A new project is connecting researchers from three universities with local community partners to promote digital literacy and empower marginalized groups.
The three-year project, called Innovative Social Pedagogy to Empower Indigenous Communities, Reduce Gender and Racial Biases (ISP), is made up of teams from Montreal, Chicoutimi and Edmonton. It falls under the umbrella of Project Someone, a Concordia University-based initiative focused on building awareness of online hate, creating spaces for pluralistic dialogue and identifying strategies for combating discrimination. Vivek Venkatesh, a professor of inclusive practices in visual arts at Concordia and UNESCO co-chair in prevention of radicalisation and violent extremism, co-founded Project Someone and leads the ISP project.
Broadly, the ISP project aims to document and develop community resilience against discrimination. But Dr. Venkatesh noted that the goal is to do so under the guidance of the communities themselves. The ISP project “was designed to bring us into contact, learn from and favour the knowledges and ways of knowing, especially in Indigenous communities and in communities with people of colour,” he said.
Researchers from Concordia, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and the University of Alberta are working with community organizations in their respective cities to document initiatives and practices that address discrimination. The project has also committed to hosting an annual massive open online course (MOOC), create documentaries and multimedia, co-create interactive workshops with local communities and develop policy briefs on resilience, discrimination and related issues.
‘Listening instead of speaking’
Funded through Employment and Social Development Canada, the project addresses five sustainable development goals (SDGs) concerning quality education, equality, gender, partnerships and the establishment of strong institutions that promote peace and justice. Dr. Venkatesh said that, while their work aligns with the SDGs, they aim to “measure specifically how we can attain those goals in the community context.” He noted that “it’s not enough for us to say ‘we’re all for quality education: look at how many new schools, look at how many computers in the schools. That’s all good. I’ve done this,’” said Dr. Venkatesh. “But I think in Canada, we can do a lot more by building these narratives, by making them public, by inviting commentary.”
Led by the Concordia team, the first MOOC, titled “From Hate to Hope,” ran from Nov. 1 to Dec. 10, 2021, and was aimed at combating hate speech online. Topics included the dynamics of hate, strategies for building resilience to hate and best practices for using social media for advocacy. In addition to the course’s asynchronous content, Dr. Venkatesh co-hosted Zoom sessions with Nicole Lugosi-Schimpf, assistant professor in the faculty of Native studies at the U of A and a member of the Edmonton team. “We just duked it out,” said Dr. Venkatesh. “We would differ on opinions. We wanted to embody the pluralism that we prefer to show. But we also want to demonstrate that you can do this in a civilized fashion.”
Empowering diverse voices and opinions is a thread through the project’s many activities. “It’s listening instead of speaking,” said Mathieu Cook, a professor in UQAC’s department of human and social sciences and part of the team based in Chicoutimi. UQAC launched its first workshop in early April. They are working with youth from First Nations communities to help them develop filmmaking skills so they can create short films that speak to their experience with discrimination and racism, said Dr. Cook, who is also a co-holder of the UNESCO chair in cultural transmission among First Peoples as a dynamic of well-being and empowerment. He said the workshops are not traditional in the sense of a hierarchical teaching structure, but more collaborative. “You’re just listening and trying to create occasions so their speech can change things,” said Dr. Cook.
Empowerment rather than victimhood
For Dr. Lugosi-Schimpf, the community-focused approach is essential to the project’s success. “To have these kinds of conversations only within an academic space would really be a shame. It absolutely has to be at the community level, to empower community members, to hear from them what they want, what kinds of changes they want to see, how they’re resisting back against the different systems of oppression,” she said. “Rather than just talk about these issues as if they’re in perpetual victimhood, to actually speak to them, and empower them, and recognize members in the community, academic or not, as experts.”
In Edmonton, that expertise is, in part, being drawn from a local theatre company. Third Space Playback Theatre is working with BIPOC community members to create and run interactive workshops. The Edmonton team is also working with the Métis Nation of Alberta, with plans for a community workshop later in the spring.
Dr. Cook said that while the project has a “kind of decentralized structure,” the cohesion comes from shared objectives. “We are serving a cause, which is social change,” he said. He is hopeful that the work will continue past the project’s timeline. “We are developing methodology with the workshops and on the research side. I really think that there’s a future for what we are doing.”
But, foremost, he wants the project to have a positive impact on the lives of the people involved. “I hope that what we are doing with them will make a difference, will help them in some way to express something, to contribute to social change.”