UNIVERSITY in the COMMUNITY: A History of University-Community Collaboration

UitC students with presenter Louis March (front row, centre), founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement. Photo credit: Ryan Fettig

By Joanne Mackay-Bennett

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
Jane Jacobs

I am the coordinator of a humanities-based, adult education outreach program called University in the Community (UitC). We are an initiative of a non-profit organization, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), working in partnership with the University of Toronto’s Office of the Provost, Senior College and Innis College.

Today, a partnership between the university and a non-profit seems rare but ours is a relationship that goes back 100 years. It began on April 29, 1918, when Sir Robert Falconer, the university’s fifth president, rallied a group of businessmen, public figures and trade unionists to attend a meeting at Toronto’s Technical School. Their purpose was to form an association similar to the British WEA, whose founder, Albert Mansbridge, saw workers’ education as key to a strong democracy. (See: Ian Radforth and Joan Sangster, “‘A Link Between Labour and Learning’: The Workers’ Educational Association in Ontario,1917-1951.” Labour/Le Travailleur, 8/9 (Autumn- Spring), 1981-2, p.43, 44).

It’s hard not to see the accomplishments of Falconer’s founding committee as some sort of bureaucratic miracle: within just a few short weeks, professors, trade unionists and members of the public had drafted and adopted a constitution. By fall, eight evening classes held at U of T, Upper Canada College and industrial plants were up and running with 60 registrants! (How did they do that?)

As its constitution affirmed, the WEA would “provide an opportunity for workers to obtain the benefits of University Education” and would “assist them to acquire the knowledge which is essential to intelligent and effective citizenship.” Their document laid the groundwork for liberal arts education for workers in Canada.

Fast forward to 2003, when the WEA (Toronto), more specifically, the indomitable Wendy Terry and Anne McDonough, initiated a new version of those early WEA classes and named it University in the Community. Not long after, Peter Russell initiated a partnership between Senior College and UitC. Among the innumerable benefits of our alliance with Senior College is the Senior College-UitC advisory committee, chaired by Donald Gillies. We rely on the committee for teaching classes, for sound advice on programming and, of course, for invaluable help in our relentless search for funding.

Since 2003, UitC has offered free-of-charge, liberal arts lecture series for adults who have been unable to follow the traditional path of higher education. Last year, we offered two, 10-week sessions on scholars whose work is foundational to U of T’s national and international reputation. This year, our topic is Human Rights and the City. Its focus is on what we are calling local citizenship.

With 40 people registered this term, students arrive early at Innis to grab a seat. They come from all regions of the city, their ages span more than six decades, and their backgrounds are as diverse as you will find on any corner in Toronto. A student proudly described UitC as a “mini United Nations” not long ago, and she was right: at last count, there were 19 countries of origin represented in our one, small classroom.

This term, several refugees have joined our group. In a recent discussion on gun violence in Toronto, the presenter, the founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, energetically asked,” So what would you do to stop gun violence in Toronto if you were elected mayor?” “I would invest in community organizations, in the lives of people,” a student replied. As someone who arrived here after roaming from country to country for more than 20 years, the weight, and the weariness, of his response momentarily silenced the room.

University in the Community is cemented in the belief that education and civil society are inextricably linked. And in that firm grounding, there is such hope.