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Becoming a Golden Hawk means more than just cheering on our (really good) varsity teams – it means being a student who cares about your community, who works hard in the classroom, and who takes advantage of all the learning opportunities that can happen outside the classroom, too.


April 27, 2018

From email surveys to online feedback forms, the digital age has arguably changed how people communicate and share information. But for a group of community-engaged students at Wilfrid Laurier University, the ‘old school’ approach of face-to-face conversation still holds value.

The team of students strategically stationed themselves along Kitchener’s Queen Street on March 23 to gather and verify pedestrian feedback on the priorities identified in the City of Kitchener’s placemaking plan for the street. The plan includes improved access for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, unique lighting and the creation of public gathering spaces between Charles and Duke Streets. The student-run event also ensured that residents in the city’s downtown core, including those who may face barriers to digital information, were aware of the project and could offer their opinions.

The March 23 exercise was part of the final project for CMEG305: Semester in Community Engagement, the capstone course of the Community Engagement Option at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. The option is offered in partnership with community organization The Working Centre (TWC) in Kitchener. Laurier Associate Professor Bob Sharpe led the 2017/18 course, with contributions from Laurier professors John Abraham, Carol Duncan, Morgan Holmes, Edmund Pries, and TWC’s Heather Montgomery. The option is part of C3 Innovation Labs, a hub of experiential learning opportunities in the Faculty of Arts that immerses students in the complex social challenges faced by cities and communities, providing them with a forum to design and test creative solutions.

Third-year Laurier student Victoria Kabetu says the on-the-ground experience offered tangible insight into community building and municipal project planning.

“The consultation event allowed us to see how important residents are when it comes to community building. Interacting with a diverse group of people reinforced that everyone has something significant to contribute.”

Since September, CMEG 305 students have explored key concepts and theoretical frameworks of social inclusion, local democracy, distributive economics and community development. Students integrated classroom concepts into the design of three separate consultation tactics: a sticker dot voting system (also known as dotmocracy), identifying steps to placemaking, and open dialogue. Each tactic ran at different points along the Queen Street corridor to engage a broad range of passers by in multiple ways.

Putting theory into practice is a transformative learning experience for students, says Sharpe.

“After seven months of study in downtown Kitchener, the students were prepared for a successful public consultation that was collaborative and meaningful, and showed an appreciation of the place and the community,” says Sharpe. “Through this experience, students come to realize how their various arts-based disciplines complement community research. They are also struck by a deepening empathy and appreciation of human relations within the community, which is a transformative experience for many students.”

Like any learning experience, conducting the consultations came with challenges. Complex questions and strong opinions led to difficult conversations for the students – a reality faced by project planners, consultants and just about every other role.

Cory Bluhm, executive director of Economic Development at the City of Kitchener, applauded the students for their people-first approach to those situations.

“Engaging with the public can be difficult, but you want to make sure people know you care and that you're listening. You want them to walk away feeling in a better state than when they first engaged you. That is the hard science of public engagement so it’s good that you could experience it,” said Bluhm to students at the April 2 debrief presentation about their consultation experience.

The Queen Street consultation event wasn’t the first time the students had worked closely with Kitchener’s downtown core community.

Each week, students spent six hours in a community placement coordinated by The Working Centre. The placement component to CMEG305 gives students a first-hand opportunity to experience a cross-section of successes and challenges that come with working in an urban community environment. Placements in TWC programs range from fixing bicycles at Recycle Cycles repair shop and prepping food at Maurita’s Kitchen to mentoring students in the Access to University (A2U) program.

Emma Graham said her placement at Queen Street Commons Café, an inclusive, low-cost coffee shop, contributed to her understanding about how urban communities and their members function.

“Life at the café is different than university life, and for some people, it’s their reality. Some people will push boundaries, and that’s their right. How I respond to those situations is important; I’ve learned a lot about being self aware,” says Graham.

While the students’ one-day event may seem small compared to city-led public engagement sessions, Kabetu is confident she and her classmates have made an impact for members of Kitchener’s downtown community.

“In order to make a city into a community, the most important voice to listen to is that of its members. These are the people who live here, walk the streets daily and are familiar with the problems the community faces the most.”

About C3 Innovation Labs (C3IL)

C3IL includes a variety of courses, internships and other experiential learning opportunities for Laurier students to enable them to engage in complex social challenges on campus, in the city and community, and apply their education to create and test innovative solutions. C3IL programming is open to all Laurier students. For more information visit wlu.ca/C3-innovation or email c3innovation@wlu.ca.

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