Am Johal, Director of SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and co-Director of SFU’s Community Engaged Research Initiative

Squaring Off with Am Johal

Fri, 03 Mar 2023

Doug Hamilton-Evans
Former Communications Manager, SFU Public Square

Welcome to the latest instalment of Squaring Off – the series where we catch up with past colleagues and collaborators to reflect on our ten years of community engagement.

If you’ve spent any time within the community-engagement world at SFU or at the nexus of arts and culture, politics and activism in Vancouver, you probably know Am Johal.

He’s the Director of SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement, the co-Director of SFU’s Community Engaged Research Initiative (CERi) and the host of the Below the Radar Podcast. He’s an associate with the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and the Institute for the Humanities. He’s served on several boards including the Indian Summer Festival and the Vancity Community Foundation. And he’s written a few books, including Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, which he co-authored with Matt Hern with art from Joe Sacco.

Given all that, it’s probably not a surprise he won the Warren Gill Award for Community Impact in 2020.

We’ve been fortunate to collaborate deeply and frequently with Am in the last ten years of SFU Public Square, which made him a perfect interviewee for the Squaring Off series. Read on for Am’s insight on community engagement, our shared home at 312 Main and fond memories of working together.

Doug Hamilton-Evans: I was inspired by your 2022 Warren Gill lecture on rethinking university-community engagement and I wanted to start off at a big picture, definitional place before proceeding. SFU is the “engaged university” and community engagement is in the DNA of the institution, but how would you define it? And why is it important for universities to be engaged with communities?

Am Johal: It's so interesting that defining community engagement is still a real challenge within universities. One thing is that terms enter into use and then become discarded all the time. In many ways, SFU has been a community engaged institution from its very beginnings, but never referred to itself as that, nor would it be a word that Warren Gill would have used probably. But for twenty years or so in the university context, it's become an umbrella term for a set of activities that define the relationship between universities and communities for public, reciprocal benefit.

The Carnegie Foundation, which has a classification and standards system for universities around community engagement, defines it in this way: 

Community Engagement is defined as the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger community for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good.

It's a good starting point, but also insufficient. I think when community engagement gets defined too loosely for anything the university does in public, it starts to lose its meaning.

Histories of community engagement scholarship tend to highlight schisms between service and social justice –– they tend to highlight the difference between a mission driven or charity-based approach versus a social justice approach. Personally, I fall under the social justice side of things, but there is room for many forms of community engagement.

I also agree with Barbara Holland, a prominent scholar in the field I communicate with from time to time –– that community engagement is a method of enhancing the impact of teaching, research, learning and partnership development. In the various forms of public scholarship that are out there, we have to be in relation to the communities around us –– communities have much to teach the university. Timothy Eatman at Rutgers is also a prominent scholar of public scholarship who I have learned a lot from.

Listen to Am speak with Barbara Holland and Timothy Eatman about community engagement in these two Below the Radar episodes:

There are many different units within SFU working towards community engagement including SFU Public Square, SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, SFU’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative and more. What roles do they play in SFU’s engagement and knowledge mobilization ecosystem? How do they differ and how do they complement each other?

SFU is lucky to have a decentralized ecosystem of offices involved in community engagement in a number of communities and campuses. It allows for multiple places for community partners to interface with the work. While centralization can be of benefit in certain institutional contexts, I think it fits the culture of SFU that we work in this way. But that means that there's a need for a high degree of collaboration, cooperation, collegiality and communication required to make this work well. However imperfect it might be, the collaborative culture at SFU has a long history and is a strength of this place. To broaden and deepen the community engagement work that's happened, there's a need to further entangle community engagement with the teaching, learning and research mission of the university to have the greatest public impact. I view the direction that we're moving in as a natural evolution to build on the work we have already done. 

SFU's Community Engaged Research initiative is an important social infrastructure at the university to support faculty, grad students and community partners in carrying out community engaged research for public benefit and policy change. We have such a long history of this work at SFU and we have a faculty led advisory board that has been highly engaged. We look forward to the transition of this special initiative into a more permanent structure as we go forward.

SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, CERi and SFU Public Square all work out of 312 Main, alongside teams from Lifelong Learning. For those who aren’t familiar, can you give us a brief history of the building and how SFU came to be part of it? What does it mean for SFU to be in this space?

312 Main, the old cop shop at Main and Cordova was, of course, the original headquarters of the Vancouver Police Department, which opened in the early 1950s before the head offices moved near Cambie. The building is owned by the City of Vancouver and the original plans were for it to be turned into a tech centre after 2011. 

Vancity Community Foundation presented an alternative proposal to lease the space that took into account the reality of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, with some learning from the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto and work that Vancity was doing for many years in Bologna in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy –– a highly cooperativized region that also has social co-ops. 

It had been a vision of Jim Green, the former city councillor, to develop the building in this way after he had found the limitations of government-led employment programs such as the Pride Centre in the 1990s. There was also the importance of local Indigenous communities having space in the building –– it's wonderful to have organizations like the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and ALIVE (Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society) based in the building, along with local community organizations like Megaphone Magazine, the Binners Project, the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and WISH have offices there.

While the project ran into the realities of the pandemic and construction complexities, the real benefits of proximity that come with being in the same building with really grounded activists is that it's a great site for policy and advocacy work. It will also be an opportunity for students to work with community organizations in internships and research projects led by the community. There's a real opportunity to build a research shop model where research needs from the community can be matched with grad students and faculty members.

SFU Public Square is celebrating its ten year anniversary and it’s hard to think of someone we’ve worked with more closely than you in the last decade. What’s it like to partner with SFU Public Square? How have you seen SFU Public Square change over the years?

SFU Public Square has been a signature program to feature SFU's high profile work in community engagement. From the first community summit to the ongoing work, the whole team brings a high degree of professionalism and production value to public events. For this reason, it enhances the impact and the audience size in order to amplify the work of SFU faculty members, students, staff and community. When I go out of town, people from other universities always ask me about SFU Public Square and how to do something like that at their own university.

Are you looking to start something like SFU Public Square at your university? We have just the resource for you:

Holding Space: A Community Engagement Toolkit

Offering the principles that guide our work and the methods behind what we do, this toolkit was designed as a blueprint to support others at post-secondary institutions in developing their own community engagement initiatives. Although it should be of use to any community-serving organization.

Looking back, what has been the most memorable collaboration between SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and SFU Public Square? Why?

That's not a fair question. There's too many to count. Robert Reich at the Orpheum? Maria Ressa’s discussion of How to Stand Up to a Dictator? Urban Conspiracy Cabaret with Charlie Demers and Richard Side?

You’re directing two SFU programs, you sit on several board, you’re on the advisory committee of SFU Labour Studies program, you’re an associate with SFU's Institute for the Humanities and SFU's Centre for Dialogue. You're probably busy with a dozen other things I’m not aware of. How do you manage it all?

The wonderful part of working at SFU is everybody is contributing to communities in various ways. There is a culture at the institution amongst faculty, staff and students that everybody is involved in so many different things outside the university –– it feels great to be at an institution where it all feels quite normal. It makes SFU a special place to work that community engagement is valued.