ANNE GOLDEN, RYERSON UNIVERSITY
Over the course of three university degree programs, Anne Golden (Order of Canada) studied everything from political science and art history, to English literature and the role of the press during the Cold War.
On the surface, it can be difficult to see how these subjects helped her become a professional fundraiser as the head of the United Way of Greater Toronto, or a public policy specialist at the helm of the Conference Board of Canada.
But from Golden’s perspective, it wasn’t so much whether the subject matter was directly relevant later in life (although she did find it fascinating), but the skill set she was learning at the same time. Her university education provided her with the ability to think critically, to organize and reflect on mass amounts of information, and express her opinions with a high level of confidence—all of which were crucial to her professional success.
She recalled her first foray into public policy as a young mother in her twenties, distraught by the fact that a major condo development of three 33-storey buildings was about to go up in her backyard near the St. Michael’s Lands in Toronto. Golden and her neighbours were upset, but she found herself to be one of the few who made her concerns public.
“What gave me the courage to get involved where my friends didn’t?” she pondered, reflecting back on her decision to bring her arguments against the development to city council.
“I had understood the political system, because I had taken three years of Poli Sci and actually understood constitutionally where the city sat, and what the provincial role was,” she said.
That first appearance before city councillors (who eventually rejected the condo development) became something of a public policy catalyst for Golden, who is now well-known for having chaired two highly influential Toronto task forces in the 1990s, one researching the future of the city, and the other concerning the social impact of homelessness. Throughout her career, she has also advocated against plans for a Spadina expressway and a downtown Toronto casino—both proposals were eventually dropped by council. She was able to cope with the onslaught of information associated with each policy by using a research method she learned at university.
“It’s called the Swiss cheese method. Just poke a little hole in it and [keep] expanding that hole,” she said.
Golden’s upbringing gave her some of the confidence she needed to take on public policy battles, but university also provided her with the type of environment where she could learn to see all sides of an issue, and actively debate with those who might disagree with her.
Golden and her friends “were conscious of the fact that we enjoyed political discussions, policy discussions,” she said. “I met people who today are maybe of a different political persuasion than I am, but we went through school together or we were in the model parliament together… so I can approach them across the political divide.”
Interestingly, she even found that her Masters research at Columbia, about the American media and the Cold War, came in handy while she was raising funds for the United Way.
“I had to really understand theories of public opinion. And to this day, I’ve utilized that,” Golden said.
“It’s helped me with marketing, it’s helped me with understanding how you make change, and the politics of today.”
Today Golden finds herself back at school—she has stepped down from her role as president and CEO of the Conference Board in order to become a Distinguished Visiting Scholar and Special Adviser at Ryerson University for the next two years.
“My life has been a circle,” she noted.
As for the knowledge she hopes to share with her students, Golden will be reminding them that as educated members of the community, they have the ability and the right to make their opinions and ideas about their city heard.
“I often say to my students, I started by fighting the Spadina Expressway—people said it was a done deal, and I said it wasn’t, and we stopped it.”
“I try to impart the lesson that you can go up against City Hall and win, so don’t be afraid of that.”
Especially when you’ve been gaining the skills to do so through art history class.