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TRSM researcher wins prestigious Ashoka Fellowship for work in childhood development

April 25, 2018
Lauren McNamara, Ashoka Fellow

A research associate at the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute has been named an Ashoka Fellow by the prestigious global organization for her ground-breaking work in promoting schoolyard inclusion.

Dr. Lauren McNamara’s work is focused on revolutionizing recess and promoting an active, inclusive and accessible recess environment for Canadian children and youth. Ashoka, a global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs, will support McNamara’s work and help her implement her research insights and scale up the Recess Project.

Ryerson is one of three Ashoka Changemaker Universities in Canada.

Danica Straith, director of venture and strategic partnerships at Ashoka Canada, championed McNamara’s nomination after a meeting with the Diversity Institute as part of Ashoka’s renewal visit to Ryerson. Straith says it was clear to her that McNamara was a visionary and a tenacious and powerful woman whom Ashoka needed to support.

“Ashoka believes that those closest to the problem are best positioned to solve it,” said Straith. “Lauren's own personal childhood connection to bullying at recess paired with years of action research allowed her to effectively diagnose the problem of recess to bring together stakeholders and develop a solution that will advance systemic change.”

For McNamara, the recognition for her work is personal. Her passion for the subject of recess started from her own experiences of marginalization from her peers. It impacted her throughout her youth and frustrated, she would eventually drop out of high school in grade 10.

Little did she know at the time, these experiences would fuel her work and mission later in life.

In spite of her early trauma, she entered university at 17, eventually completed her Master of Arts degree at Northwestern University and PhD in Educational Psychology at Simon Fraser University. As a researcher at Brock University in St. Catharines, McNamara began analyzing the impact recess was having on children and, in 2012, created the Recess Project.

With the aid of Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart Charities, the idea for the project was to leverage the support of her university students to work with schools in Niagara. She found that although recess is often the site of negative social experiences, it is often overlooked because there are few evidence-based practices to guide any change.

“There was actually no scholarly documentation of recess in Canada,” said McNamara. “Recess Project Canada was designed to explore recess as a unit of analysis and address this gap in the scholarly literature.”

To date, the Recess Project has worked with over 2,000 children exploring their positive and negative experiences on the playground and experimenting with innovative and thoughtful approaches to recess. One of the key findings of McNamara’s research was that children with disabilities were on the one hand most likely to experience bullying during recess and on the other, most likely to benefit from support during play and activities.

McNamara joined the Diversity Institute in 2016 to expand the reach of the Recess Project and to work on other research initiatives aimed at advancing inclusion.

“It was through working with the Diversity Institute that I came to see my work as part of a larger social innovation initiative focused on advancing inclusion,” said McNamara.

Dr. Wendy Cukier, Founder of the Diversity Institute, says it was through the Institute’s signature project, DiversityLeads, that they saw they had to focus more upstream to build the pipeline to leadership, particularly for persons with disabilities.

“We know that diversity and inclusion drives innovation but increasingly our work focuses on how to harness what we know about innovation to advance diversity and inclusion,” said Cukier.

She says she remembers hearing about McNamara long before she met her.

Cukier was attending a workshop for aspiring female leaders from high schools and post secondary institutions in 2014 and participants were asked to brainstorm leadership qualities and leaders. Along with luminaries such as Michelle Obama and Oprah, one of the participants wrote McNamara’s name.

“Lauren’s work and approach fits well with our priorities and she herself is a role model and leader,” said Cukier. “She is an inspiration to all those whose lives she’s touched and very deserving of this honour.”

To McNamara, being named an Ashoka Fellow validates the importance of her work.

“To have such an important organization substantiate your efforts by electing you as a fellow is empowering as an individual. But more so, it amplifies, considerably, the importance and urgency of the problem I am trying to address.”

As an Ashoka fellow, McNamara says the endorsement will hopefully encourage more people to come to the table to address this issue.

“I obviously can’t do this alone,” said McNamara. “This will help me extend my research into schools across Canada and ultimately enable systemic, sustainable changes to the ways schools approach recess.”

The process of being named an Ashoka Fellow isn’t an easy one.

Fellows have to be nominated, go through a series of reviews and interviews with Ashoka representatives at local, regional, national and international levels, and undergo a review from the board of directors before being named a fellow. The process can take years to complete.

Since 1980, Ashoka has granted over 3,200 fellowships throughout the world. McNamara now joins this team, which includes Canadian fellows, Marc Kielburger (WE Charity), Johann Olav Koss (Right To Play), and Mary Gordon (Roots of Empathy).