This week, SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement said goodbye to one of the most instrumental and valued members of our team. Program assistant Andrea Creamer is on her way to Toronto, to pursue a Master of Visual Studies degree in studio art at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. During her final days at the Office, Creamer spoke to communications assistant Melissa Roach and community engagement specialist Samaah Jaffer in reflection on her experience over the past five years.
How did your involvement with the Office begin?
It began when I was in my second year and I was taking a 2D artist book-making class with Althea Thauberger. I was also a part of the Visual Arts Student Union, and we were organizing some dialogue-based events on the recent Goldcorp donation, and the kind of controversy — or politics — surrounding large-scale donations to universities and institutions. Althea encouraged me to get in touch with her partner, Am Johal, who was starting his position as director of the Office later that semester.
The following semester I decided to do an action research exchange with SFPIRG in lieu of writing a paper, because I had a very heavy semester. So I decided to produce a radio program that was on neighbourhood change in the Downtown Eastside. It was an hour-long segment in collaboration with a sound student and one of the music department students. Am connected me with different people in the neighbourhood to chat to, and in the end I think it was way more work than writing a paper. It involved a lot of interviews.
My mom always laughs because she said that I called her on the phone after I interviewed Am and said, “Mom, I know who I want to be when I grow up.” She still says, seriously, “I remember when you called me and you were like, I understand what I want to do, I know who I want to be when I grow up.”
So, from then on, you began to volunteer with the Office?
Yeah, and then later that summer, Am started An Introduction to Contemporary Arts at the Interurban Gallery, and I was hanging around and I went to the sessions — he invited me to them. That was the first Super Cool.
It’s always been at the Interurban Gallery. At the time, the director of DURC (Drug Users Resource Centre) — at that point it was called LifeSkills — was Coco Culbertson, and Am and her had decided that just because there was still an ongoing situation with the door on Hastings not being open, and all of those types of accessibility things, that it just seemed better to have something offsite that was a more neutral, familiar place for the residents. And that fall I asked all my professors to speak, and that was really good.
How did your volunteer work lead to being employed by the university?
The way the visual arts program works is that there are a number of visiting artists each year, so I would ask the them if they wanted to speak. The program has always remained fairly informal. Perhaps part of that was maybe my own disorganization of it, with being a student, working multiple jobs, etc. Like, carrying speakers that I would borrow from the studio at 611 Alexander and cart them across town. I would carry equipment to the Interurban Gallery and we would set up there, and I would bring coffee and snacks.
“This is a place obviously for academic conversations, but I think that academia sometimes hovers above people, or looks down on them, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here.”
You still carry things.
[Laughing] I do, I still lug things around. I’m a bit of a schlepper of things.
So, I don’t know when that totally transitioned, but I was doing Super Cool Tuesdays and then I kind of took bigger roles in the Visual Arts Student Union. In my third and fourth year I was the president, or chair, or co-chair with a friend. So, I would use that opportunity to bring up the different types of projects and events that Am was doing, as a way for people to get involved. There were a couple of things where I would get other students to come and volunteer for.
And then, when I graduated I continued organizing Super Cool and helping with some events, and then the job finally got posted. So I then I went through the application and hiring process.
Each day is different. It depends on what kind of community partner we’re working with, or you know, what room we’re using, or what meeting we’re having. So, I think we’re kind of all over the place here. But I mean, that’s what’s exciting. It’s pretty easy to not be bored. And if there are moments of being slow, just relish in them. They don’t last long.
I think we’re very fast-paced. It’s like a lot of emails, and walking. There’s a lot of walking in this building. Carrying things and walking places with those things seems to be a big part of it — and microphones and chairs. Really being overly-concerned with microphones and chairs, institutional internal processes that take up time.
What else is this role? There is a bit of advocacy built into it, and I think that it’s maybe not explicitly explained, because advocacy work doesn’t seem to often be supported. But, I think what it is, is advocating to make sure that community folks get tickets and the right to attend a cultural program, or project — how that is implemented and how that affects people in the neighbourhood. It’s about making sure that posters are distributed into visible, viable locations for residents to see, that tickets are handed out in timely fashion, that we’re considering mobility and accessibility for a lot of different kinds of people.
I know Am thinks about those things all the time — the representation of issues that are in the neighbourhood, making sure that is communicated to people, and that we’re having those kinds of conversations. And that we’re not having the conversations about them, we’re having them with them. I think that that’s a really important kind of differentiation that needs to be acknowledged — that this is a place obviously for academic conversations, but I think that academia sometimes hovers above people, or looks down on them, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here.
“I’ve been asked many times, “What’s my definition of community engagement?” and I think that community engagement is ultimately about keeping the university responsible as a public entity. I think you need to be accountable to the people that are outside your doors.”
What do you take into consideration when you’re deciding what programming to bring in and which groups to partner with?
I don’t really have an easy answer for that. A lot of it I think has to do with a gut check. It has to do with being invested and interested in the kind of political landscape that exists outside of our doors, and understanding that it’s a very complex space for people facing many different barriers. And then it’s also about trying to represent those issues in a fair way, while nudging the university in a way so that those conversations that should be happening are taking place.
I’ve been asked many times, “What’s my definition of community engagement?” and I think that community engagement is ultimately about keeping the university responsible as a public entity. I think you need to be accountable to the people that are outside your doors.
I don’t really have an easy answer for what feels good and what feels bad. I think there’s only been a few times that we have ever really worked with a group where it maybe ended up not being a great partnership. It really doesn’t happen very often, and that’s because if something seems maybe not fully flushed out or formed, the other part of our role is connecting people. When people come to us, maybe they have a project, and as opposed to saying “no” to them, we’ll suggest, “I think you should go talk to this person, and this person,” and see if those types of ideas help them further develop their thinking and their project or program. That also builds a support network for their idea to maybe come to better fruition.
What has been the most challenging part of your job?
I think really it’s working within the institution. Of course, there are benefits that come with that, but I think that it’s a challenge and it can be grumbly and cumbersome. It’s like cogs in a wheel that are like moving kind of slower, and then the pace of this Office isn’t often very slow. The stakes feel higher and sometimes the systems in which we operate don’t move quickly, or there’s just a lot of maintenance and management of risk assessment — which is excellent — but sometimes this can pose barriers.
But they’re there for a good reason as well, because you don’t want someone going and doing things, ill-informed and without ethical thinking, implementing an idea and it goes very terribly, or people are made to feel very exploited in the situation. But then there are other times when it’s just tables, chairs, and microphones.
What is the most rewarding, or your favourite part of your job?
It’s the people and the partners! And at the end, when an event is done — the hanging out at the back of the room, watching it all unfold. I know some great people in the neighbourhood now. People that I call my friends and that I probably talk to more frequently than my other friends. There are so many different types of people that come to our events and come to our programs, and are our partners. It’s been a really amazing learning experience, and I’m trying not to be weepy when I say that.
“I think what we’ve done really well here is set up a practice of community engagement. It’s not something that we’ve talked about for the sake of talking about [. . .] I think we’re actually just doing it, and doing it well.”
What will you miss the most?
I will miss the people. I think our community partners are people who are pretty easy for me to keep in touch with, especially on organizational levels. I mean, those people often have emails, and phone numbers, and when I come back to Vancouver can connect up with them. I think that’s the simple part of the work that we do. And then the not-so-simple part of my work has been making sure that folks that don’t access those types activities our events or participate in our programming. So I think not being able easily keep in touch with them is kind of hard
I really value the friendships and the relationships that I have with these people. You can have really great conversations with them, and they know things about you, and you care about them, and they care about you.
I will totally also miss working with you, and will definitely miss working with Am. It’s kind of overwhelming to think that when you’ve worked with somebody for so long that you won’t work with them anymore. To be mentored, and supported, and encouraged by someone such as Am has been an honour. And that makes me a bit sad. I’ll leave it at that.
Samaah tells Andrea that Am has access to, and is available on Skype, Bluejeans, Twitter, Facebook, Zoom…
I can keep in touch, it’s just been so amazing. I’ve worked so many different types of jobs, from like cleaning up garbage type jobs, and like getting dirty type jobs, and labour, to being hated on as a coffee barista. And then I’ve worked in bigger NGOs, and I’ve experienced all different types of work relationships, and I feel pretty lucky to have experienced this job.
Since you’ve been here since the beginning, what have you noticed about the growth of the Office?
I think this year was pretty exciting with the Interurban Community Engagement Lab, with the bigger expansion of working within that space, and being one of the lease holders. It was really amazing because it meant that we started working with some different community partners.
I would like to see more things like the Gamelan — I’ve suggested that to Am that I think we should do drop in Gamelan — similar to the drop in Salish Singing and Drumming. And more big drum — that was well attended when that happened with Rupert [Richardson] and the Office for Aboriginal People.
Do you see yourself coming back? To SFU? The City?
Yeah definitely [to the community and the city]. I just need a mental health break from Vancouver. I think working in the way that I work and being quite dedicated and passionate and committed — it’s very all encompassing and time consuming. But, I mean, a lot of that has been mirrored by Am, it’s just that was kind of what was happening, and that’s kind of my nature anyway, so I just jumped on board.
But at that I’ve also lost — or there’s been a loss — which has been not working on my own art practice in the same way. And this job was also coupled with running a small arts space, which also produces events and programming. So, you know, when I really stop and think about how many events in a year that I’ve overseen, it’s kind of overwhelming.
It will be nice to have that space to think and kind of reflect on the practice. I think what we’ve done really well here is set up a practice of community engagement. It’s not something that we’ve talked about for the sake of talking about, which is often how other places or people, or organizations may kind of [do things.] I think we’re actually just doing it, and doing it well. So, I think it’s like having the space to kind of think about those types of things. I mean, I have learned so many different, immensely important life lessons and values-based kind of learning that’s happened for myself. So I want to apply that to things that Andrea does. We’ll see, I’ll probably just get sucked in somewhere — but there are projects and stuff that I want to do. There’s programming that I want to do, that comes really from me and my interests.