Two weeks ago, McGill University hosted its 6th annual Community Engagement Day, orchestrated by McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Office (SEDE).
The ceremonial date to commemorate “community engagement” was officially set for September 28th—although the program had events that spanned over four days. In all likelihood, it panned out that way because some of the local community groups couldn’t accommodate McGill’s bizarrely regimented “day” of engagement or perhaps because having facilitators and SEDE employees to make over 40 events function in a twenty-four-hour period is a logistical nightmare.
The goal of Community Engagement Day is to allow students, faculty, and staff to engage with the broader Montreal community through projects, workshops, and public conversations. It’s hard to deny that, manual volunteer work and application of classroom theory is integral in fostering a diverse education and university experience.
Community Engagement Day feels a lot like suffering through an uncomfortable Thanksgiving meal with your quirky extended family members whom you actively ignore for the rest of the year until Thanksgiving rolls around the next year
But why limit community engagement to a few days a year?
Community Engagement Day appears to be the new university social equity trend at universities. Colleges across North America are adopting the holiday, and six years ago McGill came down with a case of FOMO, thus opening their own version to compete in the global “most equitable and engaging university” arena.
There is something fundamentally problematic with this practice. Due to its namesake alone, Community Engagement Day gives McGill students and faculty members alike the rationale to labour for a few hours serving meals for Santropol, wipe their brows, and then tick “community engagement” off their list of annual philanthropic chores.
Structured this way, Community Engagement Day feels a lot like suffering through an uncomfortable Thanksgiving meal with your quirky extended family members whom you actively ignore for the rest of the year until Thanksgiving rolls around the next year and you begrudgingly sit down again to eat with your “community”.
For community engagement to be effective, it should be a continuous relationship.
Now, it is no secret that McGill students are insular beings. The McGill bubble is self-made and reinforced from the inside. We literally and literarily ghettoize ourselves.
McGill University’s undergrad experience desperately needs to extend beyond the borders of the Milton-Parc neighborhood and SEDE should be commended for their efforts to rectify that. The events that SEDE organized this year were all remarkably inspiring and captivating learning experiences: from cooking lessons at the Afghan Women’s Center to preparing resource packets for queer and trans incarcerated individuals. SEDE’s efforts toward inclusivity is also deserving of praise. All the events were free, transportation and accessibility needs were met, and even scent sensitivity was acknowledged. The program was truly an ensured safe space where marginalized communities and the more privileged McGill sphere learned together about their intersectionality and how to strengthen codependency.
The only problem was that the events occurred at overlapping times at sites all over the city of Montreal. How could one possibly choose which monumental event to attend and why is it purposefully structured so that one cannot attend them all?
For example, the Equity 101 workshop took place from 10:00 to 11:30, so you barely had enough time to grab a snack and process what you’ve learned before putting it into practice at the Radical Accessibility Audit-O-Thon event later that same afternoon.
Consider the irony of being forced to write an academic reflection on “Taking Your Knowledge Outside the Classroom: Creating Social Impact in The Montreal Community”
Another twisted element of Community Engagement Day is how some professors force their students to attend events as part of their syllabus.
At one of the talks, “Hear it From Local Montreal Musicians”, seven out of the ten attendees were furiously scribbling in notebooks, rarely glancing up throughout all four keynote speaker’s monologues. Apart from the appalling attendance and embarrassing ratio of speaker to audience members, the atmosphere of what was supposed to be an active dialogue was asymmetrical and static. Any attempts at an interactive discussion was lost on the blank, glossy eyes of the McGill scholars with next to zero aptitude for engagement and who have been indoctrinated to listen and learn by rote.
Eventually, one of the speakers couldn’t stand the roboticism anymore and asked why everyone was transcribing the event word for word.
One girl piped up with one of the only audience comments during the whole discussion, “we have to a write a report for a class, it’s okay if we quote you, right?”
The speakers continued and the ambience remained awkward at best.
Students forced to attend events like Community Engagement Day only feeds into the general feeling of institutional compulsion. It can never truly inspire what Monica Barbe, CED program coordinator, quoted to the McGill Tribune as the program’s objective, to “plant the seeds of general social involvement and engagement within the community with the hope of opening the McGill bubble”. Consider the irony of being forced to write an academic reflection on “Taking Your Knowledge Outside the Classroom: Creating Social Impact in The Montreal Community”.
Definitively not the point of diversity education.
We should all stop trying to milk the concept of a community engagement day. Nobody likes their engagement that condensed. Just let it flow, served in bags Canadian style, 2%, whole, or skim over the course of the year and McGill members are more likely to develop long-lasting relationships with outside communities, independent of the pressure of professors, and more profound and earnest than a single day commitment.