What constitutes community?

When I was younger, my family moved to Chicago, Illinois for two years.  Without a green card, my mother volunteered in a Settlement House that provided food, emergency shelter, counselling, healthcare services, parenting classes and childcare to families in need.  I was only 5, but spending time there taught me about the power of connectedness — particularly in the face of adversity.

As we emerge from a season that is often associated with generosity, kindness, and spending time with loved ones, I’ve been reflecting on those early memories and, more specifically, on the question of what constitutes a community?  We know as educators that it’s a key to student success.  More broadly, research affirms what it does: a strong sense of community boosts physical and mental health, promotes resilience and agility, and fosters feelings of personal security.  But how is it defined, sustained, strengthened? 

For me, community is about fellowship, common values, shared purpose, and unity. 

Last month, I had the privilege of meeting with organizations in Brampton and Mississauga who live these tenets 24/7.  I visited the Ontario Khalsa Darbar and the Ontario Gurdwaras Committee, who provide free food and community meals and assistance sourcing housing, mental health supports, and temporary accommodation.  They also run community vaccine clinics and provide space for events, prayer and meditation.  I was awestruck by the kitchen spaces and food preparation processes at Ontario Khalsa Darbar and honored to meet two Sheridan alumni who were there eating and volunteering on December 3.  It was immediately apparent why our international students gravitate to these spaces, which have been serving our home communities for decades.  Simply: they are safe, comfortable, warm and welcoming;  the sense of community I experienced was pervasive and overwhelming. 

I also had the opportunity to meet with the Naujawan Support Network, the Canadian Punjabi Broadcasting Association and World Sikh Organization, who share a commitment to advocacy and information sharing to improve the international student experience.  In that same vein, I was particularly impressed by the International Students Association (ISA), whose members work tirelessly to raise awareness about the challenges facing their peers, and to connect them with resources.  We know that peer-peer support is incredibly impactful; I was moved by the courage and determination demonstrated by ISA leaders who shared their personal experiences and struggles at Colleges across Ontario.   Everyone I met was gracious and expressed genuine interest in enhancing collaboration. 

The following week — on December 8 — I was pleased to host Rotary on our Davis Campus for a tour of our health programming facilities, and a demonstration of newly acquired virtual reality technology.  They asked excellent questions and challenged me to think outside the box about new opportunities to enhance the student and graduate experience.  It was energizing.  I was awestruck to have so many years of volunteerism and professionalism around the table – all of it focused on how we could more effectively work towards shared goals. 

Sheridan’s Strategic Plan – Galvanizing Education for a Complex World – commits our learning community to radical engagement and relationships grounded in reciprocity.  It challenges us to become a resource hub for the people and places we’ve been proud to serve for over fifty years. 

To that end, I am determined to collaborate more with these and other organizations in Halton and Peel Regions to harness our collective impact and catalyze social change.  The leaders I met inspired me.  Together, we’ll more effectively nourish engagement and the senses of belonging and purpose.  In other words, we’ll build community.