This week I had the exciting opportunity to take part in a conversation with the CJ Munford Center as part of their weekly discussion group and tying it into Black History Month. CJ Munford is a center on the campus of the University of Guelph that is meant to be a support and connection space for people of colour.
CJ Munford holds a special place in my heart because during my undergrad at Guelph, I had a bunch of friends who were part of this group and I would sometimes come and visit them. The space has always been very welcoming for me, full of laughter and jokes. It has a unique sense of community that is important for many students who frequent the space. Because of this I was excited to go back and learn from them.
Of the many people who participated in this discussion, I quickly learned that the majority were international students from the Caribbean or Africa. This brought an interesting flavor to the discussion as many could draw on experiences not only here in Canada but also from back home as well. At one point in the discussion I asked them straight up the differences they noticed about community here in Canada compared with their home. Some interesting insights came out of this.
Firstly it was acknowledged that Canada is a more individualistic society in comparison to the often heavily communal cultures that were represented around the room. Where many of them come from, people are more likely to strike up conversations on the bus or walking down the street. One member noted that in Canada we are more likely to try and formalize community, through clubs, programs and community centers. In comparison, where she is from in the Bahamas, community is something that just happens. People get together of their own accord and just hang out. I found this interesting. My thoughts are maybe it is because we are so busy here that we need to institute our communities otherwise they wouldn’t happen. We don’t allow space for organic stuff to emerge.
Another insightful idea that came out of this conversation is that community involves "just showing up" and seeing what needs to be done. Often times we tend to create this seven step program or some kind of strategic plan to build community. The wisdom that came out of the group is that "community will naturally form if you create space and just show up and see what needs to be done." The other side of this is that it is a commitment that you make to those around you to show up and fully show up.
Inevitably because of the space, the group and it being black history month, the idea of skin colour came up. Why is it that we are drawn to people who have the same skin colour as us? What was noted is that community quickly forms around commonality. Having the same skin colour is the quickest and easiest way to form a common bond. This especially the case when your skin colour is in the minority in your setting. With this skin colour comes this idea of a shared understanding. You're black, I am black, therefore I know we share a history and common experiences. It is something that as a white man in a predominantly white community I do not think about often, but when the group brought it up, I reflected back on the few experiences I had where I was in the minority, either because of skin colour or gender, and I had a similar feeling of connection.
There are so many "ah-ha" moments that I had in this discussion; I can’t hope to cover them all in this blog. One more I want to quickly mention was this idea of shared experience in diversity. The group kept on talking about how they felt like they belonged in this group, that they had a common connection. I asked what this was, since they all came from different countries with often quiet different cultures. For this group their shared connection was that they were all in a culture different then there own. This combined with their common skin colour and all the meaning that comes with that served to bring them all together.
I came in with high expectation on this conversation and was rewarded with so much more than I expected.
Thank you Freddy and all of CJ Munford for letting me take part in your conversation.