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Learning Moral Courage with Professor Irshad Manji

We live in divided times, and our world is more polarized than ever before. While social media platforms today allow us to communicate instantaneously and effortlessly anywhere in the world, they have engendered a new crisis, ironically, of communication—the effects of which we could not possibly have anticipated.

At present, the prospect of communicating across divides—political or otherwise—seems an impossible task. As our lives become increasingly isolated and insular, we feel more distant from our friends and neighbours, and from the world at large. The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offered a poignant assessment of our contemporary social affliction in a recent article for The Atlantic: “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.” Yet, recent data published by Gallup reveals that our society was more cooperative, with intergroup relations perceived nearly twice as positively, only ten short years ago. So, how can start to bridge our modern divide and begin to heal collectively, as a society?

Professor Irshad Manji (University of Oxford) proposes a simple, yet satisfying, answer: by learning to communicate with each other—again.

Last year, Ridley College joined the growing ‘moral courage community’ by partnering with Professor Manji’s non-profit Moral Courage College (MCC), an organization that empowers and works with institutions, including K-12 schools like ours, to engage in honest diversity work rather than simply rushing to adopt the trendiest framework out of fear of appearing unresponsive. In September 2021, we invited Professor Manji to host a series of virtual workshops with students, faculty, and staff to teach us about moral courage and set out on a path together, as an institution, to develop the skills to engage constructively about contentious issues without sowing division.

Of course, Professor Manji is no stranger to Ridley College. As many in our community will no doubt recall, she was the inaugural speaker in our MGI-Gordon Distinguished Speaker in November 2005 during the tour for her controversial second book, The Trouble with Islam Today, which had been released the previous year. Seeking a dynamic speaker who could spark discussion and debate around big ideas, she fit the bill perfectly and, as with her latest visit, she certainly did not disappoint. This year, however, Professor Manji returned to Ridley in a new capacity—as our first Global Leader in Residence, sharing her wealth of knowledge and insight with our students, parents, faculty, and staff, as well as some of the intimate biographical details that inspired her to establish the Moral Courage Project.

Before joining the University of Oxford’s Initiative for Global Ethics and Human Rights, Professor Manji served for many years as a professor of leadership at New York University. Prior to that, she held a number of positions under Canadian New Democratic politicians—as a legislative aide, press secretary, and speechwriter—while somehow also finding time to moonlight as the host of a television program about queer issues and author multiple New York Times bestselling books, most recently, Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2019.

But despite her many accolades—including Oprah Winfrey’s Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness, and conviction”—Professor Manji remains completely authentic, wholly unpretentious, and down to earth. She moves fluidly between registers from session to session, deftly navigating a spectrum of big—and often controversial—topics in a way that is engaging and memorable, masterfully modulating her message to command the full attention of her audience, whether comprised of Kindergarteners, teens, or adults over 50.

Stepping out onto the Mandeville Theatre stage in person for the first time in nearly two decades, she addresses the packed crowd on Monday morning with humility and grace—virtues she credits to having her proverbial butt kicked in the early years of her career. “I wanted to change the world without recognizing that I had to change myself,” she reflects. 

“Back then, the voice in my head told me if you don’t fight back, your opponents won’t know that you mean business. […] But this was the biggest mistake I ever could have made because it made my critics more rigid in their thinking and made my sympathizers question my sincerity.”   

But this change did not come easily. After nearly a decade of “digesting toxic energy,” experiencing clinical depression and panic attacks, she collapsed just moments before the biggest interview of her life. Then, her doctors presented her with an ultimatum—either she quit her book tour, or they quit as her doctors. “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” she explains. “My body was trying to tell me something, but I was not listening. Then my body showed me who was boss.” 

Today, she is no longer the incendiary, confrontational figure who “used to walk on stage with her metaphorical fists clenched, ready to punch back at her opponents,” but instead, strives to be a thoughtful and respectful adversary to those with whom she disagrees—a power she claims is entirely within reach for those who are willing to “speak truth to the power of their own egos.”

Drawing on the principles of neuroscience and positive psychology, she started the MCC to help educators and leaders communicate and develop relationships across divides by learning to modulate their emotions in situations where they are forced to confront difficult, often emotionally charged, issues. This instinct to fear and lash out when we are confronted with views different from our own, and the related impulse to subdue this perceived threat by labelling others, is a fundamental part of how we are wired, she explains. However, letting our emotions—primarily fear—guide us tends to produce only fast, often temporary, fixes that only deepen existing tensions and polarization.

 “Instinctually, we are always scanning for threats. When we perceive them, the primitive region of our brains—the amygdala [part of the Limbic System]—starts to take over. […] When we disagree on subjects that we feel passionately about, our brains make us believe others are attacking us. We perceive disagreement as an existential threat. But in reality, we are only experiencing mere discomfort.” 

In those decisive moments, we are forced to make a choice. We can let fear overtake us and become defensive—usually at the expense of being heard by our opponents—or we can choose to listen, which requires us to acknowledge and respect the singularity of the individual we are facing, despite our initial instinct to reduce them to a set of labels.   

“There is no shame in categorizing,” she continues.  

“The trouble with labels is not that they exist, but the baggage that goes with them. But we must remember that we are also owners of a more evolved part of the brain. Rather than letting emotion bully cognition out of the picture, we must find a way to let cognition and emotion peacefully co-exist.” 

A problem arises only when we let our assumptions—and our emotions—take the wheel and shut down rather than engaging with our opponents as equals. In these moments, we deprive others of their humanity by reducing them to caricatures rather than engaging with them as our equals with complex thoughts, opinions, and emotions, at which point, Manji emphasizes, “social justice becomes anti-social, and justice is reduced to ‘just us.’”

True justice, she counters, manifests when we recognize that individuals who belong to the same demographic group are not identical, and we are impelled to create space for that individual to express their unique point of view.

“I am a Muslim. But does that mean that I think like every other Muslim? Not all Muslims think alike. And if that’s true of marginalized groups, it is also true of the so-called straight white guy. […] If you’re going to [make the conscious effort to] know me, [rather than] of me, you are going to engage with me, not make assumptions based on this or that label.” 

So, how do we outsmart the limbic system which causes us to react this way? The answer might surprise you: take a deep breath. “We must give our bodies the time and oxygen to transition from this hyperemotional ego brain to the more evolved pre-frontal cortex […] where cognition and emotion can cohabit and coexist,” Manji claims. This is not to say we need to banish emotion. “Good luck trying,” she scoffs. Rather, it is coming to the realization that our biggest obstacle is not the other person, but our own egos.

“By lowering our emotional defences, we are using our power wisely to motivate the other to follow in our footsteps,” she explains. But unfortunately—in the age of cancel culture and reactive social media platforms—many social justice advocates and educators have lost sight of this noble ambition. 

As governments, businesses, non-profits, and other institutions around the world continue to direct considerable effort and resources to creating or revising DEI or JEDI mandates, Manji emphasizes the need for creating organizational cultures that respect and encourage a diversity of viewpoints, which she suggests is both a cornerstone of our pluralistic, liberal-democratic way of life. Recent events show, however, that this way of life is increasingly threatened by a creeping homogeneity driven by a fear of appearing ineffective, behind the times, or worse—prejudiced.

“There is a tendency to frame free speech as antithetical to social justice and social justice as contradictory to free speech. You can have one or the other but not both. I’m calling B.S. on that. You must have both.” 

In response to changing tides, administrators in K-12 and higher education have deployed various “inclusion efforts” and “inclusion training” programs over the last decade which Manji claims have only “inflamed the culture wars” and fuelled an “us versus them” mentality—usually in service of “speaking truth to power,” a slogan that Manji partially takes issue with.

This statement, and the term “moral courage,” she explains, are usually attributed to the same source—former U.S. Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, who was an advocate for the civil rights movement and fought against corruption before his tragic death in 1968. When we are called upon to “speak truth to power,” we are being asked to take a moral stance on an issue and stand up for what is right, even when it is inconvenient or unpopular, or our position might be perceived as unnecessarily critical or offensive. But in our current climate of “us against them,” Manji claims, “the way we speak truth to power matters as much as the truth we think we are speaking.” 

“Speaking truth to power is not enough. We must appreciate that we have power. Moral courage today has to mean speaking truth to the power of your own ego, even as you are speaking truth to powers external to you.” 

One of the key tactics deployed by the civil rights movement that ought to be leveraged by today’s educators and social justice advocates is the capacity to educate one’s emotions. She explains: 

“During the civil rights movement, facilitators of activism taught young people to educate [their] emotions. If you simply lash out, you are not going to make your point in a way that motivates the other to hear you. These moments spent so much time building resilience and antifragility. We have lost that today.” 

Doing moral courage work today, therefore, requires learning to master our emotional defences so we can productively communicate and develop relationships across divides. Doing so, she explains, permits us to overcome our all-pervasive us versus them mindset so that we can begin to work co-operatively to build cultures—organizational and otherwise—that reject shaming and labelling and champion free speech, diversity of expression, and diversity of viewpoint. For educators, this means rejecting fear and putting these skills to work in their classrooms to create and cultivate respectful spaces for open dialogue and debate. But it also means teaching students to respect the plurality of forces at work in each of us and begin to view themselves and others as more than individuals or a set of labels—but as “plurals.” Only plural, Manji explains, “accurately captures all sentient beings [and suggests] that there is so much more to any of us than meets the eye.”

This responsibility will not fall squarely upon faculty members. In the fall, Professor Manji will be virtually leading an exciting new club, “We the Plurals,” which is open to all students between Grades 7 and 12 who are 100 percent committed to the cause. The club will teach students to recognize themselves and each other as plurals, teach them to educate their emotions and equip them “with the skills to engage across lines of difference, disagreement and mutual disgust”—skills that Professor Manji notes are increasingly in demand in our global society.

Members of our faculty and staff will also enroll in Professor Manji’s Moral Courage Mentor Certification Program in the coming months to become certified Moral Courage Mentors. This program, which she bills as a “Moral Courage boot camp,” teaches participants to “finesse [their] moral courage skills, boost [their] confidence to teach those skills to younger people, and meet fellow aspiring Mentors.” At the conclusion of the course, all participants will receive a certificate issued by the University of Oxford and be equipped with the skills to teach Moral Courage both in the classroom and in communities beyond. We encourage parents and students to consider enrolling in the course as well to help us extend our Moral Courage teachings beyond the classroom.

As we continue to advocate for and define our individual approach to cultivating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus, we remain committed to empowering our diverse community of learners, fostering global competency, and providing a safe space for healthy debate on global issues. Above all, Ridley College is a place where everyone belongs and finds a home. Equally, we reject the chilling modern tendency to respond to intolerance with new, sometimes greater, forms of intolerance.

We are so grateful to Professor Manji for her kindness and profound insight, and we look forward to working with her in the future as we continue to integrate the teachings of Moral Courage into the essential foundation of our learning community.

Get to Know Your Prefects: Monika M. ‘17

Introducing Monika Morcous ’17 – a Prefect who discovered the importance of not only exploring her own passions, but discovering Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 1.43.03 PMnew ones. Read how she dove into all that Ridley has to offer and is finishing her Ridley career with new skills, new friendships and a new perspective on life.

Why did you choose Ridley?

I chose Ridley simply because of the greater opportunity that it inherently offers as an international boarding school. I also knew of its academic rigor and its mandatory student involvement activities when applying and wanted to challenge myself so that I could grow to become more dedicated, enthusiastic and involved in my education.

Did you feel prepared coming to Ridley?

No, honestly I felt extremely intimidated. I remember walking into my interview with a portfolio of all my elementary school achievements, my art work, a creative story, and an assortment of other miscellaneous items that I felt would impress my admissions councilor, Mrs. Whitty. Even then I didn’t feel prepared and doubted whether I would be granted a place at Ridley; however, looking back I recognize how silly this was. Ridley is definitely not as intimidating as it seems. It is a welcoming community where everyone can and is able to find a place of comfort.

Who is your favourite faculty member and why?

I personally do not have a single favourite faculty member. Each brings something to the table that is unique to them and they all excel as teachers in different ways.

Some teachers that I would like to mention are those who helped me and encouraged me personally, such as Mrs. Blagona and Mrs. Marrone.

Mrs. Blagona truly believed in my artistic ability in theatre, also training me and supporting me throughout my years at Ridley, starting as my first advisor in Grade 9. She also knew me on a personal level and helped me through certain obstacles. She is one of the most enthusiastic, passionate, and encouraging teachers I have ever met. You can really tell that she loves what she does.

Mrs. Marrone also had a great impact on me, most notably through seemingly simple lines that she would always say when I was feeling extremely stressed. “Well the sun will still shine tomorrow” and “well the earth will still turn.” These helped me put my worries into perspective which in the long-term really help me out as I still continue to say these to myself in times of stress and doubt.

What has been your greatest challenge thus far at Ridley?

My greatest challenge is something that I’m still overcoming, which is my time-management skills. I have a tough time allocating appropriate amounts of time to certain tasks and often overdo assignments in the pursuit of perfection, which results in disappointment, limited sleep, and overdue tasks. I believe I am slowly getting better at this, but this is a trait that is basically engrained in my character and I know it is an improvement that can only happen overtime, rather than in the short-term. I am slowly trying to let go, as I know that perfection isn’t humanly possible, and many people at Ridley are helping me achieve this along the way.

What has been your greatest accomplishment thus far at Ridley?

My greatest accomplishment is probably winning Best Supporting Actress in a Musical in the Niagara Region through the CAPPIES program, which I became involved with through Ridley. I am extremely proud of this award because acting is one of my passions, but I honestly cannot really take credit for this award. Without the help of the cast and most of all, my directors, Mrs. Blagona and Mrs. Fournier, I wouldn’t have been in a position to win that award. They both pushed me so hard so that I could achieve my best, and really guided me through every aspect of the dramatic arts. They supported me and advised me during rehearsals and most of all inspired me as an actress. I really look forward to working with them again next year.

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What has been your favorite Ridley experience?

My favourite Ridley experience is going to camp at the beginning of each new school year. This is because I get to meet, not only my previously made friends who went back abroad in the summer, but also new Ridleians. I think I can speak for everyone at Ridley when I say that you really can’t go to camp without at least making three new friendships, even as a returning student.

What is your favourite part of Ridley life?

My favourite part about Ridley is how tightly knitted the community is. For example, you really get to know your teachers on not only an academic level but also a personal level. This creates a community of people which is aware of your personal strengths and weaknesses, and although that sounds like a scary thing, it in turn helps you, for it allows teachers to be able to focus on helping you in the aspects that you are struggling with. Rather than receiving a general education, you get one that is slightly customized in your best interest, which is one of the really awesome aspects of having small classroom sizes and a smaller-scale student body.

What part of being a Prefect are you most excited for?

The most exciting part about prefectship is the opportunity to represent the student body and the ability to suggest positive changes that will advance the school further. Also, I am honoured to be part of a group filled with passionate individuals and I am thrilled at the opportunity to work alongside all of them this coming school year.

How has Ridley prepared you for the future?

Ridley has prepared me in many different ways for life after high school. I am more culturally aware than I would have ever been inherently, because of the diversity within the student body. I am more involved and well-rounded than I have ever been because of the mandatory nature of the sports and activities at Ridley. I am also more confident than I have ever been because of my personal achievements and improvements that I have made during my time at Ridley.

Ridley is a type of school that doesn’t just allow you to be great at what you do, but forces you to become greater….You cannot attend Ridley without flourishing or improving in some way.

What are your plans after graduation?

I am currently undecided on most of my plans after graduation – such as the subject of study and the location of study – but I am fairly positive that I will be attending a university, rather than a college, the year immediately after graduation. As for my extracurriculars, I really would want to stay in touch with my artistic side and will audition for the plays/musicals that my future university will put on. I’m sure that I’ll also be eager to get involved in a variety of the clubs available at my future university – artistic or non-artistic.

What advice would you give prospective students about Ridley?

Don’t be afraid to try something new. Get involved. Stay focused! At the end of the day (in my opinion) education is the most important thing, so your priority should always be to stay focused on your studies; however, you can grow as a person, if alongside this, you step out of your comfort zone and try something new outside of the classroom.

For example, I’ve never excelled in sports, however, I tried out and made the U16 volleyball team in Grade 9 and 10. I became a better player than I was walking in (At the end of the day I still wasn’t that great, but that isn’t the point). Even though I didn’t become a volleyball star, I became more well-rounded, gained experience on an athletic team, and made lifelong friendships that I wouldn’t have made if I just focused on the activities that I was best at. My good friends, Felicia and Masha, were both introduced to me through that team, and even though Felicia [and I] don’t play volleyball anymore, the friendship between the three of us remains.

Get to Know Your Prefects: Cassandra M. ‘17

Introducing Cassandra Mitchell ’17 – a Ridleian who opened herself Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.24.53 AMup to the opportunities that our school has to offer. Hear how she adjusted to life on campus and cherishes the inclusive, diverse culture at Ridley.

Why did you choose Ridley?

The decision to come to Ridley involved my entire family. This school aligned with many of our family values and we were impressed by what a tight community the school was. My family has never regretted our decision to come.

Did you feel prepared coming to Ridley?

Honestly, I really didn’t. I didn’t know what to expect or how I was going to fit it. I think everyone feels that way to some extent when they move to a new place. Though I have a Canadian passport, I had never actually lived in Canada before and I didn’t know if I would like it here. Of course, now I feel silly for ever being nervous.

Who is your favourite faculty member and why?

I can’t answer that! That’s like asking who your favourite parent is. I love all my teachers and I love the community we have here at this school. It didn’t take long for Ridley to feel like family.

What has been your greatest challenge thus far at Ridley?

My greatest challenge thus far at Ridley has been balancing my extracurricular activities with taking the IB programme. The past year was the most challenging academic year I’ve had, but also the most rewarding yet. I feel like IB has pushed me to become a member of a range of different communities in the school as well as pushed me to think and problem solve in ways that I haven’t before. I’m only halfway through the programme, but I’m loving it.

What has been your greatest accomplishment thus far at Ridley?

I think my greatest accomplishment at Ridley thus far has been how quickly I have made Ridley feel like home. This is an amazing place if you embrace it and at the beginning, when everything was new and overwhelming, I had to fight the urge to close myself off from opportunities and new experiences. I am so happy that I managed to successfully fight that urge because I have gained so much from being an active member of the community.

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What has been your favorite Ridley experience?

The world is still reeling from the string of terror attacks and shootings that have taken place this year and sometimes it does feel hopeless; like we might never learn to live in peace. However, there is a moment that I hold onto when I need a little hope for the future of humanity. On the night of Earth Day, we had a campfire in the Quad. There were guitars and ukuleles and we were all singing at the top of our lungs. Around the campfire sat Nigerians, Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Russians, Germans, and Chinese, singing, laughing and sharing marshmallows. Our amazing global community sets an example of how we can all coexist.

What is your favourite part of Ridley life?

Tying in to my previous answer, I love how much I am able to learn from people from all corners of the globe. We have all lived such different understandings of life yet we are all still able to coexist and learn from one another. I love that I could end up having dinner with four friends and none of us hold the same passport or that I could do a group project with people whose mother tongues are all different. I strongly believe that those sorts of experiences will benefit me for years to come.

What part of being a Prefect are you most excited for?

I am most excited to be an ambassador for Ridley. I love meeting new people and being a Prefect will give me the opportunity to meet others while I represent the school.

How has Ridley prepared you for the future?

Ridley College has given me the opportunity to take the IB programme, and though it has been the hardest thing I have ever done as a student, it has also been the most rewarding. I have not only been pushed to improve my time management and note taking skills, but also to be a better student. The programme has taught me some valuable life skills. I have also been expected to be a creative problem solver, an open-minded collaborator, and a more reflective person. Those things have made me a more mature person beyond the classroom, and I know I will continue to appreciate that in the future.

What are your plans after graduation?

No matter what I end up doing, I know that I want to continue exploring the world until the day they put me in the ground. After I leave Ridley, I want to go into either International Relations, or International Development. I want to do what I can in university to become as useful as I can be in teams working around the world, creating sustainable, independent communities in developing countries. I can see myself working for humanitarian NGOs in the future.

What advice would you give prospective students about Ridley?

My biggest piece of advice would be to make the most of this place. Ridley will teach you so much and give you so many opportunities if you let it. Join the clubs, the service trips, the sport teams. Try things you’ve never done before. Your time here will only be what you make it, so don’t spend it on your laptop in your dorm room.

Ridleians Take Action in our Community

Within Ridley, a thriving community, comprised of students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, exists. This community works seamlessly to create an environment in which our school can flourish. Beyond Ridley’s gates, exists another community – our local community. With such importance placed on community service and contribution, it is imperative for a strong relationship to exist between Ridley and the local community.

Ridleians are introduced to community service and partnership at a young age. Ridley hopes that from these experiences and opportunities within the community, our students will become global citizens and will continue to live out our motto – Terar dum prosim.

Just recently, our Grade 6 students participated in the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme Exhibition, where they took action to solve local and global issues. This proved to be a wonderful opportunity for our students to become passionate about our world, and work to solve issues that struck a cord with them.

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As the end of the year approaches, our Grade 9 & 10 Civics classes stepped up to the very same challenge. For their summative project, these students were asked to look at our local community and focus in on an issue. In groups, they were then asked to choose a topic based on their own personal interests. Some topics included: environmental conservation, gender equality, animal protection and pollution.

The students were required to explore their topics of choice. Students researched their topics, conducted interviews with community leaders, asked their peers to complete surveys and went into our local community to find out more. From their research and findings, the students set a goal and devised a plan of action. Students set out to raise awareness for their cause, inform the community of local issues, donate to local organizations and even use art forms to share a message.

Upon completion of their project, 28 groups gathered in the Great Hall to share their projects and spread awareness for their causes. It was incredible to see so many students come together to discuss local issues and how we can solve them.

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Following the exhibition, we sat down with six groups to learn more about their topic and how they contributed to our community. These six groups paired with organizations, such as Youth Unlimited, Pathstone Mental Health, the City of St. Catharines, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Brock University, Marz Homes and Canadian Tire, for resources and information, donations and in some cases, the opportunity to collaborate – now and in the future. View the video on the community action project.

The community action project allowed students to exercise one of Ridley’s core beliefs – that a commitment to service and social responsibility will help build a flourishing life – while completing their course. Our school encourages all Ridleians to take action, just as these students have, and contribute to our local community and beyond.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

― Mahatma Gandhi