Over this past month, our everyday lives have changed in ways we never could have imagined. Here at UBC, faculty, staff and students have worked together on the enormous task of moving many of the University’s core functions online. With great sacrifice and understanding, you have paused research, classroom teaching, and other important work that, for the time being, presents too great a risk. And you have come together to care for loved ones and each other. I’ve never been prouder of UBC. I know it hasn’t been easy, and I want to thank you sincerely for your efforts.
Today, I want to turn our attention outwards, to acknowledge the impacts of COVID-19 on local and global communities, and to consider the University’s civic role in these unprecedented times.
I’ve spoken with many people these past few weeks who have said that, while difficult, isolation has reminded them what’s important in life: friends and family, a clean environment, food, shelter, safety, health, and for many, religious and cultural practices, too.
UBC’s commitment to local and global engagement
Here at UBC, it has also been a time to reflect on what’s important, including the broader societal impact of our work. UBC’s strategic plan includes a core commitment to local and global engagement, to engage ethically through the exchange of knowledge and resources, for everyone’s benefit.
Community engagement here at UBC encompasses robust, longstanding initiatives in areas like community-engaged learning, collaborative research partnerships, knowledge exchange, and public spaces, programs and events. These include partnerships with Indigenous communities throughout BC and beyond, and specific community-based initiatives, like the Learning Exchange in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Our work in partnership has impact. Today, the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings put UBC first in Canada, second in North America, and seventh in the world. The impact rankings measure global universities against the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), demonstrating impact and work in partnership in areas like climate action, reducing inequalities, and more.
But what does ethical engagement look like in times of crisis? How can we sustain partnerships when anxieties are high, organizations and communities spread thin, and the future uncertain?
Community engagement in times of crisis
I believe, now more than ever, that UBC must stand with and by communities, to continue our work in partnership toward a more just and sustainable society. As a public institution and a partner committed to the resilience of local and global communities, the University has a vital role in relief efforts now, and rebuilding efforts later.
I know faculty, staff and students across UBC are already stepping up.
They are reaching out to partners to check in and offer support. In some cases, this means cancelling meetings and relaxing timelines so communities can focus their limited energies where needed most. Now, more than ever, is a time to listen, be attuned to communities’ capacities, and to follow their leads.
Still, there remains a vital role for UBC to actively support communities at this time. Already, many of you are pivoting your work to share resources, build remote engagement opportunities, and support front-line needs. I’m encouraged to see so many units and individuals anticipating the new realities facing partners and colleagues, so that when asked, you will be ready to respond. These proactive, creative efforts will ensure our community connections not only survive this crisis, but thrive in its aftermath.
Of course, community-university engagement is not straightforward at this time. In some cases, the pandemic has limited our own capacities in ways that have unintended consequences for partners. We must recognize that, though necessary for safety, pauses to research, programs and projects may leave communities without resources on which they depend. I hope you will continue to be mindful of your impact, communicate openly with your partners, and coordinate with each other.
Engagement with Indigenous communities
In particular, we must be mindful of the circumstances of Indigenous community partners, and the Indigenous community here on our two campuses as well.
Most Indigenous partners have asked those who live outside their territories to stay away for now as a protective measure to maintain optimum health within their communities. We must respect that their priorities will be with their communities at this time. Please be especially thoughtful of what you’re asking of Indigenous partners, unless of course they reach out first.
At the same time, many members of the Indigenous community here at UBC have been isolated from their traditional territories and loved ones. If you aren’t connected already, know that there are resources of support through the First Nations House of Learning in Vancouver, and Aboriginal Programs and Services at UBCO. Find more information through their social media channels, email information, and student engagement staff, who can help connect you to resources such as counseling, emergency funds, and more.
How to act: Opportunities for ethical engagement, during and after COVID-19
This virus is testing the very fabric of our society, the strength of our connections, and our capacities for compassion and collective action. And while a global pandemic inherently affects us all, it does not do so equally.
COVID-19 is hitting different communities in different ways, depending on who we are, where we live, and the communities we’re part of. We must acknowledge these impacts, and insist on equity, inclusion, and reconciliation in our response.
As we look forward, I want to assure you that, despite any interruptions caused by the pandemic, UBC remains committed to local and global engagement now and into the future.
If you’re looking to help, consider following community-based organizations on social media, tuning into their asks, and safely lending a hand to a cause you care about. Sign up for the Community Engagement office’s new “Staying Connected” e-newsletter for a weekly round-up of local community needs, stories, and engagement resources, directly to your inbox.
Know also that UBC’s engagement support units continue to support faculty, staff and students remotely at this time. In Vancouver, these include the Centre for Community-Engaged Learning, the Learning Exchange, the Indigenous Research Support Initiative, the Knowledge Exchange Unit, the Community Engagement Office, and many others.
In the Okanagan, the Institute for Community Engaged Research, Community Service Learning, the Indigenous Community Liaison in Research Services, the Community Engagement Office, and others remain open and ready for your queries.
In closing, I want to remind you that we can’t take care of each other if we don’t first care for ourselves. In these uncertain times, I hope you are still connecting with loved ones virtually, getting outdoors, and tuning into your own needs. Our communities are only as strong as their individual members. Treat yourselves kindly, so you may offer the same kindnesses to others.
We will get through this – together.
Take good care,
Santa J. Ono
President and Vice-Chancellor