In this Q&A, the second in a series of conversations with Community Living Brant staff, we speak with community organizer Jocelyn Birkes. We discuss the shifts that staff are seeing in community as we all begin to journey outside our homes and comfort zones amid lifting pandemic mandates.

This transcript was edited for readability. This interview is also available in audio format at the bottom of this post.


Q: What are the dynamics you are noticing in community as we come out of mandates?

If we were to go back to the first day that we came out of it — it was so interesting to walk into an establishment or a restaurant. It was Tim Hortons I walked into, and it was so funny to see everybody with no masks on — something you didn’t see before. Normally you might have one or two people and now, it’s everyone! It’s like, “whoa, what happened?”

Since COVID started more people are aware of their surroundings because we had to be social distancing. That created the dynamic of watching where you’re standing.

So when you walk in somewhere, everyone looks at you and it’s not a bad thing. When I walked in, and I did wear a mask because I have to wear it for work, nobody was wearing one and they all looked at me. I was like, this is so fun! It’s not like I noticed that I was wearing one versus they weren’t, because I’m not looking at my own face when I walk in somewhere. You can actually see people talking because you get to see their mouths and you see their smiles. You see more emotion because you’re looking at the whole face rather than just eyes and eyebrows. I loved that experience.

Pictured above: at Mohawk Park, Jocelyn participates in a weekly community walk.

It changes people’s perspective, because not everybody is comfortable yet being unmasked. So the dynamics of how people feel walking in, or do they feel comfortable walking in, that goes through people’s minds. We started with something that was: you had to wear it. You had to do this, follow the mandate. It was ingrained into your mind that you needed to, now it’s just shut off.

I can imagine there are many people out there that are still thinking, “what’s going to happen if I walk in and not wear one? Are people gonna think of me differently? Am I going to think differently? Should I still social distance?” There is a lot of extra thought that goes into it now because of how we’ve been going through the pandemic.

Q: What are you seeing that you’d like to see more of?

I enjoy seeing people’s smiles. It’s nice to know that somebody is acknowledging you. You can see smiling with the eyes, but sometimes you don’t know if they’re smiling or if they’re just staring at you. It’s nice when you go somewhere and now you can see someone’s smiling. It’s a brightening experience. It’s enjoyable to see the emotions. There are certain times when you’re talking to someone, you can’t tell how they’re feeling unless you’re present. So when you’re present normally you follow someone’s facial expressions and when you’re in a conversation, you feed off of that energy. Being able to actually see someone’s face and react to that is beneficial and exciting. It can bring out more conversations, it can be more welcoming, and comforting as well.

There are more people out and about now, it could be because of the nicer weather, it could be because of the mask mandate, but it could be that people are feeling more comfortable to go outside because there is a shift.

It’s really nice to see more people. You don’t really know what they’re going through, but it’s nice to see that there’s more people in the world coming out. Although there can be the opposite effect; you’re worried because there’s more people, it’s exciting to see. There are so many different opportunities to meet people and start conversations.

Q: What do you think we can do to work in the direction of keeping that going?

Helping build the acceptance of all. Continuing to try to build that sense of belonging, that sense of welcoming, that sense of acknowledging that someone is there and their feelings are valid. Whether they are on the defensive going out, or whether they feel completely open and excited that this is happening, trying to build that acceptance is huge. To continue seeing the smiles and seeing people.

One thing that drove people away from enjoying life during COVID was the isolation and feeling alone. There was a lot of fear involved. Although there’s still that sense of fear because of what we’ve gone through, trying to build that sense of “it’s okay, but we’re gonna keep trying to move forward and we accept you as you are, and no matter where you stand, we’re going to be okay.”

I’m sure there were smiles before too but now there are no masks it’s easier to see a smile. The smile could have always been just a “hello” smile, but it’s more enlightening now.

Building those connections and stories can open up more opportunities for understanding where we’re at as a community and how we can make it even better.

Q: What would it take for those steps to be as wonderfully successful as possible?

Belonging and acceptance can come naturally. It depends on the space you’re going into and who is in that space. It depends what you value, what your interests are. There are a lot of personal things but there are a lot of exterior factors that are important.

Having those strong connectors or strong personalities to show how to welcome someone can really open up the possibilities and new stories and connections because you can see that it’s not as hard as it looks. You gotta step out of that comfort zone.

Being able to feel accepted, trying to know yourself, and also accept the space you’re going into. Having somebody there to support you, or somebody who’s gone through it or experienced it, or is learning through it as well are all important steps to make it as successful as possible.

Q: If all that were to happen, what do you feel would be possible, and what’s the best thing that could happen?

Oh my goodness, the possibilities! The connections you would make or could make, it really does open up a new door. Once somebody feels accepted, or once you feel like you belong, you want to go back to that atmosphere. When you want to go back somewhere your own excitement and energy would bring other people in as well. You’re going to build a big network of connections and storytelling. Building those connections and stories can open up more opportunities for understanding where we’re at as a community and how we can make it even better. I understand that everything you are feeling is completely validated and it’s normal. There are people everywhere feeling very similar emotions. They’ve either felt it, they’ve gone through it, or they’re gonna start feeling it, but it’s normal and it’s okay. It builds that sense of, “wow, I’m not alone.”

Q: Is there anything that you haven’t yet said that you would like to say?

I was thinking about spring and the nicer weather, and the sunshine and the birds and how that has opened up opportunities for people to feel better coming out. There is something about the sun, the vitamin D. Sometimes I don’t realize how much of a change you can get from going from a dark, rainy day — although I absolutely love rain and walking in the rain is so peaceful and enjoyable — it’s completely different having sunshine and bringing people together in sunshine.

Listen to an audio version of this interview here:

 

Lead photo cutline: Along with community members and the Belonging Brant team, Jocelyn helps with Random Acts of Kindness at the Brantford General Hospital.

 

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