Planning professor focuses on building strong relationships
Leela Viswanathan walks into the Tea Room café and her eyes brighten when she spots two of her students. She immediately heads over to talk, about class and life in general, before moving to the counter for tea. She chats casually with the servers, then takes a seat.
It’s obvious that connecting with people is a big priority in her life.
“It’s in my nature to create these relationships, and as a social planner it’s crucial for designing better neighbourhoods,” says Dr. Viswanathan, an assistant professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP), with a cross-appointment to geography. “We need to think about having conversations with the people in our communities – not just asking people what their opinions are once, but going back several times, creating a dialogue.”
This is exactly what she has done in her class, SURP 871: Social Planning. Students take a grassroots, social justice-oriented approach to community development and neigbourhood revitalization. Dr. Viswanathan formed a partnership with Christine Williams, a minister with Kingston North Anglican Ministries – a connection that enables students to create direct links with the community. Her students develop relationships and engage in dialogue before producing their vision of what affordable housing could look like in the communities of north Kingston.
It’s no surprise that this approach to planning – bringing in social justice and advocacy – is at the heart of Dr. Viswanathan’s teaching. Before she entered academia, she spent 15 years working in Toronto for various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Ontario government. Most of her work focused on addressing the community, labour, housing and health needs of immigrants, women, racialized groups, and persons with disabilities or mental health challenges. She was an activist – but instead of being at the front of a protest march, she was behind the scenes making things happen.
“I was immersed in the day-to-day experiences of these people and I was very much involved in giving them a voice,” says Dr. Viswanathan. “It really made me question why we do things the way we do and what alternative approaches exist.”
At Queen’s since 2007, Dr. Viswanathan is now building those relationships in Kingston and is an active promoter of accessibility at the university. In 2011, she was awarded the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award after being nominated by several students. She also serves on an accessibility working group dedicated to issues of education, training and awareness at Queen’s. The group is one of five teams seeking to improve accessibility on campus through the Queen’s accessibility framework, which was approved in December 2011.
“I feel like I am flourishing here at Queen’s and in Kingston,” she says. “There are so many good people here. I am definitely in the right place.”