The Institute Inspires Expanding Conversations in Upper Don Mills

The Upper Don Mills neighbourhood, along Don Mills Rd and Finch Ave in Toronto, has been home to neighbourhood activities since 2006, during the first institute campaigns in Toronto. The work has concentrated in four smaller pockets since then, and as the process of growth strengthens, new pockets along these streets have opened to the community-building activities. Since 2006, the neighbourhood has seen 23 cohorts of junior youth enter the program and nearly 100 youth study the books of the institute.

a group of youth and children gathered in a park
A devotional gathering from the summer of 2019. One of the junior youth was moving away so there was a devotional with some of the junior youth and their families and a potluck picnic afterwards. Photo taken before the global pandemic.

Over the last few years, those serving in the neighbourhood have been learning about how the content of the institute can be shared with a growing number of individuals. As the team of tutors in the neighbourhood have become more systematic in accompanying groups of youth to enter and move through the sequence of courses and apply learning in the field of service, they are seeing how “the capacity to involve growing numbers in the study of institute courses advances along with the ability to foster increasingly rich conversations about the Bahá’í teachings within a population.”[1] 

A Pattern of Online Campaigns

A pattern of online institute campaigns, held in December, February, March and April, alongside monthly children’s festivals have been catalysts for expanding conversations in the neighbourhood.  Since January, nearly 20 new youth have joined the ranks of those who are learning to offer spiritual education to children. During the long weekend in February, this growing group of youth that are thinking about the education of children intensified their study and planned for their monthly children’s festival. 

The youth came together to study Books 1, 2, 3, and 6 online over three days.  Though the team hadn’t initially thought to have a Book 1 group, a number of new youth wanted to join the process. The tutors prepared by reviewing Book 7 and the books they would be tutoring, creating a joyful environment that engenders uplifting and disciplined conversation among themselves with an emphasis on taking what one learns and sharing it with others, immediately. Another aspect of this pattern in the neighbourhood is the way opportunities to act and reflect are embedded within it. One participant describes how it “has helped us build confidence that this process belongs to all and we can all share whatever we have learned.” 

The following are their reflections:

“The different groups share their reflections with each other during the course of the camp. Although those studying are at different stages of their study and service, what is wonderful about sharing together is how the participants engage in a conversation on the principles embedded in the Ruhi texts as they build on each other’s reflections.”

“For example, one Book 1 participant shared a reflection on how customary it is in society to talk about others, and how the habit has to be entirely rooted out. A Book 2 participant then described that focusing on a person’s good qualities is one way to maintain a unified community. Another participant studying Book 3 then shared how when we teach children, education can uncover the gems that are hidden in a young person. The Book 6 participants responded to this by sharing the qualities we need to have as teachers, including purity of heart. They shared that purity of heart can be impacted by feelings of superiority, wanting to be recognized, and ambition. The group’s reflections highlighted that each book of the institute builds on the other and our understanding of concepts deepens as they are revisited and as we continue to study and act.” 

a group of youth sitting in a circle studying together
A youth night in the summer of 2019. Photo taken before the global pandemic.

Extending Meaningful Conversations

These elevated conversations were also extended to the families. Whatever the approach, this initial act of engaging in uplifting conversations opened the way to extend the conversation with more people. One participant described the process of extending conversations amongst those studying Book 2 during the April campaign:

“While some thought that spiritual conversations were ‘unnatural’, we all tried to share the ideas we were exploring with friends and family because we saw it was important, as the conversations we usually engage in are not particularly elevated. We were all surprised by the conversations we were able to have. This brought the group great encouragement to continue to learn and share!” 

Another Book 2 participant shared the theme of the oneness of humanity with their cousin:

“She was talking about how there is a garden, but then there is racism, sexism and these are huge walls between the flowers. We spoke about the fact that without love humanity would be chaos and it would be hard to determine what is right and wrong. We spoke a lot about the last paragraph, that there are different races and religions but we should think about them as different roses. My cousin asked me: what if an opinion isn’t right, do we still appreciate them?  We ended up talking about how we speak to people who may have views that are wrong, like those that are prejudiced.”  

One youth reflected on the impact studying and sharing prayers has had on her and her family: 

“I have shared what I have been learning with my family, that we possess qualities like love, truthfulness, and they also agree and expand on it. Talking to my family about what I have been learning and praying with them has also brought us closer.  We are building more family time but at the same time we are learning something new, something that everyone should know.  Praying with people is special and praying with people we love is even more special.”

A family festival held at the end of the summer of 2020. The theme was unity.

The Role of Neighbourhood Children’s Festivals

By the third day of the February camp, the group was able to incorporate ideas from their study into the spaces they were organizing for children, junior youth, and youth. Through one-hour-long sessions held with junior youth and children, they all collectively planned towards the upcoming festival, by exploring questions, sharing quotations, or engaging in activities together.  

The children’s festivals have had a distinct role in the development of capacity in the neighbourhood and have broadened the path of service. Structured around a theme from Book 3, Grade 1, the festivals have given teachers a chance to bring their classes together, support one another, and accompany new teachers as they start their class. The festivals have enabled others who are not able to teach a weekly class to serve the children’s classes monthly. When the festivals are aligned with the campaigns in the neighbourhood, each of the groups participating in the campaign can contribute something to the festival, for example, a Book 1 participant assisted everyone to think about reverence and the power of prayer.  

One of the teachers reflected that:

“In the festivals we are teaching the kids how to be, but at the same time we are learning more! We are learning about love and truthfulness. We get to see happiness every month, it’s not a sad place, we make everyone happy. It’s like bright colours! It is a way for us to unite, it’s multicultural. All different kinds of students, children, and youth.  What makes it more beautiful is that we get to be united. It doesn’t matter who we pray to, we are all connected, united and happy.”

A new children’s class that formed in October 2020 right before we went into lockdown.

The youth are beginning to take charge of the invitations for these festivals themselves. For the first campaign in December, the youth primarily thought about the activities and content of the festival while the tutors made the bulk of the invitations. Through action and reflection, the weekly reflection time is now being used to make calls to family members and friends to invite them to the festival. Making calls together to families has fostered greater courage and encouragement in the group. 

The youth have not only brought children to the festivals, but have encouraged their peers and families to participate in the process. One of the youth talked to her mom and grandma about who they could invite, and through this conversation they were able to extend the conversation to seven other individuals, three of whom attended. Their subsequent family consultations have supported this youth to start a children class and junior youth group. 

One parent, who also teaches a children’s class saw an opportunity to reach out to the local school about the festivals:

“I have become friends with the secretary, and I was telling her about the children’s festival. We talked about the importance of spiritual education and how she was so happy hearing about it. We talked about the things we can possibly do right now, during the lockdown.  We spoke about the power of prayer and that as a community we can come together and pray. We decided that we would pray together in the school twice a week for the children in the neighbourhood.”

The pattern of regular institute campaigns in the neighbourhood has helped the team expand the number and range of conversations about the Bahá’í teachings within the community. As tutors focus on fostering an environment conducive to uplifting conversations, participants are encouraged to immediately extend these conversations more broadly. The regular pattern of children’s festivals have also become spaces that foster these kinds of conversations, and invite more and more members of the community to participate both in the spiritual education of children and in conversations of significance. 

These experiences call to mind the words of the Universal House of Justice:

“From the beginning of the sequence of courses, a participant encounters Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation in considering such weighty themes as worship, service to humanity, the life of the soul, and the education of children and youth. As a person cultivates the habit of study and deep reflection upon the Creative Word, this process of transformation reveals itself in an ability to express one’s understanding of profound concepts and to explore spiritual reality in conversations of significance.” [2]

Children sit together outdoors
A children’s class meeting outside in 2019. Photo taken before the global pandemic.

[1] International Teaching Centre, Training Institutes: Attaining a Higher Level of Functioning, 2017

[2] Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015

Get in touch with the neighbourhood team in this story, or share your own learning with Ontario Baha’i here.

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