How Things Started

a decorative rainbow line

The ways things begin matters, so in the spirit of transparency, storytelling, and provenance, here is how things started and progressed:

Jess Mitchell and Jutta Treviranus were eager to bring together a group of Ontarians who care deeply about education and about humanizing the experience for everyone. Both began conversations that spread like a rhizome and included people who had worked together, people who knew of each other, people who hadn’t worked together at all, and an otherwise motley bunch of people with passion, interest, and willingness to charge into the uncharted together.

The meetings began at the start of the project and were planned for one hour weekly. There was some skepticism about meeting weekly, but that was quickly overcome by an eagerness to spend the time together — to play, to talk about the things we so desperately wanted to discuss, to have a community. So, we built a community around our different perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, and our shared passion for teaching and learning.

There is a kind of natural progression that groups move through as they progress from a mere collection of people to a community of practice. This team was no different in going through an organic, natural progression. Early meetings were less conversational. More time was spent coming together on the same page about what we thought we were going to do and how we thought we might do it. Those conversations felt much more like individual team members tossing ideas into a collective circle while feeling out how and how much we each would contribute to the “product.” We were gently negotiating how much structure (or how little) and how much storytelling this project would focus on. We were sorting out what we promised, how we’d make sure we delivered, and how we each could come together around a common goal. That common goal was stated by one of the team members early on as, “I think we all want to do something we are proud of.” We needed a plan, or did we?

These are the things we thought we were doing (as stated in the grant):

The multi-institutional team will co-design four “living modules” that consider the many nested and entangled functions of the academic ecosystem. Each module will provide learning experiences and supports intended for relevant roles and functions in the academic structure — from students, to educators, services, administration, funders, policymakers, and the larger community.

At the beginning of the engagement, when we weren’t familiar with each other or acclimated to spending time together weekly, our meetings were focused and “professional.” Thanks to the pandemic our meetings quickly and necessarily took on a humanized tone with children, pets, construction, deliveries, and more adding to the atmosphere. We were coming together online, weekly, within a pandemic for a little less than a year from our homes. We were inextricable from our home contexts — we were professionally situated in fundamentally personal spaces. And we were sharing those personal spaces with each other; we began to develop a rhythm.

Was it the topics we discussed, the context within which we discussed them, or the relationships that we were building that felt magical? Probably all of the above, but especially the relational — our interactions. We arrived at this through what felt like magic or at least a combination of: letting things happen organically rather than on a fixed timeline; leaving space for exploration, reflection, and reflexivity by avoiding strict agendas; establishing a way to behave together rather than leaving ambiguous what kinds of collective values we had. One part accidental, one part quite intentional, our own collective experiences in communities had proven to us the best inclusive communities were often flat in structure or avoided structure and were creative and safe. With each week we were building something, and it wasn’t content — it was trust, relationships … it was a community. It emerged organically and naturally and at its own pace and through a series of open conversations about families, health, education, and what was happening in our lives.

Part of our collective experience that proved so valuable was the way in which we all gently, intentionally, respectfully, humanely found ways to keep the group within a set of guard rails when they were needed. This happened in multiple ways and at multiple times: sometimes it was when a joke went too far and the joker was gently made aware that the joke had unintended consequences; at others it was an activity that some didn’t see a potential reaction to (because it was not part of their lived experience); and at others it was a need for someone to take charge temporarily to redirect us all in a particular direction, to course-correct or define the next little step of the course. With each week we were not only building trust and relationships (building a community), we were also working out diverse ways we could all respectfully and equitably keep each other in the loose boundaries we needed, without being constricting or damaging. These moments were made possible by trust and openness, but they are also an opportunity for any group of people to explore together.

Person carrying a backpack, hiking in the mountains
Figure 1: Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

We were, after all, colleagues coming together over the course of a year of our lives. We knew early on that we were all open and committed to experiencing “this” as we created it (whatever “it” would become). We were asking, how could we all come together in a radically (yes, very) humanized way. We wanted to subvert the typical — this was not going to be a static project; we were not going to run off into separate corners to write didactic materials only to glue them awkwardly together in the end. We were committed to doing this together.

So, as we dive into our subversive ways, please understand that what we did, the community we created was specific to a time and a place and the people present. And we were living lives within that time and place. As a deeply personal and entirely humanized (and arguably subversive) act, we present the following list of real human events that happened alongside this work. How do you measure a year (obvious reference to RENT)?

How we were human (acknowledging our humanity):

  • Fiona’s meniscus tear
  • Terry’s Olympic Level, Globally Elite Sleep apnea (78X per hour — beat that!)
  • Jutta’s brain surgery
  • Jess’s Citizenship!
  • Nick’s Citizenship!
  • Three stage plays from the Stewart/Cormier family
  • Jonah’s HR moments: “Don’t take your diaper off!”
  • Pat’s kids and independent school realities (good and bad)
  • Dave’s dad’s funeral
  • Fiona and students in accident on way to funeral (and subsequent concussion)
  • Global pandemic
  • Quarantine
  • Online school for kids
  • Potty training kids (during co-design sessions, and pretty much failing)
  • Heather moved
  • Jaime moved
  • Nick moved
  • Pat moved
  • Kristen’s screaming cat
  • Terry’s girls at home from school
  • Jennifer and Kristen suffering from poor internet when visiting family

And our context was complex and changing all the time — many times with no notice. These are a few of the context changes that everyone in Ontario had to adjust to:


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Learning to be Human Together Copyright © 2022 by Co-designed by Students, Faculty and Staff at OCAD University, Mohawk College, Brock University, Trent University, Nipissing University, University of Windsor, University of Toronto-Mississauga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book