Disrupting the Urban Planner as The Expert: Community-Based Research and The Power of Storytelling
Dayan De Souza joined the Centre for Community Based Research as a Centre Researcher in May 2023. She brings her passion for driving community-based policy change that strives to create equitable and affordable housing for all.
This blog post is part of a blog series celebrating the Centre for Community Based Research’s 40th anniversary. Other anniversary initiatives include The 40th Anniversary Celebration Open House and Free Coaching Sessions This Fall,
From a young age, I have always wanted to make impactful changes in my community. Art was my first love and an avenue I wanted to explore. When I found Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, I was elated with the ability to reconcile these two parts of me. Being able to help my community with my passion for creating and advocating for underserved communities gave me a sense of purpose and the ability to influence societal perspectives. Little did I know my pursuit of this career would pivot, morph, and merge into community-based research (CBR).
Being a Black woman and of Caribbean heritage, my lived experiences helped me identify a key gap-- the lack of critical dialogue on how planning decisions negatively impacts marginalized communities. For example, the systemic impacts of affordable housing policy on low-income individuals, the inadequate housing conditions experienced by most Indigenous communities throughout Canada, and how public spaces are designed to erase the presence of diverse communities are overlooked gaps requiring deep and thoughtful systematic change. I soon realized I would be doing a disservice to myself and various communities if I followed the process of conventional approaches to city building which centered the voices of people with power and money. I found myself on a quest to understand how I could tackle pressing societal issues ranging from affordable housing to food insecurity. This led me to discover the use of community-based research to uncover the roots of problems and create practical actions and solutions driven by community needs.
In 2021, I dove deeper into my understanding of CBR as a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I had the opportunity to complete my placement at the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR). During this time, I learned to understand research as a bridge to creating social change that could be applied to the urban planning realm. I admire the community-based research process because it fosters a unique approach to tackling issues by placing decision-making power in the hands of community members. By engaging individuals who live or have lived through the problems faced by their community, community-based research allows for the creation of effective solutions that are informed by those experiencing the issues firsthand. In the context of urban planning, I see community-based research as a tool that disrupts the system and changes the narrative of "the planner is the expert" to the community being the expert who can make meaningful change.
Additionally, because community-based research is rooted in understanding and amplifying the lived experience of people, it creates an environment for counter-storytelling where stories of marginalized communities are not silenced. Community-based research is a container for questioning power and injustice, and I saw this firsthand in 2020 during the rise of racial justice movements internationally. During the Black Lives Movement, I began sharing my experiences of racism, particularly memories from high school, online. I received responses from friends, past teachers, and people I didn't know. I realized sharing my story made people either uncomfortable and defensive or challenged them to unlearn harmful biases. Simultaneously, I noticed the phrases "Say Her Name" and "Say Their Name" was gaining more traction in the US, and eventually Canada, where the stories of victims who lost their lives to racial injustice were shared globally, with help from larger Black Lives Matters movements. As a result of storytelling, I witnessed how organizations were shifting their structures to address inequalities internally. A local example is my time at Toronto Community Housing Corporation when The Centre for Advancing the Interests of Black People had recently opened, and we developed internal policies and practices to enhance the living and work environments for Black tenants and staff. It was through telling my stories of anti-Black racism and hearing others' experiences that I saw how change was demanded in governments and organizations. Storytelling (and many other interventions) challenged people's way of thinking, creating the necessary discomfort for people to question their perspectives on racism and the role of systems in our society.
Meanwhile, at CCBR, I witnessed how integrating art and storytelling into research made information more accessible and relatable, while fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for various communities' issues. Overall, I've seen how CBR approaches have proven to be truly transformative. They foster strong, meaningful connections by actively building trust with communities that have historically experienced harm from conventional research processes, especially racialized communities.
I've only scratched the surface of how I can work with communities to create systemic change collaboratively. Still, I'm ecstatic to explore all the opportunities I create and find with CCBR. Although my initial career goals began in urban planning, it led me to understand the influence research has on policy change. CCBR has created an environment that invites me to participate in that change. I want to use policy and community-based research to demonstrate that access to quality housing is a human right and how it enhances one's quality of life. I also want to create solutions that make public spaces safer for Black people, as history has shown how Black people are routinely harmed in public settings. As I gain more research experience, my work will never be neutral. I'm excited to have the support of CCBR as I navigate how to continue to create transformational change through community-based research.