Fostering diverse communities

April 2, 2015
Raina Delisle

Growing up, Tymmarah Zehr was often the new girl. Her family moved every two years because of her father’s work in mining. Living in small mining communities across the country, she had the opportunity to meet people from abroad and gain an appreciation for different cultures. For her, diversity was normal. But as she got older, she witnessed discrimination and racism and knew she wanted to dedicate her life to making the world more inclusive.

“I want to do what I can to make things better,” says Zehr, a graduate of the MA in Intercultural and International Communication. “It’s really about building peaceful coexistence. I know it’s a very idealistic goal and I understand that you’re not going to change everybody’s perspective, but I want to try and even if I change one person’s, it makes a difference.”

To that end, Zehr created the Fostering Diverse Communities Conference, an event based on findings from her Royal Roads thesis. On April 30 and May 1, municipalities, businesses, non-profit organizations and immigrant-serving agencies will come together in Grande Prairie, Alta., to discuss topics related to building welcoming and inclusive communities.

Zehr’s thesis sought to identify opportunities in Grande Prairie to increase successful integration of newcomers. She was inspired to explore this subject after working as a program manager with Welcoming and Inclusive Communities. Zehr’s research involved listening to the stories of newcomers to Canada and working with local artists who translated those experiences into visual and performance art, which was showcased at a community exhibit. There, attendees completed a survey that was used to create a report and action plan with ideas to help make the community more welcoming to future newcomers.

“Respondents indicated a deep desire to learn more about newcomers and to reduce racism and discrimination in the community,” says Zehr, who will present her thesis at the event. “This conference is in response to these interests.”

School of Communication and Culture Prof. Virginia McKendry supervised Zehr thesis and says her innovative arts-based approach helped bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between newcomers and residents.

“Through the mediation of art, there emerged simple but profound insights that don’t require funding to fix,” says McKendry. “For example, the fact that newcomers find residents to be friendly, but never get invited into their homes. The fact that the city and its partners are now supporting this new event is a testament to Tymmarah’s research design, tenacity, and the power of intentional dialogue.”

The conference will begin with a keynote address from Zarqa Nawaz, creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, and wrap up with performance by Ahmed Knowmadic, a Somali-Canadian poet. Having big names in the Canadian cultural scene participating is meaningful for Zehr because she says it means they believe in what she’s doing. Plus, she adds, Nawaz and Knowmadic will bring energy and excitement to the event.

“I want it to be fun and meaningful,” says Zehr. “It’s really important that it’s uplifting and that people walk away inspired and energized.” 

All of the presentations are related to topics of diversity and inclusion and many of them will be interactive including wisdom circles where delegates will share lived experiences and best practices related to diversity. Topics being covered at the conference include learning about Aboriginal customs, how to develop and implement a welcoming communities plan and challenges and misconceptions related to temporary foreign workers.

“I really love bringing people together to talk about things, and connecting and learning about what other people are doing and trying to incorporate new things into the way I do things,” Zehr says. “For me, it’s really about bringing people together.”

The deadline to register for the conference is April 17.