Community engagement and connections: thinking relationally in Congress 2023

October 31, 2022
Andrea A. Davis

York University, the host of Congress 2023, is Canada’s third largest University with a long-standing commitment to social justice, accessible education and collegial self-governance. It is located on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Huron-Wendat—lands that are bound by the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement to peaceably share and care for the Great Lakes region. Tending to this relationship of care is a responsibility for all those who enter these lands. 

York is one of Canada’s most diverse universities, with a significant number of first-generation university students. The main Keele campus is fittingly located adjacent to one of Toronto’s well-known culturally and racially diverse neighborhoods, Jane and Finch, which emerged in the 1960s in response to the rapidly changing ethno-racial and immigrant population in the northwest area of the city. York’s core values of excellence, sustainability, social justice and equity, diversity and inclusivity are informed by these socio-cultural contexts. 

As we look ahead to Congress 2023, we must acknowledge that universities do not exist in a privileged vacuum. Our institutions are deeply informed by the historical, socio-cultural and political contexts that frame their existence. Canadian universities are implicated in the violent histories of colonization and chattel slavery, and the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences have helped to entrench racist assumptions of Black and Indigenous peoples’ inhumanity. 

With this knowledge, we must accept that universities and their various disciplines have much to learn and unlearn as they pursue their commitment to educating Canadians. If universities are going to contribute to shifting public attitudes and perceptions toward a more just world, scholars and researchers must pay attention and be responsive to new forms of knowledge production that value community-based research, recognize and honour differences, and are grounded in relational justice. Community activists, artists and students have led the intense racial reckoning and calls for environmental justice of the twenty-first century, and community art, activism and knowledges will be critical to transforming the work of higher education.

Learning and unlearning: Congress 2023 programming

To continue this process of learning and unlearning, York is partnering with Indigenous and Black artists and scholars in its Congress 2023 programming. It will also engage community organizers, artists, high-school teachers and students in the Jane-Finch community. The goal is to facilitate a dynamic and multi-directional exchange of ideas that reach from community to university, and beyond. 

Building on the Congress theme, ‘Reckonings and Re-Imaginings,’ we are developing a suite of open programming to highlight, expand and renew York’s strengths in interdisciplinary research and community engaged arts. Centred on community art and knowledges produced by Indigenous and Black communities, this programming is meant to bridge the gap between the university and wider society. 

Congress 2023 programming will focus on how Indigenous and Black community-based knowledges can shift the way universities produce ideas and create an opening through which they may reckon with their own histories. It will enable us to meaningfully consider what is required to imagine the terms under which we may collectively enact a more just world. 

Recognizing York’s location on Indigenous lands and in the Jane and Finch community, this collaborative programming also acknowledges the ways in which social science disciplines and others have benefitted from the over-research, victimization and vilification of Indigenous and racialized communities. This programming will invite a dialogue about what real partnership can look like, understanding that there is much work to be done. 

Under the sub-themes Arts@Congress and Community Engagement and Connections, we are seeking to offer a model of community-engaged research and art that puts community first. Programming currently under development includes featured talks by Indigenous women artists and scholars, and collaboration with Jane and Finch high school students, artists and youth. Together we are working to build capacity for community-based engagement, as well as furthering Indigenous self-determination and racial and environmental justice in our interdependent world, including through the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

This open programme will be available to all Congress attendees, and we are seeking to amplify participation though community passes that also provide access to Big Thinking Lectures and Career Corner workshops.  We are committed to making space for a diversity of thinkers, including people who have not traditionally seen themselves, their histories or experiences represented at Congress, or who may not otherwise participate in a scholarly conference. These include Indigenous, racialized, trans and two-spirit members of York’s community of researchers, students, staff and alumni, as well as high-school teachers, artists, community organizers and other members of our surrounding communities. 

We encourage scholarly associations to make their members aware of open programming and to see this as part of a rich dialogue and exchange, inviting us to think beyond our own disciplinary perspectives and across our histories of injustices and inequity, as well as our differences and solidarities. One gathering and one set of engagements will not change universities or the world. But when that dialogue is honest and inclusive, when it is built on the principles of relationality and reciprocity, and when that dialogue reaches inward and outward in multiple directions, we can say the work has started and is meaningful, and that together, we can help to create positive change in the world around us