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What Makes an Engaged University?

To SFU 'engagement' chief Am Johal, it starts with getting neighbourly.

By Cheryl Rossi 19 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Cheryl Rossi is an award-winning journalist of more than 10 years who has written more than 2,700 articles about arts, education, community, health and politics in Vancouver. Reach her via email at cherylrossiyvr@gmail.com.

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Am Johal: 'The public interest is best served if we have a diversity of ideas, and a diversity of institutions, engaging in public dialogue.'

When Simon Fraser University opened its new campus at the gritty juncture of Hastings and Abbott streets in 2010, administrators wanted to find a way to connect to the surrounding community.

There were a few obstacles. Some local residents were wary of the school's location within Woodward's, a controversial social housing project at the time. It didn't help that the campus doors facing Hastings Street remained closed to the public for the first year, due to security concerns.

"It was a very contentious time," said Andrea Creamer, back then an SFU visual arts student who was also working on a social justice radio program. As a gesture, Creamer started holding the Hastings Street door open on Sunday afternoons to welcome passersby to the Audain Gallery, located just inside.

Much has changed since then. Now, the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at 149 W. Hastings St. flings its doors open to host 100 community events and workshops a year, with another 100 held offsite, welcoming a total of more than 8,000 attendees.

The campus has become a hub for community programming and inclusive public dialogue. In nearly five years, it has co-hosted 150 public talks on topics that include harm reduction, homelessness and housing in Metro Vancouver.

That kind of outreach and connection is something today's universities should encourage, said Am Johal, director of SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

The engagement office serves as "an educational, cultural and community building resource" that's connected to its neighbourhood's history and community, according to its website. It aims to challenge the status quo, while helping SFU meet its mandate to be "the most community-engaged university in the world."

At SFU, Johal said, "We like to value community knowledge alongside university knowledge, so it can actually be shared in a way that's productive."

Expanding connections

Johal noted public post-secondary institutions have opened campuses in the heart of the city over the past 25 years. As schools have expanded their physical presence, they've slowly worked to expand their community connections, he said.

Johal sees non-profit organizations less able to carry out the public advocacy work they once did because of funding cuts, and said public institutions should fill that gap. "The public interest is best served if we have a diversity of ideas, and a diversity of institutions, engaging in public dialogue."

The engagement office partners with more than 15 organizations with deep roots in the neighbouring community, among them Megaphone magazine, which is sold on the streets of Vancouver by homeless and low-income vendors as a way to earn an income.

SFU provides a second-floor boardroom, coffee and food for Megaphone's thrice-yearly community journalism workshops for 10 to 12 writers who contribute to Megaphone magazine and share their experiences on their own terms.

Over time, Johal said, he's seen lower-income people become comfortable entering the building. It can be intimidating, he acknowledged. "You walk by security first."

SFU students often volunteer in the journalism classes, which has had "a huge impact" on students, Johal said. "Just having that direct relationship with people from the neighbourhood in that setting produces a great kind of dialogue, and people getting to know each other on a person-to-person basis."

The engagement office also provides financial support and free access to rehearsal and performance space to Project Limelight, a free performing arts program for youth in East Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood. Johal said that relationship has deepened each year with university students helping with technical support and direction.

Creamer, now a program assistant in the engagement office, said artist talks held at the nearby Interurban Gallery, which the office co-presents with the Portland Hotel Society's Drug Users Resource Centre, have broken down barriers, with attendees venturing onto other offerings, such as the community journalism classes.

The engagement office doesn't just partner to provide free events to neighbourhood residents, but also ensures they can attend high-priced ticketed events. SFU requires presenters to provide complimentary tickets to even the most expensive productions in its concert hall, cinema and theatres, and distributes more than 1,000 complimentary tickets per year.

Ushers and gallery sitters are hired locally, and residents of social housing atop the Goldcorp Centre sing in Woodward's Community Choir.

Still work to do

Johal believes the engagement office is five years into a 10-year goal of seeing SFU Woodward's truly enmeshed in the neighbourhood.

There's still work to do, he acknowledged. He'd like to see community, curriculum and research better integrated, and he wants to see ideas discussed at the university flow into the neighbourhood, and to see community knowledge valued as equal to academic knowledge.

Johal noted SFU Woodward's operates in an area where 10 per cent of the population is aboriginal, in contrast to two per cent throughout Metro Vancouver.

While the engagement office works with SFU's Office for Aboriginal Peoples on public programming and hosts Coast Salish Singing and Drumming workshops, he said SFU could offer programming that's more reflective of the neighbourhood.

He added that support from the university's leader, faculty and staff has made his job easier.

"I feel very much a part of the university, part of its mainstream direction," Johal said. "On the good days, I think that we're on the cutting edge of it, even."

SFU Woodward's is hosting Downtown Eastside Heart of the City festival events Oct. 30, 31 and Nov. 1, including films about Bud Osborn, the poet laureate of and a social activist in the Downtown Eastside, Oct. 31. For more information, go here.  [Tyee]

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