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The Courage to Act: Possibility Seeds

Updated: Apr 10

Two interviews with gender-based and sexual violence prevention experts and leaders of the Courage to Act project by Possibility Seeds and participation in one of their Learning Lab workshops for university sexual violence practitioners.

  1. Interview with Farrah Khan, CEO of Possibility Seeds, Executive Director of Courage to Act, and Manager of Consent Comes First at the Toronto Metropolitan University

  2. Interview with Dr CJ Rowe, former Co-Director of Courage to Act, current Co-Chair of the Courage to Act Project Advisory Committee, and Director of the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office at Simon Fraser University.

  3. Participation in a Learning Lab workshop on Developing a Theory of Change Model for a Peer Program, led by Dr CJ Rowe and Dr Salina Abji.

Location: Treaty 13, Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada

Courage to Act

Front cover of the Courage to Act report
Khan, F., Rowe, C. J., and Bidgood, R. (2019). Courage to Act: Developing a National Framework to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence at Post-Secondary Institutions in Canada. Toronto, ON: Possibility Seeds.

In 2018, the Government of Canada committed $5.5 million over five years to Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE) to develop a framework to prevent and address gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions. In 2019, WAGE granted Possibility Seeds funding to engage key stakeholders and develop recommendations. Possibility Seeds is a leading social change consultancy that works with community organisations, governments, and private and public institutions on equity, gender justice and inclusion. The organisation was founded in 2014 by Farrah Khan. Khan recruited Dr CJ Rowe to work with her to develop a national framework. This led to the creation of the seminal report entitled Courage to Act: Developing a National Framework to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence at Post-Secondary Institutions in Canada, written by Farrah Khan, CJ Rowe and Robyn Bidgood, released in August 2019. The report was built on interviews with 300 experts in 30 listening sessions, with a 29-person advisory committee and emerged with over 60 recommendations for policymakers, senior administrations, frontline workers and governments.

After releasing the initial 2019 report, WAGE funded Possibility Seeds to create Courage to Act, a multi-year national initiative to address and prevent gender-based violence in post-secondary institutions in Canada. The project is underpinned by the principle of ensuring those most affected are at the centre of knowledge creation and advocacy. It brought together faculty, staff, administrators, students, frontline workers, union leaders and other members of the post-secondary community from across Canada to identify promising practices, key policy areas, prevention strategies and tools to address this issue. These resources were then refined and piloted to inform, strengthen and harmonise efforts across the sector nationwide and to spark systems and culture change.

Key Highlights of the Courage to Act Five-Year Project 
  • Reached more than 1.8 million post-secondary students, administrators, faculty and staff across Canada through Courage to Act resources, programming and advocacy.

  • Released 204 co-created resources addressing and preventing gender-based violence on campuses.

  • Created ten communities of practice with 100 campus gender-based violence experts (students, faculty, staff and community organisations).

  • Hosted 41 learning and professional development opportunities for over 1400 people across Canada.

  • Led two national research-to-action projects: Sexual Harassment in Experiential Learning and A gender-based and sexualised violence community risk assessment tool for post-secondary settings.

  • Created the Consent Awareness Week, with community partners and governments participating across Canada.

  • Launched the ARC model (™ Possibility Seeds) and video focused on responding to disclosures of sexual harassment in professional settings.

  • Executed the National All-Stars Summer School on gender-based violence prevention education, which is a free online experiential learning course to build gender-based violence education action plans.

  • Completed the first season of the Possibility Seeds Podcast featuring interviews with experts focused on addressing anti-Black racism and trans-misogyny in the gender-based violence movement and celebrating Indigenous women’s work to end gender-based violence.

Farrah Khan

Farrah Khan smiling in front of a wall of stickers in the Consent Comes First Office
Farrah Khan

Farrah Khan is an award-winning human rights and gender equity leader with over 20 years of experience addressing gender-based violence through education, policy and advocacy. She is the Founder and CEO of Possibility Seeds, where she created Courage to Act. 

In 2015, Farrah was recruited to create one of Canada’s first stand-alone campus sexual violence support and education offices at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). Initially, it was called the Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education. Farrah renamed it Consent Comes First after feedback from the office’s survivor advisory committee on creating a more welcoming space. Consent Comes First is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and groundbreaking campus sexual violence offices, setting the tone for offices nationwide. 

I met Khan in the Consent Comes First office at TMU in October 2022. Consent Comes First provides free, confidential, trauma-informed and healing-centred support to TMU community members affected by sexual and gender-based violence. The office provide education, programming and advocacy to foster a world free from gender-based violence.

“There is an urgent need to address racism in the movements to end gender-based violence and sexual violence on campus.” 

TMU has a diverse undergraduate student body with 50% racialised students, 5% Black students, 1% Indigenous students, 9% 2SLGBTQ and 7% people with disabilities. In recognition of this, Farrah managed, recruited, hired and supervised a multi-disciplinary team from an anti-racist feminist, pro-choice, trauma and violence-informed framework that was representative of the community they service. Farrah also created a placement student program prioritising Indigenous, Black and racialised students. This type of mentorship is something Farrah says she wishes she had as a queer racialised Muslim social worker starting out. 

Farrah created the Consent Action Team (CAT), which is open to students on campus to ensure the Consent Comes First office is accountable to the community it serves. Every year, more than 40 students apply to be part of the advisory and leadership program, where they receive comprehensive training on sexual violence prevention and are provided opportunities to create a culture of consent through resource creation, advocacy campaigns and education initiatives. CAT members assist with the planning and implementing peer education, awareness campaigns and more.

Farrah provided a tour of the Consent Comes First space, sharing that they worked with CAT members to co-create the space, including the website. It was a bright, welcoming space stacked with resources and messages of solidarity and support in the form of stickers, badges and other materials. Annually, the Consent Comes First website, campaigns and materials are reviewed with CAT members, ensuring that they are accountable, relevant and accessible.  

“Students must be guiding our work to address and prevent gender-based violence.” 

Co-designed projects the Consent Comes First office has completed with students include:

  • #TakeCareTMU bystander education campaign created with orientation student leaders and the CAT with the aim to call in peers and support survivors. 

  • This is How We Take Care of Each Other e-learning module for incoming students bi-annually co-created with orientation student leaders and the CAT. 

  • High School Too  a campaign and network called HighSchoolToo created by the CAT to address sexual violence in high school. 

  • Healing Comes In Waves a podcast for survivors to explore healing after harm hosted by Farrah Khan and co-created with CAT members.

  • You Choose What to Do Next: A Guide to Reporting to the Legal System in Ontario a lengthy resource for survivors on growing through the legal system, from reporting to the police to describing the process once there is a trial. 

  • Journals and Colouring Books a series of colouring books for survivors, including We Heal Together, one specifically for Black survivors co-created with student survivors. 

“You can't end sexualised violence alone.”

Khan is an influential activist who believes in the power of collaboration and bringing people together to advocate against harmful structures that perpetuate racism and gender-based violence. She collaborates with her community to see the linkages between struggles so no one is left behind. 

“We need to get rid of [the idea of] the ‘perfect’ victim.”

Please note: In 2023, Farrah Khan left her role as Manager of Consent Comes First at TMU after seven years to become the Executive Director of Action Canada on Sexual Health and Rights. There, she works to advance progressive policies on access to abortion, reproductive rights, stigma-free healthcare, 2SLGBTQIA rights, and inclusive sex education in Canada and globally. Farrah is on health leave from her role as Executive Director of Action Canada. In June 2023, Farrah shared in the Globe and Mail that she has aggressive small-cell cervical cancer and would be stepping back from all work until treatment is completed. I send her healing care as she navigates this challenge. 
Colourful stickers about consent and healing
Some of the stickers Farrah and her team at Consent Comes First co-created with students

Dr CJ Rowe

CJ and Camille smiling on zoom
Dr CJ Rowe and Camille Schloeffel
“Activism is being able to progress the social change that’s needed for me to survive as a queer trans person. If I have the energy to make change then I should – to survive and hopefully thrive.”

Dr CJ Rowe is an impressive leader with more than 15 years of experience in sexual violence prevention and response in the university sector. They are the current Co-Chair of the Courage to Act Project Advisory Committee with Farrah Khan and the Director of the Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office (SVSPO) at Simon Fraser University (SFU). 

From 2019-2021 they were Co-Director of Courage to Act, where they co-lead with Farrah listening and learning sessions to understand what is happening across universities to inform the guidance and practice toolkits they produce.

When the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act was introduced in 2016 in the province of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University (SFU) created the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Prevention, Education and Support Policy through one of the most engaged policy development process, engaging students, staff and faculty members, in the University’s history.  One of the key reasons why the engagement was so strong was because student activists at SFU were an integral part of the collaboration. They actively participated in the process and attended in high numbers to the feedback sessions. The policy development team made sure there was no one way to provide feedback and, instead, hosted meetings, surveys, focus groups and town halls – online and in person. Rowe was hired by the University to bring the policy into action through the establishment of SFU’s SVSPO.

The SVSPO is guided by an advisory panel, of which over half of the members are students. This advisory panel acts as an advisory resource for the SVSPO, reviews and comments on the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Annual Report, acts as an advisory resource for regularly reviewed Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy, and provides input on approaches to support, prevention, awareness raising, education, policy, and procedures. The SVSPO supports the Active Bystander Network, a network of student peer facilitators who work alongside of the office to raise awareness on sexual violence an create a culture of care and consent at SFU through the development of educational and outreach events and learning opportunities. Some of the other office’s projects include:

  • A resource guide for staff to help international students to navigate key questions.

  • A card game called Interrobang, which developed in consultation with international students, to help promote healthy conversations and boundaries regarding relationships and sexuality.

“We are always looking for ways to do better and respond to emerging needs.”

Rowe is a strategic leader that gains institutional buy-in by taking a multi-model approach to addressing sexual violence from various angles. This involves finding the champions in the institution – faculty, staff and student advocates.

“So much of this work is on the shoulders of student advocates and activists.”

This is why Rowe has ensured their door is always open for feedback to do better. They do this by creating space for deep listening to student demands and meeting those needs through co-designing programs with them.

When I asked Rowe about their perspective on perpetrators in a university context, they spoke about how there is a spectrum of perpetrators who cause harm and each instance is situational. There are those people who engage in extreme violence or are serial offenders versus those who perpetrate harm because they don't know any better. Rowe's goal is that universities implement strategies that reduce harm and ensure that perpetrators don't harm anyone else.

“Everybody has the opportunity to do better, to change and grow.”

Universities don't always have systems in place to support people long-term, so there is a lot of work to do. However, if people use their positions of power to perpetuate harm, then they don’t deserve to stay – especially staff who perpetrate against their juniors and/or staff. That is a clear abuse of power that must be taken seriously.

This spectrum of harm and lack of long-term support from universities is why it can be strategic to embed community care models in our universities to facilitate holistic responses to campus sexual violence.

Learning Lab with Dr CJ Rowe and Dr Salina Abji

Front slide of the ppt from the Learning Lab session
Learning Lab: Developing a Theory of Change Model for a Peer Program

I had the privilege of being able to join a workshop delivered by Dr CJ Rowe and Dr Salina Abji as part of Possibility Seed's Learning Lab Series. The session was about Developing a Theory of Change Model for a Peer Program.

It is important to develop a theory of change to understand why we are doing something before implementing it. This is about ensuring that any program being developed is meeting a need or filling a gap that has been identified. It also allows us to embed evaluation into a program from the beginning so we can get clear about the change or impact model we are seeking.

So, what is a Theory of Change?

A Theory of Change is a hypothesis or model that articulates how the planned activities will help you to achieve the short-term and long-term outcomes of your program. It's also a useful tool to be able to reflect on what can realistically be achieved given any time, budget and capacity constraints. A theory of change includes the change that we hope to achieve, such as attitudes, knowledge, acquisition or beliefs, and a logic model about how we are going to achieve this, such as concrete steps and actions.

Having a theory of change for any program or initiative is important to increase buy-in from stakeholders and hopefully increase commitment to the program in how it will create change. 

“A great project will build a sense of belonging from the beginning.”

STOP's theory of change flowchart about curating sessions with student leaders
Theory of Change flowchart for collaborating with student leaders to co-facilitate The College Program

This session helped me develop a preliminary theory of change of a core element of The STOP Campaign's College Program. The College Program is a series of workshops for tertiary students who live on-campus in residential halls. The purpose of the program is to prevent sexual violence and promote sexual wellbeing in university communities. A core element of the program is that it is peer-led, so we have the option to support student leaders in a residential hall to co-facilitate one of the workshops to their peers.

At The STOP Campaign, we believe that by co-developing and co-facilitating sessions with student leaders in residential halls will lead to more productive sessions catered to their specific context and allow for student leaders to feel more empowered to influence change in their own communities. This Learning Lab session helped me realise how important this peer-led element of our program is and how it helps us build a sense of belonging and trust with the communities we are seeking to support.

This element makes our program stand out, and we will continue to advocate for peer-led education and advocacy that is collaborative with the community we are working within.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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