Shauna Sexsmith never grew up wanting to change the world. She wanted to change herself.
“As we go through life, experience teaches us to either develop a thicker skin or be really soft. A lot of times it tends to be the former and not the latter. But for me, it was about developing that ability to be soft within the world, to be present with someone while they tell you what they have lived through,” she explained.
“Empathy is not just compassion; it is being able to understand we are similar – same fears, same dreams. The only thing separating us is a geographical stroke of luck. And that was never a good enough reason to me for some people to have to live the way they live.”
Today, Sexsmith, BA’08 (Philosophy and Political Science), heads International Project Development for the World Education Foundation. Through her work, she has discovered that soft spot she so desired to find in herself.
Founded by Marques Anderson, a former National Football League safety, the World Education Foundation (WE Foundation) develops collaborative international projects specific to communities, particularly in the Global South and Middle East, focused on five key developmental areas: energy, health, education, infrastructure and sport. Using its ability to bridge academic knowledge and real-world implementation, the organization is currently involved in multiple initiatives, including working with Syrian refugees in northern Iraq and North Korean defectors in Seoul, as well as projects in Haiti, Norway and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Our niche is our ability to build connections across borders. We take theoretical knowledge housed within institutions and create practical solutions to problems,” Sexsmith explained. “We also have the ability to be with the people and hear what they need. We want to take the time, do the due diligence on the ground, instead of entering in with this sort of assumption that ‘we know what’s best for you.’”
WE Foundation projects do not begin until staffers spend a minimum of two weeks on the ground in the communities they plan to assist.
“It is really about sitting with people and trying to understand their lives,” Sexsmith continued. “Instead of this antiquated idea of an NGO (non-governmental organization) that continuously gives aid, we are looking for ways to put ourselves out of business so these problems get solved, predominately, by people in these communities. We don’t go in with a cookie cutter.”
Through her work, an essential truth revealed itself – we are not that different from one another.
“People want to be heard. They want to be witnessed. When you sit with someone, and you listen, really listen, you start to realize how connected we are. At the end of the day, we’re thinking about the same problems: How to live a good life. How to be happy. How to develop something that is just,” she said. “For a lot of people, they have the same problems I have. The more time you spend in any community you realize a family is still just a family, a mother loves her son or daughter just as much in Myanmar as she does in Canada or Venezuela or North Korea.”
Growing up in London, Ont., Sexsmith’s family travelled to “not-typical areas for family vacations” – Central and South America, Venezuela, Panama. At 8 years old, her lone trip to Disney World resulted in her getting lost for more than six hours soon after arriving. “My mom was like, ‘Never again. I cannot lose you in a third-world country, but at Disney, I lose you,” Sexsmith laughed.
It was her mother, Jane Sexsmith, who works at Western in the Faculty of Science, who pushed the family to see the world. She wanted her children to understand how lucky they were to have their place in the world.
“Mom is like the best rock star in the world. It was a family trip, but she always took us to places where it would expand our conception of ourselves within the global context and make us want to learn more,” Sexsmith said. “For her, education was always the pathway to success.”
In the WE Foundation, she has also found a pursuit that embraces her roots at Western.
“In a world that counts and quantifies, and sometimes forgets that philosophy and the humanities are not a tangible thing – the way science produces things or the economy produces money or buildings get built – but it actually changes the way we are able to see ourselves within the world. To them, that is more important than anything else. And that is why I feel I will always be with this organization.”
Within the WE Foundation, Sexsmith has found a home, one that aligns with those principles she learned early in life and carried through university and her early career.
“No matter what you do in life, it has to start from within. Everything that is important and sustainable starts with a passion, a love, within you,” she explained. “Everything is doable through somebody’s true commitment, true passion to what they are doing. That is not something you can supplement. Authenticity eventually shines through. The more you start to experience yourself within the global context, you start to see how connected everything is. You start to see the ripples.”
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