On power and engagement – an interview with Aslam Bulbulia (excerpted)

November 06, 2018
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We continue to be amazed by the courage of the individuals and teams we meet through the Student Community Engagement Competition. SFU’s Student Engage podcast caught up with Aslam Bulbulia – SCEC finalist for his project Masculinity Dialogues – for an incredible conversation about impact, power, language and engagement. Aslam’s ongoing commitment to equity and justice is inspiring.

Thank you, Aslam and Taylor for this insightful exploration.

What follows is an abridged excerpt of episode 2 of Student Engage. Sentences and sections have been edited or omitted for brevity, so we encourage you to savour the full discussion one evening, or perhaps on your commute – it’s worth it. We pick up the discussion on the topic of decolonization around minute 32...

Aslam: …But to personalize that journey, I think it’s the most important step because I don’t have a lot of trust in the state to do this work of decolonization.

Taylor: When I Iearned about decolonization in school, I learned that colonization is a policy executed by an institution. In this course I took part in called Semester in Dialogue, we looked at settler-Indigenous relationships in Canada. The idea of settler colonialism was discussed a lot. That colonialism never really ended, and it’s an interaction that’s happening every day between myself and Indigenous communities. So every development that’s happening in Canada, our Education institutions, my relationship with each Indigenous person I come into contact with is like an ongoing process of colonization. And so it requires a bit of personal reflection and responsibility to figure out how you fit into that puzzle, how you benefit from the laws and policies of the past, and how you benefit from them now.

Aslam: And how you continue to be colonized yourself, right? So if I think about my masculinity – that itself has been colonized. I don’t have access to the emotional maturity that I should have. Why is that the case? And if you trace back the history, it comes to this colonial idea of hyper-rationality and men being in charge. And that patriarchy worked hand-in-hand with colonialism, and continues to work until today. Where we have young men that are suffering without the ability to express why they’re suffering. We have young men unable to engage in healthy ways with their masculinity, with their emotions. And if we trace it back long enough, it is part of the colonial legacy. So we have a duty to ourselves to decolonize the way we express ourselves, the way we understand ourselves, the way we interact in relationship with others, whether the other is Indigenous or non-Indigenous…

Taylor: So you’ve been part of a really wide range of community engagement projects in South Africa and now Vancouver. What does meaningful community engagement look like to you?

“So to me, meaningful engagement means the transfer of power...”

Aslam (continued): Power can be the power to make decisions, power can be the power to distribute resources, the power to envision a future. If power is not transferred, engagement is not meaningful.

Meaningful engagement on the softer side has also got a lot to do with people feeling heard, people feeling seen, people feeling celebrated and being able to show up with their whole selves.

It’s a very difficult thing, if you think about the various needs that people have, how often we are just completely unaware of the needs that people have, either due to our own blind spots or through the way that needs are communicated.

I think so often we just show up with a version of ourselves  that is acceptable in public, the version that is acceptable in white spaces, the version of ourselves that’s acceptable as a male, as an English-speaker, or whatever it is.

So meaningful engagement is a space where we create room for emotion, where we create room for the full persons to show up and share as much of themselves as they can, and to have that heard and translated into policy, into procedure, into process.

And ultimately, people need to see something tangible. So the city needs to be shaped in the image of everyone who lives in it, rather than being shaped by capital, by the interests of the market, by those that hold power. Which of course raises the ultimate question of when do we engage and when don’t we? Because so often, if you mean for meaningful engagement, you have to be willing to let go of power. But how often does the city or organizations, institutions, say, “oh we’re going to do a community engagement process”… when the outcome of that process is we need to do some sort of power transfer – however it represents – that part of the recommendations get left out. And then communities feel: “well why did we engage with you in the first place? You wasted our time”. And then trust is defeated and there’s less trust. So the next time you want to engage with them, you need to work even harder to get to that level of trust.

For me it’s spiritual as well. Why is it so difficult for people to give up power? One of the instructors in the Certificate in Dialogue shared this image on Facebook that I really loved, and it said: “We teach people not to talk about politics and religion. And as a result, we’re very bad at talking about politics and religion.”

And this is for me – the religion and spiritual aspect goes hand in hand – because that’s where we learn the language of humility, where we learn how to put our egos aside, how to care about the whole instead of caring about the self. But religion itself has been colonized and so separated from our day-to-day discourse, so when you tell people, you know, “You need to give up power. You need to share power”, unless there’s a lot of spiritual growth and maturity in the person, they’re unable to do this. Their ego rejects it. They become very defensive and closed off, and only care about them and “their own” – however they describe and define “their own” – as opposed to a more generous spirit and openness that’s willing to share.

Taylor: Have you seen examples of really impactful community engagement?

Aslam: I think, you know, Hogan’s Alley, has been inspirational for me. I think that it was the first time that I saw on a stage, at one of their public events, a Black female town planner, a Black female architect, working amongst Black people in community, to shape what they want their city to look like.

Growing up in South Africa where the majority of our population is Black, I had never seen that. I would go to planning conference after planning conference and see panels just full of white men. In Vancouver, I saw similar things. But this is the power of when community is organized and dictates to the city, and holds its own power, as opposed to trying to get power from – you know – power being given from somewhere else.

Ya, so it’s interesting – the one example of meaningful public engagement I can think of is when the City was invited in to engage with the community, rather than the community going in to engage with the City.

Taylor: That makes sense.

Aslam: …And I think part of it is also when we look at the composition of who is designing engagements. Because if the entire room of people that’s designing what the engagement is going to look like is white, is male, is whatever, then, given the blind spots that they have, the type of engagement that they design is only going to appeal to those who are white, or male, or whatever.

“If you don’t have that diversity from the beginning, you’re not going to have that diversity in the outcome.”

So we need increased diversity; we need programs that are going to support and help include people from diverse backgrounds to get into these spaces of decision making and power brokering and engagement design, so that the type of design for engagements will be more diverse, will reach out to broader populations. So you don’t have people sitting back and saying: “oh , you know, we invited them and they didn’t come”. Instead  you actually have a critical analysis of “what did we invite them to, and why didn’t they come?”

Please fire up SFU Student Engage and listen to the full discussion. And if you have an idea to meaningfully engage the Surrey, Burnaby or local newcomer and refugee communities for positive impact, we have $19,000 available in awards to fund ideas just like yours. Register today and submit your idea before November 30, 2018.

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