Three takeaways from our April CEN session: Exploring tensions and opportunities of community-university engagement work within colonial systems 

Written by Kat Cureton (she/her), Advisor, UBC Community Engagement 

Photo credit: Oliver Mann

Before this month, the last in-person Community Engagement Network gathering was in November 2019 at Chinatown House in Vancouver. The discussion centered around the meaning of reciprocity for community partners and UBC researchers, and the importance of equitable relationship building. The session left everyone feeling inspired and energized. Little did we know that we wouldn’t meet in person for another three and half years, and so much would change in our societal context in that time.  

In 2023, the conversation on equity and reciprocity in partnerships continues, and many of us have become more aware of the underlying tensions of trying to embed these principles into bureaucratic, colonial systems, and the potential for harmful practices to emerge. While everyone is at different points in their (un)learning journeys, the timing felt right to come together and explore these tensions and opportunities as a collective. 

Takeaway #1: We needed this conversation 

The excitement and energy in the room was palpable as people arrived. There was a real thirst to sit with this topic, and it was clear that many of our colleagues have been contemplating the tensions of this work and doing some deep learning and unlearning in recent years. 

The facilitation of the session, co-designed by colleagues from UBC Equity and Inclusion, was thoughtful and created a warm and welcoming space for dialogue. Participants in Vancouver and Okanagan said it was uplifting, inspiring, and informative. Many participants expressed gratitude for the opportunity to connect with colleagues who shared a commitment to these issues and left feeling more hopeful than when they arrived. 

During the session, we talked about the ways in which colonial and white supremacist ideals manifest in our work. We discussed the pressure to be “productive”, valuing academic knowledge and the written word, academic timelines over our partners, and the ridiculous amount of red tape involved in compensating partners timely and equitably. These challenges were echoed by many colleagues, and it was cathartic to hear them voiced out loud. 

After acknowledging these frustrations, we moved into sharing examples of decolonizing practices happening at UBC. Many referenced the Indigenous Strategic Plan implementation tools and resources and devoting considerable staff time for critical discussions on how to situate themselves in relation to Indigenous engagement and align their work with the Plan. Some talked about changing the frame of what’s successful, of slowing down and taking the time to build relationships first. Many folx discussed challenging themselves, and their peers, to do things differently and not reinforce colonialist ideals in our work. People enthusiastically shared resources, books, papers, courses, and poems. (Get access to our growing resource list here). It was a reminder that while the work is challenging, there are tangible examples of progress being made. 

Takeaway #2: We need to keep thinking about how to build trust and establish “safer spaces” for vulnerable conversations. 

Our network convenes a handful of times a year, typically for brief 90-minute sessions. We pride ourselves on being an open network, with members coming and going based on their interests and availability. As we are all at different points in our (un)learning journeys, dialogue can be a powerful tool to expand our understanding. However, it’s essential to consider how we can ensure that everyone feels safe to engage in this dialogue. 

During a recent debrief with facilitators, one participant shared that they felt uncertain when placed in a small group. They didn’t know where their colleagues were in terms of their awareness and understanding of their positionality, roles, and responsibilities in colonization. For IBPOC colleagues, this feeling of vulnerability can be particularly acute when discussing racism with mostly white colleagues. 

One suggestion that arose was caucus-building. This approach allows participants to self-organize and identify who they feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics like racism and colonialism with. As an organizer, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t have a blueprint for how to organize caucus-building yet. However, I’m committed to exploring this approach in our upcoming sessions. It’s crucial that we create safer spaces for everyone to engage in dialogue, to share their knowledge, and expand their understanding of these complex issues. 

Takeaway #3: As a collective, our power to influence this institution, and our networks, is impressive and inspiring. 

The session concluded with a “spheres of influence” activity to examine how each person can influence others and the institution towards equity and justice. The activity was designed to provide participants with the opportunity to step back and reflect on their roles. 

Through this activity, we heard that many people are engaging in critical discussions with their colleagues, community partners, families, and friends in and outside of UBC. They’re having difficult conversations, challenging assumptions, and welcoming discomfort as a space for growth.  

Humility and curiosity were a prominent theme as participants reflected on their roles. They noted the importance of seeking learning opportunities, of naming whiteness and recognizing white supremacist culture, and modelling transparency about their mistakes and learning. And, also finding “safe” colleagues and friends with whom you can debrief. 

People talked about influencing their faculties, departments, and portfolios. Some are working to bring guiding principles of decolonization into program development. One participant mentioned how they are challenging the exclusion of non-white, non-male literature in their department’s curriculum. A few people mentioned using their influence to push for more equitable hiring practices. And, so many of us are questioning how to use UBC’s financial resources in more ethical and responsible ways and compensate community partners fairly.  

Responsive leadership is another sphere of influence that some members identified. Participants noted the importance of having relationships with unit leadership that are open to new ideas and constructive criticism.  

Overall, the activity provided an opportunity for members of the Community Engagement Network to slow down and reflect, and then realize the power we hold as a collective to push for change and promote equity and justice in our work. 

In closing, the April Community Engagement Network in-person gatherings were a great reminder of the importance of coming together, sharing our struggles, and learning from one another. We left feeling uplifted, inspired, and ready to continue the work of decolonization. Join us for Part 2 on May 3, from 9:30am-11am.  

I’d like to express gratitude to our co-facilitators from the Equity and Inclusion office, Madison Tardif and Jenica Frisque, the UBCO host, Joanne Carey from the Institute of Community Engaged Research, my trusted co-lead from UBC Okanagan Library who spearheaded the UBCO event, Donna Langille, and CEN Advisory members, in particular Steph Lim and Holly Kim who offered insightful feedback on this session and ways to improve the way we gather in future. Special thanks to Lisa Kariuki for communications expertise.