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Philosophy instructor receives $17,900 grant to increase empathy in public discourse

A Douglas College instructor has received close to $18,000 for a proposed project to influence public discourse on the topic of social housing and render it more inclusive and empathetic.

Dr. Elliot Rossiter, a Philosophy instructor, was awarded a $17,900 Systems Change Grant by the Vancouver Foundation, a donor-funded organization that aims to improve communities across B.C. through arts and culture, environmental initiatives, health and social development, education and medical research.

Rossiter’s proposed project will examine the history of public discourse on housing, as well as ways of making discussions about public housing more inclusive so that marginalized people – those who tend to require social housing – are better represented and treated with more empathy in these conversations. The project explores how first-person narrative and the arts can be used to make public dialogue about housing more reflective and empathetic.

Rossiter conceived of the project after he noticed trending discussions in the news and on social media around the building of supportive housing sites in the Lower Mainland.

“A lot of the coverage and discussion centered on opposition to these housing sites by local residents, but much of this opposition tended to perpetuate stigmatizing narratives about those in poverty, accompanied by fear and anger,” said Rossiter. “As a result, public opposition – and much of the media coverage of it – failed to really grapple with the complexities surrounding this issue.”

The grant will be used to support three public events: an exploration of the history of public dialogue on housing, in partnership with the Museum and Archives of the City of New Westminster; an event with Megaphone Magazine focusing on people who have experienced poverty and homelessness; and a third event with the Arts Council of New Westminster to explore the use of the arts to develop empathy for those who benefit from social housing.

The grant will also allow Rossiter and student researchers to create a policy paper for municipal government on using first-person narrative and the arts in public engagement around divisive social issues and a scholarly paper on the role of narrative expression and the arts in making democratic processes more just and inclusive.

John Fleming, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Douglas College, said the College looks forward to seeing the work Rossiter will bring to Douglas students and the larger community with this Vancouver Foundation grant.

“Dr. Rossiter’s passion for philosophy and ethics make this project a perfect opportunity for Douglas College students to apply the concepts of applied ethics to key urban issues in the Metro Vancouver Region, such as social housing,” said Fleming.

System Change Grants support projects that address the root causes of pressing social, environmental or cultural issues by influencing the behaviours and attitudes of populations, organizations, and institutions.