“When we talk about community and belonging, who are we talking about belonging with? What are we belonging to?”
That's just one of the thought-provoking ideas posed by Zahra Ebrahim on today's episode.
Zahra is a public interest designer and strategist who's focused on deep, community-led approaches to policy, infrastructure, and service design in the Toronto area. As cofounder of Monumental, she's doing a very different kind of community work than a lot of digital creators like us.
Together, Zahra, Jillian, and SPI's co-CEO Matt Gartland explore the differences and commonalities between digital communities and on-the-ground activism and community building.
Along the way, they discover some juicy points of intersection—including how to create communities that aren't static, that provide a stepping stone for people to grow and flourish and eventually “graduate” and leave behind their own legacy.
This is a really lovely conversation that explores the outer bounds of some of the ideas and concepts we've touched on so far on the show.
Zahra Ebrahim is the cofounder of Monumental. She is a public interest designer and strategist, and her work has focused on community-led approaches to policy, infrastructure, and service design. She is an established bridge builder across grassroots and institutional spaces, and is a leading practitioner in surfacing key stories and narratives that build trust and connect communities.
Prior to this role, she built and led Doblin Canada, focusing on engaging diverse sets of stakeholders to use design-led approaches to address complex organizational and industry challenges. In her early career, Zahra led one of Canada’s first social design studios, working with communities to co-design towards better social outcomes, leading some of Canada’s most ambitious participatory infrastructure and policy programs.
Zahra has taught at OCADU, MoMA, and is currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. She is the Vice-Chair of the Canadian Urban Institute, and the Board Chair for Park People. She was recently named Next City’s Vanguard “40 under 40 Civic Leader,” Ascend Canada’s Mentor of the Year, one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life, and one of WXN’s Top 100 Women in Canadian Business.
In This Episode
- Building trust and relationships between institutions and communities
- The importance of acknowledging history, healing, and power maps (from Antionette Carol's equity-centered design framework)
- Overcoming the binary of win-lose thinking and instead focusing on shared agendas
- How to measure progress and gauge success in community work
- What it means to keep a community “together”
- How Zara uses WhatsApp to source nuanced community wisdom that directly informs decision-making
- Why we all need to have “a healthy disregard for the impossible”
- The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman [Amazon affiliate link]
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi [Amazon affiliate link]
- Antionette Carol
The CX 038: Trust Starts with Listening with Zahra Ebrahim, Co-founder of Monumental Projects
Zahra Ebrahim: You know, I love the visual of the old tree falling, and the light opens up and the canopy and the seedlings grow. It's a very natural process. And to be in and relationship with natural processes, we have to be okay with, sometimes things will come together and they will be amazing. And then they will go back into the soil and something new will emerge.
Jillian Benbow: Welcome to this episode of The Community Experience. I am your co-host, Jillian Benbow, and today I have a special co-host, my boss, CEO of SPI Media, Matthew Gartland. Matt, hello.
Matthew Gartland: It's awesome to be here. Yay.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah, this was really fun. Today, Matt is co-hosting. We had a blast. We talked to Zahra of monumental.ca up in Toronto. And she organizes in-person community equity, helping neighborhoods just doing all sorts of amazing things like institutional reform, Participatory design and really just moving Toronto in particular, to being an equitable city while they focus on rebuilding and keeping their community in mind. Matt, what's your kind of like high level? What are you excited about in this talk today?
Matthew Gartland: Well, she's delightful person with a wonderful mission and purpose and her articulation, and you can see it even in the copy on their website, anything and everything they put out is just profound. It resonates and there's a real discernible spirit of genuine community, togetherness, belonging, reciprocity, certainly diversity, equity, inclusion as a central tenet to their endeavor. And we have a lot to learn as digital community builders ourselves in the broader sense of how permanent is a community? How do we think about passing on the wisdom that a community generates to the next generation of members of that community? Kind of weaving in and out of those themes, I think is, to me, profoundly intellectually interesting. I nerd out on that stuff. But also very pragmatically necessary for those of us that are trying to build a community and build experiences within those communities.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah, absolutely. What I just love about this interview and you will all hopefully love as well, is just how connected all community building is. And while Zahra and her team are focused on Toronto in particular and what they're doing, I felt like everything she said was just totally transferable, but let's introduce Zahra, have a talk with her and we'll see y'all on the other side. (silence).
Jillian Benbow: All right. Welcome to this episode of the Community Experience Podcast. I am here with my co-host de jour, Matt Garland, CEO of SPI Media. And our wonderful guest Zahra Ebrahim of Monumental. Welcome to the show, Zahra. Let's just start it right off with, tell us about you. Who are you? What do you do for Monumental? Give us the spiel.
Zahra Ebrahim: I can give you this version, today's version of the spiel.
Zahra Ebrahim: A lot of people do, maybe the kind of work that folks who listen to this do, and you folks do, that's not so unusual. So I co-lead an organization called Monumental and we were birthed out of the pandemic. So we're about 18 months old and really focused at the start, focused on supporting an equitable recovery, which to us is synonymous with helping integrate community voice into the decisions that were being made to right the wrongs that were so clearly ... That in our decision making approaches and the way that we built cities and communities. And so to really work to make sure that community voices are integrated into all aspects of decision making and design, whatever that may be; policy infrastructure, programs, services. And part of that work is really focusing on how the city evolves and how the city develops.
Zahra Ebrahim: As we think about inequitable recovery, what was really clear to us is the infrastructure of our city is being redeveloped and reconsidered post ... Not post, just now. I don't know where we are in the pandemic continuum, but wherever we are, it is so clear that the development of our city is a real pain point in terms of really meaningfully integrating community voice and community wisdom and community leadership and shared prosperity. And so our work at Monumental is to help bridge those divides between folks on the ground and folks in institutions and make sure that everyone understands what's going on and is making decisions together.
Jillian Benbow: I'd love to know, what's a good example of a project or something to that effect, that you are doing that currently with?
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah. There's lots of great examples. we have Toronto in this wave and over the last 15 years has been in this wave of revitalizing developments that were built in the '50s, '60s. Some of the original community housing developments that were built in our city, that are now undergoing massive transformation because they sit at these beautiful epicenters throughout, like nodes throughout our city, they're critical nodes throughout our city, but are now at the point where they need to sort of be repaired and be revitalized because the living conditions in those places are great. But also it's a huge opportunity to think about the future of these communities. And so our work at Monumental right now has been focused on a few of those major projects. One, which was the first social housing project in Canada Region Park, which has been sort of the subject of study over the last many, many years, but specifically over the last 15 years, as it underwent a huge revitalization.
Zahra Ebrahim: And it's downtown, it's very central. If you've ever been to Toronto, it's not far from City Hall, it's a 15 minute walk from City Hall. And part of our work there is to figure out, "How do we make this go beyond community engagement?" Which I think a lot of people are thinking about. How do we think about what are the components of shared prosperity? Which is whether that's participating in decision making and building prosperity through civic literacy, whether that's prosperity through things like who is buying those homes? Who is living in those homes? Who has access to those homes? And then prosperity as it pertains to things like the retail environment. Who are the retailers? And not, are they accessible?
Zahra Ebrahim: Are they like not $20 candle companies, but if they are going to be $20 candle companies and have them be owned by local folks and so really thinking about prosperity quite broadly, and thinking about economic development quite broadly. And so our work is to sort of be the bridge between the institutions and community members to help sort of have those conversations and come into agreements of some kind on how to move forward in a way that's fair and just for as many people as possible. But at the same time that's sort of more closely aligned to the ground, sort of at the same time, we're also doing work with a major project that's happening in Northwest Toronto. That's a 520 acre development, which is going to bring 80,000 new residents and 40,000 new jobs approximately to Northwest Toronto, which is the site itself is surrounded by what we call priority neighborhoods.
Zahra Ebrahim: So five priority neighborhoods or neighborhood improvement areas as we call it in Toronto. And so this is a neighborhood that's at high risk of being gentrified of displacement of all sorts of different types of displacement. And so with a development of this size 30 years long, our job on that is to think about, "How do we really meaningfully set up a framework and an approach to equity and meaningfully engaging community that can last over a generation and a half as this gets built?" So kind of working on the ground and like in community and at the level of strategy. So those are two things that we're working on right now.
Matthew Gartland: Monumental things.
Zahra Ebrahim: Yes.
Matthew Gartland: So big things you're getting plugged into big things. How has that been in 18 months? Like what have been some of the, I guess, grittier aspects of this, this noble project that you've embarked on to foster that level of community in very meaningful way, 18 months feels like it can come and go in an instant.
Zahra Ebrahim: Well you know, I think the reason my co-founder, Kofi and I have both done work, like really grassroots work and then also worked within institutions that sort of determine how cities get built. And so we've sort of operated in these two spaces and many spaces in between. And I think one of the things that we noticed was when it came to decisions about development and decisions about like infrastructure investments in our city conversations about community were very kids table conversations. It was like decisions were being made and community conversations were being had, and never shall the two meet until last two years ago in the spring of 2020, when people started paying attention to this really important grassroots work, that's been happening to integrate community voice into the development of how we build our city or into the decisions around how we build our cities.
Zahra Ebrahim: And so the gritty work has almost like it started like 18 months ago with folks being like, "Oh yeah, maybe you were right." Like you being this broad cross section of city builders like myself who and Kofi and so many others who had been saying, "This is not a chicken soup for the soul thing. This is a strategic imperative to think about the wellbeing of all within a community, not just some." And so I feel like that first threshold of people, like I keep saying we've been screaming into the wind and then the wind died down, and then the wave of interest in doing this work and not understanding that this work as much as it's about the transactions, what shall we do? It's about the relationships. And so, this is deeply relational work to build bridges between institutions and communities and work and right relations it's long term.
Zahra Ebrahim: So I think that the grittiest sort of high level piece was that everyone wanted to start doing the work. And it was like, "Well, no, let's build the trust." Like I remember my first ever projecting community I showed up sort of just like, "Let's do this great piece of work in a neighborhood that I'm not from." And then like all of the studies that said this neighborhood had, like was primed for a whole bunch of sort of different kinds of investments in social infrastructure and the executive director of the work, or the not for profit that was working in that neighborhood. And this is now 15 years ago was like, "Okay, if you stick around for a year and a half, I'll let you do that project," like, "Show up at community meetings and show up at this organization, at their sort of community gatherings and meet people and talk to them and get to know them and get to know what their priorities are. And then this project you're talking about, if they're into it, let's do it."
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. I'm curious, how, how are you going about actually getting into those communities and then building those relationships?
Zahra Ebrahim: Those folks have been like, they're there, they're still there. And I've been very close to Mutual Aid in here in Toronto, over the course of the pandemic and it was amazing when some of our municipalities and civic institutions are like, "Oh my God, all these great organizers stepping up." And I'm like, "They've kind of always been doing this work. And you just need to cast like the faintest light on a particular population group or issue area. And you will find just like so many organizers doing the work. So in part, I think some of the benefit of the work that we do at Monumental and the kind of folks that we work with and bring on to our team are folks that are deeply rooted in community, but understand that we need both to get the work done. Like, you can't just work on one side, someone's got to run in between the two.
Zahra Ebrahim: So that's one piece is that we sort of benefit from having tenure of relationship in communities across the city. Most of my colleagues have done deep work for most of their careers, whether it's specifically in their job or alongside their work, had a longstanding commitment to activism and organizing and solidarity. And so those relationships are already there, but where they're not, I think that is part of the work is starting to talk about other people, like, not just coming in and talking about your agenda, but actually figuring out, like, "What is the agenda?" So like reaching out to folks and being like, "What would like good feel like in a year? What would good feel like in five years? Like, what do you want?" And then trying to find, build shared agendas. And I feel like there are very few folks at the very least in our context who are working to really honor and empathize with and understand that the priorities can't exist sort of in this binary, like someone win, someone loses.
Zahra Ebrahim: And especially right now, everyone's just trying to figure out how to exist in the state of the world. And so there has to be shared agenda building. So it's a lot of conversations about like, "What are you trying to do? What are you trying to do? Does that sync up? Does that sync up on different timelines? Maybe that's the decision to be made." And like, "How are you showing up? Why are you showing up in this way? What's happened before?" Like, "Tell me the history," like a huge fan of, usually it's on my desk. It's somewhere, it's probably somewhere up there, but Antionette Carol's equity centered community design framework, which is just amazing. And if you could get Antionette Carol on your show, that would be amazing, because she's rad.
Zahra Ebrahim: But what I think is really brilliant about the way that she does her work and the way that she approaches her work is to do any kind of community work. You sort of have to deal with three conditions first, one is acknowledge where we are. So where are we? Okay. We're in the fourth phase of a major redevelopment that has totally changed the fabric of this community already. And we'll do more to do that. Okay, great. The history and the healing. So how did we get here? Why are we doing this? Why am I the person in the room? Why are you a person in the room? What is the history? And in that history, what needs to be healed and doesn't mean you heal all of it before you start a project, but it does mean that you acknowledge that like there are wounds in the community between institutions trying to do right.
Zahra Ebrahim: And the actual impacts on the ground. And then the third piece is just power mapping. Just being like, "Okay, well in this situation, here's where I's are. "I have power. I have connections with all of the institutional partners. I have scope to do this work. I'm getting paid." So, that means I have time. And, "Here's your power, here's your power. You have the relationships on the ground. People will talk to you not me," And I found that framework used lightly even is a really great frame to enter community, any community, whether you're not of.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Matthew Gartland: That reminds me, or makes me think of, I guess, how we think about through a community and with the purpose of a community, defining the success and then measuring progress towards that.
Zahra Ebrahim: Right.
Matthew Gartland: So I'm curious, even with your efforts thus far navigating, maybe not to put portion your mouth, but like some legacy skepticism to better intentions that maybe never manifest right in past efforts in the Toronto area or just in the city. How are you overcoming some of those things and measuring progress and being able to hopefully be able to then signal back to the folks that are believing in you that are getting involved, that, "Yes, progress is starting to happen."
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah. Measuring progress is so weird because it's like who's measuring and who's evaluating and it's such a ... it's a felt sense as much as it is anything else. And I think one way in which one ... there's some really baseline. So one way in which progress is measured is when you're going into a place and a lot of the places we work within, we're not the first to come in trying to help these institutions do better. And I think acknowledging that you've done your homework is always, and I'm talking from the perspective of even though, like all my colleagues and I have organized in community, we don't know every community organizer. We don't know every neighborhood in the city or every neighborhood that we work within. So showing first that we've done our homework is like some really baseline stuff that a lot of folks don't do and then end up having to backtrack and be like, "Oh yeah. Now we've read, we've read your community priorities report that you've actually, you put together such a long time ago that everyone should have read before starting this project."
Zahra Ebrahim: So that piece is like building trust by showing that the folks trying this time or the folks doing this work are actually trying to do it more from an asset based approach, which is looking at what currently exists that we can build on. Versus, "This is something new. This is like a new endeavor initiative." So that's one piece I think. And that's more own process, but I think from an outcomes perspective ... I just went for a walk this afternoon with a friend who was just like such a wonder person, wonder kid on inclusive development and was just, her name's Crystal Dean.
Zahra Ebrahim: And she was just saying, "Money. Who prosperous, that shows progress." So it's like when especially in communities that have experienced revitalization being like, "Oh, you're going to stay in this community as the construction is happening. And we've thought through that," and like, "You're going to stay in place because you've got families, you've got seniors who have elder care. You have children in school, you have people who have rituals and jobs," and all these sorts of life systems around this place. We're not going, we are actively, part of our work is not too displaced. The right to stay. And so people getting to stay as change is happening in a lot of cases is progress even though that's such a dire baseline, but so it is. But I do think then who prospers, like as our cities grow as our cities develop, who is quite literally prospering, how is wealth being distributed and wealth, it can be distributed in many ways.
Zahra Ebrahim: It can be distributed in making sure that there are employment opportunities, making sure that there are career pathways, making sure that the development actually hires local folks, there's home ownership. There's a friend of mine has been talking about a community franchise model where fine, if there's a subway in your neighborhood, it's owned by the neighborhood and it's paid off with sweat equity. It's paid off with the hours that you work there and then fine, we can have subways in neighborhoods, but they're owned by the folks who live in that community and decisions are made collaboratively and they're more of a cooperative model. And so I think we're kind of over like notional sort of superficial progress. And now it's like, we actually need to see substantial inequities closed by sharing wealth.
Matthew Gartland: I'm curious if Just keeping the community together, being a form of progress where I don't have the experience you do on the ground in local communities doing your phenomenal work. Mine is probably sadly too much on the internet, but this notion, especially through the last two years of thinking about how do you keep a community together? And it's just, because it's easy to disband. It's easy to gather once for something and then fizzle out or fade away. But in the local sense with the work that you're doing, that is of such profoundly deeper consequence than arguably the work we're doing online. How do you think about keeping this like new coalition of people together for some version of the long haul?
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah. I want to answer that in so many different ways, because it's a really place based response which is that this is all about choice. Like we want in the communities neighborhood improve areas across the region that we work in Toronto and even beyond places that have had different socioeconomic challenges have been underinvested in all of these different things. You want to staying together matters because you want people to have right to stay if they so want to. So it's more about deploying choice through these developments to say, "If you want to stay, you can, if you don't, you don't have to, but there is a thriving life here, if you want it." The other piece around staying and keeping communities together in a place based way is in Toronto, we have sort of these neighborhoods called arrival cities that are sort of you come from other places, you have a vision of what Toronto looks like.
Zahra Ebrahim: You've probably Googled it and seen the Waterfront and the Sea Tower. And then you land in these sort of inner suburban neighborhoods that are just outside of the Downtown core that have high densities of vertical poverty and different kinds of community infrastructure that are not as visible on the ground, but like incredibly powerful. And there are often places that people want to leave. So like you land in a community in one of these cities, in one of these neighborhoods and the marker of success is that, you can move Downtown. And I think one of the things we've been hearing from folks and community is that part of why they get involved is they want people to choose, to stay and keep their communities together and reinvest over generations in a place assuming that some people want to leave and assuming that there will be a diaspora, but that they want these arrival cities to turn into places that are desirable, like the most desirable place in the city to live.
Zahra Ebrahim: So that's like the place based response, but then I have a whole other response. When you think about community like little-c communities everywhere. I'm a big believer in sort of like biomimetic thinking around how people organize and gather. And I don't always think that groups need to be together forever. I think part of the integrity of a group is to have trust and connectivity and a shared vision or shared set of values or shared learning or whatever. And then at some point, things need to like, you know, I love the visual right of the like old tree falling and the light opens up and the canopy and the seedlings grow. It's like a very natural process. And to be in and relationship with natural processes, we have to be okay with, sometimes things will come together and they will be amazing.
Zahra Ebrahim: And then they will go back into the soil and something new will emerge. So I think when we're not talking about sort of equity, deserving groups and communities experiencing marginalization, but talking about how people come together and how people form groups and shared understanding. I actually on that, from that perspective, I think it's really intriguing to think about groups that have a mandate not to stay together forever and to really have their wisdom sort of spread in a diasporic way into different places. and I'm thinking about what I perceive your world, your internet, community world to be like, and being involved in some internet communities, myself it's cyclical. You come and go through them and that's part of the beauty of them. They're places that where you can be transient and still feel a sense of belonging.
Matthew Gartland: Yeah. It jogs the thought and at least in the internet circles, maybe this is a cliche, but we try to meet you where you are, it supports you with where you want to go. And that is a genuine spirit of, "Okay, we need to create a place that is nurturing. That is evolutionary by design to some measure." Because we want people to, in fact get more experience to level up. So to right. And to probably outgrow a certain aspect maybe of the community that we have established, but can we strike the balance at least in terms of our purpose and continue to enrich and evolve our community so that when they reach a threshold we have something else that's ready for them that kind of meets them in a new moment. again, the work you're doing. So not all these things are directly, I think portable.
Zahra Ebrahim: But it's not, not. Like I think actually as you're talking, one of the things I'm thinking about is like, what happens when I've seen so many folks I've worked with, from community who have gone through some kind of exercise, like capacity building exercise, or have been part of a workforce development program who have then gone on to do like insanely cool things and then want to reinvest in their community. And I imagine it's analogous to what happens in your communities where it's like people get a grasp of things they go out and manifest them in the world or practice those skills. And then they bring back that wisdom to the homeroom. And I think that's also a cycle that we see a lot in this kind of community work is that creating, keeping that space of learning and keeping that space of togetherness open. So there is a place to return even if you are not returning there regularly. Like to allow sort of different relationships with it.
Matthew Gartland: Yeah. The whole is greater than some of its parts in terms of how I think about, yeah. I do hope SPI Pro exists for a very long time, and some of the other communities that we're building. Does that mean that like in the absolute value sense that the 600 and some exact members that we have today are going to be that exact they're going to be there in five years. Like probably not. We're going to lose people for different reasons. And hopefully a lot of them have left us because they have succeeded and just exploded in terms of their success and have different needs and maybe opportunities. But hopefully we've played a pretty profound role in that. We want to be able to yeah, be an environment or create an atmosphere or like where there's new growth happening. New businesses are forming in part because our students, our members, and even like graduates that would leave us are helping to plant new ideas and new seeds into that community, even if they've kind of moved on.
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah. As you're talking part of what is coming up for me is this idea that a colleague and friend of mine recently was sort of asking the question when we talk about community and belonging, who are we talking about belonging with? Like, what are we belonging to? And who are we trying to like be sort of feel sense of belonging with and was bringing in sort of the indigenous wisdom that's so present that should be increasingly more present in the way that we do things, which is belonging broadly defined. Like not just with humans, but thinking in a more in, with nature with and spirits, with our ancestors like how are we walking in solidarity with our ancestors? And so one of the things I think about when I think about communities staying together is thinking about a place or an idea that you can identify with that remains like ...
Zahra Ebrahim: So it's like I think about the graduates that leave your program and they may never interact with you again, but you are part of their identity as they go out into the world. And that means they are still part of your community. And I just think about like the communities, if we broadly define the communities that we belong in, I feel like I move in and out a lot of communities and a lot of folks that we work with are constantly transient because especially during this kind of social change work, it's whiplash. It's minute to minute, you're like, "It's either issue errors or population groups," or like and so you're moving from community to community. But I think just being able to ... it's like having that place continue to exist and be part of your identity versus just having to interact with it as a way to be part of community, like having it exist and I can be over here, but it's part of me versus having to interact with it to be part of me, I think is an interesting thing.
Zahra Ebrahim: And I think it's actually what defines community is that like it exists as part of who we are. And it's not just a temporal thing. It's not just like this tangible thing that you have to interact with.
Jillian Benbow: It makes me think I went to a very small high school that is just small, but like super special and like intentional. It's a boarding school not to get like overly into it, which I know sounds very pretentious, but it wasn't as very outdoorsy. Anyways. It's funny how that is very much a part of who I am and my identity. And even if I go back, it's home in many ways if I really wanted to go drive there tomorrow, just walk in the door and be greeted and like, "Oh my gosh." Like it's very close with those who are still there as I get older and older, lots of my teachers, they're still teaching, but it's funny how every once in a while, like every so often I'll hear someone mention it the school and I'll be like, "Oh, I went there," and they'll be like, "Oh my gosh my daughter's thinking of going there, would you talk to her?"
Jillian Benbow: And it's like, "Yeah." And it's like a complete stranger and suddenly there's this bond and there's this connection over this thing. And it's really interesting. And I think that's such a great example of kind of these communities that maybe like, "Sure, I graduated and I don't live in that town anymore and whatnot, but I can always go visit that," to keep going with the metaphor, the fallen over log. And I'll I still remember for that place and it's still a part of my story and I can share with other people and connect.
Jillian Benbow: And when I think about the work you do in particular in these actual communities in the Toronto area in particular, I'm sure there's kind of some same vibes, especially with the community members who participate in these projects and legislation and whatever else it is. I love the community franchise. I'm still thinking about that. Like, "Why isn't that just the standard, like, ah," but they might participate really big in some way. And then the thing happens it's achieved and they stay in their community. And maybe the work that was being done ramps down a little. But even if they're no longer directly involved, that is still a huge part of them and what ties them to that larger community. And that's beautiful. It's kind of like alumni in a way.
Zahra Ebrahim: Well, and there's so many levels of it. Like there's place based communities. There's religious communities. There's like intellectual and academic community. Like there's all these layers of these places we belong to for moments in time throughout our life. And like they all have their little, I don't know, their little bars like how long, like what duration in our lives have, have we been part of like, what's our tenure in each of these communities over the course of our lives. And many of the place says that I think really sort of signal who we are in the world we're really part of for a little while. And I think it's such a tricky thing for me, because I think we are conditioned into this idea that things should last forever like we're conditioned into this idea that for something to have integrity for something to have impact for something to be important, it lasts forever.
Zahra Ebrahim: And I think there's so many, my parents were part of a diaspora that moved from Kenya to Canada in the early 1980s. There's still very much part of that sort of like Kenyan-Ismaili community live there. They don't interact with those people all the time, but will always be a huge part of their identity in their community, even though it's not as much part of their day to day interactions anymore. And so I think it's interesting to think about those different, like the layer cake kind of community identities that we have and that we bring into. And then similarly in a really place based way in neighborhoods like in Toronto you meet someone from Scarborough. It's like, they kind of know you, like, you're like, "Oh, you're from Scarborough? Okay." Like, "I kind of have your number." Like, "Oh, you're like [crosstalk 00:40:35].
Jillian Benbow: Tell us what a Scarborough person and books they're like.
Zahra Ebrahim:The Weeknd. The Weeknd’s from Scarborough. But I think it's like, you come from a particular cultural community. And it's like, "Oh, I'm like" Ismaili and, "We're from this part." And people like, "Oh yeah," like they, they might make a lot of assumptions about who you are right around your values and how you work in the world and many are not always true, but I think that's the good parts. The upside of it is that it helps sort of understand shared values that having to state them all the time.
Jillian Benbow: Well, I was going to kind of shift gears a little and just ask specifically, I think there's probably people listening who want to better engage in person with people. And I love what you said about building trust and the process that your organization takes. And like from a human level takes to connect with those community members to then work with them. And I'm curious if you just had any tips to share for someone who is looking to build in person, community with maybe people they don't have that personal connection with yet. Do you have any kind of like tried-or-true things that you recommend?
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah, I mean like, you know. I think there's always ... it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. And so we have an amazing thinker and doer, Misha Glouberman here in Toronto, who co-authored a book or a book was about him that his friend, Sheila Heti wrote, The Chairs are Where the People Go and there's, it's all about like how to meet new people. And there's a section in it and it's like much more articulate in the book, but it's some version of, if you want to meet a group of people who only wear the color blue, then like start a group and invite anyone who only ever wears the color blue and someone will show up, for sure. And so there's that, which is like start something and invite people in.
Zahra Ebrahim: And that's something I found in the neighborhood that I lived in on the West Side of Toronto, I was really interested in getting involved when I moved to this neighborhood almost five years ago, four years ago, five years ago in the organizing in the neighborhood. Because there's a ton of development around it. And I just was like, "Hey, is anyone organizing the neighborhood? I'm going to, I don't know, host like an open house at the community center,” and folks and people just showed up and some were like furious. There's like, "There's tons of organizing in the neighborhood. What are you doing?" And some people are like, "We don't have anything. This is amazing." And then you have to hold space for both, which is like to honor the work that's being done and listen to the folks who are saying, "There's something that I still need that's not meeting my needs."
Zahra Ebrahim: And so really love the Misha tip around, just like open up the space. But I think the next step past it is like, and honor all that you get. So like, it doesn't mean if you open up a space and say, let's organize and someone says, "We're organizing already," that you continue to do that. It's a way of figuring out what are the assets in the community. And that's really sort of my TLTR of everything I would say is like, figure out what assets exist in the community. What people, what spaces, what groups, what events like, what are the things where people gather, no matter what you're doing as a way to start building that trust that we talked about at the start of this session, which is the, how of how you build trust when you don't know people is you participate and you show up and you consistently. And I just remember, like when I was working in Scarborough, I'm not from Scarborough.
Zahra Ebrahim: But when I started working in Scarborough, I was like, people started being like, "Hey, it's you again?" Like I just kept showing up to things like community events and things that were happening. So I think that would be a starting point. I think lead with inquiry is a big one for me. Like tell me more, even if someone's organizing and they're like, "We got this covered. We have that kind group already," which just happened in many communities that been involved in I'm like, "Oh, tell me more." And then just have them explain what that word means in terms of, "We're a community organization, we're organizers in this community," have them describe what that means. And then that allows you to say, "Oh, this is sort of the thing I was thinking of," which is complimentary. So lead with inquiry and sort of default to kindness.
Zahra Ebrahim: I think in a lot of these spaces, folks get antagonistic really fast and there's lots of space for everyone. I think it's just about humbly sort of stepping into spaces and acknowledging that whatever space you step into, there's guaranteed already people there. And then I guess the last thing I would just say, and this is particularly in our Canadian context, which just drives me absolutely bananas is when people say blank slate, it's just a blank slate. It's like, nothing is a blank slate. Like there have been creatures and beings and energies and ancestors and spirits here for thousands of years. And so whether it's like a physical community or an intellectual and sort of, or more of issue based community, this always some wisdom there. So I think just coming with harvesting wisdom first and saying like what, again, it's more the asset based approach, but avoiding this sort of like, "This doesn't exist. So I have to create it." It's like, even just in, we talk about this a lot in our work, like even the approaches in methodologies that we use, it's like, everyone's like, "Oh, this is so fascinating."
Zahra Ebrahim: I'm like, "It's the combination of like 40 different ideas that have already existed. We've just curated them very well." And so I think just this, a little bit of humility as we go into any new space that someone, or some people or something has tried to cultivate this space before and maybe learning from that first.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. Just try to go buy a domain name of the great business you thought was a good idea. And you'll see that someone's already thought of it.
Zahra Ebrahim: Always it, that is like litmus test. It's like, "You try the domain name." It's like, "Oh yeah, there are people out there who have the same idea." And I think that's amazing. It's not threatening. I think that's the reframe, which is, it's an orthodoxy that we need to flip that like people doing this already means there's no opportunity. It's like people doing this actually means there's tons of opportunity because like you've got a community. And maybe that's your job. It's just to bring those folks together. But yeah, I think that's an outdated orthodoxy around community, which is like, if people are organizing, the space is full, it's quite the opposite.
Matthew Gartland: So in the vein of leading with inquiry, which I love and a lot of the other remarks like that suggests very strongly a lot of listening. Listening to the community. I'm curious how you do that, how are you fostering in receiving that feedback and listening, how much of that is offline? How much of that maybe do you try to promote through some digital channels? So like do, So yeah. I'm curious like how you actually try to harness all of the listening that you're trying to do.
Zahra Ebrahim: That is where I feel like digital tools even well before the pandemic have been the best tools, because you said it at the start, Matt, you were talking about Digital Communities as a way to meet people where they are. And if you expand or if I expand my own notion of digital, which includes, then would include like text messaging.
Matthew Gartland: Yes. Absolutely.
Zahra Ebrahim: Right. Like that to me in my work has been the best way of getting really nuanced information from folks. So like a bridge between community engagement and community organizing and community-based research has been, using WhatsApp. So it's a huge part of my practice. anytime I've been doing any sort of engagement in community, a huge portion of that has focused on using WhatsApp as a channel, through which if you're talking to people about like what’s safety, mean to you and you get people into a room, a physical space, or even a virtual space, it's like, you either get the echo chamber effect. People are just like bouncing off each other. And like the first idea becomes the idea everyone talks about, or it's just really hard.
Zahra Ebrahim: Like it's just really hard. Like even for me, like, I'm steeped in thinking of about the city. And you asked me about safety in the city and it's just sort of nuanced, it's weird. I don't know, like street lighting. I'm not sure. It's a hard thing, so over the years I've used WhatsApp as a way to say, "Okay, folks over the next two weeks, just anytime safety comes up in your day to day life, just shoot us a text, shoot us an image, audio file. Like the selfie video," and you get these amazing videos where people are like, "Oh my God. I just tried to get on the bus. And it's a total snowstorm and I slipped on the step," and it's like so on. And you're like, "Oh, they think about safety and like physical safety. Oh, okay, cool."
Zahra Ebrahim: And then someone else is like, "I'm actually sending you this note. Because I'm walking home by myself and I'm super scared." And so I just realized, I'm thinking about safety and it's like, so you get this real diversity and the kind of feedback you get and you would only get it because people are just grabbing their phone and shooting you a text or shooting you an audio message when it comes up with them. And so I find that digital channels have been such a huge source of creating really nuanced community wisdom that actually can then influence decisions because you have a level of specificity you just cannot get to in a group environment.
Zahra Ebrahim: The last thing I'll just say is I think thinking of layers of inclusion matter so we always think about like in Toronto and we're talking about bringing community together, it's like, "Are people sad, can people afford to get there? Do they have childcare? Do they have elder care?" But I think the piece beyond all of that, when you move up, Maslow's hierarchy is like, can you design for super quiet people? Like introverts, can you design for people who lack confidence in public speaking? Can you design for folks who are anxious about status or power, or like all these different things and feel like they don't have enough access to speak up. And so that's where all these other alternative tools are real signals of belonging to folks that we're trying to create the most, as many channels and pathways as possible to really properly hear you and hear more about your inner world and your deeper reflections on whatever it is we're talking about. So…
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. I noticed in the pandemic in particular, when all our school districts all went to remote learning for the remainder of the year in 2020, and then it was a hybrid model in 2021. And the equitable access became something, frankly, people hadn't talked about and now it was like, does everyone have access to WiFi? And it's something so you don't really think about because most people anymore on the globe have cell phones. And so like apps and cellular data is one thing. Our school district provides Chromebooks to every student, which is fantastic. But I also recognize not necessarily the norm yet. But then it became like we need to get wifi buses in different communities who has access, who doesn't.
Jillian Benbow: And that's just one small, little thing that happened here. And I think it's really opening all of our eyes to those levels beyond like, to your point, it's not just about food banks and affordable housing, although those are top priorities. There's so many things, so many things even where I live accessibility like accessibility for movement, it's very snowy here. So can a wheelchair in the morning get to the bus stop without getting stuck in the snow? There's just so many things in all of our communities. So you've definitely given us all a lot to think about just as far as like, 'Well, what does that look like where I live?" And now we know there's definitely someone doing the work, so we just have to find them and connect.
Zahra Ebrahim: Well, and for those people who were listening into this, who were trying to figure out accessibility beyond our Zoom world, just to keep in mind that for so many of those folks that you mentioned, like I have a colleague who at cerebral palsy who has been asking every major institution for years. "Hey, could you stream this event? Hey, could you stream this event, can you stream this public?" And they're like, "There's no way we're streaming this public lecture," like, "That would take an insane amount of resources. We can't have in-person lecture and stream it." And now what he said the other day, what was said to be impossible was possible. So it's part of that is it's holding that a window of possibility open, when gathering folks and knowing that kind of having a healthy disregard for the impossible, I think is our mantra moving forward now that we've seen that we can make it work if needed. We can offer a plurality of ways for people to have access to accessible space, access to spaces in more accessible ways.
Jillian Benbow: I'm just writing that down. I'll give you a quote credit, "Have a healthy disregard for the impossible." I love it. Okay. Well, I'm going to force myself to stop asking follow up questions and we will move into the much anticipated rapid fire Zahra. I gave you a little heads up on this. Just whatever comes to your head first, despite the fact that we will want to ask follow up questions, we will not.
Zahra Ebrahim: Got it.
Jillian Benbow: Starting with Zahra. What did you want to be when you grew up when you were a child?
Zahra Ebrahim: I think in the moments where I knew what I wanted to be, I wanted to own a candy store. Like every other kid.
Jillian Benbow: I love that.
Zahra Ebrahim: I think I'm pretty sure I can visualize it. Bubble gun machine drawing. And like one of those one pagers that I was like, "I got this, I got to, I'm going to run this bubble gun machine."
Jillian Benbow: I like it. I feel like there's still time.
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah.
Jillian Benbow: How do you define community?
Zahra Ebrahim: Shared values, shared vision, shared ways of being.
Jillian Benbow: What is something that is on your bucket list? Whether you actually have one or not, what is something that you have done?
Zahra Ebrahim: Oh, there's so many, there is a park on the North shore of Lake Superior called, it's actually bridges. It's half in the US and half in Canada actually. And it's in Canada we have provincial parks, but this one is a wilderness park, which means like, it is not maintained. And it's one of the most like vast remote areas, well, in Canada and in Northern Ontario called Quetico. And so last it was actually a pandemic, a thing where we were like, "You know what, there's ever going to be a time to go like into the wilds like this." Like, it's quite a commitment. We went in there for seven or eight day is in 2020. And I think I've been wanting to do that for like 10 years. It's just such a spectacular part of the country and so remote and so hard to access and so much planning. And so we finally did that a few years ago.
Jillian Benbow: That's awesome. What is something on the bucket list that you have not yet done?
Zahra Ebrahim: Oh my gosh. Write a kid's book.
Jillian Benbow: Nice, about candy?
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah, absolutely. No, I work close to it. My sister and I are working on something, but it's not yet done, But I would love to write a kids' book.
Jillian Benbow: Well, that's a perfect segue into the next question. What is a book you think everybody should read?
Zahra Ebrahim: Oh my God. Oh, that's such a good one. There's too many books. I'm such an intense reader.
Jillian Benbow: Or like what's a recent one that you read that you were just like, "Oh, awesome."
Zahra Ebrahim: The recent one that I ... oh, the one that I read in the last year that I just thought was so transformative was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which is just, it's this incredible story. But it's essentially telling the story, the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the eyes of two sisters, one who was sold into slavery and the other who married a British soldier and went on to live like a very different life. And each chapter, they move forward at generation in that family, from those sisters. And it's one of the best folks I think I've ever read. And it's just really incredible. And I feel like it makes some of the history visceral and real and felt.
Jillian Benbow: Adding that to my list. Thank you. So we know you live in Toronto, if you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you want to live?
Zahra Ebrahim: Okay. For American listeners, I will say that I love Chicago. But yeah. I think it would be really cool. My family is originally from Nairobi and with a history kind of all the way up the east coast of Africa. And I think it would be very cool to live. My grandfather was this spice farmer and I would love to live on those islands and just be of that place for a little while in my life. And just like walk that same earth and that same land and know those islands in a way that I only kind of read about.
Jillian Benbow: Oh, I love that.
Zahra Ebrahim: [crosstalk 01:01:34] closer here, Chicago. Chicago’s great. But that’s an easy life.
Jillian Benbow: Well, you know, you could. I feel like that's very doable. Yes. And then final question. How do you want to be remembered?
Zahra Ebrahim: As a helper? We're working with an incredible indigenous collaborator and he was sharing the word, this word that in Anishinaabe, I think that means helper and talked about what it means to be a helper in the world. And I think a lot of my, the motivation for my work is just wanting to help out where I can be useful and really trying to carefully audit sort of where I'm finding myself and wondering if it's about helping or if it's about something else. So I'd like to be remembered as a helper.
Jillian Benbow: Oh, I love that. Zahra, this has been so wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to talk to some digital community nerds about-
Zahra Ebrahim: Yes.
Jillian Benbow: ... all things, community, where can our audience learn more about you? Where can they find you on the internet?
Zahra Ebrahim: They can find me on Twitter and Insta @zahraeb, Z-A-H-R-A-E-B, and at monumentalprojects.ca.
Jillian Benbow: Excellent. Well thank you for being with us today.
Zahra Ebrahim: Yeah. And thanks for having me. This is great. (silence).
Jillian Benbow: Just, wow. That was amazing.
Matthew Gartland: Outstanding.
Jillian Benbow: So fun. That is Zahra Ebrahim of Monumental. Their website is monumentalprojects.ca as in Canada.
Matthew Gartland: .ca. Just to be very clear .ca.
Jillian Benbow: Okay. Thank you. .ca for Canada. Yeah. So many amazing takeaways there. I just want to jump right in with just what I loved and mentioned in the intro is how transferable the tactics, the things that Zahra and her team are doing to get within communities and help organize and just participate and grow and build community is so transferable to what we do in Digital Community. And like, frankly, great ideas if you move somewhere or if you're just trying to make friends and really that headlining with leading with inquiry, ask questions. That's the top thing I tell people when they're asking about like, "Well, what do I put in my community?" And it's well, ask your, what do they want, ask them what they want. You'll be surprised. I ask to this day, I'm wrong. I'll ask Pro like, "Hey, I had this great idea. What are you guys think?" And they're like, "No, how about this?" And I'm like, "Ooh, I haven't thought about it that way."
Matthew Gartland: I agree. And not just once make that a habit ritualize that.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Matthew Gartland: And we're continuing to learn and try to do better very far from and perfect on our side with Pro we have bigger plants ahead for this year. And a lot of those actually were informed by trying to very actively listen and not just from the direct stuff. It's sort of also like listening between the lines to try to mix metaphor that phrase. So, yeah, no, I thought that was astute was just how necessary it is to lead with that and to continue to lead with a just profound curiosity for where your community members are, their own evolution, what their needs are, how those needs are evolving?and being open-minded to a state of change.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. Well, and even just in particular, the idea of that open-ended feedback, which for her, or for their programming was the WhatsApp idea. And just that idea, like, "Yeah, you can provide feedback about safety anytime via this number, just send picture, send a message, send a voice file." And that is genius because exactly I'm that person that you go to the event they ask for feedback, you give it. And then two days later you're like, "Ugh, you know what? I should have said, the actual thing that I wasn't thinking of in the moment." And so to give people that grace and time beautiful, I'm already thinking like, "How do we do this in our company?"
Matthew Gartland: Because it's just cool.
Jillian Benbow: It's very cool.
Matthew Gartland: Part of that aspect of the conversation to me, just sort of this sense of man, we take some of this for granted in a digital space. So of us that are online entrepreneurs and that digital water hole is our primary thing, you know. I think sometimes we take that for granted and it's a healthy reminder to kind of be kept in, check that in a lot of other profound areas of just life in general that are essential and trying to foster really necessary community building and activism in participation that, yeah, this stuff is critical and still a lot. However, for us to learn, even though we have some of us, sometimes I'll even say myself for, or like taking some of that for granted. Like let's listen to the folks that are on the other side. So to speak in the offline world doing a lot of this stuff and what can we learn better about our communication practices through digital technologies?
Jillian Benbow: You had another really amazing takeaway from the interview.
Matthew Gartland: I did. And I loved how it emanated from a little bit of pushback around the goal or a goal of community building, being that we hold the community together and that progress can be, and I do believe that's part of it, but I love her push that it can be more than that, or it should be reexamined. To build community is an amazing thing to hold that community I think is fantastic and harder honestly, than building the sustaining part of almost any endeavor I find to be a far more interesting, but more nuanced, more intricate challenge than just like the one time building of a thing. But yeah, getting into that richness of the conversation around the individual person and that individual's experience with the community will ebb and flow and change and may not always be there in an active way until you rendered some personal experiences and stories from your life, your high school, for example.
Matthew Gartland: So I just love that there's so many different fractals or dimensions to how we want to associate ourselves to the communities that we're either building and or belonging to. And hopefully at least from our side being community builders, like having a place that is still there for people to come back to or to use as a safe space to even refer other people to. So we hold that space. Our community is there, but it is also transient as she was describing. I think that's brilliant.
Jillian Benbow: It really is. And I think it's so important to embrace that because if you try to keep people kicking and screaming somewhere, they just want to go more. It's like as a teenager, when your parents tell you can't do that, what are you going to do that immediately that day? Probably if you're me and it's okay. It's okay. People get to get granular about Digital Community and kind of this like concept of a life cycle of a member, you can get really upset churn numbers. But in a way, if someone's leaving and they're onto the next thing, like think of it. It's not, you didn't lose them. They're graduating, they're evolving into that next version of themselves. And you were a part of that. And if they had a positive experience, that will still be a part of them as well. And whether they are referring people to your community or you just made their day in some special way and that's it, that's all it's going to be that's okay. That's okay. Because someone else is coming up, that it that's going to be ready for your community.
Matthew Gartland: Yeah. You want graduates. You want that transformation in terms of, I guess us on, again, the builder side, the education teaching side is that we want our students, our members much, like we want our family members, our kids to grow, to learn, to become stronger wiser, and then leave the nest at some point. And your kids are farther down the runway than mine, but that's like, you want that?
Jillian Benbow: Well, my kid is the exception. She doesn't need to leave the nest. Everyone else is, of course. Sure. I'm just kidding. She can't wait.
Matthew Gartland: But you designed for that. Or at least in the way that we are talking about it and are attempting to talk about it more profoundly, more specificity to the conversations around What's the onboarding experience? What is the everyday experience? And then also like, what is the end experience? and design for that, make it as smooth exit. If someone's ready to like, "Hey, like I've learned as much as I can and I'm ready to move to the next thing," and like celebrate that.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. It's also, like what we're doing, it's like, well maybe we need membership opportunities that are more advanced or less advanced. Is there opportunity for that? And we're a team, so we have bandwidths to do things like that. You might be perfectly fine with what you offer and people have outgrown it they've outgrown it, but there is, there's also options to create new things, but that's a whole other conversation.
Matthew Gartland: Yes. And we are playing that sandbox and it's a lot of fun.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Matthew Gartland: So that's a good tease, but yeah. New stuff to come this year.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. All right. Well on that note, Matt, thank you for co-hosting with me. I'm sure you will be back soon. Yes. And that's the episode today. So again, if you want to learn more about Zahra Ebrahim, It's monumentalprojects.ca and .CA sorry, and yeah, that's the show for today. So we will see you next Tuesday.
Matthew Gartland: And if you haven't already, if you're liking the show would love a review in apple, iTunes and all that fun stuff, because it does help us.
Jillian Benbow: That's what the boss said. So go do it. I don't want to get in trouble. All right, we'll see you next week.
Matthew Gartland: This has been the community experience. For more information on this episode, including links and show notes, head over to smartpassive income.com/listen.
Jillian Benbow: Check out all of Zahra's amazing work @monumentalprojects.ca or CA. You can also find Zahra in particular on Twitter, Instagram @zahraeb that's Z-A-H-R-A-E-B. Or if you're Canadian it's Zed.
Matthew Gartland: Your lead host for The Community Experience is me, Jillian Benbow. Our executive producer is Matt Gartland, our senior producer is David Grabowski, and our editor is Ray Sylvester. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. Theme music by David Grabowski. See you next Tuesday.
Jillian Benbow: See you next time.