Media Minds students

Media Minds: Partnerships in the Making

February 02, 2022 | Composed by Chris Yakimov & Rachel Nelson with gratitude to and contributions from Saba Fatemi, Ching-Chiu Lin, Meredith Verma, James Speidel and Trisha Dulku. Layout and web production by Janet Yan.

What matters is not what’s been done – it’s what is in the making.

~Ching-Chiu Lin

The conversations and writings that make up this piece happened primarily in the summer of 2021. But to respect the voices of participants, we took the time necessary to ensure every person mentioned had a chance contribute to the final piece. Because to write about relational accountability (Wilson, 2008) should require us to practice it, too. Though it took almost six months to finish the story, we believe the time taken was worth it.


What can we do in response to federal funding cuts to help newcomer children and youth overcome language barriers, build relationships and find a sense of belonging?

This is the question that sparked the creation of the Media Minds program in 2013, when SFU students from Enactus SFU began developing an after-school program for newcomer children and youth. At the time, government funding models were changing, and these SFU students saw an opportunity to develop an after-school program that introduced videography as a way for newcomer children and youth to creatively tell their stories, learn English, hone their film and media skills, and be supported in their social-emotional growth during their transition into life in Canada.

In 2016, the Enactus Media Minds team went on to win an SFU Student Community Engagement Competition Award to help kick-start the program. But it’s hard to start an after-school program if you don’t have a place to run it. Media Minds needed community partners, and by working closely with the SFU Surrey – TD Community Engagement Centre (SFU Surrey CEC), a partnership was developed with the Surrey School District Community-Schools Partnership department to deliver the Media Minds program at local schools in Surrey.

That was the beginning of a now seven-year journey to co-create key community programming that has weathered many bumps and challenges. On June 18, 2021, we had the opportunity to gather some of the people still involved with the Media Minds partnership to reflect on the nature of its strengths and resiliency, and to honour its ongoing commitment to community impact.

Joining us in conversation were: Meredith Verma (Manager - Community Schools Partnerships, Surrey School District), Ching-Chiu Lin (Research Grant Facilitator and Adjunct Professor, SFU Faculty of Education), Trisha Dulku (Coordinator, Civic and Community Engagement, SFU Office of Community Engagement), and thanks to Meredith’s spontaneous text invitation, James Speidel (Assistant Manager - Community Schools Partnership, Surrey School District) joined us mid-dialogue.


Meredith: “I would say relationship… having trust and compassion and understanding in our systems and in our relationships with the people, specifically Ching, Trisha and Rachel. I literally just got off the phone with these guys two hours ago, and James and I both said how much we value our partnership with SFU. But to go one level deeper, it’s actually the relationship that I hold with these people …that’s the undergirding of why these programs happen”. Meredith then proceeded to text James at this point. (“James should be here!”)

Rachel: “Partnership… and everything you just said, plus how many people are involved in making that program work. It’s pretty amazing to think of, not only us in this room, but the schools, and the facilities folks who are allowing us to use the space, and the student volunteers who are doing the work to run those programs, and the outreach workers who are there to support, and all of the pieces that come together to put this little local program together for a group of kids, is really incredible. And like you said, everything that’s involved in that is worthwhile because the relationships, the purpose, and what we’re trying to do together make it worthwhile.

James, having just joined the conversation: “What I really liked to see was the interaction between the students from different schools, and the multi-relational transition piece: how the elementary school students move to the secondary schools, how they meet some of the staff there, how they’re also involved with the volunteers from SFU… These kids sign up for something that they’re really interested in, and then they get mentored in that way where they really feel heard, encouraged, challenged. And it was a well-attended program, which is a testament that it really resonated with the kids.”

Media Minds volunteers

Ching: “If I can think of one word to describe this, I would use assemblage. For me, it feels like there are so many moving pieces – the programming level, the partnership level, the student learning level – it’s about putting all those pieces together to assemble something and produce a synergy… we hold each other accountable through the relational lens, and I find that made the assemblage possible.”

Trisha: “What stands out to me is opportunity and growth… I’ve seen it where the first couple of weeks, the socialization is very limited – the students are very shy, they don’t feel comfortable being around the mentors. And gradually over the few weeks they begin to open up, sharing details about their personal lives, feeling like, ‘oh, there is this other responsible adult mentor who’s here and they care about me; there are other people that I can reach out to besides members of my own family or even my teacher.’ It’s a kind of opening up of the world, not only for the youth, but also for the SFU students who maybe are just used to going to class and going home and hadn’t had that volunteer experience.”


In 2017, Enactus SFU transferred responsibility for the program’s operations to the SFU Surrey – TD Community Engagement Centre, and the focus of Media Minds shifted to align with the flow of changes in the community: empowering elementary school students in grades 6-7 with new tools, skills, relationships and confidence to support a smoother transition to high school.

Saba Fatemi

At that time, SFU student, Saba Fatemi, was brought onboard to lead the program. Saba was a regular volunteer with the SFU Surrey - TD CEC and was known for her demonstrated capacity to provide safe, interactive and fun learning environments for program participants and volunteers. But she almost didn’t apply. “I don’t have that much media experience or teaching experience: there’s no way they’re gonna hire me,” she recounts. It wasn’t until the SFU Surrey - TD CEC pushed the deadline back due to low interest that she decided to take a chance. We’re really glad she did!

We met with Saba on Zoom to reflect on her experiences shaping and implementing the program. “My favourite thing was being blown away by the projects that the children were making. I had not expected a group of Grade 6 and Grade 7 students to produce such creative stories and animations – it just blew us away how perceptive, attentive to detail, and thoughtful they were about what they were making. It was really awesome to see their final products.”

When asked about her biggest takeaway, she reflected: “At first, I used to teach by addressing the children and giving them instructions, like a traditional classroom. It occurred to me, midway, that the SFU volunteers are an amazing resource I'm not tapping into, so I began addressing the volunteers instead. If the volunteers were clear about what they needed to do, they could better support the students they worked with. I empowered the volunteers, and they in turn, empowered the students.”

This layered, emergent relational model for the program helped build a space where everyone’s knowledge was respected, something that let the high school volunteers relax and find their confidence, and which echoed James Speidel’s reflections about multi-relational models. Not only did SFU volunteers and school-age participants find a unique benefit, but so did the high-school volunteers, in particular, the high school students who wouldn’t normally put their hand up, so to speak, for a leadership opportunity.

“We’re all learning here”, Saba recounts saying, “You don’t need to have the answers. If you don’t have the answers, don’t feel bad about it – you can even ask the children you’re working with, because they might know the answer, and that’s okay.”

As Meredith Verma had shared during our discussion with the Media Minds partners: “Providing spaces for kids to do things that are different is incredibly important. In the secondary schools, it’s often the students in the leadership or intensive career programs who get tapped to be volunteers and mentors. But the students who applied to be the volunteers in the Media Minds program were not those students – this program really fit a niche where students could go and be confident in a different way.”

Saba’s own world seemed to open up, too. Media Minds led her to start CommuniCreate with two of the volunteers she had worked with in Media Minds, which helped build her confidence in the online pedagogical space. “Everyone was getting Zoom fatigue – I was getting Zoom empowered”. This, in turn, led her to successfully apply for a digital literacy role with Burnaby Neighbourhood House, which she held while also working with Surrey-based, DIVERSEcity, a local nonprofit with deep connection to both the local community and to SFU through the SFU Surrey – TD CEC. Together, these two experiences inspired Saba to develop her own program teaching seniors how to lead online programs, themselves. “So it came full circle,” she says, “I didn’t really have to network, it was just something that happened as a result of the relationships that were built along the way."

Media Minds volunteers

Finally, we asked Saba if there’s still a story about the program that isn’t being told:

“The amazing volunteers that we had – because they were literally shaping the program in real time. Of course I chose to be open to that, which is really important – I think I’d like to keep that insight for the rest of my life, and always be open to feedback – but it really took the contributions from our volunteers to make the programs as strong as they could be. So, I think they deserve real recognition for the contributions they made every single session; when they were super tired they still stayed behind for up to forty-five minutes with the entire group, listening to each other and waiting their turn to give me feedback about the session. Sometimes it was feedback that just made us all feel good. But at other times it was feedback that truly shaped all the sessions going forward. I think we need this everywhere, in all our programs, everywhere around the world actually. You really need to hear what the volunteers have to say.”


So how does a program like Media Minds ensure that it’s actually making a difference? For the Surrey School District Community-Schools Partnership department, that question is a constant guide for what they do, one that keeps them accountable to their community. “We take that data seriously,” James shares, “For us, it translates down to improving the programs and meeting the kids where they’re at… meeting the students and their real needs, not just what we feel their needs are.”

That ongoing commitment presented the research opportunity for Ching-Chiu Lin, given her research interest in arts-based and media education and its capacity to foster social cohesion and change. In 2019, working with SFU graduate student, Dionne Co, Ching conducted a study exploring the pedagogical impact of Media Minds on Grade 6-7 students. Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), this project looked into Media Minds’ capacity and potential to produce knowledge within the community and to bring about social cohesion and change. But doing research with community has its challenges, not the least of which is ensuring that the research question is what the community would find value in answering – i.e. ensuring that community partners are “at the table”.

“There’s a complexity of working with community,” says Ching, “While doing community-based research, the genuine engagement and relationship building are so fundamental to the core of the research – it’s part of the research – not just a ‘step’ to get into the research.”

Starting those relationships from scratch can be very difficult – it takes time, sometimes years. That’s where the existing partnership with the Surrey School District and the SFU Surrey – TD CEC came in: the foundation of trust in the existing relationships has made the process of getting the research up and running fast and robust. “For me to reflect on the differences in this program – it’s the relational piece and the trust that makes it different,” says Ching. “As a researcher, I used to do lots of groundwork just to build the relationships with communities and to gain the trust so the partner would allow me to work with them. Here, it was easier because I was tapping on Rachel’s relationship with Meredith.”

When the pandemic hit, that trust and accountability became important. Media Minds had to pivot suddenly from a highly interactive and in-person course-delivery model to one that was completely online. And the research, now interrupted, also had to shift, wrestling with the reality that the original vision and approach could no longer proceed.

Ching: “I have this data, but how do I demonstrate accountability back to those partners? We decided that we could at least report what had been done and tease out some programming suggestions.”

It wasn’t only that the partners had trust in each other, it was also that everyone felt a responsibility for contributing to this pivot in ways that would maintain that trust: everyone felt called to show up with and for each other in the challenge. “Relationships lead to accountability,” Ching shares.

Meredith: “A lot stops because of our own capacity and incapacity in meeting each other’s system’s needs. When you take time and you explore and you hear and you align, all that really allows that relationship to develop and that trust to develop, and from there, everything else is just easy, just details… it feels like it’s worth the effort. We all have our own busy worlds – but I think when problems surface, it’s that underneath that embeds that willingness to respond.”


What did the research find? The Media Minds 2020 Report (Co & Lin, 2020) identifies that filmmaking becomes a form of creative inquiry in informal learning space, where students can articulate their perspectives on their school experience and the social conditions of their lives. Through Media Minds, students were able to explore themselves in relation to their interactions with peers and surroundings. Media Minds represents a learning environment that develops collaborative peer-to-peer learning, thus fostering students’ participatory engagement and a sense of accomplishment. A key outcome of Media Minds – even this pandemic-shortened version of it – is summarized well in this passage:

Media minds was only able to run for four in-person workshop sessions, but in that short period, students demonstrated the ability to engage meaningfully in community arts practice. They were able to create stories individually and collaboratively. They conferred and brainstormed amongst each other. Even on the part of SFU Volunteer Facilitators, it was evident that they, too, learned valuable lessons about collaboration, communication and interpersonal effectiveness. (Page 30)

Media Minds students

Some SFU student volunteers shared their thoughts about what they learned:

The biggest thing this program taught me was how to allow each student to feel included in a group, as well as picking up when a student is feeling discouraged with their work and how to help navigate them through it. ~Navneet (page 28).

To be inclusive, I tried to make [youth] understand that all of us were learning together, and more importantly, had their own ideas… Even our final story for the film was a combination of what everyone had come up with. ~ Saksham (page 28).

What the report makes clear is that building a learning environment capable of doing these things requires relationships. During our conversation with Media Minds partners, the concept of relational accountability surfaced, as described in Shawn Wilson’s book: Research is Ceremony (2008). While we were uncertain about whether or not we were using the term accurately, it was a helpful concept for thinking together about what each person’s experience has been in this partnership, and how a sense of personal accountability to each other supported the ability to do complex and impactful work and research within a community partnership.


True to form, the program will be moving with the flow of energy from the community. As our unprecedented global situation continues to unfold, digital literacy, responsibility, safety and health is of increasing importance, especially for our young people. Partners are currently working on an iteration of the Media Minds program that will focus on digital citizenship for elementary school students in Grades 5-7.

While the COVID-19 pandemic remains an ongoing challenge, it has shone an unexpected light on what it takes to build resilient partnerships. For the Media Minds partners, seven years of mutual and personal commitment built the trust and capacity necessary to hold a flexible shared purpose, one that ultimately allows them to have a continuing positive impact in the lives of their volunteers and participants (and to generate knowledge and wisdom about how to do that), even during a global pandemic.

 “I find that we are actually creating our own definition of “community school” or “partnership” here”, says Ching, “Relational accountability is a really nice term to describe the uniqueness of our partnership – together we’re writing our own definition of what community school is about.”

James adds: “If we never recognize formally, or have the words to speak about what’s unique about this partnership, I think the kids still see it in real-time.”

The partnership of Media Minds is not a closed story; it invites us to recognize the potential of community engagement and imagine the possibilities of sustainable university-community collaboration. As Ching described it to us in our conversation: “What matters is not what’s been done – it’s what is in the making.”


Download the Media Minds 2020 Report
(By Dionne Hillary Co and Dr. Ching-Chiu Lin)