Spotlight: What Do We Mean When We Talk About Community?

Social and Cultural Community at First Nations House

Charis Lam – Design Research Events Lead

Written by Charis Lam – Design Research Events Lead

In search of factors driving student engagement, First Nations House partnered with the Innovation Hub in summer 2018 to ask: what causes students and staff to engage and connect with First Nations House? Among the factors identified—including assistance with scholarships and housing, personal relationships to staff members. and access to the resource centre—cultural and social programming emerged as a need strongly felt by students. Thus, First Nations House and the Innovation Hub renewed their partnership to investigate what sorts of social and cultural programming students want.

This framework is informed by the Indigenous students and staff who graciously took the time to speak with members of the Innovation Hub. Those of us who worked on the First Nations House projects were not ourselves Indigenous—a gap we hope to address with future partnerships —and so we feel a need to tred with especial care: to recognize that others’ stories are a gift, to be handled carefully and presented faithfully. To this end, we build our analysis upon the actual words of our interviewees, trying to distill their essence without adding anything not already there.

In addition, we wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.  (University of Toronto)

When we began to consider social and cultural programming at First Nations House, a connection to developing community began to emerge. We discovered that students are searching for community, and its presence at First Nations House influences the extent to which they engage with the space. However, this concept is nebulous: what does community look like in the context of First Nations House, and how do we foster it? We decided to return to previous insights from the students themselves, along with new interviews and feedback events, and organized their lived experiences into three spheres (which became our primary three themes) of community.

In this model, a student walking into a community they may want to be a part of asks themselves the following questions:

  1. Is this community for me?
  2. Does this community support me as a whole person?
  3. How does this community relate to my wider community?

So, how do students decide whether a community is “for them”? Part of this is rooted in deceptively simple things, like logistics: whether there is space they can clearly use, or if the opening hours work with their schedules. This simplicity is deceptive because space and hours of operation are tangled in knottier problems of funding, building allocation, and staff employment. Yet the point remains: logistics are unglamorous but crucial.

Another important factor is cultural and social safety to ensure students feel welcomed. Identities vary as much as the individuals who inhabit them, and welcoming everyone can be a balancing act. Some students come to First Nations House intimately familiar with their culture and wish to connect with others that also feel this way. Others may come to First Nations House to begin exploring their Indigenous identity through guidance and support. On the social front, we hear from students who desire the cozy intimacy of a family such as the frequent check-ins and casual chats. In each of facet of this theme, anonymity is equally important. We also meet students who want to blend into a community with minimal fuss, to feel safe pursuing their own activities without the “fishbowl”-like feeling of constant observation.

The second theme supported how students want their communities to respond to them as whole people. Students indicated that they feel a constant pressure to be academic, professional, and smart throughout their university experience. However, they are more than that: they are creative, social individuals with non-academic interests and hobbies. They want those interests reflected at First Nations House in ways that engage them as more than just students, or even as more than just Indigenous: through drumming, beading, and even watching the Simpsons.

Being acknowledged as a whole person also means having your struggles heard. Indigenous students grapple with difficult emotions around their culture, colonialism, and racism. They want spaces to talk through histories of trauma and violence, and their present-day experiences of the university as a colonial institution.

Students want to be fully accepted, to be fully and accurately seen and heard, and they want to extend that benefit to others. It’s great to find a community that welcomes them, but they also want that community to develop relationships with their wider communities. Part of this is a desire to increase their own connectedness through conversations with others: meeting Indigenous artists or conversations with Elders were some of the insights students expressed that helped to support their lived experiences and also explorations in their personal and academic lives.

Much of this stems from a perception of responsibility and service, owed by First Nations House and the university, to the wider Indigenous community. Students speak of a need to know how the university is helping Indigenous peoples, to see it develop relationships with outside community members, and to witness changes and programs that perform useful service for Indigenous groups. To them, the university is not an isolated institution, but a participating member of society, with all the attendant responsibilities and required contributions.

This idea of connectivity rounds out our three-fold model: community as belonging, as feeling whole, and contributing to a larger network. As with any model, this is just a model: there are many possible others. Especially ones developed by Indigenous researchers with their own descriptions of community and ideas of what community engagement – particularly decolonized community engagement – should look like. We presented our findings in this model as one option for understanding the needs of this community, and what we mean when we say ‘community’ at First Nations House. This model also focused on being able to gather a list of wants and needs expressed by Indigenous students into a framework that illuminates some of their driving desires.

The Innovation Hub expresses a deep gratitude for those who have shared their experiences in the research process and have contributed insights to help understand how to strengthen student engagement at First Nations House. Through allyship and design thinking approaches, the Innovation Hub will continue to work with students to innovate the student experience on campus by supporting a diverse scope of student, staff and departmental communities.

As to this model’s connection with Indigenous self-conception and what it means to someone living that experience, we want to have that discussion with the experts. Having identified what Indigenous students think and feel about their university experiences, we are curious and excited to see what changes our findings will suggest to First Nations House. Whatever comes of our research, we hope to have some small part in producing changes that will strengthen campus communities.

To inquire about the 2019 First Nations House report or to learn more about the Innovation Hub, please contact Julia Smeed at julia.smeed@utoronto.ca  , by phone at  416-978-8619 or by completing the contact form at here.

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