Two Career Books You Should Read Written By People of Colour

This book is all the things.

My day job is to help students at a large research-intensive university make meaning of their experiences and build purpose. I’m an experiential educator, a position that is a new application for me of my social planning background.  And although the past year has been a steep learning curve, I’m enjoying and growing in this new line of work.

Part of that learning has involved reading ”career” books, and one thing I have noticed is that it’s hard to find books about career that are written by people of colour. And so, every time I find a book that is written by a POC and talks about intersectional identities, I want to tell everyone I know about it.

And so as part of that slowly building list of books, I have two career books to share.

Continue reading

An Urban Romance (Lessons from Toronto)

The Heart of the City (Oct 2014)

The Heart of the City (Oct 2014)

Cities are people to me, and whether it was my first trip to Toronto many years ago, trips thereafter, moving to Toronto for graduate school in 2010, or moving back to Toronto in March 2014, it’s always felt like Toronto and I are courting. Will this be my long -term city? The question has surfaced again and again in my heart and mind over the past few years, and been the subject of many audio stories and blog posts and late night cups of tea. Toronto has always been a love who is different and unexpected and challenging, and who is constantly asking me step up and become more.  Toronto can drive me crazy, push me, break my heart sometimes but ultimately, it is a place where I feel intensely happy and fulfilled. In particular, this past year in Toronto has been one of the most incredibly challenging and beautiful years of my life to date, and has taught me so much. In response to that long asked question however, a couple of weeks ago I packed my things and came home to visit before I begin God-willing, a new chapter in a different city soon. Preparation for what lies ahead is often aided by learning from your experiences, and before that move, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the lessons of the past 12 months.  A list of brief reflections/lessons is underneath the audio story below.

1)  You cannot go backwards in time and recreate an experience.

One of the keys to contentment and adjustment I’ve discovered is that I need to create enough space in my heart for an experience and a place to unfold. When I moved to Toronto as a graduate student, I realised that the way to feel happy in the city was to not compare it to Vancouver, and to deflect questions about which city I liked better.  I love both cities for entirely different reasons and avoiding comparison allowed me to fall deeply in love with Toronto and appreciate the unique characteristics that make it an incredible place to live. Similarly, when I moved this year, it quickly became clear that my experience with the city would be entirely different to my previous experiences. I was no longer a student, I had been away for two years, and in many ways it felt like I was moving to a new city that felt slightly familiar, but otherwise was very very new. Allowing the city and I to get to know each other anew was important, and towards this end, it was important to create new rituals that allowed for new definitions and understandings of Toronto to unfold.

2) It is possible to become more comfortable with uncertainty. And you really don’t need very many things to be happy.

By nature, I am someone who is not good with change and uncertainty. I like it when things stay the same. I can’t handle plot-heavy novels because I stress out about the main characters. I feel sad when the gelato flavours at my favourite cafes change.  I mourn furniture changes when I come home to visit. All in all, it takes me a while to process new things. And while all these things are still true, this year has helped me to become much more comfortable with the unknown, and to learn that instead of becoming overwhelmed by change and uncertainty, all I can do is do the best I can with the day that is before me. In the past 12 months I’ve moved 4 times (3 times within Toronto and then back to Vancouver), and lived with 2 suitcases (I didn’t bring any books) for the entire time. Aside from groceries, every time I’ve wanted to purchase something, I thought about it several times beforehand, and by the time I asked myself the questions of “How will I move it? Where will I store it? Do I really need it?” several times, I usually realized it was something I could do without. In August I had a trip home scheduled, and it was time to move from the apartment I was in, so though I hadn’t found a new apartment yet, I packed my things, left them with a friend and went home for three days. When I returned I started a new job the next day and only retrieved my things a few days later, but I still had everything I needed with me in the little backpack I had taken to Vancouver. I found a new apartment the next week, but the lesson that you actually need very little, and that uncertainty can only be lived through one moment at a time has stayed with me. This year has taught me to become better at something I find very difficult: trusting and letting go.

Continue reading

On Faith Friendly Communities

Urban sanctuaries, Bandung Indonesia

Urban sanctuaries, Bandung Indonesia

When at home, conversations about Islam, the sight of other people praying and the sound of the greeting assalamu alaykum (peace be upon you) are commonplace. But when I travel, or am in an unfamiliar environment more generally, encountering the same moments become vital for personal health. I need a quiet place to pray and meaningful conversations about faith to process my surroundings or to decompress from frequent questions about my background.

On December 14th last year, I stood waiting for the light to change at a downtown street. As I waited, I played absent-mindedly with my phone before flipping it on and turning to Twitter. But instead of retweeting messages about the event I had just left –  lunch at a downtown hotel where I had been celebrating the work of staff members whose secondment was coming to an end, the news that greeted me was that a massacre had taken place in Connecticut, killing 20 young children in the school.

Nearly a year later, I still remember that moment of feeling dizzy and shaky on my feet. In those seconds I couldn’t breathe, and all I wanted was a mosque, or any quiet place to sit and pray. But I was downtown, and there was no multi-faith space to be found. And so instead I rushed to the Vancouver Central Public Library, spread out my coat, and prayed behind a stack of books once I arrived.

As cities we have physical health strategies, strategies for a food secure city, programs and strategies to improve economic health, but we lack non commercial spaces for quiet and reflection.  In moments like that, we need spaces that offer refuge and solace in times of crisis. We need spaces without stimuli – not religious spaces necessarily, but places that nurture and nourish the spirit. We need spaces and services that help us improve our spiritual health in ways that resonate with our personal spiritual and philosophical traditions. We need cities that facilitate reflection.

A few weeks ago I experienced such a moment of reflection.  I was visiting University of British Columbia – Okanagan in Kelowna BC and when I arrived, I was delighted to discover that the Health and Wellness office offers a multi-faith room for the use of the campus community. The room isn’t big, but it has plenty of natural light and beautiful hardwood floors. In the cupboards in the back there are prayer mats, but the room itself does not have any religious imagery, making it accessible to individuals from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. The best part of the Centre is its accessibility; it is centrally located on campus. And because the campus is small, the prayer centre is 5 minutes away from any of the other main academic buildings. (More information about the Multi-Faith space can be found here)

In my last visit to the Centre before I flew home, another student was already there when I entered. We exchanged a few words, I confirmed the direction of prayer in the room, and then we prayed together.  That combination – being greeted with kindness, the joy of hearing some of my favourite verses beautifully recited, and praying in a beautiful space brought tears to my eyes, and that moment is perhaps my favourite experience from my trip. It is, to use Karen Armstrong’s words, a ‘spot of time’ that I will return to again and again in my memory.

That moment, and that prayer space reminded me of the University of Toronto. I attended to the University of Toronto for graduate school, and while no school is perfect, U of T serves as an important model of what a faith friendly community can look like. In an interview with Sun TV, Mark Toulouse of Emmanuel College says the following:

“Three to four thousand Muslim students go to the University of Toronto in the St George downtown campus. In a thriving international city like Toronto where the evidence of a rich tradition of faith expression are all around us, it makes sense to work intentionally to create forums where we can have conversations and learn more about one other.. In many respects religious practices are private, part of one’s personal devotional life or personal beliefs. But religious practices across the world are also often public and rightly so… Religion is one of the most important forces that shape an individual’s life, and whenever people engage the public, they can only engage it with what the fullness of their life is. And part of fullness of that life is what shapes and forms them, and religious practice is among those things that do that.  We believe it is very important to encourage dialogue, to have conversation with one another.”

The University of Toronto is exceptional (and I’ve outlined some of the ways that they support a faith friendly campus below) but they are not alone. Across Canada, more and more universities are recognising that any robust health and wellness policy needs to consider spiritual health as well, and support the pastoral needs of its community members.

Research

The University hosts the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative that “examines how religion manifests in public spaces, institutions, and interactions, and considers the challenges and possibilities of religious diversity in Toronto and around the globe.”  They hold events, curate religion related news on their website, and host a ‘religion themed’ service learning course.

In Vancouver, Simon Fraser University has been a leader in interfaith understanding. The Interfaith centre at the University has its own interfaith mission and charter that outlines how the university will meet the pastoral, educational, bridge-building and worship needs of its members. It’s a forward thinking, impressive set of principles that recognises that spiritual health is a core part of personal wellbeing and success.  There is also a Dispute Resolution proposal that is clearly outlined on the website. In addition, the University is continually offering dynamic, relevant programming through the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures that is available to the students and non-students alike. Within the History department, it is possible for students to pursue a concentration in Middle East and Islamic History. Over the past year or so, I’ve been so grateful for the presence of the CSMSC and the breadth and depth of the scholars they have brought to Vancouver to give public lectures.

2) Faith Based Perspective to Services/Student Development

At the University of Dalhousie, spiritual wellness is an important part of how health and wellness is understood.  The  Dalhousie Multifaith Centre features the events of diverse groups (including a group that looks at Women and Spirituality) and in general aims to provide “a complete education (that) addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.”

Like Dalhousie, most universities have some sort of chaplain system in place. In one of the most interesting projects in Canada, students at the University of Toronto, fundraised over $70,000 in Sept 2012 for Canada’s first full-time Muslim chaplain. The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto offers classes, counselling and dialogue programs and is a project that offers fascinating possibilities of how student affairs can provide indepth pastoral care. It is a project to watch, learn, and benefit from.

c) Athletics

Women in headscarves feature on the U of T athletics marketing materials and signage. On a personal note, seeing myself reflected in materials reminds me that exercise and athletics matter. There are ways to exercise and swim while still being covered, and health and faith are not incompatible. The Athletics facility also offers one hour of women only time daily in the weight room and reaches out to different populations at U of T to encourage them to prioritize their physical wellbeing.  (Their postcards advertising their classes and pooI for instance, feature Muslim women). In 2014, the U of T Multifaith Centre will also offer programming about the connection between spirituality and physical health.

The meeting of food and spirituality.

The meeting of food and spirituality in Kelowna, BC

d) Food

I lived at New College at the University of Toronto for a year, and the daily cafeteria menu at New College offered halal options every day. There were clearly marked signs and separate pots when a halal version of a dish was available. When the same item wasn’t available, an alternate menu item was offered and prepared separately.  At the cafeteria I visited at UBC -O, there were signs posted frequently indicating that halal, vegetarian, gluten and vegan options were available on the menu.

At UBC-O, I was impressed to see how halal, vegetarian and vegan food was clearly marked in the cafeteria, giving visitors many options for lunch, regardless of their faith background.

A moment of peace, Kelowna BC

A moment of peace, Kelowna BC

Seeking direction, Kelowna BC

Seeking direction, Kelowna BC

3) Space

There are multiple prayer locations at the University of Toronto and since the 1960s, there has been accommodation at Hart House for Friday prayers for Muslim students. There is space at Robarts, (the main campus library) prayer space at OISE for education students, prayer space at the Multi-Faith centre, prayer space at Bahen for engineering students, and prayer space at Emmanuel College.  There are nine prayer spaces in total at the University of Toronto, and these multiple prayer locations ensure that students are able to access prayer space easily, regardless of their field of study. Out of respect for the students and the needs of their prayers, the room at Hart House where Friday prayers take place has abstract art – no faces or figurines are present in the room.

At the University of Victoria, there are also multiple prayer locations on campus, and a variety of groups are engaged in spiritual practice on campus. At Simon Fraser University, each of the 3 SFU campuses offers easily accessible, bookable prayer/meditation spaces.

4) Dialogue

Through informal and informal programming at the Multi-Faith Centre, there is also ample opportunity to meet other students from different faith backgrounds. One of my favourite programs was called Muffin Madness, and featured tea, wonderful muffins and students from different faith groups. Any faith group that books space through the Multi-Faith Centre is required to co-host one Muffin Madness and one multi-faith experience, and the diversity of multi-faith programming offered over the course of the semester is impressive. For the most part, the programming is intersectional, and emphasizes the connection between spirituality and other aspects of identity or programs on campus.

 In September 2012 the U of T Religion in the Public Sphere began the “Religion Diversity  Leadership Project” a 3 year, $500,000 project with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to “build networks of communication, inquiry, and action around the problems and possibilities of living in a religiously diverse society.” The project offers religious diversity youth leadership training, service learning projects that focus on religious diversity, and  public forums and community research workshops.

At the University of Calgary  Faith and Spirituality centre, the Student team organises events (including an interfaith bookclub!) and holds weekly meetings for community members interested in Faith and Spirituality community work. Its weekly event calendar  features a variety of events, weekly teas and a program called the Communal Table that focuses on “building community around cooking and eating together.”

Effective public spaces are accessible, comfortable, sociable spaces with activities (source: The Project for Public Spaces). These four characteristics define great public spaces, and the same is true for vibrant faith friendly spaces and communities as well. Any organization or community that holds diversity as an important community value, must take spiritual health and faith friendly environments seriously in order to remain relevant.

A Community is Made of Men and Women

Men's prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

Men’s prayer space/our Arabic classroom in Carrolton, Texas.

As much as I love Vancouver, there are moments when I want to move. There are moments when I miss spaces where the educational experience of men and women is equal, such as the SeekersHub in Toronto, where I always felt welcome, and never felt like my gender was a barrier to furthering my Islamic education.  I miss interfaith prayer spaces such as the MultiFaith Centre (and other prayer spaces) at the University of Toronto that were physically beautiful, and did not barricade women in a corner.  And more recently, there are moments when I want to return to Dallas, where I spent a month in a mosque learning classical Arabic grammar this summer, and where class was held in the main prayer space, and structured in a way that men and women were on opposite sides of the room, and equally able to learn from our teacher. Aside from the learning benefits, knowing your teacher means that you can model their behaviour. From the ways a teacher interacts with you, you learn what appropriate gender interaction looks like, and can extend those principles to the rest of your life. Knowing your teacher means that you have someone to ask questions and seek advice when you are unsure what to do. It is essential.

In Vancouver however, we’re not there yet.

Two nights ago, the founder of the Bayyinah Institute (the same institute that offers the Arabic course I did in Dallas) came to Vancouver for a lecture on stories in the Qur’an. Though he wasn’t my teacher in Dallas, during one of our class days he came to help us review for an upcoming exam, and I was looking forward to a small way, reconnecting with what was a very special month of learning for me.

Unfortunately, I never heard him speak. The hall where the lecture was held was large, but the women were in a different, crowded space, with no video link. So after waiting for a bit and seeing if I could sit outside the lecture hall, my brother and I left. The teacher was surprised as well I think, and mentioned that ‘he wasn’t used to women not being in the same space, would do a Q and A session after the event with the female attendees, and would stay as long as women wanted him to stay.”

I appreciate his attempt to address an inequitable situation. But it’s not up to a guest teacher to find some way to include everyone; equity needs to be thought of at the outset of the planning process. To give an example from urban planning, when the floor plans of housing developments and community centres do not consider the needs of the multiple communities and cultures, it is a message that only the dominant culture matters. When transit users with wheelchairs experience horrendous delays, poorly lit and dangerous transit stops, and systems that do not account for their needs, those barriers of access signal that their needs are not valued. We send messages about who does and does not belong in the ways we structure spaces and places.

As long the learning experience of women is not valued, the education of women, communities and families will suffer. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it becomes difficult to invite friends and colleagues who may be interested in learning more about Islam and wish to fill in their own gaps of knowledge. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it sounds hollow to talk about how gender equity is something inherent to Islam.

And so, rather than running away to another city, below are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to create better spaces. These are not new ideas, but they make a real impact.

1) If you only have one space available that is large enough for all your attendees, have the men and women share that space, and set up tables that are side by side.

You can have an aisle separating both sides of the room for ease of movement. If you don’t have a classroom available and you’re in a mosque, use the men’s prayer room.  In Dallas, the women’s section of the mosque was on the same floor as the men’s section with a one way mirror. During our evening classes, if anyone from the larger community wished to sit separately, they could still see into the class easily, but nobody could see them. (95% of attendees sat in the main section of the mosque though). A few years ago I was on a study trip called the Rihla, and spent a few weeks with teachers from the US and UK in Saudi Arabia. We sat on the floor in our classes, on opposite ends of the room. In Toronto there is a week long retreat held annually with incredible teachers from around the world, and again, that event happens through side by side seating, with a section in the middle of the room for families who wish to sit together.

2) If you are designing a space and you’d like a partition, make it subtle. At the SeekersHub in Toronto, one of my favourite spaces to learn, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, the teachers were at the front of the room, and there was a bookshelf in the middle. The room was equally divided, you could see the teacher, but the students on the other side of the room couldn’t see you. It was a beautiful set-up.

3) When you see an uninclusive space, act as an ally. It’s not up to women alone to advocate for inclusive spaces. In our family, we only go to events where I can hear and experience the event properly, and my Dad and brother are my strongest allies in bringing up issues of access. The teachers that I value most: my teacher in Dallas, my teacher at the Hub in Toronto, and other teachers I’ve learnt from in other settings, often speak out about how communities need to view the inclusion and involvement of women differently. The students I studied with at the University of Toronto were men and women who cared about equity, and if I was ever in a situation where I felt uncomfortable, there were lots of people who noticed the same dynamics and worked to address them. It is alienating to be the only person advocating for your learning.

4) Have an ongoing study of the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Sometimes spaces are segregated in harmful ways because we aren’t necessarily familiar with the ways women were nurtured historically in Islam. But when we study the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the ways in which he created a community in which men and women were equally valued, and the contributions, dignity and independence of his wife Khadijah, the courage of his daughters, the beauty of other members of his family and community, it is clear that gender equity are part of the Islamic tradition. One great learning resource to learn more is the Qalam Institute’s Podcast on the Prophet’s Biography, which goes into the Prophet’s life in a lot of detail.

5) Support organizations that care about their female students. If you can’t find inclusive spaces, still continue to learn. I’ve been remiss this year in organising regular study circles with others, but this is something I hope to do in upcoming months.  SeekersGuidance is a place with wonderful online courses, the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto publishes its lectures and classes on its SoundCloud page, and both of these resources are wonderful resources to share, support and learn from.

Nine Things Being a Residence Advisor Taught Me About Helping Other People

Coffee/tea go a long way in making people feel comfortable. (Distillery District, Toronto)

Coffee/tea go a long way in making people feel comfortable. (Distillery District, Toronto)

Though I was terrified before I started, during the second year of my Masters I was a residence don, an experience that was an intense education on how to build a community and support others.  Helping students build like-minded friendships, resolve conflicts, succeed academically and avoid unhelpful social behaviours (along with the million and one other things you find yourself doing as a residence advisor) taught me so much. Above all though, it taught me that with warmth, love, good intentions and smiles, it is possible to help others, even when you don’t have all the skills and answers at the outset. Determination, not perfection is what is needed, and all personality types (even the introverted ones) can serve others.

It also taught me that helping is a two way process. Throughout the year, whether it was in tea chats at my apartment, ice cream socials in the hallway, dinners in the cafeteria, or any other interaction, I felt so so blessed to be given the opportunity to work with the amazing 17-20 year olds on my floor. They were interesting, ambitious, courageous women, and I learnt so much more from them than any contributions I was able to make. In truth, we helped each other grow.

These lessons are relevant for any community planner, and to remind myself to keep these learnings alive, I thought I’d outline some of the things being a don taught me about helping other people. For the residence advisors out there, what would you add to this list?

Continue reading

Notes from the Human Rights, Religion and the Law Lecture at U of T (Jan 11th 2012)

In January 2012, the University of Toronto held a lecture called Human Rights, Religion and the Law as part of a series of events with the Ontario Humans Rights Commission (which was updating its policy on creed) and the University of Toronto Religion in the Public Sphere program. Every time I’ve heard Barbara Hall speak I’ve been moved by her warmth and powerful intellect, and that evening was no different. The other two speakers of the evening, Winnifred Sullivan and David Seljak were equally powerful, and scholars who I hope to continue to follow. What was powerful about that night was the widespread acknowledgement that we need to unpack our definitions and understandings of secularism, understand its foundations, and recognise the role of power in constructing what we assume to be natural. Once we do this, it is easier to see that models based on accommodation and tolerance are deeply flawed.

I mostly just listened to the speakers that night, but today I came across my (brief) notes from the lecture, and I’ve included them below.

Continue reading

How Debates About Legitimacy and Technical Standards Can Mask Islamophobia

I stumbled upon an article today about an incident from Australia where “a community centre which also facilitated Muslim prayers” was denied a planning permit. The post in its entirety can be read here, but the following quotes from the article caught my attention:

What hurt most was the open vindictiveness displayed by objector neighbours who were passionately against having this centre in their backyard.

At times the objections bordered on hysteria, I still have them in my file – “these Muslims celebrate something called Ramadan where they slaughter animals on site”, “I am followed by Muslims who want to steal my credit card details” And then there is the hysteria that connects extremism around the world with the establishment of an Islamic centre. That somehow if an Islamic centre were established it would produce a wave of extremists that would destroy the community. This is the sort of hysteria thrown up with attempts to establish Islamic centres in Camden, Perth and more recently in Doveton and Monash. (…) Sadly what does hold sway are incidences of double parking, blocking of driveways, and excessive noise. That is sad and indefensible. (…) And yet it is easily reversible by exemplary behaviour stemming from humility and sincere concern for the plight of God’s Creations – people and the environment. “

Though I respect the sentiment, and do agree with the point that faith centres should think about how they are helping the greater whole, there are two issues here that require a closer look.

Continue reading