upwelling of support and the emergence of a stronger, more connected policy community. This supports builds on the Leadership Lab’s and First Policy Responses’ shared goal of amplifying diverse policy ideas and amplifying voices at the front lines of inclusive policy making.

We also launched the Cybersecure Policy Exchange, our new initiative working to advance effective and innovative public policy in cybersecurity and digital privacy with Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst, powered by RBC. We moved up the launch to respond to the crisis by running a number of video conversations about pressing cybersecurity issues created or exacerbated by COVID-19 including the digital divide and privacy in the education and health sectors. We also launched our inaugural report, The Race to Trace on the security and privacy of COVID-19 contact tracing apps which included a survey of 2,000 Canadians and five critical recommendations for the government to implement in any national contact tracing strategy. We also launched our policy agenda highlighting the urgency for new public policy in cybersecurity and digital privacy and outlining the three high impact technologies we will focus our research on this year: social media platforms, Internet of Things devices and biometrics.

Through these two initiatives, we have seen the power of knowledge sharing between communities and the rapid dissemination of accessible, creative ideas. It is clear that people may be distant from one-another but they are not out of touch. Instead, they are eager for activation opportunities, forward thinking policy and action-oriented conversations around pressing issues. 

What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?

We have a deficit of trust in our public institutions. Across the country, Canadians are feeling disconnected from the systems that represent our communities and govern the best interests of the public. Our institutions were created to remove barriers to access, promote social cohesion and reflect the people whom they serve in their policy-making. Without the inherent trust that public good is at the heart of every institutional decision, citizens will feel removed from democratic participation and from one another. Conflated partisan ideology and the rise of populism has fundamentally changed the relationship between our government and our society. 

We need to rebuild trust at all levels. By coming together around issues and public policy, we can further civic engagement, political action and community mobilization. Rebuilding trust will require immense collaboration and deeper understanding across communities, to uplift the priorities of our future society. There are several core assumptions that must be made — one, society as a whole must maintain the inherent belief that government and their systems are good, perhaps flawed, but fundamentally designed to support their constituents. Two, we need to engage and listen to groups — young people, Black and Indigenous communities, our aging population —  who have felt removed or suppressed from participating in the democratic processes that are meant to serve them. If we can mobilize knowledge, community, research and an appetite for change-making we will see movement on our most pressing civic issues, and build trust through action.

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 am constantly inspired. Coalitions of communities working at the frontlines of democracy to make change. Their passion is inspiring. Healthcare workers protecting our national public health at the risk of their own. Their commitment is inspiring. Rallying in solidarity against anti-Black racism and structural inequities. Their power is inspiring. Across the country, there are communities of people who are making change and taking collective action towards a more inclusive society. I admire their tenacity and hope that we can honour that leadership in our own way, through our work, at the Ryerson Leadership Lab. 

I also am inspired by the Ryerson students in the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s anchor course Making the Future, who among their studies, caregiving responsibilities and various jobs, dedicate their time to collective action in their communities. The Lab has recently launched a new social media segment called “I am a Change-Maker” to provide a dedicated platform to lift up student stories and showcase the work of passionate young people. Our most recent spotlight fell on Cristal Hines. She is a leader and advocate for youth political participation in the Durham region. Her most recent venture, Youth Vote Counts is a community-driven organization aimed to build political literacy, especially in youth between the ages of 18 and 29. It was born out of the 2019 federal election to educate members of her community who were looking for resources. You can read about her work on our website here.

Tell us about how Ryerson Leadership Lab 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?

The Ryerson Leadership Lab works at the intersection of leadership and policy. Our work centres around creating knowledge on issues and connecting that knowledge to the institutions where those issues are being discussed.

We have recently taken over stewardship of the Coalition for Alternatives to Streaming in Education (CASE). This group aims to advance equity in our public education systems that disproportionately stream Black students into applied, rather than academic, programming. Students in applied streams have less access to post secondary opportunities and significantly lower graduation rates. CASE’s advocacy will help break down barriers for marginalized students to excel, get ahead and create equitable outcomes so that no student is left behind in our public education system. In mid-July, we saw that community engagement and mobilization can lead to change when the Ontario government announced they would be working to de-stream Grade 9. Now we need to continue our work to be part of the effective implementation of streaming. 

Conversations that are pointed toward action is the only way to make meaningful change. But action and even change can mean something different to everyone, even those in the pursuit of the same thing. To encourage participation in conversation and then action, we need to find commonality and community in the diagnosis of issues that matter to us, mobilize collective knowledge and move forward. 

Are there specific asks Ryerson Leadership Lab has for the broader sector — things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?

A problem at the Ryerson Leadership Lab is trying to solve is how to help engage on the key issues that live in expert silos without intervention from young people, the public or impacted communities. We are trying to do more of this in our work, by activating our research findings through convening opportunities, interviews, roundtables and more and engaging our student base through our leadership development classes and training. 

Our biggest wish would be for institutions to make our proposed changes around equity in education, adopt privacy-by-design technology, take climate action and engage with young people on issues that matter to them. Public institutions need to include this new generation of change-makers into their conversations especially around urgent public policy issues, especially those that impact communities that will be set back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking to the community we hope that they continue their work engaging voices of all ages and stages into conversations around our most pressing civic issues to make change at all levels.


The Ryerson Leadership Lab is an action-oriented think tank working at the intersection of public policy and leadership development to make progress on our most pressing civic challenges. Through leadership development, civic convening, and policy and research activation, we are building a new generation of skilled and adaptive leaders and changemakers, at all ages and stages, to build a more trustworthy, inclusive society. 

Karim Bardeesy, Executive Director & Co-Founder and Braelyn Guppy, Marketing and Communications Lead at the Ryerson Leadership Lab

Karim is a public service leader who has worked in progressively senior roles in public policy, politics, journalism and academia in Toronto and the United States since 2001.  He is also a board member of The Atmospheric Fund and Corporate Knights, Inc., a member of the Banff Forum, and a founding faculty member of Maytree Policy School. Karim was previously Deputy Principal Secretary for the Premier of Ontario, the Honourable Kathleen Wynne, and served as Executive Director of Policy for Premiers Wynne and Dalton McGuinty. He has worked as a journalist, an editorial writer at The Globe and Mail, and as an editorial assistant at Slate magazine. Karim holds a Master in Public Policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Braelyn has a passion for combining communication, policy, technology, and the arts. She previously worked with the provincial government providing as an assistant to government and opposition elected officials as part of the Ontario Legislature Internship Programme (OLIP). She has also previously worked in positions in the public service including communications coordinator for the WSIB, simulation technician for an artificially intelligent learning start-up, Ametros Learning and as an undergraduate research assistant. She earned her BA, Honours in Professional Communications from Ryerson University.