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The Durban University of Technology’s (DUT’s) Vuna Leadership Academy (VunaLA) hosted a Student Leadership and Holistic Wellness-themed Webinar on Microsoft Teams on Monday, 6 September 2021.

Mzwandile Khumalo who is the Coordinator: Student Support and Development Unit at CELT and who is also a member of the co-team responsible for the curation of the Vuna Leadership Academy, facilitated the event.

He communicated that the aim of the Leadership Academy is to be a leading space for training, research and pool of information relating to leadership practice and studies for young, emerging leaders.

The guest presenter at the event was Dr Kira Erwin, an urban sociologist and senior researcher at the Urban Futures Centre (UFC) at DUT. The UFC seeks to find new solutions to problems, and to do so in collaboration with those most affected by the complexities that characterise urban spaces.

Dr Erwin’s research and publications focus largely on race, racialisation, racism and anti-racism work within the urban context. Her past projects explore narratives of home and belonging within the context of migration, gender and inclusion; as well as state delivered housing projects in the city.

Her discussion pertained to three ideas around community engagement and she shared the history on some of the projects and how one can make a difference with research.

“Our work is important to us, our careers can be important to us, but an important question for all of us these days is what does it mean for the greater world, our society, how we move at the moment in these spaces, as I think it is critical, especially given that we are living in a very unequal society and there is a lot that needs to be changed for the better. So, if you are interested in community engagement it is because you care. Also, what we need in the world right now are more people who care, people who have a natural disposition to heal, to help, to nurture, and most importantly to also listen to others because we are not all sitting in the same positions in life. We don’t all hold access to social networks or to forms of privilege,” she said.

She said one of the things about community engagement which is central is thinking very carefully around how one wishes to help; and also the importance of listening and working with people.

She then shared about the Kenneth Gardens project, saying that the people whom she has learnt from is the older generation from Kenneth Gardens, who are doing, what she called quiet activism, in other words they are not doing the kind of activism that is loud and shouting.

Dr Erwin said that they were doing the hard and sometimes unnoticed work of creating a sort of safety net for all of the fellow neighbours who lived in Kenneth Gardens which is the city’s largest socially housing estate.

She spoke on Carrots and Peas, a feeding scheme started by residents; and Senzokuhle which provides healthcare through the Wellness Centre and home visits.

She further relayed that the Kenneth Gardens Community Engagement Project, along with UFC’s Prof Monique Marks and herself, has become an important service learning site for students from the Durban University of Technology (DUT), and from other tertiary education institutions.

Dr Erwin conveyed that the DUT Homeopathy Department set up a clinic in Kenneth Gardens with Homeopathy students working with Senzokuhle to provide homeopathic medication and home visits.

“Real partnerships and collaborations can come from community engagements. In other words, you can have research led community engagement or you can have community engagement that leads research. Both of those work but they are not two separate things,” she said.

Dr Erwin discussed a current project that the UFC is working on which started in 2021. She said the project focuses on how informal workers, (street vendors, market traders and waste pickers) in African marketplaces could provide innovative zero-waste models for cities across the continent and internationally.

“What we have seen over the years is informal workers are incredibly innovative in their spaces, often designing systems and logics that work much better than what is happening in the formal systems,” she said.

Dr Erwin stressed that the UFC wanted to listen closely and learn with workers and think about how one can create a zero waste informal market because such a particular form of market place is actually the most dominant across Africa and the shopping centres.

She stressed that the offering that universities can give through community engagement projects is not just to work and assist with people to make changes that they think is necessary in the world, but also to research these issues so that learning from such projects might spark bigger debates both in society and across different case studies.

Dr Erwin then spoke on another exciting project pertaining to a traditional research project which entails collecting the histories of migrant women living in the city of Durban. She said that it is a project which uses artistic methods of storytelling, through collecting oral histories of migrant women, and community participating theatre.

She also shared on the Lalela uLwandle (‘Listen to the Sea’ in isiZulu) participatory research project that draws attention to the importance of listening to a chorus of voices for inclusive ocean governance.

“This idea of engagement really means getting out of the university and getting into spaces where sometimes people will interrogate you, ask you very difficult questions, but these are very important conversations even if they can be very hard ones,” she said.

An interactive question and answer session preceded and a vote of thanks was given by Dr Khumalo.

The next virtual webinar will be on Microsoft Teams this coming Friday,10 September 2021, where the guest speaker Prof Sphamandla Zondi, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), will discuss negotiating leadership during crisis and change management.

Pictured: Dr Kira Erwin, an urban sociologist and senior researcher at the UFC at the DUT.

Pictured: One of the topics of discussion, the Kenneth Gardens Community Engagement Project.

Waheeda Peters

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