In March of 2014, almost exactly a year ago, a colleague of mine, Hamza Khan, and I stood at the front of classroom in George Brown College’s beautiful waterfront campus. We were delivering a “Community & Communications” workshop on how to grow community using online tools. The audience? An organization called Playing For Keeps, inspired by the upcoming Pan-Am and Parapan Am Games in Toronto. They were equipping hundreds of volunteers, from ages 9–69, with the skills to run community sporting events in their own neighbourhoods. This included leadership training, conflict resolution, communications and more.
We gave the same presentation 6 times to 6 cohorts of volunteers cycling through, and each one was truly profound. I can admit that both the volunteers and Hamza and I thought we were going into a social media training, but it became so much more. Given that ‘community’ is half of what social media is, that piece naturally needed to be explored. What communities were we part of? With which did we identify? Were we part of communities by no choice of our own? What were the benefits of being part of these communities?
We found out that most of these volunteers were coming from underprivileged areas in and around Toronto and just wanted to do good. We learned a number of them felt marginalized based on being part of communities they didn’t choose: race, gender, socio-economic status, sexuality, geographical neighbourhood and more. We learned their struggles, fears, excitements, woes and more. There were tears… in multiple sessions. Here’s the beautiful thing — other volunteers came to the side of each other when that happened. We talked things out if needed, let people share and be their authentic selves. Did we get to how social media helps foster positive communities? Yes, we did. Were they open to learning? Especially. The feedback from organizers to us was that this was the most liked session of the weekend.
Now, this was not the first time something like this had happened to us when teaching. Hamza and I left that weekend as impacted as we believed those volunteers to be.
That’s when we knew:
1) We were doing something right
2) This had to grow
Looking back now, and informed by many feedback sessions, I know exactly what it was we were “doing right.” And it’s very much infused into our school now, which is called SkillsCamp by the way.
1. We related to our audience
Hamza is of Indian decent; born in Queens, New York; raised mostly in Scarborough, Ontario; identifies as Muslim; and is a first generation student and immigrant. I was born and raised in Brampton, Ontario; female; secular; and also a first generation student (that last one surprised the volunteers, which we later unpacked). Needless to say, between the two of us, we could relate in some way to many of the communities and struggles being brought up. I hope volunteers felt we understood them, and if we didn’t at first, we would try very hard to. I take pride in that.
Value 1: At SkillsCamp, we tailor to the needs and learning styles of our students and clients. We’re adaptable.
2. We created a safe space
It’s amazing what can happen when you put down your walls, biases and judgments — when you practice empathy and understanding. I absolutely credit our backgrounds in Student Affairs for teaching us how to do that — the right language and actions. Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) values are worked into everything we do in student affairs, and now at SkillsCamp as well. In a space where students feel they can share openly, unjudged and supported is where the best learning can happen.
Value 2: At SkillsCamp, we want you to bring your whole selves. We are inclusive, friendly and empowering.
3. We actually know what we’re talking about
Proudly and humbly, Hamza, Kareem and I have all built up respective careers building digital communities. We’ve found success in a number of places in multiple industries, so when we talk about communications and community building, we were speaking from experience. We actually do this for a living. In that P4K session, students trusted us and knew they were getting the most up-to-date best practices. They did learn what they came to learn.
Value 3: At SkillsCamp, our instructors walk the walk. We’re living our topic every day. We’re knowledgeable and practical.
Funny enough, these values have informed our internal mission. They hang in our office to remind staff and instructors what’s important to us.
Why Soft Skills?
Take a second glance at what has made myself, Hamza, Kareem and SkillsCamp successful both professionally and in the teaching context. Yes, we do know what we’re talking about and circumstances have helped, but across our careers, it has been a mix of:
- Communication skills
- Leadership skills
- Interviewing well
- Personal branding
- (And many more…)
Now look at that list again. Those are all soft skills.
Intentional development of these skills unfortunately takes a backseat to hard skill education, or is alarmingly non-existent in traditional education’s curricula. And although our own government has identified it as a priority, even their solutions are incoherent and ineffective. My co-founders and I know because we’ve been a part of the system in more ways than one: we’ve studied through it, we’ve taught in it, and now we work in it.
What else do we know?
We know that consistently, across all industries, the most important skills for any new hires or employees are: communication, leadership, teamwork, sales skills, etc. Don’t take my word for it. Indulge in some of our research.
As you may have put together already, something didn’t make sense to us:
- Soft skills make us successful
- Soft skills make us better people
- Soft skills are required for the workforce
- Soft skills are not taught in school
SkillsCamp is our answer to this missing curriculum. It’s our way to equip students, new grads, immigrants and really anyone with the skills needed for success. We believe in the power of a team building exercise or a workshop on building digital communications. We’ve seen the results of a good presentation or an empowering manager. SkillsCamp is our passion, our mission and now our life.
We’re new, we’re growing fast, we’re going to mess up and we’re going to get back up.
We hope you’ll come along for the ride.