Volunteers from a previous Community Engagement Day

Commentary | Bridging oceans of identity

Community engagement happens every day of our lives

It’s my fourth year of university. Add drop hasn’t ended, but I’ve already become well re-acquainted with McLennan. Then there’s a Holy “S” Trinity –  not a 90s girl group, but the unattainable triangle of sleep, school, and socializing. Truth is, you only get to choose 2 of the 3 points. In a nutshell, that’s how I (and I bet the price of my entire degree, a lot of other students) feel as we either sweat or freeze through McGill’s campus.  

Of course, life is a lot more complicated than this – people juggle work, family, relationships, health, and extracurriculars to boost their CV. In my time working with McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office as the Communications Coordinator for Community Engagement Day (CED), I’ve found that CED – an initiative to help students, staff, faculty, and alumni get involved with different communities – has provided great opportunities for peopleto break out of the academic routine and do other meaningful work. Sure, not everybody is going to be interested in Community Engagement Day. But I’ve thought long and hard about what makes a community, what it means to engage, and frankly, why it’s of any relevance. And I really do think acts of community engagement are not only relevant, but important for everybody.

On ‘community’ – the common factor(s)

A friend of mine believes that humans are inherently social creatures. I’m not so sure about that – we all have days when we have no interest in being social. But over time, we’ve built communities. As a wise old white guy once wrote, no man is an island. When I say we need our communities to survive, I don’t necessarily mean life or death – although sometimes that truly is the case, especially for marginalized groups. When it comes down to it, community is a sense of belonging: a sense of solidarity, of kinship, of knowing these people share an experience or identity.  

For the longest time, I thought I was a hypocrite. I’m encouraging people to go out and volunteer, to explore Montreal, to dedicate their time to well-deserved charities – when I’m not even doing that myself. But this is a limiting view of community engagement. It doesn’t have to mean volunteering at your local soup kitchen. It doesn’t mean donating regularly to charity, which while admirable, can often be the easy way out. There’s nothing wrong with these methods of community engagement – but they’re certainly not the only ones.

For instance, the Pulse nightclub in Florida (which was attacked by a gunman earlier this summer) was a place for a largely racialized queer community. You wouldn’t think to compare that community to, say,  the theatre community at McGill, formed by people who simply enjoy theatre. These are very different kinds of communities, with very different reasons and needs for existence, but they are both legitimate communities all the same. There may be factors of intersection, but no two communities are the same. Volunteering at a local soup kitchen is just as legitimate a form of community engagement as writing a script for Player’s Theatre, or going clubbing at Skyy. You’re creating bonds between yourself and the people in your community.

On identity and (dis)comfort

Engaging with communities you’re unused to can be hard. While arranging visits with the many wonderful organizations working with us for CED, I came across the Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP). The PCP provides penpals and resources for “gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, gendervariant, two-spirit, intersex, bisexual, and queer inmates in Canada and the United States.” Their mandate is to connect LGBTQA+ inmates with people outside of prison who share their gender and/or sexual identity. It’s situated near Concordia, where the sense of community seems more prominent than at McGill. While we’re surrounded by skyscrapers, European buildings, and never-ending construction, the Concordia area is visibly ethnic and unapologetically diverse. Being East Asian myself, my heart fluttered at all the All You Can Eat Korean Barbecues, sushi places, dumpling restaurants, and general east Asian goodness. So, in terms of location, the PCP provided me with an immediate sense of comfort.

This changed as I entered the organization itself. I’m not in any way trying to discourage people from visiting the PCP – everybody was friendly and sweet, the room itself was welcoming, and accessible via an elevator. But this was not a community I felt inherently comfortable with. I can pick up a Korean menu and recite it with ease, the words familiar and lovely in my mouth, a language weakened by years of speaking English but not forgotten. Yet, as I read through English letters from inmates requesting for literature resources – zines like Fag Punk and Corpus – I felt out of place. I read each aloud, clinical and proper, nothing like the way 갈비 or 냉면 could effortlessly roll off my tongue. And it made me wonder why I was so at ease with one part of my identity – my Korean ethnicity – but so distant from another – my queerness.

My relationship with the queer community is opaque. Robert Nozick said being in love with someone is going from “me” to “we.” I think of being in a community in the same way. Identity is the world’s oceans, and water touching Montreal can connect to anywhere we imagine. There’s a queer community in Montreal, and there’s also a queer community that transcends geography, and the PCP proves this fact.

It took me a while to become comfortable with my queerness. I’m still not out to my family – and I don’t know if I’ll ever be. I’ve only had serious relationships with men, and that has also made me doubt my own queerness, my own connection to a queer community. I wonder whether I could classify as an ally or member, if I’m stuck in the limbo between “me” and “we.”’ Visiting the PCP has made me realize that I want to be part of a “we.” I plan on visiting the PCP again and engaging further with the queer community. I am not an island, and we can share more than one nation – I’m Korean, I’m queer, I’m a lot of other things, and a solitary “me” has long ago transformed into an ocean of “we’s.”

Approaching the full circle

Let’s re-visit the Holy “S” Trinity. How can we fit community engagement in 3 point geometry? Honestly, we can’t, because the Trinity was flawed from the beginning. Whether or not we realise it, community engagement is something that is present in everybody’s lives. If you exist in the world, you are engaging with a community.

Community Engagement Day is about providing an accessible entry point to communities – especially communities that you may not have been aware of, communities you identify with but didn’t even know existed. Getting out of your comfort zone can be a good thing, and it’s a necessary process for growth. Working for Community Engagement Day and immersing myself in these ideas has let me become more comfortable with my discomfort. I hope others will follow suit.


To know more about CED, check out www.cedmcgill.com (English) or www.cedmcgill.com/fr (French) for links to project registration (including PCP!), a YouTube explanatory video, and resources for learning about issues relevant to CED.