Toronto artist-activist Dave Meslin will help launch the SFU Public Square community summit at the Orpheum.
Shauna Sylvester is the executive director of SFU Public Square.
September 11, 2012

by Gail Johnson, The Georgia Straight

SFU Public Square community summit addresses feelings of isolation and disconnection

Metro Vancouver can be a hard place to make friends, according to a recent Vancouver Foundation survey, and many citizens say they’re distressed by a growing sense of isolation and disconnection.

Building on those findings, SFU Public Square, in partnership with the Vancouver Foundation, is hosting its inaugural “community summit” next week. Alone Together: Connecting in the City will bring together people from across the region with the aim of addressing loneliness in Lotusland.

Shauna Sylvester is the executive director of SFU Public Square, which was created earlier this year to nurture and restore community connections and help fulfill SFU’s vision of being Canada’s leading community-engaged university. She says that isolation emerged as a common issue of public concern when she was gathering input from community leaders and members to decide on a theme for the kickoff summit.

“I’m from B.C., so I haven’t got the same experience that 99 percent of my friends do, those who came to Vancouver from somewhere else,” Sylvester says in an interview at her downtown Vancouver office. “They all experienced the same thing: disconnection. It’s really hard to break into Vancouver. It’s startling how we’ve created a dynamic in this city that’s cliquey and isn’t all that embracing of others."

The stories she was hearing about disconnection mirrored the findings of the Vancouver Foundation’s survey conducted in June and involving nearly 4,000 people from across Metro Vancouver. The Sentis Market Research study found that one-third of people said it’s difficult to make new friends here; one third said they don’t know if their neighbours trust each other; one-third have no close friends outside their own ethnic group; and most didn’t participate in neighbourhood or community activities because they feel they have little to offer. Those aged 24 to 34, and people living in suites in houses (such as basement apartments), reported higher rates of loneliness than others.

The effects of so such deepening civic malaise include people reporting poorer health, a decreased sense of trust, and hardening of attitudes toward other community members, the Vancouver Foundation found. Those surveyed said that social isolation and the corrosion of caring hurts them personally and hurts their communities.

“We don’t have public spaces anymore where people come together across class, across age, across all lines,” she adds. “We have libraries and community centres, and during the Olympics we had some public spaces. But there’s resurgence in this region to want that. There’s a gurgling up of people saying: ‘We want more intellectual engagement; we want to exchange ideas and we want a place and a space where we can substantively collect.’ The summit is a response to that.”

Beginning September 18, the summit , which will feature 11 events at SFU’s various campuses and other public venues, will explore disconnection in the urban environment and consider ways to strengthen engagement; it will hear the views of citizens, artists, librarians, businesses, filmmakers, mayors, youth, and community volunteers. The whole thing launches at the Orpheum with a guided discussion featuring SFU Chancellor Carole Taylor, Toronto artist-activist Dave Meslin, city planner Larry Beasley, CBC radio host Nora Young, and the Vancouver Foundation’s vice president of public engagement and communications, Catherine Clement. Spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan and Vancouver band Bend Sinister will also appear. (Tickets are $15, or $5 for students and “unwaged”. “There are a number of events that are free, and we’ve kept the price on big events low because price or economics should never be an issue,” Sylvester says.)

Artists and musicians play a prominent role throughout the summit. Consider the Urban Conspiracy Cabaret on September 20, featuring Charlie Demers and Richard Side (CBC’s The Debaters) as well as musicians Veda Hille, Colin Browne, and others. Rain City Chronicles (September 21) is an evening of storytelling and music. Lunch poems @sfu (on September 19) includes appearances by George Bowering and Cecily Nicholson. (Lunch poems is an ongoing monthly event.) Then there’s the Alone Together Film Festival (September 21 to 23).

“We believe that one of the ways we come together as community is through music and the arts,” Sylvester says. “The [summit] events are substantive, but they’re not just cerebral but also touching our souls. Isolation has no chance if the arts are here.”

Youth aged 15 to 26 are invited to participate in Our Voices: Youth Building a Connected City, a free, interactive daylong event (September 19) that includes lunch. There’s also a mayors roundtable discussion, an event for businesses, and a brown-bag conversation series. Plus, every year the summit will have what it calls Open Space, where community groups can hold meetings or events in a free space at any of the three SFU campuses.

SFU’s Public Square is housed within the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. The community summit will have a different theme every year: an issue of public concern and Vancouver’s response to it.

“There’s a genuine concern our society could move into a more polarized place, and it’s the role of a university to act as a neutral convenor to stop that polarization,” Sylvester says. “We need informed dialogue on issues so we can break down that polarization, because we’ve seen what that does in the States. “How do we build community as we increase the number of high-rises?” she adds. “You can do it, but you have to do it right.”

The inaugural SFU Public Square community summit takes place at various venues from September 18 to 23.

This article was published originally on The Georgia Straight on September 11, 2012.