Breaking down barriers to create meaningful connections

PhD student Rylan Kafara recognized for efforts in connecting the community to the academy

Nicole Graham - 24 January 2019

Connecting the community to the academy has been Rylan Kafara's mantra since he was a Masters student in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Now, as a PhD student for the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, Rylan continues to foster a relationship between Edmonton's inner city population and UAlberta.

Since 2012, Rylan has played an integral role in establishing and growing the Inner City Recreation and Wellness Program-a joint initiative between Boyle Street Community Services and the Bissell Centre-engaging Edmonton's inner-city residents in meaningful activities to help enhance their well-being. What started as a pilot project focusing on getting people more active has grown into a sustainable program spanning a wide variety of leisure and recreation programs aimed at creating healthy, safe spaces for residents to engage with in a variety of ways.

"We have programs related to food access, literacy and safety through the gardening program and running collective kitchens. We have a sports component with programs like floor hockey, snowboarding in the winter, slo-pitch in the summer, and we now even have a soccer team. We also focus on arts and culture through culture continuity programs for Indigenous members and newcomers, music programs and attending one-off events like art collectives and music festivals. We also try to provide therapeutic support via our Making Strides program and the Pet Food Bank."

The foundation for Rylan's involvement in the Inner City Recreation and Wellness Program was partially rooted in his Master's thesis looking at the pre-Civil Rights Era Seattle music scene. Rylan found that for many African-American youth, music was an outlet where they could deal with and overcome the challenges of the time. Intrigued by how leisure activities made a huge difference for the Seattle youth, Rylan began to look at his own interests and experiences in sport as a member of the Golden Bears swim team in relation to how swimming was a healthy outlet for him.

"I realized that it didn't matter if it was swimming for me or music for someone else, people can use recreation and sport as a tool to help deal with challenges they face in their lives. Because of this, I wanted to make sure the programs we created for the recreation and wellness program reflected the interests of the communities we were working with."

Once in the role, Rylan immediately saw the connection between what they were trying to achieve with the recreation and wellness program and the focus of recreation students and researchers within the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation. Partnering with the Faculty to offer practicum opportunities for undergraduate students, Rylan and the Faculty have been able to integrate the academy with the community through the leisure, sport and recreation programs in the context of community development. The involvement of the Faculty with the Inner City Recreation and Wellness Program has seen students and researchers work with the community to help grow and sustain the programs, giving each audience an opportunity to learn from one another.

"There are so many barriers in society that are working to keep the community and the academy disconnected. Just by seeing first-hand how when you make, foster and strengthen those connections, they create valuable experiences for both the folks in the academy who are trying to understand the world a little bit better, and for the folks in the community to have those opportunities to learn and apply it within their own communities through work and leisure. I think it's a no-brainer to have all those barriers removed to make those important connections to really encourage learning and social change."

Barrier-free learning was the name of the game for Edmonton Free School--an education collective that ran from 2012 to 2013. Bringing together people from all walks of life, Edmonton Free School was a place where people could come together, removing all societal hierarchies and simply learn. This is where Rylan's History of Punk class took flight. They would discuss important moments in punk history and how it related to social issues at the time. They would also use the "punk lens" to look at on-going issues happening in the Edmonton community at the time. Each class would have a series of reading and, of course, a playlist, which would be posted online for anyone to access. The success of this class inspired Rylan to bring the History of Punk to the airwaves, and, since 2014, has become a weekly show on CJSR. Rylan is still on the air every Monday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. delving into the past and current punk scene and how it relates to the world we live in.

Rylan's efforts in breaking down barriers and providing healthy outlets for Edmonton's inner city community through sport, recreation and leisure have not gone unnoticed. Rylan was recently named an Avenue Magazine's Top 40 Under 40 recipient for 2018 for his contributions to community education. He also was named the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation's Rod Murray Award winner, which recognizes a graduate student who shares common qualities of the award's namesake-passionate teacher who critically assesses the way the academy teaches, conducts research, builds relationships with communities and communicates their scholarship.

While Rylan has taken a step back from the Inner City Recreation and Wellness Program to concentrate on his PhD candidacy research, he still plans on strengthening the connections between the community and academy. His candidacy research will look at leisure practices within the homeless community and how these practices are negotiated around changes to downtown, capturing the voices of those most affected by the changes. Rylan will also be looking at the power dynamics between what it's like at the ground level versus the policy level, and how research plays into that.

"Inner city or vulnerable communities are often sites of research extraction, but what happens when that research is done? What goes into the community after that? Does it actually help the community or only benefit the researcher? Negotiating those ethical issues, and trying to conduct research in a sincere way that is positive for everyone involved is what I'm aiming for, because, when done ethically, research is a great way to continue to foster the connection between the community and the academy, and to inspire collaborative learning and social change."

Rylan will be presenting his Rod Murray Address entitled Not just "some cliché academic arguments": in defence of public intellectuals at the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation Research Day on February 14 from 3 to 4 p.m. The presentation is open to the public.