Staying Engaged: Sara J. Cumming, Ph.D: Professor, Community Activist, and, now, Conference Organizer

On May 29th, Sara Cumming flew to Calgary for what proved to be an academically engaged, community activism-strengthening and exercise-inducing week in the Rockies. The University of Calgary hosted the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences from May 28th to June 4th; in its 85th year, the theme of this year’s conference was “Energizing Communities,” reflecting a commitment to community engagement at the local, regional, national and transnational levels by academics of all stripes.

As the elected co-chair of Applied Sociology, a research cluster of the Canadian Sociological Association, Sara co-organized seven regular sessions, one panel session, and a research cluster meeting, and also gave a talk during this year’s event. Applied Sociology is a research cluster interested in practitioners who use sociological theories and methods outside of academic settings with the aim to produce positive social change. Dr. Kristyn Frank, a statistician with Statistics Canada, is Sara’s co-chair, along with Brittany Etmanski, the graduate student representative. While this particular research cluster is still in its infancy (only two years old), it already has nearly 65 members and continues to grow quickly. The sessions Professor Cumming organized and/or chaired ranged from general applied sociology, to engaging communities, to health and illness, to poverty reduction coalitions. One of the most engaging and well-attended sessions was a panel discussion on careers outside of academia with speakers representing national defense, liquor and gambling boards, consulting firms and research institutions from across Canada. One of the recurring themes across all of the cluster’s sessions was the need for teaching the application of sociology to current and future generations of students while simultaneously nurturing a commitment to community engagement.

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Dr. Sara Cumming at Congress in Calgary

Engaging in our communities is a theme that has always run through Sara’s academic life and continues to remain a central focus of her work here at Sheridan. Sara presented a paper on behalf of herself and Michael McNamara, Professor of Creativity, entitled “Creatively engaging and fostering community partnerships” in the session “Engaging communities in research designed to improve outcomes for populations accessing social services programs.” The talk outlined the collaborative efforts of a large number of community stakeholders in enhancing the lives of marginalized populations in Oakville. Sheridan College, the Oakville Community Foundation and its charitable donors, charitable funding recipients, and key community members came together in a series of Creative Problem Solving Sessions to help the Foundation identify the most significant issues affecting quality of life in the Oakville community. The four key target areas identified for action were discussed: The Equity Gap, Access to Affordable Housing, Inclusivity, and Mental Health. Future steps to address these issues were outlined. As requested by the session organizer, Sara also commented on the practical implications of this research as well as some of the difficulties surrounding partnerships between academic institutions, researchers and diverse community stakeholders. Audience members expressed much interest in Sheridan’s level of community engagement and were intrigued by our Creative Problem Solving approach. (See the announcement and link in the Milestones section of this newsletter for more on this work!)

One of Professor Cumming’s favourite things about attending the conference this year was increasing the visibility and awareness of some of the great work that is being done across college campuses. Traditionally, only professors teaching in the university system (or graduate students attending university) participate in Congress. This year 6 out of approximately 600 speakers were representing colleges across Canada. In addition to Sheridan College, representatives from Champlain College St. Lambert in Quebec, Douglas College in British Columbia (where one of Sara’s daughters is a student), George Brown and Humber Colleges in Toronto, and Red Deer College in Alberta spoke at the conference. Graduate students as well as established university faculty expressed a keen interest in the research being done in the college system. As a result, the Applied Sociology Research Cluster has added a session to next year’s conference focusing specifically on the applied work and community engaged activities being carried out across college campuses. Next year Congress is being held the first week of June at Ryerson University for any faculty who may be interested in participating or attending.

In order to be true to our mandate, The Applied Sociology Research Cluster is interested in expanding our membership outside of academia in an effort to be much more inclusive of the lived experiences of researchers working outside of academic institutions. We currently have both a Facebook and LinkedIn profiles which can be accessed by clicking the hyperlinks, or heading to these webpages:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/384663875014433/

https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8162011

In addition to engaging in a variety of sessions both inside the Applied Sociology cluster as well as outside in other sessions held by the Canadian Sociological Association, Sara was sure to undertake (what felt like) some rigorous mountain climbing training. Sara had never been to Alberta before so in between conference sessions took advantage of the opportunity to sightsee. With the knowledge that two of her esteemed colleagues (Robyn Read and Owen Percy) had relocated from Banff for their positions at Sheridan, Sara took off on a hiking extravaganza. Logging almost 50kms of trails within a two-day window, she hiked around Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise, Lake Minnewanka, Yoho National Park and all over Banff. Although she readily admits that her calves and glutes were screaming at her, and she was often gasping for breath due to the elevation, she was awestruck by the absolute beauty of the nature that surrounded her.

Sara is extremely thankful that Sheridan’s Professional Development Fund and FHASS Speaker’s Fund afforded her the ability to have this all-around amazing experience. She also left Banff thinking that Sheridan must be pretty spectacular to lure Owen and Robyn from this amazing scenery (see below)!

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