From its founding, Canada has had a rich tradition of classical liberal principles at its core, which is why Atlas Network partner the Institute for Liberal Studies (ILS) founded Freedom Week, a five-day seminar for students to explore the ideas of liberty through lectures and discussions with professors from leading universities in Canada and the United States. ILS recently wrapped up its second annual Freedom Week, with Atlas Leadership Academy (ALA) graduate Janet Neilson leading the effort to teach students about the classical liberal foundation of Canadian society and the application of these ideas to current issues and societal challenges.
Neilson was a founding director of ILS, but has shifted her role to work in developing programs like Freedom Week. She recently spoke with Atlas Network about her work in Canada’s liberty movement, and how her participation in ALA training programs has helped to expand her effectiveness in reaching out to the next generation of Canadian students.
Tell us a little about your organization and career history. What inspired you to work for a free-market group?
The Institute for Liberal Studies is the only organization in Canada dedicated to educating young Canadians about the ideas of a free society. We offer programs for university students that range from individual lectures to our week-long Freedom Week seminars to small, invite-only Socratic discussion seminars. Our longest-running event is the annual Liberty Summer Seminar, a weekend of camping, high-quality speakers, home-cooked food, and usually live music, too. We're rolling out a program to help support the discussion of ideas that support a free society in high school classrooms.
I was inspired to work in the free-market movement after almost a decade of working in partisan politics. The candidate that I wanted to win became prime minister, and when very little changed I realized that political change is only the last step in social change. I realized that I saw what was going wrong because of the education I'd received from groups like the Institute for Humane Studies, the Fraser Institute, and Liberty Fund. Promoting the understanding of liberal ideas is, I believe, the most effective way to make the world a better place. After completing my M.A. in public policy, I've been able to split my time between editing and policy writing, and working for free-market organizations, including the ILS.
How did you learn about Atlas Leadership Academy, and what drove you to get involved?
Our executive director, Matt Bufton, was an intern at Atlas Network back in 2008, and in the inaugural Think Tank MBA (TTMBA) class. I didn't complete TTMBA until years later because I didn't realize how much individuals can benefit from the training to strengthen the group as a whole. As I've taken on a larger role in program development, my training, especially TTMBA training, has been invaluable.
What were your biggest takeaways from the trainings you received?
The biggest takeaway for me was to always keep our mission in mind and to be sure it's driving our organization. It's easier than you'd think to come up with awesome ideas, but one of our strengths at the ILS is how far we can stretch our resources by making sure that we focus on our core activities. The good news is that there are a lot of other, great organizations in the liberty movement that you can pass an idea on to if it doesn't fit with your organization.
What advice would you give someone aspiring to work in the liberty movement?
Be aware of how many different roles there are to fill! Don't feel like you need to pursue a degree or career in policy analysis if spreading the ideas of a free society is important to you — though, of course, that work is important, too. Groups like Atlas Network do a great job of helping you find your niche, so don't be afraid to reach out and take advantage of the training and support options that are available!