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University in the Community Redefining Essential Work

By JOANNE MACKAY-BENNETT - February 16 2021
University in the Community Redefining Essential Work

University in the Community is an initiative of the Workers’ Educational Association, the publisher of Learning Curves. We believe that learning is inclusive, lifelong and active. Each year, UitC offers free-of-charge, semester-long courses to adults whose access to higher education may have been limited by life circumstances. UitC is supported by the Faculty of Arts and Science, Senior College, and Innis College, University of Toronto.
Spring and Summer at University in the Community was a time like no other. Of course, every term is marked by its own tone and its particular set of concerns brought to the class each week by a wonderful group of individuals. But in Spring 2020, we were united by a large and looming presence. A pandemic.

When we first got together via Zoom during the Spring and Summer months, it seemed as if by some fluke we had landed in a place that we had had no intention of visiting. We found solace in seeing ourselves onscreen in a new, virtual huddle. We talked about grief, fear, anxiety, and loneliness, even if we didn’t specifically use those words.

Our initial sense of being part of a broad and all-encompassing human cohort is captured in this line from The Composite Nation, written in 1869 by American abolitionist and statesman, Frederick Douglass: A smile or a tear has not nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations.
Our empathy and solidarity with our fellow human beings has remained rock-solid. But in September, we also became aware that some people were more vulnerable to this lethal disease than others. Fissures in our social structure that, to be clear, have always been there, were exposed and illuminated by newly-tabulated data showing that those who were most severely impacted often shared a social susceptibility to the disease: crowded living arrangements, economic hardship, inadequate workplace protections, health challenges and unequal access to medical care, among others. Were we really ‘all in it together’? Or did some suffer disproportionately more than others?

During the Fall term, UitC classes focussed on the crisis itself and on concerns that simultaneously arose with the crisis. We looked at the pandemic from the perspectives of history, of science, the arts, politics and public health.

In the upcoming Winter term, we will focus on our response to the crisis. For all of us, this pandemic is an exceptional and unique event. We need to ask ourselves how our response to the crisis can be equal to this once-in-a-hundred-years event. What can we do, what must we do, if we are to strengthen and reinvigorate the ideas and ideals of democracy that we have so often taken for granted?

With the guidance and expertise of an exceptional group of speakers this term, we will look at ideas that are not necessarily new but that we look at differently now. We will learn about what basic income is and how it aims to alleviate the catastrophic financial reality that has affected so many people. We will ask ourselves what civic assemblies are and what a deliberative democracy might look like. We will consider whether citizenship has moral obligations and if so, what those obligations might be.
One of the secondary goals of this term will be to redefine what it means to do essential work. One year after the initial lockdown, it is clear that many of the ills that were exposed will not disappear with the quelling of the pandemic. Our response to the pandemic is part and parcel of the crisis itself. How we choose to respond will be a decision that each of us will make. Becoming informed, giving access to new ideas, participating in the health of the city we share, that too, is essential work.

If you would like to learn more about becoming part of University in the Community in our Fall 2021 session, please get in touch:

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