Upstanders speaks to heart of the donor whose gift established UCalgaryStrong nearly five years ago
A shift is afoot that has the potential to make our campus, our communities and our city more resilient, more compassionate and more effective in looking out for one another. UCalgary’s Upstanders program aims to spark this type of change by creating a widespread culture of harm-reduction intervention.
Many of us fall into a well-researched state of “bystander paralysis” — unsure about how to help or if it’s our “place” to get involved. Maybe you’ve felt unsettled in noticing a friend drinking far more than usual. Or a colleague suddenly acting strangely. While most people would agree that these scenarios are harmful, or potentially harmful, many do not step forward. Upstanders seeks to change this.
Part of the UCalgaryStrong campus-wide initiative, Upstanders speaks to heart of the donor whose gift established this remarkable network of mental-wellness programs nearly five years ago. John Simpson, Hon. LLD’05, is the CEO of Cana Construction and a rancher in the foothills west of Calgary. Immediately following 2014’s Brentwood tragedy, which saw five young people — all UCalgary students — senselessly lose their lives, Simpson was moved to not only ask, “How can this kind of thing happen?” but to act on creating positive change. His $5-million gift has made possible a growing suite of programs and activities aimed to build resilience and leadership skills for students as they find their way into adulthood and career, and lifelong skills around ensuring mental health and wellness.
Renata Gordon is a residence conduct coordinator in the Leadership and Student Engagement office. She collaborates with various units that fall under the UCalgaryStrong suite of resilience-building offerings to help facilitate the Upstanders program. Open to all students, Upstanders is a series of certified training and activities leading to competencies around mitigating harm-reduction — a process intended to empower students to confidently and effectively break norms in extending themselves to help others.
Our hope is that, when the moment comes, folks feel more empowered to do something — we want to create a norm that it’s okay and important, rather than weird or uncool, to check in on people.
Residence Conduct Coordinator
“In any group, people often feel like they’re can’t help because they’re not ‘qualified,’” says Gordon. “Research has shown people are more likely to intervene if they have subject competence.” Upstanders engages students in discussion around various topics related to mental health, including substance abuse and interpersonal violence, in order to elevate levels of comfort within those tough subject matters.
“Our hope is that, when the moment comes, folks feel more empowered to do something — we want to create a norm that it’s okay and important, rather than weird or uncool, to check in on people,” says Gordon.
The training tunes students into their gut feeling about baseline behaviours, and provides skills to act on that instinct, rather than assume or hope someone else will do something.
Gordon has seen the positive effects of Upstanders in this growing movement on campus: “Instead of thinking, ‘Who am I to say or do something?’ students are prepared and inspired to say, ‘I can help, I can make a difference here.’”
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What Giving Gives Me
When the Brentwood tragedy came along . . . it was a shock. It doesn’t matter who you are: if you can do something to help the community, that’s what you should do. And, for me, it’s so neat to know there’s now a program at UCalgary that’s unique, and that works and works and works.
John Simpson, Hon. LLD’05
Simpson’s gift created UCalgaryStrong, which empowers student mental wellness and leadership