In the shadow of his smile
Can a bold new initiative that aims to foster leadership skills in young people help to change the world – and them – for the better? Bruce Alexander, Com’60, LLD’11, intends to find out.
What if you had the chance to bring together Canada’s best and brightest young people – not an established group, but up-and-comers, people who you felt could really make a difference in the years to come?
Several years ago, Bruce Alexander came up with the idea, and today the retired Toronto lawyer has created what may be a world-changing – and definitely a life-changing – venture for a group of young Canadian women. Alexander has dubbed them “the Shadow Cabinet,” and they’re a group of young people from a broad range of cultures and backgrounds. He has assigned himself the task of cultivating and mentoring them in hopes they will then strike out on their own to help change their communities, society, and the world.
Alexander comes to his latest mentoring role with a lifetime of experience in law, business, the public sector, and volunteerism. To name just a few of his accomplishments, in addition to earning his Commerce undergrad degree at Queen’s and law degree from the U of T, this longtime member of the Queen’s University Board of Trustees served as an assistant deputy minister in the Ontario government in both the Ministry of Transportation and Communications and the Ministry of Community and Social Services. On the federal scene, during the negotiation of the Charlottetown Accord, he was Special Adviser to Joe Clark, the then-Minister for Constitutional Affairs. Since 1999, Alexander has been vice-chair of the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal. He’s also a founding director of the John Howard Society of Toronto and has been deeply involved in mentoring young people especially through the Community Foundation set up by John Brooks, LLD’92, to provide scholarships to visible minority youths in Toronto.
It was with the latter organization that Alexander felt the desire to take mentorship to another more strategic level. “I wanted to work with kids who had leadership potential, not only in their own communities, but in the broader Canadian context,” he says. “I wanted to give them the connections and confidence I had when I was their age to allow them to achieve their potential.”
So Alexander selected four young women he felt were compatible, who demonstrated leadership potential, and who showed an interest in public service. He then told them their job was to expand the group and to reach out to others whom they felt met certain criteria. “They had to be comfortable with diversity, work well with groups, have an ambition to change the world outside of business, and maybe make their careers in politics or NGOs,” he explains.
And that was how The Shadow Cabinet (TSC) was born.
As the original four added new members, the group soon grew to 15. Some are studying medicine or law. Others are more interested in the social sciences. Alexander wasn’t aiming at an all-female group, but it evolved that way. He’s now in the process of recruiting a second group comprised of men.
“One of the things we share, though we're all very different, is our desire to put our talents, skills, and energy back into the community and to provide for others those opportunities we've been given."
The key components of TSC activities are mentorship, professional development, networking, and building broader connections. Not only does Alexander mentor and support the group’s members himself, but he gives them opportunities to meet with distinguished and influential individuals who can also serve as mentors. So far, the group has met prominent Canadians such as former Prime Minister Joe Clark, former Speaker of the House Peter Milliken, Arts’68, and Senate Majority Leader Marjory LeBreton (Con. – Cape Breton), to name a few. Members have attended Question Period in Parliament and toured the Supreme Court of Canada, taken etiquette and career management seminars, and enjoyed theatre performances together.
Right now, the groups’ members all hail from Toronto and Ottawa, and that makes it possible for them to meet in person. Alexander says, “It’s created a network of peers. This group of 15 is becoming an important thing in their lives, in terms of changing their lives.”
Safiah Chowdhury, Artsci’11, is one member of the Shadow Cabinet. A Political Studies-Global Development major, she served as AMS president in 2010-2011 – some 50 years after Bruce Alexander held the same job. That’s something that drew the two together when they met at a Queen’s reunion. Safiah is effusive in her praise of both the group and Alexander. “We’re all young and at different places in our careers,” she says, “yet we all share a vision for improving our own community in our own way. Our cohesive bond is that we all know Bruce” – and clearly admire him.
She says the women in the Cabinet all have very different interests, but they share a common purpose: to use their skills and talents to improve their communities. “The Shadow Cabinet opens up possibilities to work together and share ideas. It’s the kind of work that doesn’t get a lot of praise but it’s so crucial.”
Chowdhury remembers experiencing some challenges at Queen’s that stemmed from her Bengali race and her Muslim faith. However, she was pleasantly surprised about the progressive views held by politicians and others the group has met. “Based on my discussions, I find people who’ve been in power a lot more amenable to the ideas I propose than my undergraduate counterparts were. It’s surprising, but reassuring.”
Chowdhury’s TSC friend Sarah Yun, an Oxford grad now in second-year law studies at the U of T, shares Chowdhury’s sentiments. “Joe Clark really understood the minority perspective that we were bringing, and he wanted to talk to us about it,” she says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that everyone we have met has been so open. I’ve also been surprised how these people are happy to take our questions and want to hear from us.” Clearly, Alexander has chosen their contacts as wisely as he chose the Cabinet members.
Yun praises the diversity of TSC. “I think most of us are first-generation or second-generation immigrants, but although we’re very close to our own cultures we’re very committed to Canadian culture and to learning more about each other and supporting each other in our careers and lives.”
In fact, every member of the Shadow Cabinet has a background very different from the others. Alexander says he and his initial recruits purposely set out to find additional members who were first-generation Canadians.
“We deliberately wanted to give them a leg up and to create for them the environment of a third- or fourth-generation Canadian who has established networks, understands how things happen, has the benefit of mentors and extended family who have helped them with their careers.”
For Yun who grew up in the U.S. and moved to Toronto in her high school years, the Shadow Cabinet has opened doors she might never have stepped through otherwise. “I can’t even think of any way that I’d have these opportunities to speak with people who have enjoyed such successful careers.” She includes Bruce Alexander in that group. She says meeting him has been a life-changing experience. “Politics was not my first choice, but being exposed to such a wonderful mentor makes me think about possibilities that hadn’t occurred to me,” she says.
Alexander has attempted to introduce the young women not only to powerful and influential men, but also to women who have overcome the odds to triumph in their fields. Yun was very inspired by her meeting with Mary Anne Chambers (Queen’s Executive Management’95), a former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister and later a business woman who has also been active as a volunteer. Yun says, “She was a great person to have speak to us. We could really learn from her experiences.”
No less inspiring was Senator LeBreton, whom Yun says succeeded when there weren’t as many opportunities for women.
Shadow Cabinet members have a chance to keep in touch with the people they’ve met. Yun says, “It’s not just a one-time meeting – I know I have potential mentors out there.”
Not only do Shadow Cabinet members have each other and a desire to be supportive as each strikes out on her own, but there’s a yearning to do the same for others.
Says Yun, “One of the things we share, though we’re all very different, is our desire to put our talents, skills, and energy back into the community and to provide for others those opportunities we’ve been given. It’s almost a pay-it-forward situation. We’re empowered by what Bruce has given to us and we hope to do that for others as well.”