Pararchive was offered a conference bursary by the AHRC Connected Communities Programme to attend this year’s Community-University Engagement Conference (CUVIC 2014) entitled Beyond Engagement: Creating Innovation, Integration and Impact in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia (BC), situated to the South of Vancouver Island off Canada’s pacific coast. I had the privilege of representing the Pararchive team at the Conference which was hosted by the Institute of Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement (ISICUE), University of Victoria (UVic). According to Dr Leslie Brown, the Conference Chair, the Conference aimed “to be part of a movement that not only promotes the practice of communities and universities engaging with each other, but critically reflects on how such engagement happens and the impact that it has”. In line with these objectives, three questions guided the Conference conversations: how to integrate community engagement across teaching and research; what stories of innovations in community-university engagement need to be told, and what impact community-university engagement is having and how do we know?
Having arrived in Victoria a day before the Conference commenced, I had a chance to familiarise myself with Uvic and its vicinity and to wander around Downtown Victoria on a beautifully sunny and warm day. Given that it was a public holiday (Queen Victoria’s birthday), road traffic was relatively calm allowing for a clear view throughout. I walked past residential estates and houses in admiration of the various architectural designs and tidiness of the compounds, roads and streets I saw. It struck me along the way that I needed to buy a Canadian adapter to fit to my laptop in order to be able to charge and use it before the conference began. This gave me a reason to call into three big stores/shopping malls – The Home Depot, The Fairway Market and then into Hillside for lunch. On my way back to UVic, I strolled through the Mount Tolmie Park surrounding part of the University by which time it was late evening. Just as I reached the edge of the park to exit, I walked into deer. For some reason, I expected it to flee in panic but the deer stood still, held its ground and stared at me. Instead, it was me who panicked! Fearing the worst given its sharp and long horns, I turned back and strode as fast as I could. I later learnt that deer in that park and all around Uvic are very much accustomed to encounters with humans and that was evident throughout the week of the Conference as deer lay under trees and strode between University buildings without any sign of panic.
The next four conference days were packed with a host of events. On Tuesday 20th, there were two pre-conference workshops – one targeted at emerging scholars and the other attended by diverse stakeholders of community-university partnerships at multiple levels: local, regional, national and global. Simultaneously, three field trips to a couple of sites well worth seeing were organised (though one was cancelled due to low interest). The opening event in the evening that day featured a Keynote Presentation by Bob Rae on addressing institutional discrimination and social injustice against First Nations/Aboriginal people, musical interludes by the Gettin’ Higher Choir, and an art installation – The Witness Blanket. Consisting of “hundreds of objects and artefacts collected on gathering trips over [2013 and 2014] to residential school sites, churches, courthouses, government buildings, and traditional and cultural structures across [Canada]” and embodying “the traditional woven blanket as a symbol of protection and comfort”, The Witness Blanket “evokes the atrocities of Indian Residential Schools and a national journey toward reconciliation”.
On Wednesday 21st, the Conference Chair – Leslie – introduced the formal conference programme and pointed to a couple of housekeeping issues. She then named four people as witnesses and tasked them with the responsibility of capturing the conference proceedings throughout after which she invited Budd Hall – UNESCO Co-Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education – to make an introductory speech. Budd spoke about what he views as the social responsibility of higher education not only to educate but also to facilitate social change and address inequalities in collaboration with communities as equal partners. See more details in his co-edited book entitled Knowledge Engagement and Higher Education: Contributing to Social Change published by Palgrave MacMillan. Budd’s speech was followed by a Keynote Presentation by Nancy J. Turner – Professor in Ethnoecology at Uvic. Nancy talked about four case study projects she had conducted in the past predominantly with First Nations/Aboriginal communities and the key learning points gleaned from that research. In sum, she made a case for acknowledging, respecting and embracing “other knowledges” that – when merged with “modern science” – allow for the emergence of a richer and more insightful understanding of physical environments and how these impact on culture and wellbeing. Conference delegates then broke into the different workshops. I attended one on community-based mapping in which we were introduced to the idea, techniques and applications of using maps at both local and global levels to conduct research. It was interesting to learn that not only can using maps be a useful means of capturing knowledge in ways that lend themselves to action-based research to effect social change but that mapping can be used to facilitate conversations, to reminisce, to share and disseminate information, and to even make claims to territory. After a short break, I attended another workshop on the use of digital media as a means to engage youth and to support inter-generational dialogue and connectedness. This was a very hands-on session in which delegates were asked to create and present a digital story that incorporated music and/or a voice-over and demonstrated a narrative with a beginning and an end. To accomplish the task, we were asked to identify themes of interest after which we broke in pairs or threes, got iPads, and went out to take photographs on-campus. Having settled on Diversity in the University as my theme of interest, I was joined by Tosh with whom I took photographs of a number of symbols that exemplified how diverse a university can be – from Residence Services to Faculty buildings to Student Union offices to Dining facilities to Estate services to Campus Security. Tosh and I then edited the images into a narrative that we presented in a slideshow format at the end of the workshop. It was a really engaging and fun activity which was followed by a lunch break.
In the afternoon, it was time to talk about Pararchive. I was asked – together with Marisa, a researcher from the University of Stirling in Scotland – to run a workshop entitled Innovative Frameworks for Community Engagement: Case Studies from across the Globe. Marisa presented her research first, talking about a radio-based project that engaged “deprived” communities in an effort to understand their perception of illicit tobacco use. In doing so, Marisa engaged the delegates in playful activities (e.g., making a 30-second radio clip about oneself to catch the attention of the listenership from the outset) that acted as ice breakers and as a way of getting delegates to interact a little more. I talked about where we were at with Pararchive, providing examples of how some of the community research projects were shaping up. I asked delegates throughout to think about what they made of the idea, what they thought the benefits would be, and what challenges they anticipated. A couple of interesting points came up particularly around the issues of ownership (who owned the material and what could they do with it?), copyright (where does copyright start and end and how would people ensure they did not infringe copyright?), feasibility (how precisely the technical infrastructure of the digital resource we are co-producing will be built?), and sustainability (whether the digital resource will have a life after the project ends?). The last workshop of the day I attended addressed issues around the nature of the relationships between communities and universities in British and Canadian contexts as well as what impact in the higher education context meant and whether or not co-produced research with communities fitted into this framework. It was really useful to learn about how impact has tended to be measured and to hear about case study projects which defined impact in terms of the degree to which engagement with communities changed people’s lives.
Immediately after the session, the conference organisers invited delegates to the ISICUE premises for drinks and informal conversations. I felt the delegates who made it for the informal conversations got to know each other much better and some really interesting discussions emerged.
Next on the conference programme was the Gala at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Downtown Victoria. During the approximately twenty-five minute taxi journey there, the driver – who identified himself as Gary – narrated that from North to South, BC was forty-five minutes by car apart while it took seven hours to travel from East to West. Being an island, Gary noted further, BC could only be reached (and left) either by air or by sea. Gary also mentioned that one can see snow-capped mountains in Seattle when in the vicinity of Victoria’s Inner Harbour. On arriving at the museum which is located a couple of yards away from the Inner Harbour and the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, I strode to the Inner Harbour with three other Conference delegates. It was a delight to watch the snow-capped mountains and to know that Seattle – situated in the U.S State of Washington on the other side of the Harbour – was just a thirty-minute ferry crossing away. Back in the Museum, Jack Lohman – the Director – gave a welcome speech during the drinks reception and a youth choir played some music. Delegates were then shepherded to the second floor where a couple of buffet dinners waited in corridors and between collections. Collections that stood out for me included newspapers, fashion, household items, electrical appliances and motor engines.
The third day of the Conference, Thursday 22nd, began with a session titled Elder’s Teaching in which John Elliot – an Aboriginal elder – intimated how First Nations communities in Canada were finding their way back into their culture and life style after being disconnected from their country/homeland for so long. John made clear that Aboriginal communities did not want a “hardline border” between them and the rest of the Canadians but rather simply dignity and respect. This chimed in with what Bob Rae had noted in his Keynote Speech that opened the Conference – that First Nations communities across Canada wanted to be acknowledged and treated with dignity. John appealed to Canadian government officials to acknowledge that there are other ways of believing and knowing that are rich and go back thousands of years ago. To conclude his presentation, John teamed up with his nephew and sang a song in prayer. It was an unforgettable, moving and thought-provoking session!
I then attended a workshop in which delegates were introduced to the principles of cultural animation with a particular focus on how communities develop resilience in the face of “natural or man-made disaster”. It was interesting to hear about two case study communities in which the victims of disaster came together to create a safe environment in which stories of loss, hope and resilience were told. We were split in groups and given access to various objects to use to stimulate our imagination and to tell our own stories around what it means to experience pain and loss and to learn to move on. Concurrently, a “poster party” was underway in which a wide range of artefacts and exhibits were on display in the main foyer of the main Conference venue. A luncheon followed at which a presentation by Paul Lacerte – Executive Director, British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres – was held. What was particularly interesting about this presentation was that it was on the topic of love, especially how love plays a key role in family and community relationships. It got really fascinating when Paul asked all delegates to stand up, move to the person on their right and left, show them “loving eyes” and then – well, hug them! Paul also spoke about the 1,200 Aboriginal women who are mysteriously missing since the early 2000s which he alluded to as scandalous – a point that Bob Rae too had made in his Keynote Speech. It was also at this luncheon that two female scholars were presented with awards for their distinguished contribution to community-based participatory research. The last two sessions I attended that afternoon covered issues revolving around what can go wrong in community-university research partnerships with a particular emphasis on methodology and ethics as well as on attempting to measure the “immeasurable” (e.g., engagement and affect) respectively.
In the closing plenary session, the four witnesses tasked with documenting the conference proceedings noted the following: that the conference was “thrilling”; that the notion of the “loving eyes” stood out; that The Witness Blanket demonstrated powerfulness and provoked reflection; that community-university partnerships are not always perfect but that the passion and commitment remain unshaken; that the barriers to social and environmental change are in the dominant system, not in the people; that the importance of valuing place, time and history in local contexts and valuing indigenous/local knowledge should be highlighted more; that the conference was a celebration and “congregation of the converted” but that there is a danger in not speaking to the “unconverted”; that the vision should be “mainstreaming community engagement without it losing its values”; and that the goal should be to broaden the field to include current pressing themes of our time, for example, community engagement in nuclear energy. A short film summarising the pre-conference workshop attended by emerging scholars was shown after which a high school choir provided us with some fabulous music entertainment. One of the conference organisers – Maeve Lydon – kindly invited us to her house that evening for an informal dinner. On the way to Maeve’s house, one could see the distant snow-capped mountains in Seattle in the background. There were really interesting field trips organised the next day – Friday 23rd. In particular, I was interested in one titled The Colonial Reality Tour which was to be guided by a traditional land steward for the Lekwungen nation with tremendous expertise in this area’s sites, histories and place names, and ongoing community efforts to reclaim and revitalize these sites. Unfortunately, I could not take part because it was time to depart. All in all, it was a wonderful Conference and an exciting time in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Once again, a big thank you to the Connected Communities Programme for making this experience possible!