Community Engagement Day at McGill

Commentary  Border speakers

A reflection on belonging on Community Engagement Day

We are all embedded within communities. There are those which we have worked hard to be accepted into, ones we have outgrown, those with which we are grouped against our will, and those which may transcend national divides, historical periods, and even physical realms. But what does it really mean to “be a part” of a community, and what constitutes an acceptable performance of belonging?

With identity politics pervading every thread of society, we tend to become obsessed with who belongs in a space more than others, and forget that there are many different ways to cross the lines that keep us partitioned. Just last week, when I invited friends to come to Indigenous Awareness Week, more than once I was asked if they, as non-Indigenous folks, were allowed to participate. While it is important to respect that not all movements and spaces will want or require your presence, those who are not Indigenous, in this instance, are exactly who need to listen to and learn from the kind of discussions that are being held by Indigenous writers and leaders. The spirit behind Community Engagement Day (CED) comes from this logic: that the things that have historically separated us (some more violently than others) require different approaches and strategies to be overcome, and showing up to the discussion, and listening to how you can help, is the best way to start.

With identity politics pervading every thread of society, we tend to become obsessed with who belongs in a space more than others, and forget that there are many different ways to cross the lines that keep us partitioned.

CED is an invitation to consider those borders that we may experience between each other, and to take different approaches to exposing them, moving them, dissolving them, or crossing them, as well as think about how we can help others do the same. Acknowledging the different lines in the sand that may isolate us from one another, and considering our various responsibilities to confront those, is the only way we can begin to make room for the different realities we all experience while still facilitating an architecture of inclusiveness. The activities, workshops, and conversations that make up CED are meant to encourage a discussion on the meaning of community, and to expose those who may easily subscribe to the “McGill” moniker (and its accompanying resources) to different constellations of community that exceed our terrains of comfort. Existing under the McGill umbrella does not preclude us from other identifications or ties we may have, but instead intertwines with them to produce new potential entanglements, perspectives, and opportunities for working with each other.

Far from indicating that community engagement can be sufficiently wrapped up in a one-day or weeklong event, where the McGill populace can ‘try on’ and then shed solidarity lenses, CED inspires us to practice resource-sharing and to reflect on how one (whether they be staff, faculty, or student) is situated within a greater web of companionship, in the hopes of adding to a larger conversation about what it means to contribute. As Veronica Amberg, director of the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office which hosts CED, points out: “We are all part of the community in which McGill is suspended…a big part of SEDE’s mission is to foster more equitable relationships with the outside community, and integrate those perspectives into the work we do.”  Many of the activities, such as the drop in at St James, involve guided reflections built into the programming for just this purpose, so that everyone involved has a chance to articulate their impressions and discuss how their preconceptions may have changed as a result.

The idea behind CED is not simply to offer an extracurricular opportunity for students, but encourages the participation of everyone on campus to recognize their own positionality with respect to McGill as an institution, and how they can leverage the various privileges this may award with support that moves outward to myriad others. Workshops such as Equity 101, Anti-Oppressive Childcare, and Collaborative Mental Health all offer perspectives and strategies on how to build more accommodating and equitable communities, and panel discussions such as “Taking Your Knowledge Outside the Classroom” offer techniques on how to bridge theory with practice in responsible allyship. Activities that include documenting stories at the Montreal LGBTQ community centre, preparing resource packets for queer and trans incarcerated peoples, and delivering meals with Santropol are just some examples of direct links forged between participants and those they will meet, which puts the needs of the given community at the centre. Events taking place at Welcome Hall Mission, Tyndale St Georges, and Chez Doris, to name a few, expose volunteers to the resources different communities have in their neighbourhoods, and shed light on the specific challenges they may face.

Seeing Voices Montreal, which is a partner for the fourth time hosting a Deaf Culture & American Sign Language workshop, claims “CED has been a great annual event that has become more successful year after year. We have been able to expose lots of McGill students and staff to the Deaf community and we are grateful that CED partners with us again and again.” Over the past six years that CED has been running, The Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office has enjoyed stronger ties to the community partners they work with. This has allowed them to reflect on what it means to carry out equitable research, and how it impacts various communities, and this has expanded into programs such as the Experiential Community-Engaged Learning & Research (EXCELR) program, which combines these questions with academic work in the classroom.

Alongside the typical off-campus volunteering events, the past few years have also seen a noticeable increase in interest for activities such as equity training, which gives students and staff the tools to facilitate a more accountable campus. Hosting events such as the Radical Accessibility Audit-o-thon, Café Collab’s storytelling café, and the Evolution of Mental Health Services on Campus gives opportunities for people who usually experience access barriers to share their thoughts and to network with others to talk about ways of moving forward. Initiatives such as these proceed from the notion that we cannot hope to offer support for those outside our communities without also examining the fissures within.

It is not the responsibility or requirement of those from marginalized communities to teach the rest of us about oppression, intersectionality, and accessibility. It is up to those who enjoy a certain amount of privilege to create supportive environments where these challenges can be addressed, and to hold the mic for others to do so. In setting up partnerships with various organizations around Montreal, Community Engagement Day attempts to create the conditions for different venues and organizations of community building to proliferate outside of the literal and figurative McGill gates. However, it is up to you to take the steps to make that crossing, whether you will be dancing, stepping, walking, or wheeling across.

There are still some available spots to register for one of the many CED activities, all of which are free. Most of these events will be taking place on Thursday, September 28th throughout the day. To see how you can participate, visit