Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 3: The Role of Community

On this episode, we talk with Ana Serrano and Shabnam Tashakour about the role of the community in responding to coronavirus, and the values they hope will characterize our future society. Serrano holds leadership positions with the Canadian Film Centre and Open Democracy Project, and Tashakour is a member of the Bahá'í Continental Board of Counsellors for the Americas.

Read the Transcript

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

Laura Friedmann (Media Officer, Office of Public Affairs): Hi Anna and Shabnam. It is so great to have you here with us for this episode of The Public Discourse. Our topic today is around the value of community. But first, I was wondering if you could start byintroducing yourselves and sharing a little bit about your background with us. So, Ana?

Ana Serrano (Co-Chair, Open Democracy Project): Sure. Well thank you so much and it is a pleasure being here with you both. My name is Ana Serrano and I wear a number of different hats.

Some people know me as Ana Serrano who is the chief digital officer of the Canadian Film Centre. And so to that end, that particular community, is focused on the digital media community of Canada andartists who are digital practitioners. Some people know me as the co-chair of Open Democracy Project, and also co-Director of the DemocracyXChange Summit. So in that particular community, it's all about the folks who are part of the emerging democracy sector. Then I will soon be joining a new community as I head into my role as President and Vice-Chancellor at OCAD University. That community is going to be filled with students, and faculty, and stakeholders associated in higher education.

So that's my professional me. But personally I'm also a first generation immigrant; Filipino-Canadian. I very much identify as someone who belongs to that type of hybrid community of women of colour, as well as first generation, but decidedly Canadian, in the way I grew up. Which I'm sure a lot of your audience members can also relate to that. And I'm a mother.

Laura: Wonderful. I love that you bring all of these diverse experiences, and knowledge, and it's really great to have you here. So thank you. And Shabnam?

Shabnam Tashakour (Member of the Bahá’í Continental Board of Counsellors for the Americas): My name is Shabnam Tashakour and by profession I have been working in community development. I am also a teacher. I have two young children – two boys. I came to Canada when I was young, fleeing persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran, and have made my home here, happily.

I am a senior officer in the Bahá’í Faith serving on the Continental Board of Counsellors for the Americas. And I work with Bahá’í institutions and communities; particularly, more closely in Canada, assisting them with their educational efforts, their efforts around community building, social action and social and economic development.

Laura: So you know in this pandemic, people are spending most of their time close to their homes and taking care to limit physical contact with others. If you take a walk down the street, you might notice signs in the windows and on the sidewalk, these chalk messages with people saying, “We're all in this together!” You see these beautiful hearts. Families with children are sharing artwork so that the neighbours can feel hopeful. And we're starting to see how these relationships are an essential part of our social fabric.

But then, there's also, in this situation, a lot of tests. Tests that occur because of separation; difficulties that arise from being in the same space day in and day out; financial challenges. And I was wondering if you could share your thoughts about what resilience looks like at a moment like this? Is it about just getting through it, and we can do this? Or is it about doing something deeper and more lasting that will allow us to transform ourselves individually and collectively?

Ana: Well I think the thing that speaks to me in terms of resilience has to do with the fact that it may be our nature. Our culture is so performative, in terms of: we're constantly driven to be something, or toexcelat something, or to produce something, or to perform something. What has happened is the kind of concepts – which maybe a hundred years ago were seen as just the state of nature if you will, or the state of what it means to be (human) – are seen now as things to strive for.

So, I think resilience is one of those things. We learn things like, “We need to develop our grit,” “We need to build resilience.” Even the language, the epidemiological language, feels like, “I need to build my immunity!”

There are all these things – that somehow you cangrabat them, as opposed to be them. I think what's interesting about the notion of resilience today – without discounting the challenges that certainly some people have, like not everyone is privileged enough to have a home during this crisis, and to have food, and to have supportive families that they are with. Some people definitely have immense challenges. But what's interesting is:despite that, or in spite that, or not counting that, it's clear that we're more able to adapt than not. We're actually able to see how we are more resilient internally or naturally than we might think we are.

And I think there is something to be celebrated around that notion of resilience as something to let unfold in ourselves, as opposed to resilience as something to strive for from an external kind of understanding of it. I don't know if that makes sense to you.

Shabnam: Yeah, very much.

Ana: And sometimes just being quiet helps you do that, you know? So, you create this cadence of a more limited sense of life. And then you start to realize… Maybe you start to notice more.

Laura: Yeah. When you're saying all this, I keep thinking of this moment in time being an opportunity to look inward and take care of these personal processes that happen within us. But then we also have the community outside. Shabnam, you are working with communities, and you are working with Bahá’ís across the country. You're helping them strengthen their patterns of community building within this context, right? Within the context of a crisis. It's impossible for many of them to meet in person, so that's had an impact. How are you seeing people in these communities adapt constructively to these new circumstances?

Shabnam: I think one level of response of the Bahá’í community has been focused on the health and the well-being of all the communities to which they belong. In neighbourhoods across the country we've had a community building process that has engaged people of all backgrounds, religions, cultures, nations.

That is the wealth of strength that is in this country. We see all as protagonists in a community building process. So, there are efforts to raise consciousness, and awareness of knowledge, that could protect everyone in this pandemic. These efforts have been drawing on the talents of the community, in their own voices, in their own languages. Young people are at the forefront of that, using creative means. And then, another area of focus has been how a community can be a source of hope and inspiration.

And so, how do you cultivate that sense of reliance on a higher source? One example that I heard that was very moving was in an Indigenous community in Northern British Columbia. As cases were being discovered in the community, some of the families started to offer prayers over the phone with one another. Out of that environment came conversations about the health and the well-being of the community.

Another aspect of the effort has been to learn about how we use technology to create connection between people. How can we use technology to elevate thought? How can we use technology as a means of connection and education?The use of music, the use of beautiful videos that inspire and uplift, the use of storytelling. There are infinite forms that this is taking across the country at the level of the grassroots, as well as by professional artists.

So that's one of the things. The educational efforts of the Bahá’í community really foster the development of the arts at the grassroots. We have seen the arts release spiritual forces that uplift the hearts.

And then at another level, there have been a lot of efforts to lend support to the education of the young in the form of content and materials for parents to use to help children to have confidence and assurance.There have been other efforts of young people who have been nurturing children and younger youth at eleven- to fourteen year-old, to ensure that they have homework help at this time when education has been disrupted.

But then there are also efforts to promote conversations that are elevating, that inspire them to serve their communities. A lot of young people at this age, especially we're finding across the country of eleven- to fourteen year-olds, are being consumed by social media.They arespending all night on social media and then sleeping during the day. So, we are working to mobilize and work with families and the community to help that age group to engage in meaningful conversations about service to their communities.This often requires building a schedule in a daily life that tends to our physical needs, stimulates us intellectually and spiritually to cultivate qualities, but also to serve our communities.

It has taken several weeks to figure some of those things out, but the efforts are strengthening, which is really wonderful.

Laura: It seems that you're alluding to the idea that we're entering a new space. Maybe it's unknown, but a new way of thinking or a new way of being that is born out of this crisis. I think there has been all this talk of, “When things go back to normal, how are we going to be?”, “When things go back to 'normal', are we going to go back to how it used to be, or is it going to be different?" But we're also going to be changed by the crisis.

So, Ana, I was wondering: how do you think that we are adapting to this? And what is going to last as we emerge from this pandemic?

Ana: I think if we figure out a way to pay attention, then I think we can see how – in the next iteration of our society – there may be a lot of things that we thought were valuable, that we thought we needed, and we thought mattered, and that we invested all of our efforts into, are actually not as important anymore. A new set of values are emerging that we are realizing have much more material importance to us. If we pay attention to our current state now, those insights might come. My hope and my dream is that is what people are doing. That through conversations like this, we surface these insights that we are finding as we pay attention to our existence today, and figure out, “Oh, you know what? You know this is actually what matters. Art and culture.”

The fact that we live through this pandemic and the one thing that binds us all together is hearing people sing and seeing how art helps us get through and allows us to express those bottled up feelings that we haven't found expression for, but that's how we find a way to share that with others, right?

So that's one idea. But there are many more of those things, and I think if we can figure out what those things are, and say, “Well, this is actually what matters.” Then we can build a society, perhaps, that is more attuned to building the whole self, like you have said Shabnam, that looks at both the material society as well as the spiritual dimension of that society.

Laura: Thank you. I like this idea of paying attention. Certainly for me, these kind of conversations have been incredibly helpful at this time. You know, I miss walking down the street, or going to connect with people to have these kinds of conversations. I wanted to go back to this thing of resilience. Shabnam, I was wondering your thoughts on how important is the local community in helping to create resilience in the face of this current challenge?

Shabnam: I think that this concept that an individual can't be separated from its environment, is one to consider. We really are not designed to be solitary and alone. The change in the inner being of a person is a result of its environment, and then the condition of a person interacts with its environment. One thing that helpful to think about when we think about community is this idea that a community is not just a sum of individuals put together.

A way to think of a community is as an organic whole. The human body is made up of cells, but the individual cells can't function outside of the whole. There is an inherent interconnectedness, and I think because of the consumeristic culture in society, we have a conception of an individual as sovereign and separate from everyone, that is pre-occupied with just meeting its own needs.

But that's not our nature. Our nature is that we have a relationship with the human family that we are part of in our neighbourhoods, in our societies in the world, we are one. But then when we think about the local community takes great importance because, in a way, I think we live in a time when there are forces at work that are moving humanity towards its oneness and towards unity. Which is a very long term process. But then that process has to begin with a capacity building process in smaller settings. Where people are in community with one another.

A community cannot be strengthened by just a few leaders, or by just a few families leading, or the nuclear family with one head of a household. These conceptions are not fitting to a time in which we live, where humanity is in a long term process of maturation – just as in an individual life. You go through stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and you take on more habits of an adult. We're having to learn what a community looks like.

We can walk in a neighbourhood and we could say that – if we read it completely from a materialistic lens: “That neighbourhood has poverty.” Or, we can come and say: “Look at the relationships that are among people. Look at the degree to which they rely on one another and help one another in various ways. Look at the small businesses that are carried out and how people reinforce and support one another.” These are things that we look at with spiritual perception, that are beyond just material conditions.

Then also we can: how do we work to see potential in everyone; collaborate with our institutions, collaborate with families, and reflect on how we construct a community where everyone is a protagonist and everyone has a role? And we trust that we can actually grow and develop.

Ana: Well, it is funny because I think it is an odd time. Because of course the local community is important, but… So I'll just speak for me. I know my neighbours, but I feel weird knocking on their door at this time. Do you know what I mean? Because you're not supposed to. So, one of the things that I really wish… And I'm an anti-surveillance technology type person, you know? I'm very wary of the use of digital technologies to help support a government-based type public policy initiative without any kind of attention paid to privacy and security. But having said that, I'm like, “Man, I wish I just knew everyone's cell phone numbers!” Because I wouldn't mind knowing how everyone is doing around me. Because I don't feel like I can knock on their doors.

So it's a very interesting time, because in the same way that we need to rethink about how we live, we might need to rethink about how we think about enabling technologies, and the fact that there are actually uses for it in terms of digital infrastructure. If we could just get the ethical frameworks correct, it could really help support some of this type of community building that we want to do, while at the same time paying attention to the unintended consequences that can be quite fraught when you deploy technologies like that willy-nilly, you know?

So that is something that I am also deeply involved in thinking about in terms of how do we do this? How do we make sure that we can actually deploy the tools that, as a society, we have been smart enough to build?

Laura: Ana, this is a great segue to my next question for you, because I know that you have done a lot of work on processes to strengthen democracy. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on how we can retain this participatory aspect of democracy as we work through this. What is your vision of democracy coming out of this crisis?

Ana: Well, I think it is exactly what Shabnam talked about actually. Which is a more integrated approach to how individuals, communities, and institutions work together.

Some things may be under the purview of certain regions, like testing, for example, in the case of the provinces. They have control over how people get tested: how many, where, and how, and when, but the ramifications of either ‘no testing’ or ‘lots of testing’ play out at the municipal level and at a community level.

So, to what extent do communities have a role to play in trying to maintain the safety of the members of the community, right? Certainly, they are deploying technologies to try to figure out how to test, track, and then isolate and quarantine. Some of those technologies, are they going to be downloaded to communities? Then all of a sudden, communities are forced to be surveilled in ways that they might not want to.

A good example of this is this ‘snitch line’ that was created, where if you're seen not socially distancing, then other people can call. There are all these issues raised by this pandemic that call attention to the shared responsibilities of different players in a democracy, and how we may not have a handle on exactly what those roles and responsibilities might be. Hopefully something like this can help us iron out some of those issues.

Laura: And if you don't mind adding to that, what do you think is - you alluded to this before - but what do you think the role the arts has to play in all of this?

Ana: Well I think it is not just the role of the arts, but I think where value resides. What this pandemic has brought on is an existential crisis for everyone, you know? So, who are we? What do we care about? What do we value? Why are we here? Are we just biological specimens and species to grow into large populations and get decimated the same way that other species grew into large populations and got decimated?

So, it really calls into attention the smallness of humanity in relation to the much broader universal picture; planetary universal picture. So, then the question becomes: are we building civilizations in such a way to put emphasis on the things that matter to us the most?

I think that is what we need to be thinking through as we look through long term policy responses to this pandemic. How do we start to create a new social contract between citizens, each other, and their governments, so that we start to place value and effort on those things that matter the most?

Laura: You touched on this idea of values – both of you actually did – so maybe I will just ask you both. There's the sacrificing for the good of others, service, maybe even patience in the face of challenges, just becoming more conscious. Any other values that you think are important that will help us advance collectively through this that we haven't touched on?

Ana: I think humility is a big one. Like (we have to) come out of this feeling humbled by this remarkable virus, you know? It is so tiny, and yet it can fell societies. I don't know… We have to stop being an ego-driven society.

Laura: Shabnam, do you have any other thoughts?

Shabnam: Yeah, I think this quality of service and putting the needs of others before ourselves is one. If we look in our societies in Canada, which is the combination of all of humanity brought into one place: in Canadian culture there has been this strain of selflessness from people caring for one another, and also in many of the societies we come from, community is very strong. But then you come into a consumeristic society, and it is really the individual and its needs that is put before all else.

I think we really have to reflect on that attribute. What is the kind of service that is conducive to the advancement of a spiritual civilization which has at the heart of it the recognition of the oneness of humanity. That is not just in the spirit of brotherhood between people; it has to actually begin to change the very structures of society, economic systems, and systems of governance.

Laura: Both of your comments are getting me really excited about the possibility of re-inventing ourselves at this time. It is nice to feel that in times where it is very easy to feel the opposite. Shabnam, or Ana, what is your hope for the changes that could come out of this? Are there any other thoughts that you have for what you hope for that can come out of this?

Ana: Well I hope that we are humbled by this experience so much so that we take the time to really think through what matters to a society, and to build towards that. And I am hoping that what matters to us as a society is justice, equality, inclusivity, diversity, as well as all the other things like joy, and renewed and reinvigorated purpose, and things like that.

Laura: Beautiful.

Shabnam: I think this has given an opportunity to open some themes and collective discourse that have been missing for some time. I think it holds promise for advancement in consciousness for humanity as a whole, and for individuals and communities.

Also, I think these values of international collective action that have been a powerful strain in public discourse around the world, have been losing their sway because they have been assailed by forces of racism, nationalism, factionalism.

I think we also have to examine where these things are coming from? What kind of world do we want to live in? How do these forces that are working towards the oneness of humanity and towards the peace and security of all advance? And not just a political peace, but a condition of relationships among people and essential relationships in society and in the structures of society that uphold the dignity of all and the unity of all.

Ana: That's a great place to end!

Laura: Thank you! Thank you so much both of you for being here. I really appreciate it, and hope you have a wonderful day.