By Tracy Kwissa, Community Navigator for Lanark County
First, I need to give kudos to HC Link for booking their conference at the BMO Institute for Learning in Toronto. Maybe it is because I come from a small rural community that I was so in awe of the facility, but I found it absolutely breathtaking. It was state of the art architecture, with forethought and insight into every possible need a person may have when attending a conference. The complex and the suites were impeccably kept, and cleanliness was flawless. I was in awe of the space and the service provided; it was second to none. The conference was also awesome! It was an eye-opening and educational experience that I will not soon forget. I met many interesting people and I came away with new knowledge and insight that has empowered me to be braver in my role as the Community Navigator for Lanark County. I feel that I have a deeper understanding of intersectionality, Affinity Bias, Privilege, and Cultural Sensitivity. I also feel validated in my empathy, compassion and passion for community/social service and advocacy and I know that I am doing the work that I am meant to be doing.
We began the Conference with a Water Ceremony gifted to us by Whabagoon, an Ojibwe Elder. They are a water and land protector. They explained the meaning and teachings behind the Ceremony and they wore traditional Ojibwe attire. The ceremony was beautiful and the song Whabagoon sang was “Water we love you, Water we thank you, Water we respect you.” It was powerful, and I really appreciated that Whabagoon shared with us where the ceremony teachings come from and what the significance of the ceremony has to their people. Many of the workshops and gatherings began with a land acknowledgment. I am always humbled when a Land Acknowledgement is spoken at any training or event I am attending, and I would like to begin incorporating this practice into my work when presenting at expos, seminars, workshops, etc.
The Keynote speaker, Kim Katrin Milan, is a dynamic, humorous and engaging speaker. She is community organizer and advocate of equality and inclusion who helps people build their ability to relate to others - especially to those who, on the surface, may seem quite different from ourselves. Kim’s keynote address deepened my understanding of the concepts of equity, bias, intersectionality, cultural competency, allyship and inclusion.
Allyship, is a process, an active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating in which a person of privilege seeks to navigate the world in solidarity with a marginalized group of people. It means bringing space for others’ voices to be heard. This is a more recent area of understanding for me which I was looking forward to learning more about. I realized that as Community Navigator, it is important for me to be an ally as well as an advocate and a support for those vulnerable persons in my community who I am working to help and empower. Without allyship, I cannot be effective in empowering my clients. Being an ally is not just about human decency.
I also found it interesting how she explained intersectionality; we are diverse and layered and existing in the same space at the time. We are not opposite one another. We must learn to respect intersectionality, embrace it and strive to understand all the layers of a person’s being and their (current) situation. Things that I will continue to think about going forward:
Visibility for some, does not mean safety for all.
When working with/interacting with person we don’t know, we should use gender-inclusive language such as everyone, friends, folks.
Start where you are, do what you can.
Accessibility includes: physical and mental health, language, hearing, vision etc.
Intention vs Impact: intentions may be good, but the impact may be negative.
Kim said, “One person’s lived experience doesn’t negate that of another, but it should complicate it.” I really felt impacted by this and have continued to examine and unpack this to greater understand how this applies to my work and to my life.
The first workshop I attended was presented by Samiya Abdi and Kim Bergeron and I found it interesting and enlightening. Samiya was very engaging and direct and I found her tongue-in-cheek humour a great tool to keep the tone of the room lighter despite the topics being discussed.
She talked about how we should not Parachute solutions into situations and be mindful of the White Saviour Complex: I know you better than you know yourself…I can fix this for you. We must be mindful of Intention vs Impact and not take away someone’s power. This is very relevant in my work as Community Navigator because while my intentions are always good and with the purpose of helping someone, I must be mindful of their power and not take ownership of their problems and “fix it” for them. The impact of that could lead a person to feel even more powerless. This is counterintuitive to my role and my goal is to empower people and work with them to find solutions to their challenges. I learned about White Fragility which is centering “whiteness” as the standard of what is normal and “othering” everyone else. It is the concept that white people have extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to their racial worldviews. This is something that is very prevalent in my rural community and I feel that I have a better understanding of it and have some tools to help me address this when I bump up against it in my work.
The final event of the conference was a Living Library. The Auditorium was set up with numbered tables. Each table was “hosted” by either a facilitator from one of the workshops or another person with lived experience. I sat at a table hosted by a woman named Shaneen. We discussed Burn Out in Social Work and discussed methods of self-care and the importance of making this a priority. Compassion Fatigue is real and can happen when we do not take care of ourselves. We do not want to become apathetic in our work, so we must provide for ourselves a soft place to land when we are feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, stressed etc. It is also important to keep social justice and advocacy as part of our work; it is not just about mandates and agendas. We are working with people and we must be mindful of their needs and their already precarious situations and remain hopeful in our work to provide an opportunity for our clients to also be hopeful. We must be mindful of the space we are in and the other persons sharing that space and the circumstances that brought us all together. We are all individuals; we all have our own unique stories. We discussed how, often, workplaces do not celebrate success, but focus on the statistics, the reportable outcomes and the shortfalls. To have an environment where employees feel valued, even the smallest of success must be acknowledged and celebrated so that employees are recognized for the efforts and passion they put into their work. I think this is particularly true in the not-for-profit sector as employees work tirelessly everyday to help their clients and so easily get bogged down by the disappointments, the frustrations and the disillusionment that are so much a part of this work. Celebrating even the smallest of successes can help build a team up and keep people motivated to continue the splendid work they are doing.
I was so excited about being at the conference and sharing space with so many intelligent and passionate people. It was an invigorating and educational two days and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Having an opportunity to be in a space with such a diverse group of people, all sharing the same goal of building healthy communities was an amazing experience. I was sad to learn that this was the last conference that HC Link would be hosting as their funding will end in early 2018. I feel like this organization could have been a great resource for me in my own journey as Community Navigator. I will be sure to make the most of the remaining time they will be continuing their work so that I can continue to learn from then while I do mine.