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Community Psychology PhD Chronicles pt. 3

Human Connection and the Learning Pathway

January 25, 2022

We’re in the heart of winter now… glorious snowshoeing in our backwoods with the frolicking doggies as much as possible. It’s important to connect with nature and each other. And as far as connecting with each other, the Learning Pathway is underway, with sessions online.

Human connection in a virtual space

As Brad Olson (one of my faculty advisors) so astutely pointed out after reading my last blog, it’s a pretty big oversimplification to say ‘my PhD program is online’ or ‘we are doing the Learning Pathway online’.

Last week I was co-facilitating a multi-layered discussion online with a group of about 20 people from across Nova Scotia. We were on Zoom in breakout groups using Jamboard to provide input on a theory of change in Mural, and I was broadcasting messages to all the small groups. And we were discussing something very complex, sensitive, and tender about the group’s work. Partway through, I realized that two years ago there was no such thing as online breakout rooms, that what we were doing would not have been possible, and it certainly would have been well beyond my abilities (my technology skills and confidence have skyrocketed through the pandemic)! So there is all this to learn as someone who holds space for people to come together and for wonderful things to happen. 

And then there is the matter of content – what can be covered online? How do we adapt the sharing, how much can we take on, and for how long? It’s not simply a matter of doing exactly what we would do in person online. As we have all been forced online, we all have different comfort levels and knowledge about using technology. And after a couple of years of staring at screens, people are ‘Zoomed out’, and want to get up and move, interact with each other, have informal conversations, laugh, cry, hug, and support each other.

We somehow have to find a way to push through these challenges while we are living with public health restrictions. So how do we build and strengthen relationships, have fun, move, support each other, and learn together?

The Learning Pathway – Human Connection in Evaluation

We have a 7-person facilitation team, twelve African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw participants, three provincial government champions, and one heck of an amazing Wisdom Circle with three community leaders who provide guidance, input, support, encouragement, and openness to the process. It already feels like a very rich journey as we tackle trying to learn about decolonizing evaluation and shifting it to better reflect community worldviews and serve communities.

We have had two gatherings of the Learning Pathway already, at the end of November to launch our journey together, and again in mid-January to start tackling content. And the space has felt sacred. It’s grounded in culture and ceremony; the Wisdom Circle members are present and offering opening and closing prayers, reflections, and a libation ceremony; community members are prepared and informed and eager to participate; we told each other stories about our names as we introduced ourselves – which honoured our families and places and who we are, and added a feeling of intimacy and tangible warmth; we have taken turns bringing music to move to on our breaks. This feels like a magical combination and a blessing.

We are getting together (online!) as a large group once a month until June, and we will be starting some other activities in between these gatherings to support participants working on their evaluation projects. 

There are more challenges ahead: how do we actually decolonize evaluation? What work do colonial evaluators need to do to unlearn harmful practices, and learn to honour other ways of knowing and being? How do we best bring in Africentric and Indigenous evaluators to share their knowledge and experience? How do we find the balance between flowing with emergence and having enough structure so that people know what to expect? What content do we prioritize of all the many things we could explore?

I look forward to learning about these things, and about the challenges – and successes – that haven’t happened yet. I am thankful to be sharing this journey with such a wonderful group of people who genuinely care about each other and genuinely want to learn.

Meanwhile, back in class…

As for the PhD coursework, since my last post I have been learning about grant writing, and urban politics and the community. Now I am immersed in statistics for Community Psychology, and a dissertation course that is helping me move the work along (20 minutes of writing per day, plus a few other tasks)!

Let’s keep connecting like humans

Finally, in my first blog I talked about Pat O’Neill, who introduced me to Community Psychology and really encouraged me and helped me build my confidence as an academic. I’m grateful that I spontaneously expressed my gratitude for all this one Saturday morning a few years ago when I saw him at our local farmers’ market. Pat passed away recently (his obituary is a lovely tribute to his life), and I’ve been thinking again about the impact he had on me. It’s amazing what a difference a small gesture or series of gestures can make to someone; so please go for it and support someone, encourage someone, let loose with a spontaneous burst of gratitude, put more love in the world. Do it in honour of someone like Pat in your life.

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