Malek Abdel-Shehid

Blog Post

University of Toronto

What did meaningful community engagement mean to you before the pandemic? Has this changed at all since everything has been moved online?

As a full-time university student, before the pandemic most of my time was spent on campus,
in class, at work, studying with friends, and working with student groups. I appreciated having
the ability to leave the house, interact with other students, my coworkers, and my professors,
as well as doing work on campus to help make the experiences of other students more
enjoyable. Since the imposition of the stay at home and social distancing order, I have not been
to campus at all. All my classes went online, the library where I work told all the student
assistants to stay at home, and the non-profit organization where I had an internship asked all
the employees to finish our contracts from home. While I’ve been able to get all my
assignments done, I’ve also missed interacting in person with my friends, coworkers, and
professors. I’m still able to talk with those groups of people via phone call, video call, text
messaging, and e-mail, but the amount and scope of my work changed.

A sense of community can exist at multiple scales: within your neighbourhood, your city, and/or throughout the world. Do you feel that an increased dependency on online connections has broadened our sense of community or shrunk it?

Prior to the pandemic, I spent a lot of time on campus and was not at home nearly as much.
Now that I am at home all day with my parents and my siblings, I’ve been able to spend more
time with them despite being focused on finishing my coursework. As I’ve spent most of my
time indoors, I’ve not interacted much with other people in my neighbourhood or the town
more broadly. In terms of my family, I would say that there’s been increased communication
with family members around the world via our WhatsApp group chat. Due to the increased
time spent at home and less time aimlessly chasing after productivity, people in general and
myself included have been more reliant on the Internet.
I would avoid saying that this dependence broadened or shrunk our sense of community, rather
that it drastically changed the ways that we interact with one another and is taking time to get
used to. Given the circumstances, I think it’s of the utmost importance that we don’t
perpetuate unattainable expectations of people and their ability to complete work. Depending
on circumstances, individuals and their networks could be dealing with work layoffs, precarious
housing and labour situations, difficult expectations from other sources, sickness, and even
death among other issues. It is important that people know who they can reach out to for help because many are already being bombarded with other responsibilities.

In what ways do you hope this will enhance our ability to reach populations that are the least  represented in traditional public engagement forums?

One of the least represented groups in Canada at all levels are black Canadians, which includes
African Canadians, Afro-Caribbean Canadians, and other groups with African heritage and who
identify as black. Given the long history of black people in the city, I think that it’s important to
offer walks geared towards these communities so that they can gain a better understanding of
people like them from past eras and feel a sense of belonging in the present-day. I think that
this type of opportunity would help with outreach to black Canadians and encourage public
engagement. Additionally, the negative effects of the pandemic are disproportionately affecting
working-class, racialized, and other marginalized people. Ensuring that the needs of these
communities are met and that they don’t suffer from health, workplace, and education
disparities should be a top priority.

Offering walks through Bathurst and Bloor ‘Blackhurst’, Little Jamaica, or Jane & Finch, areas
that have historically been home to sizeable black communities, would be a few good options.
In addition to discussing historical events, it would also be paramount to discuss ongoing
redevelopment projects. These include Mirvish Village near the Blackhurst site and the Eglinton
Crosstown affecting Little Jamaica and other neighbourhoods along the arterial road. Although
these projects seek to “reinvigorate” sites and routes deemed in need of investment, they fall
short of taking into consideration the livelihoods of working-class and raclialized residents.

What do you hope to achieve through these online community engagement forums? How important do you feel this is to prepare our community and networks for the inevitable economic impacts of this pandemic?

I hope to do my part in expressing what I know about the experiences of people who have been
the most negatively impacted by the pandemic and ensuring that they have space and
attention to discuss their plight. In these difficult and uncertain times, the conditions faced by
society’s most marginalized often receive the least amount of attention or exposure. At this
point in time it is crucial to be mindful of the fact that essential workers and marginalized
communities such as indigenous, black, and other racialized people as well as working-class
people face higher risks; it is necessary that provisions be put into effect which ensure the
protection of these groups and avoid disproportionate community losses. Seeing as though it is
not clear when the vaccine would be developed, when the stay at home and social distancing
orders would be lifted, and when any remnant of the old world would be conceivable, we have
to be patient and mindful of how we engage with community. Even though people are resilient,
and I believe we will survive this, I also think that it is important to consider the benefits of

mutual aid where community members pool their resources and assist the most disadvantaged
members of the community.


How do you feel that the formality of community engagement and public consultation limits its ability to meaningfully engage with communities? Do you feel that online engagement has the possibility to break down barriers?

Despite a lot of work being done by community organizers local to the areas where they work,
oftentimes there is a great deal of work being done in those places by people who are not
familiar with those communities. I think it is important for people and groups that are not local
to the areas where they operate to work with, fund, and empower people who are local in
order to maximize opportunity for successful meaningful long-term engagement. If external
organizations truly want to assist and bring about lasting meaningful change, then they need to
encourage accountability and transparency within their own ranks. They also need to give
smaller local organizations the platform to enact positive change within their communities. I
think that online engagement is a useful supplementary tool, but it cannot be considered a
substitute for in person engagement.

As we have seen most starkly in the United States, how do you feel that this crisis has heightened people’s awareness of health inequality along racial boundaries? Do you see this as an opportunity to have more frank and compassionate conversations?

As I’m not American and do not reside in the USA, there are other people who would be better
suited to answer this question, but I’ll do my best. In the US, historically health inequalities and
crises shed light on disparities along racial boundaries; this was particularly evident during the
HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Unfortunately, many of the worst aspects of that crisis are visible
within the current healthcare system. As of now, New York City is the epicenter of the COVID-
19 outbreak in the US. Black and brown and working-class people in the city are at a greater risk
of contracting the virus than their white, middle-class, and upper-class counterparts. Given the
difficulty and the fact that the US still does not have a public single-payer healthcare system, it
seems hard to believe that all Americans would be evenly tested and treated for the virus.

While it is important for people to practice social distancing measures, it is also of great
importance that we interrogate why the healthcare system was not better equipped to handle
this type of crisis. For a frank and compassionate conversation to be had, powerholders need to
take into consideration their lack of foresight and their leanings toward profit rather than
effective affordable universal coverage.