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Alumni Breakfast Series season finale: Building inclusive and supportive neighborhoods

By Eula Mengullo, June 30 2020—

The University of Calgary Alumni Association’s Dig in! Breakfast Series season finale featured an insightful discussion on building supportive, inclusive neighbourhoods to commemorate World Refugee Day and Neighbour Day in Calgary, both of which were on June 20. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, and Centre for Newcomers’ President and CEO Anila Lee Yuen collectively discussed the importance of creating strong neighborhoods and the effects of global crises on local communities. 

The event began with an opening remark by community advocate and activist, Syma Habib who also moderated the Thursday morning discussion. 

Beginning by highlighting some of the events that enveloped the global and local community since January — Australian wildfires, global pandemic, social and racial justice movements, and just recently, the largest hailstorm in Calgary — Mayor Nenshi described how altogether, these created a “real opportunity for us […] to build back better” and re-strengthen our society. Lee Yuen followed with a remark that our current situation is an ideal time to reflect on the most significant characteristics of being a good neighbor. 

According to Lee Yuen, one of the primary steps to being an inclusive and supportive neighbor is by treating a neighbor the way they want to be communicated with. 

“Treat people how they wish to be treated, to put them at the centre,” explained Lee Yuen, “not yourself at the centre.” 

However, Lee Yuen also addressed the fact that the ugly side to being a neighbour can also come out as individuals attempt to navigate through these unprecedented times.

One of the main themes of discussion was systemic racism and unconscious bias — both of which became even more transparent through the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matters Movement. Lee Yuen talked about the significance of recognizing racial discrimination in our neighborhoods and how our contemporary situation is a “really important time to speak out about blatant acts of racism and discrimination,” as well as “other forms of vulnerability and oppression that so many of our most vulnerable are facing.” 

In response to how to properly address racism and unconscious bias in our neighbourhoods, Lee Yuen responded that “being open to the fact that systemic racism exists in Canada” is a crucial primary step to dismantling the racism that exists in all of our systems today. 

“It is extremely important for our community to consistently, as Canadians and as Calgarians, to [consistently] speak out, to [consistently] affirm that [yes], systemic racism exists,” said Lee Yuen. 

When asked about the barriers to neighbourliness in Calgary, Lee Yuen and Nenshi collectively highlighted how the distribution of and access to resources and facilities in the city have been uneven. Throughout years of experience in the social service sector, Lee Yuen described that one of the recurring barriers she discovered was the inequity in the access to technology and information, which hinders individuals from actively participating in their communities. Additionally, Nenshi responded that while the city has evolved to become more diverse throughout the course of time, we are currently  “increasingly isolating ourselves by income, ethnicity, background, and profession” — barriers, which he said, are often self-imposed. 

Nonetheless, the speakers also shared some of the distinct forms that neighbourliness has taken throughout the community in light of the global pandemic. In particular, Nenshi recognized Lee Yuen’s response to the outbreak in the town of Brooks by delivering culturally-appropriate food to those who were affected. Lee Yuen subsequently described how several small businesses, community associations, faith-based groups and individuals had donated to the Centre for Newcomers in various ways that enabled them to go out and purchase culturally appropriate foods. Nenshi also mentioned how a Facebook group named YYC Covid-19 Volunteers is an example of how Calgarians are banding together despite being in isolation by offering various kinds of assistance to one another.

In his closing remarks, Nenshi emphasized the essence of creating inclusive and supportive neighborhoods in building a community that is actively anti-racist and proudly promotes the full potential of all individuals, particularly those who are Black and Indigenous. 

He concluded by elaborating that “community and neighbourliness […] is about truly understanding the lived experiences of our neighbours that might be different from our own, and ensuring that we are actively working to pull down barriers so that people have the opportunity to live that life with dignity and potential.”

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