Community-based Media Tactics for Development Advocacy and Social Change: Course Reflection

Written by: Naziha Nasrin

My journey in this course began with uncertainty and taking a leap of faith of trying to learn something different in Development Studies that I had not been exposed to before. I remember sitting together with my fellow class mates on the first day of class as we introduced ourselves. Almost everyone had taken a course with Professor Chan before and was familiar with his research and I remember not having any idea what to expect. However, after going through this journey together with everyone including those from Professor Sicchia and Professor Von Lieres’s class, I felt that I was part of a community much larger than this course itself where we learned to create collective change and advocacy by breaking the barriers of traditional methods of learning through workshops, collaborations and unity.

One of my takeaways from this course was that of learning about mapping systems, systems thinking, and how different systems interact with each other on different levels. While it was hard to grasp at first and understand the core concept of how to map the system, I was able to engage in my topic regarding the barriers of post-secondary education faced by international students in a more in-depth level. It was very interesting to learn about how local, national and global systems interact with one another in a non-linear and constant manner. Traditionally, systems are thought to be technocratic, linear and following a hierarchy but however, technocratic means are not the solutions to systems which are rooted in hidden agendas, invisible powers and political context. This is why it is crucial to identify the gaps in the system and disclose the invisible and hidden powers so that solutions can be proposed. Learning this guided me to reflect upon my topic and search for undisclosed invisible powers within the university system and the invisible power of the global knowledge economy.

My second takeaway from this course was the learning the power of community through the bi-weekly workshops from Volunteer Toronto, the TD Centre for Learning and Development, and the Taibu Community Health Centre.  Prior to this course, I was always distant from community organizations for advocacy and change at the local grass roots level because I did not think that community groups can make big significant changes at the local and national level. However, attending these workshops and hearing the stories of the lived experiences of the members of each community group, completely changed my perspective. I was so honored and humbled to be among each group, especially the women from the IWIP Training Program from the TD Centre for Learning and Development. Each group within the IWIP Program tackled extremely important social justice issues including researching the link between income and financial abuse in the households of South Asian women, affordable childcare in Toronto, the struggles of Post-Secondary Education faced by immigrant women and the integration of newcomer youth in Toronto. All of these research projects by the IWIP trainees had very strong impacts on the local level through deputations at City Hall regarding childcare in Toronto, having media coverage by Global News and furthermore, their research had an impact on an institutional level by sharing their experiences with students at UofT. This in turn showed me that the validity, legitimacy and strength in community development through active participatory community based research is more powerful through primary forms of knowledge creation and lived experiences than secondary sources from journal articles to create advocacy change.

This brings me to my third and biggest takeaway from this course, that is, breaking away from traditional methods and norms of academic research and solely relying on secondary journal articles to have legitimate and valid scholarship in knowledge creation. It was very eye opening for me to learn about the broader global knowledge economy influencing how we shape our ideas and how it creates epistemological forms of violence through knowledge commodification. As an IDS student, I had never been exposed to this phenomena of the monopoly in the legitimate production of knowledge by private corporations and equity firms. This concept along with the Hackathon Workshop regarding the work of Ursula Franklin heavily influenced how I thought about the invisible barriers of my topic that many international students faced as a result of this presumed expectation for them to conform to a western education system. By researching further into this for my topic regarding the barriers to access post-secondary education by international students at UTSC, I was able to find that the previous knowledge, cultural, traditional and lived experiences of international students are not considered valid in the western university system. Furthermore, this causes many students to feel internally inferior and the lack of mental health services by the university to cater towards their needs also leads them to struggle academically as a result of this. This can be related to Franz Fanon’s ideology of a form of inferior assimilation created internally within individuals due to the lack of legitimizing their lived experiences as mentioned in the workshop by the Taibu Community Health Centre.

Furthermore, with the control over knowledge production by publishing companies, in the global North, it makes it more difficult for scholars of the South to have their works published and for students to access these journals as well. This was reflected in our Hackathon Workshop where Ursula Franklin’s work was mainly cited by scholars from western countries such as US, Italy and the United Kingdom rather than other countries from Latin America, Africa, East Asia and especially Germany as she was from German origin. Moreover, every scholar who publishes their work is given an ID and if one does not have an ID, they cannot have their work published. This showcases the inequality in the production of knowledge and how even the solutions which many experts propose regarding development studies, are mostly influenced from a westernized ideology as a result of knowledge commodification.

Learning these three takeaways has been very impactful as this has helped me change my ideologies and how I think about creating advocacy change within development studies. From this course, I was able to learn that meaningful and impactful change comes from community at the local level coming together to create collective action. Furthermore, change is created beyond secondary traditional methods of academic research, that is through creative forms of storytelling and new media platforms that engage us to share our collective lived experience. These include sharing spoken word, short stories, creating podcasts, making infographics, websites, blogs, photo journals and data visualization through hackathon methodologies.

In terms of recommendations for improvement and support regarding student led advocacy in International Development at the institutional level here at UTSC, I think that the biggest change that should be made is to broaden the platform and scope of opportunities given to international students academically and in student engagement programs. For example, in our topic regarding the barriers to access post-secondary education by international students at UTSC, we found that international students are not able to apply for executive positions part of Scarborough Campus Students Union (SCSU), as executive positions require members to be part-time students and international students are not able to do so because of their visa study permit requiring them to be full time students. Executive positions at the SCSU such as Vice President Academics give students the power to make significant changes within academic policies in the university from which international students are excluded and yet they face more challenges than other domestic students such as high tuition fees, lack of legal and financial aid. Furthermore, in regards to academic opportunities in International Development Studies such as the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship Program, international students are excluded from applying as one of the conditions for the program requires students to be permanent residents or Canadian citizens. In order to provide advocacy and change especially at the institutional level for international students, these opportunities need to be broadened to include the perspectives and experiences of these students in order to give their voices a platform on how to make significant meaningful change in development studies.

Overall, my experience in this course was very unique as it truly broke down the barriers of traditional academic learning methods and allowed for hands on learning by experiencing the stories of community and creating meaningful relationships where we can make change through collective action. I would personally like to thank Professor Chan for this opportunity along with Maggie and Blessing who were willing to share their own personal experiences with the class to inspire us. I would also like to thank Myuri for working so hard to put everything together for the workshops and introducing me to this course. I wouldn’t be in this class, if it was not for her!

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