Iris Lesser won the Engagement Award during the 2015 SFU Student Community Engagement Competition for her Bhangra in the Park proposal, a project inspired by her doctoral work at SFU. We asked Iris to reflect on her experiences in the hope that her story might help any of you who are inspired to create meaningful social change:
Why did you apply for the SFU Student-Community Engagement Competition?
Exercise and health have always been important to me. As part of my doctoral work at Simon Fraser University, I conducted a research intervention using Bhangra to engage South Asian women in exercise to improve heart health. After completing my research, I began to feel that it was necessary to continue to offer this exercise opportunity to the public. That’s when I applied to the SFU Student-Community Engagement competition.
After all, exercise is not a temporary solution but a lifelong commitment, and I wanted to see my research participants continue to improve their health while engaging with their community.
What has been your biggest challenges working through your project?
While I was very pleased to receive access to space in the mall to run this program, it was fraught with challenges. Engaging in an exercise program, especially one that relies on music and an instructor, requires a mentally stimulating space that participants feel comfortable and excited to come to. Unfortunately, without access to studio space and due to security requirements, our program space was not an ideal setting for high impact exercise and it wasn’t a mentally stimulating environment.
In addition, this type of program is highly dependent on the instructor and their ability to engage participants. So, when we experienced an unplanned instructor change, mid-session, it affected some of the excitement that program participants were beginning to have.
Wow – how did that development make you feel, and how did you manage the feelings of your participants?
I actually felt a bit hurt – I was very invested in the success of this program and hadn't considered that I might have to plan for a circumstance like this. We found a suitable replacement, and I spoke to a few participants who were concerned and tried to encourage commitment and emphasized the benefits of having access to this program. I also tried to engage with my previous research participants who were attending the program to try to keep up the positive ambience.
Looking back, if there were one thing you could tell yourself at the beginning, what would it be?
I would give more forethought to the success of the program once it was running. I had assumed that the excitement of the participants in the research program would translate into a community program, but environment and engagement is everything in physical activity participation, and it was important to take the time to ensure that this program had the ability to continue to run successfully in a different environment.
Regardless of the challenges, I think this shows the public interest in physical activity engagement and the need for local governments to offer physical activity opportunities that are free to the public. It is not always lack of motivation that leads to sedentary behaviour, but lack of opportunity.