Am.jpgAm Johal is making an impression at SFU Vancouver.

@SFUVan Profile: Am Johal

July 05, 2012

- By Emily Ross.

Am Johal isn’t new to the concept of community engagement.

Growing up in Williams Lake, Johal now calls Vancouver home. Though he’s lived in other cities and countries temporarily, Johal has established roots in Vancouver through participation in boards, like the Vancity Community Foundation, Vancouver City Planning Commission, Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, and various community events and endeavors.

Now, he’s furthering his passion for working with others in his position as the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Vancity Office of Community Engagement within the SFU Woodward's Cultural Unit.

Through his past experience, Johal has had the opportunity to work with a variety of people, which has definitely prepared him for working in his current position.

“It's a very complex and politicized context working here in a context where the neighborhood is gentrifying rapidly,” says Johal of working in the re-developed Woodward’s complex, “Having relationships with people helps me understand how some of our programming and our role as a university can shift to accommodate those needs.”

For Johal, the change that is happening in the Downtown Eastside as well as the world at large is reason for him to see the need to “promote a culture of urgency and disruption.”

And the SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit is able to provide some of this change.

With venues and space used for dialogue and discussion, the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts is a great place for conversations, community events and arts to happen.

Johal is proud of the discussions that have taken place at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts over the last two years.

Some topics have included the supervised injection site, refugee rights, Islamophobia, gender and justice and the upcoming talk on housing and human rights on July 9, by Miloon Kothari, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate housing.

Along with these conversations, a variety of community events have already taken place from non-credit community classes and a community journalism class in partnership with Megaphone Magazine, to theatre performances presented by Downtown Eastside based non-profits like Project Limelight and dance workshops for inner-city residents.

These activities seem like the perfect way for SFU to engage with the community and act as a neutral space for different people to come together in way to increase their community connections and experience new things.

Though SFU has long been known as a driving force in the community, Johal's passion for community engagement development during his time as an undergraduate.

“When I was in university, I enjoyed classes but had a real need to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty doing community events, organizing events,” recalls Johal. “Eventually I got involved with the student union at UBC when the student newspaper got shut down. Later that year, we ran a referendum to increase the student fee to set up a $500,000 endowment for childcare. From those early days of getting involved, the bug has never left.”

Johal is a firm believer that a lot of learning does happen in the classroom, “but a university education also provides an immersion to new ideas, new people and ultimately, it gives you a chance to know yourself better.”

In this sense, Johal is excited that SFU aspires to be the most community-engaged university in Canada.

In fact, Johal cites this as “precisely why I want to work here.”

Even with his extensive previous experience, including helping create UBC’s Humanities 101 course for Downtown Eastside residents, Johal states, “it's been an amazing experience to work here in this neighborhood and see how much resilience and love there is. I've learned so much from the community.”

And for Johal, there’s always a lot to learn, as a self-declared lifelong learner.

Now, a part-time doctoral student in media philosophy, Johal recognizes how great, “being based at an interdisciplinary contemporary arts school like SFU is…”.

He notes that, “it feels like I'm learning new things all the time and it's tied in theoretically to what I'm studying,” showing that academics can have foundation in the community.

Even in the short time he’s been at SFU, he views SFU’s community engagement as a long-term project and not something that happens overnight, “there are no shortcuts," though progress is evident.

“When we can bring the community into these spaces, get students out in to the community and have lots of interdisciplinary work happening at the School of Contemporary Arts, when we can make it a lot more messy,” adds Johal. “That's when things will get really exciting. We'll see partnerships form that are totally unconventional and unpredictable.”

Something else unpredictable is the fall line-up of programs and events being put on by the Woodward’s Cultural Unit. But Johal assures, “it’s going to be fantastic.”

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