Get inspired: The Student Leadership Conference

There are not many things that get me up at 7AM on a Saturday. If I do it’s most likely to go skiing… and it’s definitely not to head to campus. That is, except for the Student Leadership Conference. This is my third year at UBC, and my second time at the SLC. Last year I volunteered and despite running around being busy all day, I still managed to see some inspiring talks like last year’s closing keynote by PostSecret founder Frank Warren. So I was excited to see what was in store at the SLC this year. I was not disappointed.

The event started with an entertaining musical performance by rap group Class Act. Taking suggestions from audience members, they freestyled on topics as wide-ranging as climate change, nutella, and time travel. It would be safe to say they impressed pretty much everyone in the Chan Centre with how funny and clever they were.

After some opening words from the SLC planning committee, the founder of Jones Soda Peter van Stolk shared his experiences and unique approach to reaching out to consumers. At first I was surprised by his very informal speaking approach, which included some “colorful” language, but he had some good take away points. It was clear from his experiences that he is the kind of individual who is constantly thinking outside of the box, and makes connections where others haven’t seen them. As someone without a university education, he seemed to have a lot of hope for those of us in school; his main piece of advice being to go out and learn the rules in order to break them, challenge them, and re-write them.

I then went to a highlighted projects session presented by a selection of student groups who try  to improve the UBC community through promotion of the arts. These groups included: The Blank Vinyl Project, UBC’s only on-campus record label, which helps promote local musical talent through events, venue bookings, and studio time. FunkDirty, an awesome musical act that combines funky beats, great vocals, and a fun freestyle form that creates an innovative and empowering atmosphere. Hollis Mason, a production company founded by current UBC students who have produced fun video projects such as the UBC Harlem Shake and S**t UBC Says, and TheCalendar who have organized many social events like last semester’s Polar Swim at Wreck Beach, and concerts featuring local UBC talent. FunkDirty even performed a little freestyle for us.

After a tasty lunch I went to a very interesting talk by two students in the First Nations Studies Program. They spoke about their work participating in the creation of the Indigenous Studies Undergraduate Journal, an interdisciplinary journal of academic and creative works relating to Indigenous studies. They also talked about the Indigenous Studies undergraduate blog, a great site that showcases academic and creating work by students. It is regularly updated and has lots of interesting stuff on it, I would definitely recommend looking at it if you are interested in Indigenous issues. Here is the link: We then broke up into small groups and discussed how to improve the dialogue on campus about First Nations issues. It was really great talking about these things in a supportive environment, and I came out of the session wishing we had twice as much time to discuss!

I then made it to SIPsoda founder Jennifer Martin’s talk. For those who don’t know what SIPsoda is, it is a local company that produces natural craft soda. These flavored sparkling spring water drinks have only 25 calories. Jennifer Martin, frustrated with the ultra sugary sodas found on the market, spoke about how she decided to create something that would be refreshing, tasty, and not horribly unhealthy. Comparing society’s acceptance of overly sugary drinks to its past acceptance of smoking, she talked about her hope for a change in the way we view soda and flavored drinks. She also discussed the challenges of starting a small business but encouraged hopeful entrepreneurs to go out, be passionate, and take risks. “Small is the new big,” she said when describing the increased number of striving small, local businesses.

And then there was the closing keynote, which was one of the most inspiring speeches I have heard. I had not known of Waneek Horn-Miller before the SLC. An Olympic athlete who was the captain of the Canadian water polo team at Beijing in 2008, she has also made a name of herself as Aboriginal activist who has worked with Aboriginal youth across the country promoting higher education and athletics. Originally from the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk reserve outside of Montreal, she spoke of her experiences growing up as a First Nations woman and the pressures she had to face. Some of these challenges included the traumatic experience of being caught in the middle of the Oka crisis, where she was brutally stabbed by a Canadian soldier. Recounting the event and its aftermath, she told us about her mother’s advice when she was feeling at her lowest and wanted to give up on her Olympic dream. Her mother told her that she had every reason to give up but that if she did, the soldier would have won, and she would remain forever his victim. “If there is one thing I was never going to be, it was anyone’s victim” she told us.

This motto has followed her throughout her life. She referred to Indigenous ideas of leadership in the concept that a leader is not defined by their own power, but by how they inspire others to be their most powerful. Speaking of what inspires her she said, “I need to be infinite because other people in my community didn’t get to be.” She left us with a call to arms; to see ourselves not as Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but as Canadians. And not to see these issues as Indigenous issues but as Canadian issues, issues which affect us all. Issues that, together, we can tackle as a nation in order to create a more equal place for all. Her speech was moving, emotional, funny, profound, and inspiring. It was a truly powerful way to end the day, and the standing ovation she received was proof of that.

– Sam