A discussion on the importance of “place” within the SCA

VOCE explains the significance of knowing one’s place and belonging in the community

This is a photo of the SFU Burnaby Campus’s reflection pond and the academic quadrangle building surrounding it.
PHOTO: Allyson Klassen / The Peak

By: Hailey Miller, Staff Writer

SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA) held their annual re-orientation event during the first week of the fall semester. This year’s theme was places. The topic focused on the importance of engagement within the community — both personally and artistically. The event included presentations, a keynote talk, and a panellist discussion from SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement (VOCE) alongside a recording of their Below the Radar podcast. The Peak spoke with three members of VOCE regarding their experience as panellists for the event.

Kathy Feng, research assistant, Samantha Walters, program assistant, and Julia Aoki, program manager, all work to improve community engagement, social justice, and environmental justice. The context of “places” at the SCA’s re-orientation day brought together panellists who care about their community and are enthusiastic about making a positive impact on the places around them.

When asked to explain the significance of “places,” Aoki stated, “The distinction between space and place is something of a theoretical distinction [ . . . ] and it’s useful in that space can be something that’s quite abstract.” Space refers to one’s abstract conception of their surroundings, whereas place refers to the cultural significance of a specific site. She explained that the idea of place is much more grounded and relational. Aoki emphasized that this distinction and mindset is “a very important way of working and thinking” for the members’ approach to their work in the office and the development of the neighbourhood in which they reside. The group’s work and community partnerships help them define the importance of “place,” alongside the “defining characteristic of yourself and learning things from the place that you’re situated in.” explained Feng. She further noted that this characteristic is important for “the communities and the relationships that you develop.” 

As members of the VOCE panel, Walters and Feng have enjoyed their time engaging with the other panellists and discussing the lived experiences of those in the community. Walters went on to acknowledge the importance of discussing social justice issues within the community and the overall humanity of “talking to people who are directly working in these scenarios.” She stated that being involved in the community is more impactful “than getting stuck in a theoretical lens.” 

When asked how the discussion of community relates to the importance of one’s place within the SCA, Feng noted that involving individuals from different backgrounds in the community is “helpful and generative for the students as a starting point of the rest of the school semester.”

Walters further acknowledged “the particularities of arts school that require this intense vulnerability for quite young students.” She explained that this is due in part to arts students who “have so much heart,” which often leads to challenges of discovering one’s place and “curiosity about who they are and where they are,” making the discussion of community engagement important for students’ success. Walters and Feng agreed that creating an open dialogue is key to implementing a positive impact toward the understanding and importance of the community, both personally and academically. 

Regarding ways in which students can implement community engagement and awareness of place within their studies, Aoki stated she hopes the event inspired “a very thoughtful curiosity” of what it means to be “in a community made up of many vulnerable and multiply-marginalized people.” She explained that understanding one’s place should include the awareness of individuals within the community, and acknowledging the importance of diversity. Walters further noted the work of community engagement involves proper communication and becoming comfortable with the idea that you will make mistakes along the way. This is something that students can learn from while still supporting all community members regardless of one’s background. Feng’s final point regarding awareness of geographical place focused on the fact that students should consider their ethics, and opportunities for community engagement. 

For more information, head to the VOCE website to keep up to date with the initiatives that they are involved in.