The late humanitarian Jean Vanier created L’Arche communities to make known the gifts of people with developmental disabilities, and students from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and the Lassonde School of Engineering will have a chance to learn firsthand about L’Arche Daybreak as part of a new experiential education initiative.
Carolyn Steele, a contract faculty member in the Department of Humanities and the career development coordinator at York University, is a part of the leadership team behind C4: The Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom that is being pilot tested this year at the University. The L’Arche Daybreak project, along with many others, were originally curated for C4 but not initially chosen by students. These projects became part of the C4 Annex and made available to other departments.
Steele teaches a capstone course in the LA&PS, titled Doing Culture: Narratives of Cultural Production, a course developed with support from York University’s Academic Innovation Fund. She was especially intrigued by the proposal from L’Arche Daybreak (a L’Arche community program based in Richmond Hill) when she saw their display of handmade crafts at the C4 Pitch Day event in September.
Melanie Baljko, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Lassonde School of Engineering, saw the same display. Baljko, who teaches a course on Human Computer Interaction, immediately appreciated the learning potential the L’Arche project could offer her students. When the project wasn’t chosen by C4 students, Steele and Baljko decided to incorporate L’Arche Daybreak’s needs into their courses as a joint experiential education opportunity.
“We both thought the L’Arche proposal was awesome, so the two of us got together,” said Steele. “At first, it seemed awkward, because Melanie offers two one-term courses and I offer a two-term course.”
Despite this initial hurdle, the two professors have forged ahead with their collaboration.
“There will be reciprocal benefits,” Baljko said. “Each field has a way for students to be exposed to L’Arche Daybreak and its needs.”
Steele added, “Computer science students are trained in technology but not always in the contexts in which it is used, while humanities students think about the context and are trained in critical thinking, analysis and ideologies.”
The students’ mission will be to assist the Arts Studio, one of L’Arche Daybreak’s vocational programs, to move into online sales for its products. The students are focusing on how to best to construct a social enterprise blueprint while designing an e-commerce website and working to streamline internal processes in support of the community’s activities.
“It’s not just about buying and selling,” said Steele. “We’re working within an ideological framework – Vanier’s principles for humanity – that at first blush seem to be antithetical to the priorities of personal gain which characterize traditional e-commerce transactions.”
“The project gives me a clear story for the students, showing that humans are at the centre of the design process,” said Baljko. “It’s good for them to see that what they know has real-world applications. It’s also an opportunity for them to confront their own biases and work through them intentionally.”
Students involved in the project paid a visit to L’Arche Daybreak prior to the December break and will be returning to the site weekly during the winter term.
For Fatima Musse, a fourth-year health studies major, the class project fit in with her goal of “intentionally taking classes outside of my comfort zone to learn about different cultures.”
She found the visit to the community very interesting and liked the idea of “bringing art to people with varying ability levels.”
“I’m very excited,” she said. “I think they make awesome goods for a good purpose. The residents are very talented, and if we could find a way for them to outsource the shipping or storage, it would allow them to react to supply and demand more easily.”
She is also interested to see how L’Arche Daybreak, which gets its government funding as an arts organization, is dealing with cuts to the arts.
Students in both courses will be required to do critical reflection as part of their experiences. They’ll be considering the significance of the project, the new knowledge that is being created, and how the overall experience could be done differently to improve it.
Steele said she believes the collaboration will be very valuable, both in introducing students to people with differing abilities and bringing two very different groups of students together.
“It’s so valuable when technical people work with non-technical people,” she said. “You have to create a way of communicating and you can’t assume that there’s one right way of knowing.”
The intention is for York University’s relationship with L’Arche to continue and mature over time, enabling students from humanities and computer science to work collaboratively with L’Arche in a sustainable and mutually beneficial process of relationship building.
If you are interested in C4 and/or gaining access to the C4 Annex, email the York Capstone Network at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus