We Need Space: Belonging and Community Gathering 

Photo of Haley Moriarity in front of the ocean

Haley Moriarity

Digtial Marketing & Admin Coordinator

In April, I had the opportunity to attend a retreat specifically for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth across the province hosted by Engage Nova Scotia and the Youth Project. For three days, I was surrounded by an incredible group of people looking to build community, dream of the future, and just exist in the same space as other queer people. Many in the group expressed that for so long, it has felt like they need to hold their breath in spaces, hyper-aware that their authentic selves might not be accepted. For the first time in a while, we could relax our shoulders, exhale, and be together. 

This longing for space, specifically physical space, is something that has been echoed across the Community Impact Sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this desire and shifted the way people interact. The pandemic changed what accessibility and inclusive community spaces look like. It created more isolation and barriers to the work we are tirelessly trying to accomplish. In a perpetually underfunded sector with increasingly high levels of burnout and turn over, the capacity to make these spaces, find networks, and connect with others isn’t always the priority – and how could it be? 

Below is a list of tips to help you effectively create space, but before we get to the how, let’s look at why this is needed.

The Importance of Space-making

The list of reasons surrounding the importance of community spaces is vast, and when looking at this with a Community Impact Sector lens, the need is even greater. Bringing people together is power. It’s a way to break away from the oppressive cycles we are subjected to within a capitalist society, especially as we fight multiple social crises at once. With our energy focused on work, housing struggles, financial hardships, and pressure to maintain high levels of productivity – we aren’t always given the time to foster community. 

Providing safe, inclusive, accessible, barrier-free spaces are part of a healthy community ecosystem. Here are some examples of what these spaces can do: 

      • Build networks and strengthen relationships
      • Collaboration and collective action: community and grassroots organizers can find others with similar goals
      • Newcomers can find their place and feel more connected to where they are living
      • Older adults can find connection and combat loneliness 
      • People who might not otherwise organically meet can come together to share ideas and experiences
      • Individuals with lived experience can build stronger communities with one another

What are First, Second, and Third Spaces?

In the 1980s, American sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, developed the idea of a “third place”: a space for informal social interaction in the community, and outside of work and the home. These places are ideally unrestricted by barriers or have minimal barriers like the pressure to purchase something, pay a fee, or be invited to be there, such as a library, park, or coffee shop. A third place is designed for people to spend time in an unstructured manner. No one being rushed out the door or hassled to leave. Oldenburg argues that third places are essential to healthy and thriving societies.

So, if that’s a third place, what about first and second places? A first place is considered your home and a second place is considered your place of work or employment. We spend a significant amount of our lives in our first and second places.  

The Impact of COVID-19

In March of 2020, many of us had to re-evaluate the relationship between our first and second places. Working from home increased, and now, hybrid or fully remote workplaces are more common. Previously, the Venn diagram between home and work were two separate circles and now, those circles have become one. Having these lines so blurred also makes it harder to set work/life boundaries and largely contributes to burnout and urgency culture (which my talented colleague, Lydia Phillip, can tell you all about here). 

The lack of physical third places has forced us to turn virtual in our search for community and socialization. Thankfully, technology has allowed us to do this, but there are still gaps that a Zoom room can’t bridge. Virtual spaces make a lot of assumptions about participants: technological literacy, strong internet or cellular connectivity, owning a computer or cell phone, and that accessibility needs are not a barrier. When these considerations are not made, you end up missing people at the table. Effectively holding space virtually is important, but there are aspects of in person gatherings that can’t always be replicated online. Why is it important, and how do we even get there? 

How to Create Third Spaces

You cannot create community by yourself. It is the collective working together – crossing paths, sharing stories, creating habits – that help form and strengthen community.

“Creating inclusive space” can feel like an abstract, daunting, and intangible concept. Where do you start? How do you know if it’s actually inclusive? What happens if no one shows up? These are all fair questions! Below are some guiding principles you to help ensure you’re working toward something helpful and not harmful. 

1. Talk to Community 

Hint! There’s a reason this is number one. If you are looking to build space, informative gathering is key. Talk to the people you are looking to gather. Figure out what their needs are, what has worked in the past, and what they need to feel safe and authentic in those spaces. This might feel like a chicken and egg situation, but you can employ the resources already available to your advantage by using a variety of mediums to build engagement. Social media is a fantastic tool but not the only thing, and also not the best way to reach certain audiences. Printing posters and putting them around your community or in pre-established community venues. Talk to other organizations in your area, see if they also are looking to establish these connections and work together. Finding creative avenues to talk to people is step one, step two is bringing them together.

2. Be Open Minded and Adaptable

The plan you start with might change – and that’s okay! We don’t always get it right on the first try. If your strategy isn’t working, take a few steps back and reassess. Ask for and listen to feedback graciously. What can you change or do differently next time to be more inclusive? Work in the Community Impact Sector is not always going to be perfect, polished, or the magic solution to problems. What’s admirable is learning from our attempts and trying again.

3. imbed Accessibility in the Design

When we talk about accessibility, I want to acknowledge this is more broad than physical accessibility, though that is a huge piece of the equation. Depending on factors like budget and availability, it could be a challenge to find a space that is physically accessible. Not every building has an elevator or ramp for example, but you can set expectations in the invite. Here is a checklist of considerations when you’re looking for a space that meets physical accessibility needs.

There are other factors alongside physical accessibility, for example, if you are gathering a group from a particular community, recognizing if they will feel safe in that space. Much like my experience at the 2SLGBTQIA+ retreat, that space was intentionally for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth to ensure we felt as comfortable as possible and could show up authentically.

One event might not be able to hit everything on your checklist, but you can try and host different types of events! – virtual, in person, inside, outside, kid friendly, pet friendly, general invite, or specific focus. Be creative (and see point one, ask people what they are looking for).

4. Meet People Where They Are

Become familiar with where the infrastructure already exists and the spaces in your community where people are already gathering. It will make it more inviting and familiar for people and allow them to feel more comfortable in a new situation. The location is also important when considering access and participation. Is it available via public transport? Is it walkable?

5. Create Low or No Cost Spaces

When considering the concept of third spaces, it is helpful to avoid costly barriers to entry. Loosely facilitated activities and providing snacks/coffee is a great way to encourage participation – especially in the beginning where meet and greets can be daunting. Though there will likely be budget considerations, here’s a few low-cost ideas to help people feel welcomed and comfortable to form connections: Bring your own puzzle/ board games; plant seeds (a big bag of soil, some seeds, and egg cartons); share recipes; craft or colour; make friendship bracelets (why not!); host a book club; play BINGO or trivia; try a clothing swap or community “yard sale”; or plan a movie night!

6. Recognize That it Takes Time

For a long time, this infrastructure was already strongly imbedded into our communities, but the pandemic has drastically changed that. Years of work was halted, and now it is time to rebuild. It’s not easy and you might not immediately see results, but it doesn’t mean your efforts aren’t working. It takes time, care, and some encouragement. 

Every time I tell people about the retreat last April, they always react the same way – a mix of awe with a desire to take part. As someone who moved to Nova Scotia during the pandemic, the retreat made me feel closer to my community. Keeping the energy and momentum flowing forward is the next step. 

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is a lot in our control, and we are exhausted. But community is a powerful tool. Bringing people together to talk, laugh, share, and learn will help mend some of the holes that have formed in our community quilt. And no, it won’t make the challenges disappear, and yes, the hard work will continue, but it will make us warmer – to ourselves and those around us. Together, we will be more resilient.

Written by:

Photo of Haley Moriarity in front of the ocean

Haley Moriarity

Digital Marketing and Admin Coordinator

Haley supports many aspects of IONS’ work including communications, events and learning, and operations. Her organization, tech-savviness, and creativity is a huge win for the team!