Mustapha Khamissa

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?

To me, community engagement has always been tactile. Familiarity is built through handshakes,
toy blocks are moved around to represent the community residents desire, pens are handed
out to write on post-it notes to be placed on walls. The most meaningful engagement
opportunities have been those that were most tactile.

I don’t know what meaningful engagement during the pandemic is like yet. I’ve been a part of
webinars, tele-town halls, and answered numerous digital surveys. None of them feel as
meaningfully engaging as those in person consultations. I don’t know how to fix that until we
can find ways to capture audience attention like is possible in-person.

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?

My community is two different parts of the city. Where my family lives and where I live. The
latter is where I do community work, which presently I am entirely cut off from due restrictions
in movement. While online connections have bridged the shirking community connections, it
does not replace the community outreach of talking to strangers in a park or knocking on every
door in an apartment building. Reconnecting with familiar contacts doesn’t feel good enough to
me. It’s not outreach and it certainly isn’t consultative. And even in those connections, they’re
significantly altered. Conversations are not productive, but rather just ranting about the current

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

My belief has always been that more digital engagement is not better, but rather that it dilutes
feedback, and leaves out many community members who may be unfamiliar or less
empowered by digital technology or writing. My hope is that Jane’s Walk proves me wrong this
year, and that there can be meaningful engagement across socioeconomic lines on a fully digital

Furthermore, in regard to the issue of public engagement and community outreach currently.
There are two common conversations I hear are about togetherness and safety. Most often,
these rely on each other. We foster togetherness to create safety, whether through
infrastructure which keeps communities safer, or spaces which strengthen community bonds.

But that changes when togetherness is the greatest danger. I fear that the goals of the
community will change irreparably due to COVID-19. Fear might eventually subside, but will the
desire to connect to community persevere when we had to experience a substantial time when
your neighbours were the biggest threat to your safety?

How can we promote resiliency through online forums?

My answer to this would relate to the aforementioned fears I have of the impact of the virus.
By any experts estimates, this will be a long-lasting issue worldwide. How do we maintain
people’s connections to their community, even if that community is currently undergoing its
greatest ever transformation? And how do we adjust to how businesses will have to change
their service models for the foreseeable future? I hope that this year’s Jane’s Walk fosters a
deeper sense in community in a way that is resilient to these changes.


How do you feel that the formality of community engagement and public consultation limits its ability to meaningfully engage with communities?

I think the biggest limitation to these types of meetings is the expectation that people come in
with a general understanding of government and bureaucratic processes. Because
consultations attempt to be streamlined, little is done to provide this context, and few are
willing to sit down and explain these situations to community members. The formality is
enforced because of this expectation.

Do you feel that online engagement has the possibility to break down barriers?

Not really, honestly. I think it puts up as many barriers as it attempts to break down. I think it
could work as an alternative when in person organizing can’t work, but I don’t think it is a
better solution.

In what ways do you see urban mobility shifting post-COVID? What are worried most about? What are you optimistic about?

I think the pandemic will make people dislike density. The worst place to be during this is in a
shoebox-sized condo and the busy urban parks which are the lifeblood of dense communities
are shown to be completely inadequately sized and vectors of the disease.

I’m most worried that this pandemic inspires a new wave of suburbanization, people moving
out of the city to finally have space after being locked in small condo units for potentially years.
I’m also worried it erodes trust in mass transit, which has a lot of fear surrounding it.

I’m not optimistic about much in Toronto right now, truthfully. I think this will lead to growth in
mid-sized Canadian cities more than in cities like Toronto. If I had to predict a change, I would
argue that this will lead to more individualized transportation options in the city, like on-
demand busses.

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