Meredith Low can hardly believe it’s been 26 years since she first connected with Canadian Crossroads International. She was 23, had just completed a university degree and was looking to travel and gain some new life experiences. She’s happy to report, she got far more than she bargained for.
“At the time I would have said I studied International Development as part of my degree, and I wanted to make a contribution but that I … needed first-hand experience,” she says. But she couldn’t have anticipated the ongoing impact the experience would have on her life and her outlook. “I was onto something without knowing exactly what.”
Her Crossroads experience began in Zimbabwe where she taught high school — English literature and African history. “My students, as you can imagine, had a profound emotional reaction to much of what they were learning,” she says, explaining that Zimbabwe, like Canada, was a British colony with many of the same colonial policies being played out there as here. Born and raised in northern BC, Low says she learned as much about her own history and the experience of First Nations under the colonial reservation system, as her students did. “Teaching this history made me reflect on Canada in a way I never had before.”
Low remained overseas for a year, travelling to South Africa. It was a pivotal time. Nelson Mandela was released shortly after her return to Canada, and Low recalls her new perspective when it came to understand the news and world events. “You never read the news the same way again,” she says of the unexpected effect of her Crossroads experience, and it’s something for which she’s really grateful. It’s part of what she feels is so important and so profound about the work CCI does.
“Crossroads plays a really powerful and really useful role globally. The emphasis on women’s rights, economic development and HIV/AIDS is so critical and builds on the organization’s history while focusing on how it can be most useful today.”
“I can’t see countries from a blanket point of view; I won’t write a place off,” she explains. So many in North America who do not have first-hand knowledge seem to dismiss Africa as “a continental basket-case” — a fall-back position encouraged by the kind of information we tend to get from mainstream media. If you can’t decode news items, they can lead readers to very skewed conclusions.
Low saw Zimbabwe change from a healthy and developing country enthusiastic about the future to a struggling one – both because of the AIDS crisis and the country’s political situation. “I’ve seen what human agency can do in both [positive and negative] directions. There was nothing inevitable about what has happened in Zimbabwe,” Low comments. And it’s that vision, that knowledge, which she earned through being a Crossroader, which she says has had the greatest lasting impact: “I think that makes me a much stronger global citizen.”
Knowing that the efforts of individuals and organization can make a difference is a lesson Low took to heart. Back in Canada, she began volunteer-work with AIDS Vancouver as a direct result of seeing the effect of the pandemic. She has also stayed involved with CCI, first as a volunteer and now as a board member.
“Crossroads plays a really powerful and really useful role globally. The emphasis on women’s rights, economic development and HIV/AIDS is so critical and builds on the organization’s history while focusing on how it can be most useful today,” she notes.
She is happy to be able to contribute new skills she gained since going on to do her MBA with a focus on organizational development.
But she emphasizes that the learning goes both ways. In fact, her current employer, CIBC, recognizes her work on the CCI board as professional development. The company also supports employees’ volunteer work through donations. Low, always an advocate for CCI’s work, suggests looking into similar volunteer-support programs in your own workplace.
“It’s an honour, a privilege and a responsibility I take really seriously,” she says of her work on the board, a position she calls “all the sweeter” because of her long history with the organization.