A biologist by trade, for the past decade Elodie Jacquet’s work has focused on giving citizens a voice in issues that matter to them. Through her position at the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue, Jacquet has facilitated conversations on everything from the green economy to climate change, urban density, and reconciliation.
Helping people find their voice is rewarding work that Jacquet loves. Balancing a career with raising two sons, aged five and eight — one of whom has autism — isn’t always easy. We spoke with her about the importance of her work, and the challenges she faces as a working mother.
Why did you start doing what you do?
I had moved to Vancouver and was looking for a job, and this looked interesting because I really like talking to people. My background is in biology, specifically animal communication, so I actually brought some of that knowledge into the work I do and the processes that I use, this could be anything from the ways bees or whales communicate. Funnily enough the academic director of the centre is actually a bee biologist, so two of us have a similar background.
Why is this work important?
We’re at a time in history where we are told what to think a lot by different sources, and whatever media you are following is going to tell you what to think. Our governments don’t necessarily take the time to truly listen to what citizens have to say. We’ve found that in many years of doing this, there is a real desire for citizens to be heard and participate in these important conversations, when a lot of time we go to experts to give us these solutions.
We dismiss citizens because we don’t think they have the knowledge or expertise to tackle these important issues, but if you take them through a process where you bring them up to speed and give them the information they need to grapple with the complexity, they’re able to come up with really interesting avenues for solutions, or interesting questions to be asked before we come up with solutions. Those voices aren’t being heard.
I think that part of the reason that we are seeing a slide in our democracy is that governments aren’t engaging with citizens in a meaningful way. People feel like, “Okay if I’m not going to be heard in the right way, what is there for me? Why should I engage in politics?” Then we have that downward slide where only specific groups with very specific agendas make themselves heard.
Tell me about the project you’re working on right now.
It is Citizen Dialogues for Canada’s Energy Future and it is a cross-Canada consultation initiated by the government where we are talking to stakeholders and citizens about the future of energy in Canada. This is directly related to the commitment that the government has made in terms of emissions reductions and climate change and so on. We have to take a good strong look at where we are now, to work out where we want to be in 2050.
I was hired to do citizens dialogues, and what we’ve done for past month is go across the country and meet with randomly selected citizens from all walks of life, demographics, and regions, to have this very important conversation about what is it they want for their energy future.
It has been fascinating, and next week we’re bringing those results to a bigger conference that’s happening in Winnipeg, the Generation Energy Forum. We are also bringing 35 of these citizens so that they can continue the conversation, and make recommendations to government and stakeholders for the future of energy. I think it will make for a really fascinating conversation.
The interesting part about how we do dialogue here is that we take those polarizations, turn them a bit on their head, and help people move through a process where they have to really hear from each other in a really deep manner, until they can come up with some middle-ground or things that they can actually agree on. This is based on values they hold as citizens, but also on some criteria that we get them to define in terms of what this energy future should be.
(Interesting in contributing to this conversation? Any citizen can participate, ask questions, or submit ideas though checking out this page and following instructions to get to the app developed for this purpose.)
Has parenthood changed how you view your work?
Yes. One of the areas I work with a lot is climate change and climate policy, and it is something that I’m really passionate about. I come from Mauritius, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, and we are going to be affected very profoundly by climate change and the rising ocean levels. Having kids makes it even more urgent to me that we deal with these issues, it’s their future. I want them to see where their grandparents are from, and experience some of the things that I got to do there in my childhood.
What do your kids think about what you do?
They don’t understand all of it, but they are really supportive. They’ll say, “You’re saving the polar bears,” and although I’m not quite doing that, they know I’m helping the environment. Also, they know this work is important to me and like having a happy mom.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?
Purpose doesn’t have to be this incredible thing that you do every day, there’s purpose in the small things too. Changing your kid’s diaper is just as important as changing policies. I had to stay home yesterday because my littlest was sick, and I told my friend that my most important job today is to be “the snuggler in chief.” I think you can find purpose in your life whatever that is, we all have some kind of a purpose. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary.
I think my most important purpose right now is probably teaching my kids to be decent human beings and not bully their friends or grow up as sexist people — that’s super important for whatever kind of society they’re going to be living in as adults. I think at every stage of your parenting life there’s going to be important purpose, and that purpose can change as your kids get older.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
The guilt, and feeling like I’m constantly trying to play catch up. Whether we have a child with special needs or not, I think we all worry that we aren’t being as good a parent as we should be.
Also, we’re drowning in so much information about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. There’s always experts giving us 20 different ways we should be dealing with something, and you have to pick your way through that and figure out what’s going to work out best for your family. For special needs parents, we’re always trying to be aware of whatever new research has come out, are they good or are they not, are you being an ablest if you do certain therapies, or are you supporting an autistic person to be an autistic person, I think that’s a common struggle.
It’s a conversation I have with my son pretty often, because he is ok with who he is and how he sees the world, but he also gets the sense that he’s not like everybody else in his class, that he makes them uncomfortable, and he is sensitive to that. He’ll tell me, “Mom this kid called me a weirdo, I really didn’t like it,” and of course that breaks my heart. You’re trying to protect them, but at the same time you have to give them tools to protect themselves and it’s tough.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
I have to travel a lot, and it’s hard. I’m very fortunate that my husband works from home, so that is helpful. There was a time where I traveled a lot less, and I could only go for a maximum of two or three days. When my kids were smaller I remember lugging my breast milk across the country, having to explain to airport security that yes, my baby was at home but I have to bring the milk back!
It really does take a village of friends, and neighbours, and people that I can count on who I can call on the drop of a hat and say, “I’m in a pinch, can you go pick up my kids from school and sit with them until I get home?” I don’t have any family here, so I depend on that support.
I also have to hire people. I have someone who comes three times a week to pick my kid up from school, because he can’t go to out of school care because it is too complicated for him with his autism. I didn’t anticipate having to spend so much money on help with my kids, and childcare in Vancouver is horrendously expensive. I know a lot of parents here end up with one of them staying home because they just can’t make ends meet paying for childcare. I thought about that, but knew if I got out of work completely for a few years it was going to be really hard to come back.
What other moms do you admire?
I’m going to sound corny but I love Michelle Obama. She was this brilliant professional woman who is raising these two girls. Also a lot of scientists I know who are raising children and doing research and publishing and teaching in universities. They work in an academic world that is not built for mothers, and is incredibly challenging to be able to publish and teach and research and to be able to raise your kids. And I work with a lot of single moms and have so much admiration for them, because I don’t know how I would get through this without the support of my partner. I don’t know how single moms manage to juggle everything.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.