4 Lessons in Convening Groups for Social Change: YSI’s 2018 Provincial Gathering
written by Muna Mohamed
written by Muna Mohamed
In late November, a number of young people, community organizers, youth sector workers and activists gathered for the Youth Social Infrastructure (YSI) provincial gathering, on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg peoples and Robinson-Superior treaty (now known as Thunder Bay). We gathered to explore the following:
How do we support ourselves & each other to do or continue doing community change work from our hearts, spirits, and minds in these times?
YSI is a movement that works to accelerate and amplify the conditions for youth-led organizing in Ontario . While I’ve been loosely a part of the network, I hadn’t had the opportunity to share space in the form of a gathering until this weekend. As an offering to you, the reader, and to the broader youth sector, I’m sharing what I know to be true about how we hold space for authentic and meaningful community organizing.
Muna is the Systems Educator for the 4Rs Youth Movement, working with our partner organizations and collaborators to challenge power paradigms and support the larger youth engagement sector in approaching their work through the lens of truth and reconciliation. A talented facilitator and equity educator, Muna has a history of work in the youth engagement and provincial mental health sector. As the daughter of Ethiopian settlers to turtle-island, Muna has delved deeply into Black-Indigenous solidarity and community healing justice work. She is currently interested in embedding critical self-reflective practice in her many organizing spaces.
As a facilitator, I am on a path of strengthening my practice in holding space for community in a way that allows us to practice social change work from our hearts, spirits and minds. This post is, in many ways, my answer to the gatherings calling question.
As for the following teachings, I’d like to preface this by stating that I do not feel like I own them entirely. They have emerged in a few years of conversation and love shared to me through my mentors, friends and family. This YSI gathering reinforced their truth.
I have been reflecting on how we often burnout as individuals in organizing spaces because our community organizing is held by only a fraction of our communities. Often, they’re people like me: fairly young and university educated.When, in reality, some of the most sustainable and powerful movements worked to address barriers to engagement and understood that our organizing spaces must reflect the diversity in our various marginalized communities.
How does this translate to our organizing spaces? Mirroring our communities means convening in a way that reduce barriers to community access and participation. Logistically, the YSI gathering reminded me that reducing barriers to community spaces can look like offering childcare, ensuring the space is wheelchair accessible and that smudging is permitted. It can’t and shouldn’t stop there though. Throughout the weekend, we had a number of conversations about addressing language as a hosting team. Reducing barriers also means reflecting on, actively, the language and jargon we use to describe our organizing. It means asking ourselves what we mean when we use terms that could be described with greater simplicity. When I feel stuck in my convening, I think, could my grandmother, access this space, this language, this journey – and try to do better.
The most powerful gatherings that I’ve been a part of have created the conditions for participants to engage in different expressions of grieving and healing. Crying, dancing, laughter, journaling, meditating, being in connection to land/ medicine or in conversation with loved ones are all process of healing we partake in. The YSI gathering reinforced the importance of allowing space for everyone to practice their forms of healing and space to allow participants to opt in/ out.
We cried and shared in circle, we karaoke’d, we collaged and crafted, we were gifted with hilarious elders who opened and closed our days in ceremony and without it being explicitly named, there was a feeling that we could exercise our agency in opting in or out of it all. Healing and grieving expressions exist so differently for all of us. I think it’s important that we do not trivialize or glorify varying forms of healing as conveners but rather allow them all to exist, without judgement and without coercion.
Throughout the weekend we were held with care, intention and love by two elders: Laura Calmwind and Gerard Segassige. A teachable moment that resonated deeply with me is Gerard’s reflection on our fear to lead movement work. I’ve witnessed this hesitance to lead many times in my organizing and sometimes it’s because we want to make sure that leadership is not carried by a person but by a community. Often, though, our hesitance to lead is due to our fear of failing.
Historically rooted systems of oppression, like colonialism, hinder our ability to dream. Many of us carry shame for the dreams we have or move through the world being reminded of their unlikelihood. The work of supporting each other in doing community change work from our hearts is allowing spaces for us to dream for our communities, to be affirmed in our dreaming and to be supporting in our leading. As leaders, our responsibility is to invite; to ask others to join us; and to be open to failing in the process.
Something I have always found to be beautiful about YSI is how every person brought into the network describes YSI differently. It has been described to me in the number of years as a support network, a learning collective and a systems change organization. YSI, like many of us, has an impact that ripples in ways that can’t be entirely grasped and this is largely due to the fact that they adapt as their network of youth and community organizers needs it.
I leave this gathering with a gratitude for the people in my life that have rippled in ways I could never know. The conversations from 5 years ago that have stuck with me, that have drastically changed my life trajectory, that have thrown me into the deep end of my own healing journey. I carry joy at the thought of how this gathering will ripple into future youth movements, organizing collectives and new friendships.
In Love and Solidarity,
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