Commentary  Supporting communities meaningfully

On Community Engagement Day and the importance of solidarity

As organizers of McGill’s 2015 Community Engagement Day (CED) – an annual program of one-day volunteering projects and public discussions, run by the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office in partnership with community organizations around the city – we consider volunteering to be an integral part of community engagement. The offering of labour and skill can facilitate healthy relationships within communities and contribute to an environment of community care. Community organizations can provide services, advocacy, and support for individuals and groups to strengthen communities and provide safe(r) spaces. Whether it be fighting for a living wage, protesting unfair government policies, or helping individuals and families have access to healthcare and nutritious food, such organizations attempt to level the playing field and uplift individuals who are marginalized in our society. Increasingly underfunded and overworked, these community organizations count on the efforts of volunteers to support staff in their work.

However, an uncritical approach to volunteering can trivialize the struggles of the people we aim to work with and of the community organizations that support them. In a society where different people have been historically marginalized based on various aspects of their identity, volunteers must take care to avoid reproducing in our work the same oppressive dynamics that we’re trying to change. Moreover, although a volunteer can learn a lot through community engagement, it must not be at the expense of the needs of the community organization itself. As CED organizers, we have tried to implement certain practices to address these issues and make community engagement more meaningful.

Most importantly, effective volunteering must challenge the charity model of community service, and instead encourage an understanding of what it means to work in solidarity with community members. Solidarity is based on empathy and good allyship: a volunteer must acknowledge that community members define their own needs based on their experiences. Understanding how a particular volunteer task contributes to the larger mandate of an organization is an important part of understanding solidarity, and acknowledging that even the smallest action – when tied to an identified need – has an impact on the larger struggle. An important part of solidarity that we’ve tried to implement in CED is seeking out community participation in the creation of our volunteering projects. Whether the project is painting a mural, cooking a meal at a community centre, or taking part in an educational workshop, with community consultation each project is designed to meet the immediate needs of the community organization.

Effective volunteering must challenge the charity model of community service, and instead encourage an understanding of what it means to work in solidarity with community members.

A solidarity-based approach is especially important for us as university students, staff, faculty, and administrators. We need to acknowledge and address power imbalances rooted in assumptions that marginalized communities are waiting for universities to solve problems for them. Instead, we must allow community members themselves to dictate their needs and how they would like to address them, and work to support community members on their own terms. All aspects of volunteering, community-driven research, experiential learning, and other forms of engagement must be co-created with intention and in partnership with communities. Just as importantly, the knowledge produced through these collaborations must be shared, accessible, and reflective of multiple sources of knowledge and experiences if it is to contribute to social change and justice.

As organizers, we want CED to be educational. We are all members of the Montreal community and we are all impacted in some way by socio-economic policies that privilege certain sectors of society over others. The aim of community engagement initiatives and events like CED should go beyond service and notions of ‘giving back.’ Like meaningful scholarship, community engagement should challenge our assumptions and views of the world, spark awareness of the realities of others, and facilitate examinations of power and privilege – namely, to realize that some people have to work much harder for things than other people. In essence, our goal should be to challenge, through action and reflection, unjust barriers that divide us. A moderated critical discussion follows each CED project. During these talks, participants are encouraged to think critically about societal issues and the way they are individually and collectively implicated in them.

We have also tried to make CED and its educational opportunities as accessible as possible for McGill community members. Projects are scheduled at various times of the day, and the McGill senior administration has asked management to encourage staff participation during work hours. Bus tickets can be reimbursed, and every project has accessibility information for language, transportation, and physical access. Every kind of intentional participation – whether physical, emotional, or verbal – is labour, and we hope to create an environment where all types of labour are valued. CED organizers also work with community organizations to avoid imposing extra labour for the organizations’ staff, and to ensure that whatever work is done actually addresses immediate needs and contributes value to the organization’s work and outreach efforts. However, some barriers are easier to address than others. Not everyone has the time to do unpaid work in a world where free time is a privilege, and not everyone has access to resources to feel mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy enough to participate in events like CED.

As a one-day event, CED is not going to spur instant change. However, it will hopefully facilitate existing community-university collaborations and as a catalyst for future engagement initiatives. Perhaps volunteers will come into contact with different experiences, perspectives, and realities, and maybe the critical discussion will provide a space for individuals to reflect on the different ways their lives are affected by and implicated in structural oppression. This is the first step in building caring communities where kindness and solidarity can be the standard, and where differences are embraced and not simply tolerated.

Samiha Sharif is a U2 International Development Studies and Psychology student and the Communications Coordinator for Community Engagement Day, which takes place on October 1. To contact her, email