Towards an Inclusive Edmonton: How can we go about having a meaningful and productive conversation about racism?

I’ve always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin – save for a few childhood trips to India, where I “blended in”. Even then, I was contemplating my identity as a Canadian Indian kid and I knew that I still had not found my place of belonging.

As a child, I can remember listening to my parents sharing their stories of experiencing racism. My father recalled a time when, soon after landing in Canada from Bangladesh, someone called him a “paki” on the streets of Toronto. Little did the perpetrator of the racist act know (or perhaps he did) that my father was a Bangladeshi whose life was torn apart by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War. As a Hindu Bengali, he and his family experienced atrocious acts of violence and oppression at the hands of the Pakistani army. So imagine his experience when he was called a paki. I sure can’t.

My mother came to Canada as a 12 year old girl to the small town of Revelstoke, BC. I don’t need to go into the details, but I am sure you can imagine how welcoming a small town was to an Indian family in the 70’s. It causes me a lot of distress to know what they went through.

Looking back, I think the story telling was their way of preparing me. Their way of telling me at a young age,  “Robin, the world is not as you think it is. Some people won’t like you because of how you look. Don’t let it break you.”

I can remember doubting their lesson. My naivete was quickly shattered as I had my first contact with racism in elementary school. And that’s when it began. And it’s continued on, in different ways, ever since.

All of my experiences, subversive or actively violent, culminated in a poignant message that communicated: “We don’t like you. You aren’t normal. You don’t belong.”

And so, as I said earlier, I’ve always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin. I often wonder if the way people treat me – good or bad, is connected to my complexion. I’ve learned well that the dominant perceptions of race informs how we see beauty as much as it shapes who we see as violent.

Lately, I’ve found myself in somewhat of a quandary. I believe that it is important to actively engage in conversations about race and privilege, as I think it is the only way we can attempt to unravel (and hopefully at some point dismantle) the complex issue of racism. A boy can dream.

I’ve attempted this conversation primarily through social media, which I am quickly learning is extremely ineffective at having a nuanced and sophisticated discussion on a topic that requires more than a Facebook comment or 140 characters on Twitter.

Most recently, I shared an article on Facebook that was posted on the GigCity website. The article explores why some people have been offended by the recent “Manner’s Movement” initiated by Sonic 102.9. It’s a well intentioned initiative that aims to help make people more polite in Edmonton. Great idea, in my opinion. We could all use a brush up on our manners. However, the intention isn’t the point of contention for those bothered by it. They are bothered by the method in which the “movement” is communicated – a parody rap video with a white cast of “rappers” dressed up in gangster rap outfits. It is unclear as to who they are parodying, but given the timing of the initiative and the recent release of Straight Outta Compton, one could surmise that it is a parody of the NWA. Describing the parody, the writer of the article states “it’s amusing seeing white dudes from Edmonton in 2015 aping black dudes from Compton circa 1986.” I’m perplexed by the choice of words…

The writer asks local musician Brett Miles (who is black) what his thoughts were on the matter, and Brett indicated that it was just shy of black face. I can see Brett’s perspective and understand how he sees it that way.

My biggest issue with the matter was actually how the the article was written in a generally dismissive tone and concluded with a suggestion for those offended to “lighten up”.

That was what really bothered me. It’s what I hear time and time again whenever I share my opinion about race and racism. I’ve been told that there are more important things to worry about. That I’m being “too sensitive”. That not everything is about racism. I find these comments invalidating and bereft of compassion. I am puzzled by the staunch defensiveness I encounter. And I’m not special in receiving this type of feedback. I’ve seen countless others get it too. At times this comes from people I care about, and people I know care about me. It’s become apparent that many people who hold these beliefs just may not have had them challenged – and so it yields a strong response. Or so I sometimes wonder.

I can’t imagine that any caring person would act in these ways or say these types of things if they truly understood the experience of being a person of colour in this country.

My intention was that these types of conversations could incite a curiousity and empathy about the experiences of the people involved in the discussion, but they usually fall apart into a finger pointing match and an awkward e-silence. I find this very disheartening, as I do have hope that we can evolve in our understanding of racism – and oppression as a whole. It is very necessary if we expect to move forward as a society.

But, I don’t see this evolution of understanding happening online and I am at a loss as how to facilitate a real-life conversation on the issue of racism and privilege without it turning into something that only makes things worse.

This is my formal request for assistance: If you would like to help or can think of a way that we can host a meaningful forum and conversation on the subject of racism in Edmonton, please let me know. I think the time has come that we expose these types if issues and develop collaborative approaches to addressing them.

Thanks,

Robin

p.s If you’re interested, you can share suggestions or your experiences related to this post on Twitter, using the hashtag #yegracism.

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yegsnowfight: We made something, Edmonton.

Last Sunday, I witnessed something magical. It was perhaps the most “Edmonton” experience I’ve had since moving to this city in 2012.

In October, I was tweeting back and forth with a (then) stranger about having a snowball fight. I had recently watched the Human Scale documentary, in which they showed a spontaneous snowball fight which erupted in Times Square in New York. It looked like so much fun. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a snowball fight, so I was determined to get one going in Edmonton with some friends.

comic

credit: Sam Hester (https://twitter.com/calgaryhester)

Soon after our twitter conversation, in early November, Jeff Chase and I decided to meet for a drink and talk about having a snowball fight. I remember us talking about how it would be tough to wrangle up 50 people for a snowball fight, so we decided to get our idea up on a Make Something Edmonton page. We wanted to have a spontaneous snowball fight, similar to the one in New York. We decided to collect phone numbers by email, which we would later send a text message to with details of where and when the snowball fight would take place.

Screenshot_2014-12-14-20-54-38~2

We posted the project on Tuesday, November 4th. By the end of that week, #yegsnowfight was trending on twitter in Edmonton. We had numerous inquiries from all of the media outlets in Edmonton. Emails were STREAMING in. I remember watching our gmail account and seeing new emails fly in by the second. It was unbelievable.

snowfightrobin

It’s safe to say that neither Jeff nor I anticipated the idea getting so much traction. We spent the next week or so speaking to newspaper journalists, television reporters, and radio hosts about #yegsnowfight. We even had coverage in Calgary. We thought that the emails would stop coming in when we reached around 1000 numbers… Nope. Pretty much right up until we announced the event last Saturday, emails were still rolling in. I think our final count was around 3000 numbers. Our Facebook post was seen by about 27 000 people. When we announced the event on Saturday, #yegsnowfight was trending nationally on twitter. I personally think #yegsnowfight demonstrated the positive community building potential of social media – I learned a lot about the application of social media in the process of planning and promoting the event.

The event itself was amazing. People of all backgrounds came out. There were toddlers, teens and adults who showed up with food bank donations in hand and smiles on their faces. We managed to fill a van full of food for the Edmonton Foodbank! Everywhere I looked, people were smiling, laughing and throwing snow. At one point, I got a little tap on my arm. I turned around to be completely covered in snow by a 5 year old girl. The look of mischief on her face made my day. If you want to see some amazing photos of the event, check out Make Something Edmonton’s Facebook photo album here.

foodbank

The beauty of #yegsnowfight is that it became its own movement. Jeff and I just put an idea out there, but it was Edmonton that made it what it was. Edmonton showed the rest of the world that it was a city that likes to have fun; a playful city. This interesting Guardian article talks about the Playable City Movement and states that “cities that play together, stay together”.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the article:

” Cities create problems of living that can only be addressed by collective action. Second, the sense that the well-being of communities cannot be left to local authorities; citizens need to take control of their own surroundings. Third, an optimism that we can do more than just tackle problems one by one. By encouraging public activities that actively bring joy, we can create a happier, more cohesive urban future.”

Reading that excerpt makes me think about #yegsnowfight. It was the collective action and desire of Edmontonians to engage in a public activity that brought joy. It was more than just a snowball fight. It was an opportunity for strangers to connect and have fun together. #yegsnowfight facilitated a social connection for me too. Prior to #yegsnowfight, I didn’t know Jeff. Working with him on this project showed us that we actually have a lot in common. We’re friends now. He’s an amazing person and I’m grateful for my new friendship.

jeffandrobin

I’m currently working on a project that addresses social inclusion, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how to go about doing it. It’s a complex issue and there is no one way to address the challenge. Interestingly #yegsnowfight accomplished, in an organic fashion, what I’ve been working towards. And I had nothing to do with it. Edmontonians created that inclusive environment themselves. It was awesome.

Following the snowball fight I read an Edmonton Journal article, and one part really warmed my heart. One of the #yegsnowfighters, Clement Sitima, came to Edmonton from Zambia three years ago. He brought his whole family. It was his first snowball fight ever. He was quoted as saying “We have to embrace the winter and this is the best way we can embrace it”. That right there made it all worth it. 

#yegsnowfight made me proud to be an Edmontonian. This is a fun-loving, winter-embracing, community oriented city and I am so happy that I live here.

We made something, Edmonton. Thanks.

Combating a Toxic Culture in Edmonton: Some Thoughts on Dr. Gabor Mate’s Wisdom

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to introduce Dr. Gabor Maté. Dr. Maté was in Edmonton to speak as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series. As I had mentioned in my opening speech, I was a little star struck. In my world, Dr. Maté is a bit of a rockstar and it was a little surreal to be able to meet and introduce his talk.

Dr. Maté’s rockstar appeal is no joke. He speaks on topics of addiction and mental health with a fierce passion and has fans across the world. There was so much demand to see Dr. Maté that EPL had to create a second session. Both of his talks revolved around “growing Edmonton with compassion and social inclusion”. EPL was bang on with bringing him to Edmonton to speak on that topic, as I believe it is currently quite relevant to what our City is working towards. It is no surprise that EPL chose to bring him, seeing as how they are a significant forward -thinking social institution in our city. We are very fortunate to have them.

Dr. Maté is gifted in being able to communicate and articulately explain complex topics of brain development, addiction and social policy in ways that are accessible by all who listen. His approach is informative and inspiring. I left his talks energized and excited about how to apply his wisdom to the city-building currently happening in Edmonton.

I can’t do Dr. Maté’s talk justice, but will try to distill some of the key points I took away.

Dr. Maté began his talk with an astute observation: The fact that we need to discuss social inclusion as a construct is a direct indication that we are lacking something that should come naturally to us as humans. I’ll get into this more later on in the post…

Dr. Maté is currently writing a book on the topic of “toxic culture’. His premise is that our society is one that is currently functioning in a way that is toxic to our well-being and health (both physically and psychologically). Our increasing emphasis on capitalism and individualism is taking us away from our inherent need to be social creatures. The construct of money and the impact it has on the stress we experience has proved to be detrimental to our mental health. He believes that issues of mental health and addictions we currently struggle with can be directly tied to early childhood experiences – trauma during early childhood can significantly impact the way the brain develops. Early childhood trauma can lead to emotional pain, which often can be temporarily soothed by engaging in addictive behaviours. Dr. Maté defined an addiction as a behaviour that provides temporary relief or feelings of wellness which we choose to do despite potential harmful consequences.  Dr. Maté did not make the distinction between illegal and legal substances (i.e alcohol vs heroine) or moral or immoral behaviours (i.e “sex addictions” vs “a shopping addiction).  His intention with this approach was to elucidate that we are all not that different – some of us are just more fortunate than others in our society, which is reflected in how we cope. This approach creates space for compassion. Instead of damning those who engage in “socially unacceptable” behaviours, perhaps we could empathize with them from a place of understanding.

Dr. Maté spoke of the sad history of residential schools in Canada. He discussed intergenerational trauma and how the horrible things that happened in previous generations have trickled down and directly affect today’s generation. Acknowledging the impact of trauma on brain development, mental health and addictions, we can begin to understand the significant impact the residential school fiasco has had on generations of Aboriginal people. The issue is not as black and white as many people believe it to be – systemic oppression at the hands of our own Government has led to the complex issues faced by Aboriginals in our country. This cannot and should not be under-emphasized.

If we know what type of child-rearing environments can lead to poor brain development, what environments are supportive? Dr. Maté stated that the ideal environment was that of the “hunter-gatherer” or “tribal” environments.  These tribal conditions provided numerous attachment figures for the child’s developing brain to grow healthily. Contrast that to today, where more often than not, women are over-burdened and expected to raise children on their own – often times in stressful environments where basic needs aren’t met. How are we to expect future generations to be psychologically healthy given what we know about early brain development? Dr. Maté made the salient point that the way Aboriginals in Canada lived prior to colonization was the ideal child-rearing environment. The Western world has done its best to eradicate that lifestyle. Despite this, we have strong and proud Aboriginals who are doing their best to preserve their culture. I witnessed this earlier this year when I attended the Truth and Reconcilation Comission. Perhaps in our process of reconciliation, We can be open to learning from First Nations as well. Their wisdom will be very important not only in the necessary process of reconciliation, but also in our attempt to reconstruct our society to be one that is inclusive and compassionate.

For some time, I have felt that topics of neuroscience and mental health can be applied to city building and so I was compelled to ask Dr. Maté what he thought about the impact of built space and city planning on issues of mental health and healing. I told him about Edmonton’s current growth and the emphasis being put on city planning. Dr. Maté encouraged the building of more common spaces. Creating schools where children, parents and teachers socialized together outside of school time. In his talk, Dr. Maté lamented at the impact that a Wal-Mart had on a community. The associating parking lot took people off the streets (where they would typically have a chance to connect with others). Local businesses, which can also function as community gathering places, are forced to close down. The interior of a Wal-Mart itself isn’t conducive to connection. It is a chaotic environment where people barely engage with each other, let alone treat each other with respect. Just look to the sad state of the Black Friday riots where people have often been trampled in pursuit of a discounted x-box.

How can we apply Dr. Maté’s wisdom to Edmonton? For starters, I would like to acknowledge some of the things we are doing well:

  • Farmer’s Markets. I’ve had the chance to attend many of our fantastic markets and find that they are an amazing space to interact with other members of our community.
  • Increased support of local businesses. We are slowly moving away from our reliance on box stores or chain restaurants. The success of shops like Earth’s General Store or restaurants like Tres Carnales indicate where we want to spend our money.
  • Not to draw on an old slogan, but we do festivals well in Edmonton. Festivals are yet another chance to connect with fellow citizens.
  • The Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty Elimination. Mayor Iveson has made it his priority to address poverty and homelessness. His inspiring introductory remarks at Saturday night’s talk confirmed that he is passionate about addressing these issues.
  • Thinking behind developments like the Blatchford development. It is apparent in the plans we’ve seen so far, that community spaces, store-front shops and sustainable transportation are all prioritized.

Dr.  Maté’s suggestions revolved around the idea that we need more points of connection with others. Opportunities for human connection not only helps support the healthy development of young brains –  it has been well documented that connecting with others releases feel-good neurochemicals and impacts the reward circuitry in our brain. Interestingly enough, the neurotransmitters that are released naturally through human connection (dopamine & serotonin) are the same ones that are targeted by common anti-depressants and psychiatric medications.

Moving forward, what else can we do? Can we intelligently build public spaces that promote connection with others? Can we address the marginalization of particular groups that effectively bars them from social participation? Can we be more neighbourly? Can we make an effort to connect with people we don’t typically connect with? How can we actively practice the compassion that Dr. Maté so eloquently described as the compassion of transformation?

Dr. Maté contends that in practicing the compassion of transformation, we see people not as their “bad” behaviours, but rather who they are as a possibility of love, wholeness and health. That the true nature of human beings is not to condemn one another or engage in war, but rather that our true nature is one of connection and belonging. In our journey to see others in this light, he encourages us to reflect on our own darkness and see that we may not be so different from one another.

Aware of this information, I would encourage you to think of how we can shape both our social and physical world in a way that is conducive and supportive of human connection. How can we actively combat the toxic culture that Dr. Maté speaks of? If we choose to acknowledge and incorporate his wisdom, I believe we have a fair shot at deeply addressing issues of mental health, addiction and poverty in our wonderful city.

If you are interested in engaging in discussion that addresses how our city can affect our well-being, I’d encourage you to come out to a free screening of the documentary Human Scale. The Human Scale discusses how the built city influences human health and well-being. Following the screening, we will be hosting a panel where we engage in a more depth discussion. Get your free tickets here: www.makesomethingedmonton.ca/HumanScale

If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Maté, visit his website: www.drgaborMaté.com

You can find his books at the Edmonton Public Library here

What is community?

What is community?

Merriam Webster defines community as

: a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood)

: a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.

: a group of nations

As you can see, the definition isn’t particularly clear.

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time now. The word “community” is thrown around quite a bit, but I’m not sure we really understand what we mean when we use it.  I’ve often referred to myself as a community builder. I teach in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies. I work on a mental health team in Edmonton called the Community Outreach Assessment and Support Team. Earlier this year I attended the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists National Conference in Fredericton, where the focus was on “Enabling Healthy Communities”. At the conference we discussed many interesting and innovative community based programs, but I left still puzzled about what community actually was.

I guess my preoccupation with this question began last year, during a conversation I had with a client. The client was experiencing depression and I was called in to help him find some meaningful activities to do in his community.

** (I’ll speak to this more in another post, but occupational therapy is an often misunderstood profession – I see myself as working collaboratively with people to help them explore how doing can provide a sense of purpose and meaning). **

I sat with him and began to talk about all of the things he might be interested in doing. I saw that he was disinterested in the discussion on activities, and so I asked him about his community and what he identified as his community. His reply was that he didn’t have one. I grew to understand that his experience of depression was exacerbated by profound loneliness and social isolation. He saw community as “other people”.

While his response to my question was troubling, it wasn’t surprising. My team supports adults with developmental disabilities – most often the biggest issue that affects their quality of life is chronic loneliness and a lack of connection with others. The reality is that there are many people in Edmonton that don’t see themselves as part of a community – oftentimes due to barriers that are a result of marginalization and oppression.

Following that encounter with my client I was determined to try to do my part in addressing the issue of social isolation and disconnection.  My pursuit in connecting people with communities fueled my desire to understand what community was.

This question was on my mind during the Fall 2013 semester, and so I asked the students of the mental health class I teach at MacEwan University. I received varied responses: a village, “my soccer team”, a city, a culture, “my church”, a support group. My question didn’t provide a definitive answer – and I am happy that it didn’t.

If I asked my father to describe community, he would probably say it was how the people of Saraotalli (his small rural village in Bangladesh) would collectively come together and look out for one another, ranging from sharing farmed produce to taking care of the neighbour’s son. I believe that his upbringing exemplified the common adage “It takes a village to raise a child”.

If you were to ask a sociologist what community was, they would likely tell you that community is a “social construct”. According to Phil Bartle from the Community Empowerment Collective, community is “a set of interactions, human behaviours that have meaning and expectations between its members”.

To further abstract the concept, he states that “a community usually was already existing when all of its current residents were not yet born, and it will likely continue to exist when all of the people in it have left”.

So it seems that community isn’t a physical place as much as it is an idea. But then again, physical spaces have much to do in creating community. Just look at the great community revitalization work being done on 118 ave or the envisioned plan for Blatchford where public spaces will help foster a sense of community.

Maybe we can’t create a universal definition for community. Perhaps it lies in the subjective and personal experience one has with it.

If we can’t define what community is, maybe we can explore the purpose it serves. As my client said, “community is other people”.

Social inclusion is considered a social determinant of health and has been tied to many health outcomes. According to Berkman and Glass (2000) studies have consistently demonstrated people who are socially isolated or disconnected from others have between two and five times the risk of dying from all causes compared to those who maintain strong ties with family, friends & community. (here’s a link to their paper: http://www.ulb.ac.be/esp/psd/foresa/Durkheim.pdf).

Community involvement has direct implications on our health.

As I stated earlier, there are Edmontonians who, for a variety of reasons, don’t feel connected to a community. I believe that we need to remember that as we move forward in participating in our own communities.

When I think of community, I think of human connection, mutual support, and shared vision. Through the sharing of ideas and social capital, members of a community can assist each other in realizing greater goals.

Edmonton has a demonstrated commitment to community. I have heard that we have the most community leagues of any city in the country – which is quite impressive. Often times when you ask people, Why Edmonton? – they respond “because of the community feel”.

So it seems that I haven’t come to a definitive conclusion in my quest to define community, and so I turn to you. I’m curious to hear your perspectives on the following questions:

  • How do you define community?
  • What communities do you belong to?
  • How can you make your community more accessible to others?

Please comment below and share some of your thoughts on the topic. Thanks!

 

(header credit: EEDC https://www.flickr.com/photos/edmontonliveallyear/4148779276)