AMPD brings diversity of learning experiences to students

Header banner for INNOVATUS

Welcome to the May 2024 edition of Innovatus, a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning at York University. This month, we showcase ways the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) is providing students with unique and impactful educational opportunities.

Innovatus is produced by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching & Learning in partnership with the Communications & Public Affairs Division.

In this issue, AMPD invites York community members to read stories about how it is empowering students with learning experiences that advance their knowledge and skills.

Greetings from the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design at York,

As we collectively navigate the turbulence of the past year, it is vital to remind ourselves of the excellence in innovative teaching and learning that inspires and empowers our students, faculty, and staff in our communities across Canada and beyond.

Mike Darroch
Mike Darroch

Instructors across AMPD have been at the forefront in new program development as well as research-creation initiatives that deeply integrate research and pedagogy. Two events in October 2023, led by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council-funded Partnership Grant Hemispheric Encounters Network, highlight these entanglements through the ever-growing need for cross-border communication – Transnational Gatherings: Activist Interventions with Archives and Performing Archives: The Practice of Gathering Residency. These events brought together artists and scholars from across the Americas to work with faculty and students through the Arts Activism Speaker Series and share methodologies, practices and strategies. 

In April, AMPD’s new pan-Faculty Integrative Arts program held its inaugural showcase, “Into the Kaleidoscope,” at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media & Education, featuring works by students from Integrative Arts and from across AMPD programs. In March this year, we also celebrated the news that the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television announced over 40 AMPD alums were nominated in diverse categories, including Best Motion Picture and Best Cinematography.

The four stories in this issue of Innovatus emphasize the diversity of experiences we are excited to offer AMPD students in interesting ways. In these stories, you can learn about how our students are exploring research methodologies and strategies for building community-driven, site-oriented, collaborative approaches to art production; working with the community to create site-specific pieces in places where women’s history is often overlooked; developing a project with the creative coding library, p5.js, in tandem with Risograph printing, to challenge assumptions that are baked into the design process; and using visual design to amplify the results of a research project focusing on young women in Toronto, Melbourne and New York City. 

Meanwhile, AMPD researchers continue to bring success – with Tri-Council grants, the Collected Minds initiative, arts council grants and other major awards – to the classroom. Cinema and media arts Professor Janine Marchessault has been named one of the five recipients of the esteemed 2024 Killam Prize for her work in community-based and site-specific public art exhibitions, research creation and public outreach. Music Professor Noam Lemish has been nominated for a 2024 Juno Award in the Jazz category. York University’s Motion Media Studio at Cinespace Studios, under the directorship of Professor Ingrid Veninger, continues to thrive as a site of student-led exploration and innovation focusing on film production, performance, immersive environments and virtual production. 

We continue to expand opportunities for experiential education and work-integrated learning with initiatives sponsored by CEWIL, including Shooting the Set, an intensive, five-week course offering 30 students valuable experience working with green screen technologies. Our new program in Creative Technologies is set to open with the launch of the Markham Centre Campus in Fall 2024. 

In a world of constant change and amid deep international conflicts, artists, musicians, performers, and designers inspire us to bridge cultural divisions and find new paths to cross-cultural communication. We recognize that creativity continues to empower our stories, translate our histories and bind our communities and cultures. 

Come visit us in AMPD, either in person or through our new virtual tour.

Best wishes, 

Mike Darroch 
Interim Dean, AMPD 

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form.

In this issue:

Costa Rica provides canvas for Eco-Arts Residency
York University’s Las Nubes Campus is welcoming its first Eco-Arts Residency, where students will immerse themselves in the local community and culture.

Professor creates performances that reclaim women’s history
Professor Erika Batdorf looks to create experiences where students can bring stories of contemporary women to ancient sites across the globe.

AMPD design students learn to overcome fear of coding, algorithm biases
Professor Gabi Schaffzin has pursued a mission to ensure design students not only learn basic computer coding but consider biases baked into code and design.

Professional opportunity engages AMPD students
A group of researchers hired design students taught by Professor Angela Norwood to create data visualization for an important project: Congress 2023.

Costa Rica provides canvas for Eco-Arts Residency

By Elaine Smith

York University’s Las Nubes Campus in Costa Rica is serving as a home base for its first-ever Eco-Arts Residency, an intensive, 10-day course being offered by two professors from the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD).

Professor Brandon Vickerd, a sculptor, as well as theatre and performance artist Laura Levin, director of Sensorium – a York research centre for digital arts and technology – are leading a group of 25 students in research centred on the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor preserve and communities near Las Nubes.

The course focuses on developing research methodologies and strategies for building community-driven, site-oriented, collaborative approaches to art production.

“Current studio courses focus on students’ artistic skills and don’t teach them how to go to a community, make connections and respond to the reality of the environment, the politics and the institutions while producing meaningful works,” said Vickerd. “This residency-based course provides such an opportunity.”

The students are living with families in the local villages, two per home, and taking part in a curated, daily schedule of activities and exploration. Their experience began in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, with two days of visiting theatre companies and museums before travelling to Las Nubes. Once there, they were able to get a sense of the landscape, the people, the economy and politics.

“They will engage with the larger questions of the course in a site-specific way,” Levin said. “They’ll visit local farms, and – informed by their readings on food sovereignty – they’ll learn first-hand about the challenges of individuals running small farms in the global food system. 

“We’ll also travel to an Indigenous village that is the home of the Boruca people, a group that has developed over time an intricate mask-making tradition and a youth theatre company that imaginatively incorporates those masks. There will be a lot of hands-on engagement with cultural producers.”

One of the students’ other major tasks is to assist with producing ExpoCOBAS, an annual festival organized by the local community designed to celebrate and consolidate identity around the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. It’s an exercise that will include everything from making piñatas to putting on a student art showcase to brainstorming about activities that will engage young people.

“There are important lessons we’d like our students to absorb,” said Vickerd of the residency’s goals. “We want to show them that they can engage with the environment in a variety of ways. We also want them to understand what it means to engage ethically with a community and collaborate, to engage in social action. They need to understand what’s important about a culture and how they can contribute with support and understanding, meaningfully adding to its health.”

Levin noted that some students had never travelled to Latin America before undertaking this residency, offering an additional opportunity for some.

“We want them to learn what it means for artists not to be tourists and how to negotiate their experiences in a thoughtful way, rather than viewing the community as a spectacle to be consumed,” Levin said.

Vickerd and Levin are providing the students with creative prompts and exercises to help them engage with the unique landscape, such as participating in outdoor classes or hiking in the rainforest.

“They won’t be able to sit back,” said Vickerd. “This course is about engagement.”

Po Kuen Cheung, a graphic designer and mature visual art and art history student who is studying part time for a degree, is one of the students registered for the intensive Las Nubes course.

“I want to explore the wonderful world of art when I retire, and when I saw the Costa Rica course, it matched exactly what I want to do – explore what happens elsewhere,” said Cheung. “It will be an experience of a lifetime.”

Once he and his fellow students return home, they will have the opportunity to reflect on the experience and translate it into either an essay or artistic output.

“This experience allows them to think about how to explore and explain the world in a different way,” Vickerd said.

Their responses, whatever form they take, will enrich the understanding of others, giving what they’ve learned a broader impact.

AMPD design students learn to overcome fear of coding, algorithm biases

computer code colorful

By Elaine Smith

School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) Professor Gabi Schaffzin has a goal: eradicate the fear that design students feel when they hear the word “coding,” while teaching them that they have alternatives to the biases built into the algorithms that govern the standard digital design programs used in the industry.

When it comes to those in his third-year generative design course, Schaffzin has noticed something. “One of the challenges of the class is that only about one of 10 students is comfortable with coding,” he says.

Gabriel Schaffzin
Gabriel Schaffzin

Schaffzin wants his students to lose their fear of basic coding, with its loops, variables, functions and if statements, but he also wants “to challenge their assumptions about code being unbiased. For example, who decided that something should be in English or to always place a certain button in a specific spot on the page?”

Schaffzin does a lot of work with user interfaces and data-generated visualization, which can be lucrative, but he wants his students to know that, as artists and design professionals, they have options besides the programs that are automatically assumed to be the only choice for generating designs online.

“I want to to challenge many of the assumptions that are often baked into the design process,” he said. “A class like this provides students with marketable skills, while also being introspective and canon-challenging.

“By exploring user interfaces using code, rather than pixels, designers start to understand how the choices they make about their users’ experiences are strongly related to the digital technologies used to build them.”

In other words, there are people behind the algorithms that design programs use and these people are making choices designers simply take for granted.

Schaffzin asks students take on the task of learning p5.js, a creative coding library and platform that has the goal of making coding accessible to a wide variety of people. Their text Aesthetic Programming combines theory and practice and provides weekly exercises for them to complete as they familiarize themselves with the code and learn to use it to create designs.

Once they have become conversant with p5.js, they are asked to print their final design project using a Risograph, an automated version of screen printing that produces images that are less precise than those created with digital printing.

“They are used to doing highly curated design using pixels and this [the Risograph] is an imprecise technique – it produces fuzzy edges, not the crisp ones made by a digital printer – that creates a lovely sense of the artist being present,” Schaffzin says. “In a world of artificial intelligence, anything reminiscent of this is something in its favour.”

By understanding that they have choices, rather than blindly using the most common technology, Schaffzin says students “are encouraged to bring a critical eye to each project they undertake going forward, both in the design program and beyond.”

April Dang, a third-year graphic design student who enrolled in the generative design course in Fall 2023, has felt that impact. “Using p5.js, I can make things with data manipulation that I normally couldn’t as a designer … It broadens my scope.”

She was thrilled to learn how to create dynamic type and images using code rather than a mouse or a trackpad. However, debugging her programs took time.

“I needed to go through 100 lines of code to see what I’d typed wrong,” Dang said. “It was frustrating, but the end result was very satisfying, and it taught me to embrace mistakes. It’s important to treat them as a learning experience, because failures may look cooler than expected.”

Dang has a summer internship lined up with a local graphic design firm and is hoping to put her new skills to use there.

It’s an attitude that Schaffzin heartily embraces as part of AMPD’s mission that “infuses every level of practice with critical thinking and social critique.”

“Although my students won’t turn into programmers in 12 weeks, I want them to recognize the inherent bias in our technologically-determined lives,” he said. “And from a professional standpoint, I want them to feel comfortable interfacing with tech people.”

If Dang is typical of the students who finish the course, mission accomplished.

Professional opportunity engages AMPD students

Colorful blue and yellow pencils BANNER

By Elaine Smith

When a group of researchers approached Professor Angela Norwood to ask about hiring a few of her York University design students to provide data visualization for the results of one of their studies, Norwood saw an opportunity to provide the students with a career-enhancing experience.

In anticipation of Congress 2023, the annual meeting of the Federation for the Social Sciences & Humanities hosted by York, a research team led by York’s Laina Bay-Cheng and Sarah Flicker, along with Jen Gilbert, needed some visual help.

Their mixed-methods study looked at the risks to which LGBTQ and racialized young women ages 16 to 22 were exposed during COVID-19 in three cities: Melbourne, New York and Toronto. The researchers sent out surveys, conducted interviews and had the participants maintain timelines of their risk-taking behaviours. They wanted the resulting data to be translated into a pop-up display for Congress.

Angela Norwood
Angela Norwood

The team approached Norwood, who applied for an Academic Innovation Fund grant and created a special topics course, Representing Risk: A Physical and Virtual Pop-Up Gallery, which would turn students into consultants for the research team.

Twenty-three students registered for the course, which was designed as a vertical studio – meaning that design students from second to fourth years could enrol.

“It allowed students to mix with others from different years and offered an opportunity for everyone to contribute,” Norwood said.

“It was the perfect bridge between the worlds of design and education,” said Helen Han, a York master of fine arts graduate working toward a PhD in education, who Norwood hired as her research assistant for the project.

The researchers visited the class to present the data and discuss ways it could be shared with the study participants, other researchers and the public. They collaboratively decided on a website with interactive visuals from the data set and a pop-up gallery that could travel.

Norwood's students presenting their progress to the research team via Zoom during class.
Norwood’s students presenting their progress to the research team via Zoom during class.

The students formed teams to work on various aspects of the project, often resulting in a fruitful mix of perspectives and collaboration.

“The youth in the class saw things differently than the older principal investigators, and they had to be open to new ways of seeing the data,” Norwood noted as an example.

The project resulted in a significant experiential education opportunity. “Professor Norwood made it possible for students to bring theory to life in class,” said Han.

“We allowed them space to reach their goal, and the work mirrored real life as professional designers,” said Norwood.

As for the end result? “They came up with totally dynamic, fantastic ideas, and any failures (problems) were just as interesting as the successes, because we learned a lot about collaborating with designers and about the data itself,” praised Gilbert. “The students amplified the voices of the young people in our research through their design choices.” 

The pop-up exhibit was featured at Congress 2023 and will be viewed in the other cities involved in the study, too. The researchers held a launch for the exhibit, attended by their design partners, who are grateful for the collaboration.

“We’ll definitely always build a design element into future research projects,” said Gilbert. “We also learned that it would be valuable to collaborate with designers from the beginning, because their design thinking can help us hone our research questions.”

Norwood, too, is open to overseeing future collaborations between her students and researchers.

“It was very much about the process of getting to the final product,” Norwood said. “The students brought all their advanced technical skills to the project and left understanding more about teamwork, peer mentorship and social science methodology.

“They know more about themselves as designers and what design can contribute to projects like this.”

Professor creates performances that reclaim women’s history

Temple of Zeus in Turkey BANNER

By Elaine Smith

Thanks to York University’s Profesor Erika Batdorf, attendees at the Bergama Theatre Festival in Asclepieion, Turkey, have a treat in store for them this August: a large, site-specific, immersive event with multiple performers placed on location throughout the grounds, known as an ancient healing site. Its aim: bringing the stories of contemporary women to ancient sites where women’s history has often been disregarded and forgotten.

Batdorf is the creator of the Batdorf Technique, an embodied physical theatre practice with which she likes to explore a means of bringing women’s stories back to a site where they have been ignored.

Erika Batdorf
Erika Batdorf

“In visiting ancient sites, I find there is almost no mention of women,” Batdorf said. “The perception is that they are nothing. How do we prevent losing more stories of women?” 

Batdorf, together with master of fine arts graduate Gulce Oral, tested a model of this approach in the summer of 2023 in Troy, an ancient archeological site in Turkey made famous in Greek mythology. For a performance project, they asked students from Çannakale Onsekiz Mart University in Turkey to study their grandmothers to learn about the dreams they had as young women, their understanding of freedom and what symbolizes power to them.

In the process, students soon began to see themselves in their grandmothers and – with guidance from Batdorf and Oral – turned these findings into three-minute pieces that they performed live at Troy.

A similar process will unfold in Asclepieion this fall, made possible with funding from the festival and the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as actors, musicians, and puppeteers from Istanbul and areas around Bergama, including local female Romany musicians and Kozak women.

Asclepieion, Turkey
Asclepieion, Turkey.

“Our work is devised theatre, rather than text-based,” Batdorf said. “I’m not a historian myself; I’m a contemporary theatre artist, so I know how to devise and create actual, physical theatre that animates a space.”

Among their projects, one will include a piece at Zeus’s temple, which will incorporate stick games played by local women and music by Romany drummers, as a way of reclaiming that space as their own.

Parchment making is being revived locally, too, and one of the sculptural pieces at the festival will be a giant book that holds Turkish stories, recipes and wisdom shared by women with whom they have been meeting.

While ancient sites are less accessible in Canada, Batdorf has involved York students in her performance creation class in a similar project.

In the classroom, for example, she asked her students to each research their mothers and grandmothers before choreographing a piece inspired by their findings – much like the Troy project.

Similarily, next year Batdorf will be leading a group of students in a site-specific project called Haunted Honeywood, working with tales of paranormal occurrences that have occurred in a small town north of Toronto. Batdorf is mentoring them, not only in creation but in grant writing and outreach, skills that will be useful to them in funding their personal performance work in the future.

Kayla Silvestre
Kayla Silvestre

Kayla Silvestre, an upper-year theatre student, is one of the participants in the Haunted Honeywood project, because she has been influenced by Batdorf’s movement classes and is eager to continue learning from her.

“Her movement class has been the most beneficial acting course of my career,” Silvestre said. “I use 95 per cent of what I learned in my theatre work.”

She says the Haunted Honeywood project will incorporate some of the same principles that Batdorf is using in her work in Asclepieion, allowing people to wander an outdoor path running through the woods, where they’ll encounter guides and ghosts. A writing team is working on stories based on local history and culture, in addition to creating some new stories. The group is also planning to bring workshops to the schools in the area to promote the arts.

The 2025 debut of Haunted Honeywood is still more than a year away, but each of Batdorf’s site-specific works requires time to put all the pieces in place. She has been working toward Asclepieion for three years, yet it will be performed for only three days during this highly respected festival.

“We’ll do the best we can to document the piece,” Batdorf said, “and we hope to have a website to host conversations among local women and others.”

Although the performances are fleeting, for those who participate, either as actors or as visitors, she hopes the experience will be enduring and impactful.

Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change advances student learning and careers

Header banner for INNOVATUS

Welcome to the April 2024 edition of Innovatus, a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning at York University. This month we showcase the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC), and its latest efforts to advance the creativity, learning, wellbeing, and careers of its students.

Innovatus is produced by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching & Learning in partnership with the Communications & Public Affairs Division.

In this issue, EUC invites York community members to share stories about its efforts in improving the learning – and lives – of its students.

As York’s newest Faculty, EUC takes pride in bringing innovative approaches to our teaching and learning environment. Less than four years into its existence, with a suite of newly designed programs, the Faculty is building a reputation for pedagogy that is inclusive, experiential and interdisciplinary, as well as being oriented towards shaping active citizens and changemakers. 

Our commitment to inclusion is most clearly manifested in the new Black Community Space that serves as a hub for Black students, staff and faculty from within EUC and beyond. Not just a place for relaxation and connection, the Black Community Space is also a site for the staging of discussion panels, dialogues and art exhibits, as well as our new Black Mentorship Program. An active approach to community inclusion is also evident in our Maloca Community Garden, where urban gardening is taught and practised, both for the York community and for adjacent local neighbourhoods. 

If the “hands-on” ethos of our community garden reflects our focus on experiential education locally, it is also found in field courses that allow our students to experience other urban settings and environments and to appreciate the circumstances of those who live there. This issue of Innovatus highlights an excellent field experience that takes students to Montreal. But it can also be found in many courses that integrate experiential components, and in our commitment to offering courses at the Las Nubes EcoCampus in Costa Rica. 

For a relatively small unit, EUC offers a unique breadth of ideas and approaches. Like many academic units focused on the environment, our teaching ranges from laboratory- and field-based science to the social sciences and the humanities, but we also go much further.  Unlike any equivalent Faculty in Canada, our teaching and research encompasses the arts as a form of understanding, expression and persuasion. This dimension of EUC’s teaching is manifested in our annual Eco Arts Festival, but is also found on a daily basis in our in-house gallery spaces and our newly renovated Wild Garden Media Centre, where Indigenous arts, languages and cultural production will be foregrounded. 

All of this work is intended to empower our students to make a real impact in the world. Our inaugural Green Career Fair in January was mounted in partnership with the Green Career Centre – founded by EUC graduate student Lauren Castelino. Such events help to connect our students with organizations that are fostering sustainable living worldwide. The same thinking lies behind our exciting new co-op program that will launch in the fall and will see EUC students placed in firms and organizations that are promoting a just and sustainable future. 

EUC is York’s smallest and youngest Faculty, but we like to think that our community – faculty, instructors, teaching assistants, staff, students and alumni – is making an outsized contribution to the University’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and a brighter future for both people and the planet. 

Thank you, 

Phillip Kelly
Interim Dean, Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change 

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form.

In this issue:

Eco Arts Festival to showcase students’ environmental art
The Eco Arts Festival is an annual event that highlights artistic work from Environmental Arts and Justice students that looks to start conversations about ecological change.

Urban Studies students advance learning with Montreal field trip
In order to enhance her students’ urban studies learning, Professor Teresa Abbruzzese took a group of undergraduates to Montreal to apply their analytical skills.

Inaugural fair helps EUC students explore green career possibilities
The Green Career Fair, held in January, looked to welcome Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) and high-school students in order to help them pursue sustainability careers. 

Initiative provides community space for EUC Black students
Black students in York University’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) now have a dedicated community space in the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building (HNES) to use for meetings, workshops and informal gatherings. 

Eco Arts Festival to showcase students’ environmental art

artistic crafts earth hands heart BANNER

A banana fish is set to be one of the hits of the 2024 Eco Arts Festival, an annual explosion of artistic talent organized by the students in the Environmental Arts and Justice (EAJ) program in York University’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC), which marks its 30th anniversary this year.

The Eco Arts Festival is an environmental initiative where art is a catalyst for ecological change and a way to highlight the intersection of art and the environment in the EAJ program. It takes over the lobby and two exhibit spaces – Zig-Zag and Crossroads – in the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building, displaying visual arts and offering performances and readings.  

EUC_The Great Banana Fish migration cover 1

The banana fish, an organically shaped yellow creature, is the star of visual artist and an EUC master’s degree student Michael Bradley’s illustrated book, The Great Banana Fish Migration, a tale that he’ll be reading aloud at the festival later this year.  

This mythical creature fits well with this year’s theme, Beast Friends Forever, a title conceived by festival co-ordinator and EUC doctoral student Giuliana Racco and inspired by Professor Andil Gosine’s research into animal-human interactions and species loss. Gosine is an artist and curator who is the EAJ program co-ordinator. 

“Arts are a place for the students to contend with their anxiety about what is happening in the world, and to think about how we might respond to the crisis we face,” Gosine says. 

Many of the student-artists displaying their work in the festival were enrolled in one or both of Gosine’s two EUC summer courses: Environmental Arts Workshop (for undergraduates) and Cultural Production: Image (for graduate students). These three-week intensive courses are akin to “an arts residency,” says Gosine, who brings artists to class and encourages the students to take their research and passion for environmental issues and translate them in a way that challenges them to explore their creative instincts.  

A similar fourth-year course in the undergraduate EAJ program, Arts in Action, brings together both undergraduate and graduate students to realize the project they have been dreaming up.  

“Fourth-year undergrads and first-year master’s students use the course to deeply explore their interests, with dedicated attention to each of their projects,” Gosine explains. “It’s a rare opportunity to move from research on an environmental concern to exhibition of an artwork that might stimulate conversation and action.”  

As for the undergraduate EAJ program, Gosine considers it unique; he accepted a teaching position at York to be part of it. 

“It’s rare to have such a confluence of learning styles,” he says. “We are allowed to have an interdisciplinary approach. Here, you can be both an artist and a social scientist.”

Chrocheted Chickens

Among the art that festival attendees will see are Tess Thompson-van Dam’s crocheted chicken sculptures harking back to Victorian times when the elites brought chickens to tea parties; drawings by Andrew Carenza that reinterpret horses pictured in historical European paintings through a contemporary, Queer lens; work on historical and contemporary ideas of Eden; and the travelling banana fish. Bradley’s reading of The Great Banana Fish Migration and an Eco Arts collaborative workshop offer participatory opportunities. 

Bradley, an Ottawa Valley native, had a thriving art practice in Taiwan but returned to Canada for master’s studies. He has been drawing banana fish daily since 2018 and creating stories about them. The current book talks about the fish’s journey to find its place in the world and how that might always be changing. 

“I’m not commenting on the politics of migration in a direct way, but when people migrate they have a confused sense of place. I hope people can relate,” he says. “There are a lot of ways that art and environmental science can intersect,” Bradley adds. “I’m not a politician or a policymaker, but artists, creators and curators are part of the cultural community, so if the environment requires a cultural shift, artists are the best people to usher in this change.” 

Bradley’s work, and the Eco Arts Festival, will have that on full display.  

Urban Studies students advance learning with Montreal field trip

Montreal skyline

Living in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s not complicated for students in the Cities, Regions, Planning program at the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) to assess Toronto’s strengths and weakness, but an annual field trip to Montreal allows them to apply their analytical skills elsewhere.

For five years, Teresa Abbruzzese, an assistant professor and urban geographer, organized a field school – a short-term academic program consisting of mentored field research – in the fall for third-year Urban Studies students in her research methods course in the Department of Social Science in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.  

She was excited to bring this experiential learning opportunity to her new home in the Cities, Regions, Planning program for her third-year course, Doing Urban Research: Theory & Practice, for the Fall 2024 term. 

The initiative gives students a chance to experience another city, using participant observation while taking notes and photos and having conversations with local citizens. The trip is mandatory and the costs are low, but there is a day trip to Hamilton, Ont., for a cheaper alternative. 

“The trip enables our students see the historical and contemporary issues facing Montreal and to develop a comparative understanding of cities,” said Abbruzzese. “It’s also important to give them the opportunity to do preliminary fieldwork.” 

“The point of the trip is to prepare them to work on their own individualized research project,” she said. “It trains them to be social scientists and allows them to hone their academic skills, such as critical analysis, research and writing.” 

Members of the Montreal field trip
At City Hall, (Front Row, L to R): Prof. Doug Young,  Prof. Teresa Abbruzzese, Councillor Sterling Downey, Prof. Silvano de la Llata (Concordia University), and Prof. Mike Cado right (Music, York); other rows: third-year students in Urban Studies/Cities, Regions, Planning 

The Montreal field school emerged from a political moment in history when Donald Trump assumed the American presidency in 2017. Abbruzzese and her colleagues in Urban Studies at the time decided to halt the field school to Buffalo – the original international location of the field school for many years – and instead they chose Montreal as the setting.  

Once the Canadian city was decided, Abbruzzese thoroughly enjoyed the creative process of putting together a new field school.  

“Logistically, it’s never easy to execute, but I strive to enhance the field school experience each year,” she said. “All the guest speakers make this field school special and welcome our urban group from York University back each year.” 

She, her students, and other professors boarded a Megabus for the ride east and followed a packed itinerary that included historian/expert-led walking tours of neighbourhoods such as Saint-Henri, Montreal North, Little Burgundy and Mile End; a visit with City Councillor Sterling Hall – who has experienced homelessness – and a tour of City Hall; and talks by professors from Concordia University.  

The students packed a lot into the trip, getting a sense of the richness and diversity of Montreal. They saw poverty and affluence, arts and industry. They gained an understanding of some of the city’s challenges with issues such as housing, transportation, socioeconomic disparities, public spaces and heritage as well as the French-English divide, said Abbruzzese. 

“All of this sparks comparative analysis in their heads and they begin to ask a lot of questions,” she said. “They’ll use all of this to create a manuscript – a fieldwork diary organized around themes. They’ll organize, reflect, and analyze their empirical notes and contextualize their observations with broader scholarly conversations in Urban Studies.” 

Just as important, noted Abbruzzese, is that the trip serves to transform the class from individual students into a community.  

“It is a tradition for professors from the program to join this field school, so that students have an opportunity to get to know the other professors in the program, and professors get to know the students,” she said. “Professor Doug Young from the Urban Studies program has joined me on this field school from Buffalo to Montreal for the last eight years. Students have always appreciated sharing this experience with other professors from the program, which made the experience more memorable.” 

“In addition, students become a support network for each other and become more connected after this field school,” she said. “They’re all friends afterward.” 

Vanessa Reynolds
Vanessa Reynolds

Vanessa Reynolds, a third-year geography and urban studies major, confirms that. “This was a group that hadn’t talked to each other in class, but we all bonded and, now, we’re really friends,” she said. “It was such a great experience; I’d recommend that anyone do it.” 

She found the trip eye-opening in many ways, and changed her perspectives. 

“I’m so Toronto-centric, but seeing Montreal gave me deeper insights into how a city runs, and seeing different parts of the city that people often don’t was amazing,” Reynolds said. Furthermore, she added, “I want to travel more. It makes you want to see the world. It was an experience that made university different.” 

Shazde Mir, a fourth-year urban studies major who plans to pursue a career in policy development or community planning, said Abbruzzese’s passion for Montreal made her glad she took the trip, as she got to know the city and gain insights into city planning. 

“I saw a different perspective of what it means to be an equitable city,” Mir said. “You can’t treat people as less than.” 

After visiting a working-class neighbourhood with prominent community initiatives that reminded her of Toronto’s Jane and Finch area, Mir wondered why cities have areas where a lack of investment from the government is visible. 

“I’ve started looking into tours here in Toronto to get to know the history of the city’s development,” she said. “I want to go back to Montreal and I’d like to visit other cities to see how different governments went about developing them, what the priorities were. 

“The trip solidified my love for Toronto. I want to see more progressive policies so we can create a more equitable city.” 

Ultimately, said Abbruzzese, “our objective is to produce graduates who are informed, critically engaged, and sensitive to issues of sustainability, social justice, equity and diversity.” 

Given the feedback, it is apparent she is meeting that goal. 

Inaugural fair helps EUC students explore green career possibilities

Briefcase with potted plant on it

Over 300 interested York University and high-school students attended the inaugural Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) Green Career Fair in January. 

In partnership with the not-for-profit organization Green Career Centre, the event welcomed students to the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building to explore possibilities for careers that aren’t often well promoted, but for which there is a growing need among employers. A recent worldwide survey by the Manpower Group found that 70 per cent of employers are urgently recruiting or planning to recruit green talent and people with sustainability skills. 

The idea for the fair came from Lauren Castelino, a master of environmental studies student at EUC and founder of the Green Career Centre, who organized a fair last year, attended by EUC staff. The centre focuses on providing under-represented youth with green career opportunities, advancement and inclusion. 

Organizers from both the Green Career Centre and Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. From L to R: Joel Famadico Jr., Emma Bramante,  Kenneth Ebhomeye Oko-Oboh, Lauren Castelino, Gayathri Baiju, Joanne Huy, Rosanna Chowdhury, Shaniah Hutchinson, Tomisona Oludairo, Bottom: Lester Pinlac
Organizers from both the Green Career Centre and Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.
From left to right: Joel Famadico Jr., Emma Bramante, Kenneth Ebhomeye Oko-Oboh, Lauren Castelino, Gayathri Baiju, Joanne Huy, Rosanna Chowdhury, Shaniah Hutchinson, Tomisona Oludairo, Bottom: Lester Pinlac

“We mutually thought it would be a great idea to expand the reach of the initiative by working together,” said Castelino, who is also pursuing a diploma in Business and the Environment from EUC and the Schulich School of Business. “EUC’s facilities were much larger than the first venue we used … and we were also appreciative of the staff support we could receive through the collaboration.” 

“We intentionally held our full-day event on the same day as the university-wide Career Fair hosted by the York Career Centre as a way of taking advantage of the synergy,” said Joanne Huy, an alumna who graduated in 2015 and is now the alumni engagement and events officer for EUC. “Staff at each event suggested that attendees visit the other fair, too. It was a win-win situation.” 

The partners invited EUC students and alumni to participate and invited everyone from York and the local community to attend. The day featured a morning of workshops followed by the career fair. The workshops included a presentation about net-zero programs given by staff from York’s Sustainability Office, a session focused on green job resources and a panel featuring EUC alumni. There was also a speed networking event matching alumni with groups of students for more intimate conversations. 

Participants speaking to vendor at the fair
Participants speaking to vendor at the fair

“I’m dedicated to empowering the next generation of changemakers, so it was great to invite our alumni panellists back to campus to share their career paths and discuss how EUC prepared them for the future,” said Huy. “We have 13,000 alumni worldwide and they are eager to contribute. It’s meaningful to them and to our current students.” 

The Green Career Fair itself featured booths set up by more than 20 organizations involved in environmental work, including the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority, the Community Climate Council and Outward Bound. Participating organizations focused on issues such as food insecurity, environmental policy, environmental arts and environmental education. Exhibitors showcased jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities. 

Muzamil Gadain, an alumnus who graduated from EUC in 2023, works as a project co-ordinator for the Black Environmental Initiative, an organization that works to foster change that considers cultural roots, including issues such as food security and food sovereignty. He, along with a co-worker and a volunteer, used their booth to recruit volunteers. 

“We weren’t actively hiring, but there were volunteer roles we needed to fill,” said Gadain. “About 20 volunteers signed up, so it worked very well. We also had an opportunity to network with other like-minded organizations and made some good connections. 

Muzamil Gadain and his colleagues from the Black Environmental Initiative boothing at the fair
Muzamil Gadain (left) and his colleagues from the Black Environmental Initiative boothing at the fair

“Our supervisor was very pleased to have access to university youth and we are happy to be able to help them develop their skills. Some of them have already made contributions by developing social media content and contributing to articles. It was a worthwhile event and we would definitely do it again.” 

Emma Bramante, an EUC work-study student who is majoring in sustainable environmental management, helped organize the event by doing outreach to organizations and potential employers. She also contributed to the development of marketing materials and helped to raise awareness to students, alumni and organizations. 

The high turnout delighted her and she is eager to see the Green Career Fair blossom and grow. 

“I anticipate an expansion in the scope of exhibitors, with a broader range of organizations participating, including both established environmental companies and emerging grassroots organizations and non-profits,” Bramante said. “Furthermore, I anticipate the integration of virtual components into the fair to increase accessibility and reach a wider audience beyond the local community.” 

Castelino, too, was thrilled by the interest the Green Career Fair generated. 

“I was so ecstatic to see this event come to life, and to reach more under-represented youth,” she said. “Some highlights included having three workshop presenters, four speakers, eight sponsors, 21 vendors and 300-plus attendees. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to share my knowledge through a Green Jobs Resources Workshop.” 

In June 2023, led by Castelino, Huy and Rosanna Chowdhury, the Green Career Fair was one of four applications awarded funding through the Sustainability Innovation Fund. The Faculty has now built the event into its annual budget. 

“Going forward, the fair will also give us a chance to build relationships with organizations as we develop our EUC co-op program,” Huy said. “The synergies are beautiful to see.” 

Initiative provides community space for EUC Black students

Two Black students walking inside on York's Keele Campus

Black students in York University’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) now have a dedicated community space in the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building (HNES) to use for meetings, workshops and informal gatherings. 

EUC's Black Community Space
EUC’s Black Community Space

The EUC Black Student Caucus spearheaded the initiative to obtain a dedicated community space, says Melissa Theodore, a decolonization, equity, diversity and inclusion (DEDI) advisor for EUC. It is one of the objectives stated in EUC’s Black Action Inclusion Plan 2020-25. The space was created to support a community of students, staff and faculty, providing them with a location where they can engage with one another on themed discussions and promote Black excellence, while furthering a sense of community and connection, as well as student academic and personal success.

The equity committee at EUC first held a space equity dialogue to determine what students’ needs were before approaching Dean Alice Hovorka. The dean allocated HNES 248 to them, and the caucus held a launch event there on Oct. 5, 2023. The space has been open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays ever since. 

“The space is important because Black students felt it was necessary to have a place where they could speak freely, be themselves, meet other Black students and form bonds,” Theodore said.  

“It also adds to our recruitment and retention opportunities, because it should encourage more Black students to enrol in our programs. There is a low number of Black students in some of our programs, but the numbers are increasing and we want to keep the momentum going. What better way than for them to have their own space?” 

The space will also serve as the central hub for Black Mentorship Program initiatives, providing students with support in fostering self-discovery to establish personal and academic goals that align with their individual identities and aspirations. 

Theodore hopes to form a sub-committee of the equity committee to guide the space and ensure that its care and programming are sustainable. Currently, programming is led in partnership between EUC’s Alumni Engagement and Experiential Education teams, and work-study students Shaniah Hutchinson and Tomisona Oludairo. Both are EUC undergraduate students who have taken responsibility for programming under Theodore’s guidance. 

Tomisona Oludairo
Tomisona Oludairo
Shaniah Hutchinson
Shaniah Hutchinson

“It is supposed to be a space for students run by students,” Hutchinson said. “It allows students, faculty and staff to celebrate their culture and heritage and it fosters solidarity and social justice.” 

Oludairo noted, “We want to promote cultural resilience, organize events and manage programs. We are looking for feedback from students about events and programs and are reaching out to the Black community.” 

The space has hosted a number of events to date.  

In November, a panel of EUC’s Black graduate students from various programs assembled there to share information about their pathways into their graduate program and their experiences of coursework, funding, research and the graduate community. EUC graduate assistants were also on hand to answer questions about graduate programs. 

In January, Black Voices, a film screening and storytelling event, was a collaboration between EUC and Black Excellence at York. It showcased Black filmmakers, including York students and graduates. The films screened focused on social and racial justice issues, and the films were followed by a discussion. 

For Black History Month in February, the Faculty sponsored a panel called Navigating Blackness Within the Workplace. The panellists, alumnus Masani Montague (managing director, Masani Productions); Muna-Udbi Abdulkadir Ali, an assistant professor at EUC; and Miquela Jones, a second-year interdisciplinary social science student, offered their insights into the working world and shared strategies for navigating the workplace. 

When the Faculty’s Eco Arts Festival takes place, the space is slated to be home to a collaborative art workshop, jointly sponsored by the Black Caucus, Black Excellence at York and Eco Arts. 

When the space isn’t hosting events, it is open to students as a gathering place. They can sprawl on the bean bag chairs and sip a cup of coffee made in the nearby kitchen, chat with each other or read. 

“We want people to enjoy the space,” said Hutchinson. “It’s a comfortable, relaxing area and a place they can unwind.” 

To use the space after hours, HNES 248 can be booked free of charge by reaching out to the Office of Student and Academic Services team at