The lesson from Crossroads Founders is the tremendous obligation to carry this work forward, not to repeat it blindly. The founding members did not repeat blindly what came before them. They developed new solutions to the challenges they faced and took bold, innovative steps. That's what Crossroads and organizations like it have to do today; not to repeat what was done in 1957 or 1963 or 1972, but to do it new with the same kind of courage and creativity.
- Michael Cooke, Former ED at Crossroads, Academic Vice President , George Brown College -
It was the late 1950s. Before the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and before most national development organizations got their start, an enthusiastic group of people were meeting in a basement, talking about international development and trying to figure out what to do next. Inspired by a Black American preacher named James Robinson, the group would go on to found Canadian Crossroads International (CCI) and to enable thousands of Canadians and citizens in the developing world to join forces in the common goal of creating a more just and sustainable world.
Dr. Robinson believed that people are fundamentally more similar than dissimilar and that by living and working together, we can create a crossroads of cultures and personal experience that ultimately will support positive individual and social change. He envisioned "One World", where there was mutual understanding and respect for racial and cultural differences. So he established a voluntary organization called Operation Crossroads Africa to bring black and white Americans and Canadians to work alongside Africans in development projects, just as newly independent African states were emerging. His vision was radical in a 1950s-era America divided by racism and discrimination, and it remains relevant today.
Robinson travelled all across the United States and Canada with a call to action. When a group of United Church members heard Dr. Robinson speak at a conference, they were so inspired that they raised $5,000 to support his work. Dr. Robinson thanked them for their efforts, but suggested that if they thought what he was doing was such a great idea, they should start their own group. As he handed them back their cheque, he became the first donor.
Those who heard him speak still talk abut his call to ordinary men and women. “There’s work to do in Mali,” he said. “Drop everything. Raise $10,000 and come with me.” And they did.
Peter Paris was the first Canadian Crossroader, travelling with Dr. Robinson to Nigeria in 1958. In 1960 the Canadian Committee of Operations Crossroads was formed. Their impact would be greater than any of them could have imagined. Throughout the 1960s, small groups of volunteers raised funds and coordinated overseas placements for Canadians, working from their own homes or offices to organize placements, travel plans, training and recruitment. Crossroaders, as the volunteers came to be known, built schools and community centres, taught where there weren’t any teachers, and helped build necessary infrastructure in vulnerable communities. Working alongside African and American counterparts, they built what Dr. Robinson called bridges of friendship. In 1960, 10 Canadians participated in overseas placements. By 1969 that number had grown to 257.
In 1969, Canadian Crossroads International was granted a charter as a charitable organization separate from Operation Crossroads Africa and, for the first time, began working in countries outside the African continent. That same year, a francophone branch was founded in Montreal, which took responsibility for placements in French-speaking African countries.
Throughout is history, Crossroads has changed with changing needs, developing innovative volunteer cooperation programs that contribute to lasting change. In 1971, Crossroads began its To-Canada program, when two Crossroaders from Lesotho came to Canada on placements. This was followed by the Interflow program, an innovative South to South exchange program. Both were firsts of their kind. Extensive volunteer networks in the South and in Canada supported volunteers to adapt to new culture of their host country and to make the most of their overseas experience. Creating meaningful work experience for volunteers from the global South and supporting South to South exchanges remain a core part of Crossroads’ programming. Over the years, more than 8,000 Canadians and volunteers from the global South volunteered with Crossroads. Then, as now, Crossroaders lived with host families and work with community-based organizations.
On the basis of input from Southern volunteers and partners, in 2000 the Board of Directors adopted a bold new plan to focus Crossroads’ work on achieving sustainable development results. Building on existing relationships, Crossroads entered into longer term partnerships with local organizations and for the first time brought on Canadian organizations working on similar issues as formal partners. Together, they planned development projects with impressive results. Crossroads focused its work in fewer countries and sectors to support increased collaboration between partners. In 2005, the board adopted new mission, vision and values statements.
Today, Crossroads continues to pursue Dr. Robinson's "One World" vision. Crossroads brings Canadian organizations into longer term partnerships with civil society organizations that work in areas of women’s rights and poverty reduction in Western Africa, Southern Africa, and South America. Crossroads volunteers play a vital role in supporting partner organizations as they increase their organizational capacity in information technology, programming, and organizational management; many continue to work for global change long after their placement is complete. As we work towards One World, the spirit of Dr. James Robinson and the commitment, determination and generosity of Crossroads’ founders continues to inspire and inform our work.