By Candies Kotchapaw

Recently I had the privilege of being invited by the Meridian International Centre and the U.S.-Mexico Foundation to be a featured panelist at the North Capital Forum (NFC) in Mexico City.

“The North Capital Forum (NCF), a multi-annual platform focused on strengthening North America’s trilateral agenda, and to position the region as an economic, social, and political powerhouse.”

(NFC report 2023)

The 3-day Forum brought together thought leaders across various industries to tackle the subject matter of People, Planet, Peace, Prosperity and Partnerships. Thematic discussions spanned topics such as Sustainable Development, Regional Economic Landscape and Finance, Governance and Democracy, Tech and Innovation, Diplomacy and Border Security.

Each panel zeroed in on critical conversations surrounding economic development, labour mobility and the concept of prosperity within the backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions and threats; nonetheless, opportunities abound for innovative approaches to solving challenges being uniquely experienced in North America.

My panel, appropriately named “Can’t Stop the Feeling: Soft Power and North American Public Diplomacy” was moderated by U.S. Ambassador Stuart Holliday and featured experts on diplomacy crossing cultural, sport and public domains.

Representing Canada, I focused my contributions to the panel discussions on SDG 4: Quality Education through the lens of international learning exchanges for better and more sustainable access to SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. 

I deconstructed the definition of Quality Education within the context of standard education systems where education to employment outcomes is adversely skewed for immigrants who are predominantly people of colour in Canada. 

I provided a situational analysis where Black Canadians represent only 4.3% of the overall population in Canada, however, this demographic also boasts amongst the highest rates of graduate and postgraduate achievement. I began with the premise that Quality education has to be an outcome driven phenomenon that prioritizes the learner. It has to take into account the socio-economic and political realities of the learner to see what the transition points in their educational journeys will look like before, during and after their schooling is completed.

I surmised that for educators and systems changemakers, we have to ask ourselves these questions:

  1. Is the information and practical delivery method truly relevant to the life course and options that these learners – who will eventually become contributors to the economy – want to and should pursue?
  2. Are we adequately preparing our people for the shifts and trends in the labour market as well as the turbulence caused by globalization and geopolitical forces, especially as it relates to North American competitiveness?
  3. How do we embed those critical thinking and transferable soft skills of adaptability, generalized and specific knowledge into program development to enable all learners to excel regardless of economic status or political affiliation?
  4. How do we centre equity-based experiential learning in the quality education debate; making sure that the conditions of systemic inequalities are not continuously replicated to further disadvantage racialized students?
  5. Do funding institutions play a role in the accessibility of learning exchange programs?
  6. What is the merit for maintaining unpaid and systemically unfunded internships, given the economic headwinds at play currently?

To answer these questions, I gave tangible examples of how Developing Young Leaders of Tomorrow, Today’s Black Diplomats Academy has utilized international learning exchange opportunities to fill in work experience gaps that serve as systemic barriers to career advancement and economic security. 

It is a matter of creating a pipeline where international exchanges as an extension to standard educational attainment provide and promote practical learning experiences that bolster domestic portfolios. If the training doesn’t impact the individual’s career trajectory, then the training itself must be re-evaluated.

I highlighted how SDG 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goals is a prominent feature at the Academy, that has enabled mentoring of fellows in the program to translate into internship opportunities that eventually become secure employment prospects. 

Inevitably, Quality Education for racialized people in North America comes down to the exposure to the in-demand industry training, technical skills acquisition and network access to pursue and be competitive in emerging markets; especially those pertaining to industry 4.0. 

What does all this mean for implementing SDG achievement driven initiatives in Canada? It means that governments, corporations and civil society organizations need to recognize and reconsider how experiential learning is positioned as a mechanism for effective workforce improvement. 

The argument for maintaining the status quo of only offering limited funding or unpaid internships further erodes the competitive advantage of a skilled workforce with nuanced approaches to solving pressing problems. 

Complementary experiential learning through exchange programs brings a plethora of benefits including cultural diversity, spurring intellectual creativity and a duplicity of outside the box approaches to systems and design thinking. 

These paid opportunities reinforce mutual value for the individual and the systems within which they are interning or completing an exchange. Commitment to funding exchange programs as a method for workforce development through internships is a significant step forward to achieving SDG 4 and 8. 

The strengthening of North American Soft power (intentional investment in people as a renewable resource) is inextricably tied to the value we attribute to our teaching and learning environment; which is further enmeshed in the achievement of each of the 17 Goals targets and indicators. Simply put, each of the Goals is an inherent response to solving a social problem. They each open the door for dynamic and innovative approaches to address the wicked challenges facing our world today. 

For me, Quality Education is directly connected to Decent work prospects and Economic growth and can only fully be realized through intentional relationships and partnerships that bridge gaps and overcome systemic barriers. After all, building soft power and solving for the SDGs is essentially all about how we see and treat our people who shape our society. 


About the Author

Candies Kotchapaw is the Founder and Executive Director at DYLOTT. Developing Young Leaders of Tomorrow, Today (DYLOTT) is an organization developed by Candies Kotchapaw, a visionary leader in the Black community. Candies, while completing her Master’s of Social Work specializing in Policy Practice at York University, identified the precarious experience of Black Social Workers and the need for their inclusion in policy development. Coupled with her several years of experience facilitating grassroots youth work and Candies’ identification of precariousness in several other employment areas, DYLOTT was formally founded in 2019.