• Learning Journeys

The Learning Journeys Story

Updated: Feb 17

by Njoki Mbũrũ, a Black settler of Kenyan ancestry who is gratefully living on the traditional and un-surrendered territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She is passionate about advocating for African smallholder farmers' land rights & generational wealth. Tracing her roots to her grandparents' farm in Ol Rongai, Kenya, she deeply values healthy land, food, and community care. Njoki writes poems and stories that attempt to answer the question, "How can we create sanctuaries within ourselves and for one another?”

Strands of fabric

What does it mean to belong?

How do I bloom wherever I am?

When will I know that I have found home, again?

For many immigrants, these three questions form and inform the texture of daily interactions and the process of home-coming. Answers are fluid, gathered from a multitude of experiences. Settlement in any new place, is an emergent and relational process of navigating new landscapes, cultures and communities. This piece seeks to capture the iterative, unpredictable and divergent process of settlement for immigrant women. Through re-visiting a two-year project that brought together immigrant women and service delivery providers in Vancouver and Surrey, British Columbia, this story intends to highlight how service providers can co-imagine and co-create more holistic, culturally-appropriate, meaningful and sustainable social & economic opportunities for and with newcomer women, their loved ones, and broader community.

Learning Journeys (henceforth LJ), is the name of said two-year project, which was funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), and stewarded by Pacific Immigrant Resources Society (PIRS). LJ has lived up to its name; Learning to show continuous curiosity/openness and Journeys to symbolize the unique nature of each participant’s path towards a shared destination. LJ is like a garment; a complete and comprehensible creation formed from the union of individual strands. The strands by themselves do not form the garment unless there are people who use their imagination, creativity, and skills to design, measure, sew, and present the garment. In a well-finished piece, it is almost impossible to tell where one strand begins and where it ends. There is a continuum, a flow, a seamless manner in which strands are organized to form the desired patterns and prints. LJ, therefore, is a ‘coming-together'; a weaving of individual strands to create a pattern and texture that borrows from the unique elements of each strand, while ensuring the integrity of the entire garment. LJ is not the finished piece, but the process of creating.

The value of LJ, therefore, is not tied to the successful completion of a project that began two years ago, but to the vastness of experiences that create the community which exists today. In April 2019, LJ officially took form as a participatory research and development project, made up of 10 immigrant women, LJ leads, PIRS staff members and community partners. Over two years, the initial group of 10 immigrant women expanded to 19 and officially named themselves ‘Immigrant Women’s Advisory Committee (IWAC).’ Through ethnographic research, which comprised of individual and group interviews for members of IWAC, the following key principles emerged and were later refined as reference tools for all participants:

  • From user-oriented into strengths-based approach,

  • Responsive & emergent planning evolved into intentional adaptation,

  • Collaboration became co-design, and

  • Outcomes-focused approach

Underlying these principles was a fundamental question which the women and LJ leads co-created: What lessons and growth points would emerge for newcomer women, their families, communities, and service providers in Canada, if the settlement process was more focused on showcasing and engaging immigrant women’s strengths and skills?

LJ attempts to answer this question, with a humble recognition that settlement in Canada is shaped by a web of organizations, community partners, and individuals, each operating in unique contexts and responding to diverse needs. Therefore, what we present in this piece are personal reflections of our experience and visions of what we perceive to be necessary if we are to create meaningful, sustainable communities. In addition, as we celebrate the emergence of new relationships and a larger collective composed of diverse stakeholders, we underscore that LJ is foundationally grounded in the voices of immigrant women who we consider the “heart and soul” of this project.

Stories of Our Strength // Our Strength in Stories

“Ant societies function through individual ants acting collectively in accord with simple, local information to carry on all of their survival activities. Every ant relies on the work of others in producing their own work.” Although ants are tiny in size, they manage to construct magnificent structures that can often withstand great stress and disturbance. Accomplishing such tasks, whether as a human or ant community, requires cooperation and a skilled attunement to each other’s greatest strengths. For LJ, a strength-based approach was the foundation for successful co-design and subsequent launch of three community-minded and outcomes-focused projects.

The following definition aligns with how we, at LJ, perceive a strength-based approach: “Strengths-based practice is a collaborative process between the person supported by services and those supporting them, allowing them to work together to determine an outcome that draws on the person’s strengths and assets. As such, it concerns itself principally with the quality of the relationship that develops between those providing and being supported, as well as the elements that the person seeking support brings to the process.” (Miller et al., 2000)

Being aware of each other’s strengths was undoubtedly empowering. While the ethnographic research was a powerful tool that allowed us to capture the elements of each woman’s journey and how they had arrived at LJ, the next step was to co-create a ‘platform’ that allowed each participant to share their perspectives, showcase their strengths, and simultaneously build confidence and community. Four months into LJ, ‘Learning Labs’ was born, becoming the platform where members of IWAC cultivated trust and confidence. Learning Labs was a compass that gave us all a better idea of how far we had come in our Journey and where we hoped to finally arrive, together. Through Learning Labs, the women shared stories of heartache, loss, resilience, unity, and self-growth in the face of uncertainty. The women navigated difficult conversations, embraced vulnerability, acknowledged stumbling and falling, and showed up for one another consistently.

Community members and service providers, including Immigrant Services of BC, DIVERSEcity, and Douglas College, worked alongside IWAC members to develop the Learning Labs model and objectives. Over a series of three workshops (Learning Labs), all participants identified key challenges and opportunities within settlement services, and ideated, co-developed and tested relevant solutions using user-centred design methods. IWAC members engaged in pre- and post-workshop activities, took turns in leading land acknowledgements and helped shape grounding practices for the entire group through sharing personal stories. With a strong foundation of trust, highlighting each other’s strengths, and transformative storytelling, the immigrant women ideated, co-designed and tested models that were feasible, aligned with high-priority community needs, and aimed at contributing to systems level change.

Developing the objectives, model and process of Learning Labs was neither easy nor linear. Rather, it was an iterative process formed through the interweaving of each woman’s story into a fabric that embraced individual and collective strengths and skills, while leaving enough room for unexpected change. Lama, one of the IWAC members and a film producer from Syria, had a vision to create a film that highlighted the strengths and challenges of immigrant women. It was an ambitious project, and one that ended up being beyond on the scope of the Learning Lab. Lama was able to bring her talents to the ‘Childcare Team’ who combined their skills to create a social media campaign to highlight the necessity of affordable & quality childcare services for immigrant women. Speaking at a project-building meeting in November 2020, Lama said: “Last year, we wanted to make a film, but it was too difficult. Now I think we can build on the success of our campaign and make a film”.

Intentional Adaptation

“[Intentional adaptation] is the process of changing while staying in touch with our deeper purpose and longing.”

In March 2020, most of the world experienced a dramatic shift in what was considered ‘normal’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For LJ, the impacts of COVID-19 included moving Learning Labs online as well as more active leadership opportunities for IWAC members. Service providers and community partners saw a significant increase in their workloads, which resulted in many of them stepping away from their commitment within Learning Labs. Just like passing the baton in a relay race, IWAC members stepped up into more active roles within Learning Labs.

Throughout this period of uncertainty, and in preparation for a Learning Fair, the women successfully explored, co-designed, and tested prototypes within three evolving research themes. These themes were: the significance of immigrant women in caregiving roles, holistic approaches to mentorship, and opportunities for connection and support around difficult or taboo topics. IWAC members formed three working groups and researched each topic further. Alongside LJ leads, the women held more meetings where they consulted with new community partners, facilitated ideation sessions, explored systems-based frameworks, and tested prototypes. Challenges and opportunities emerged every day, as room for uncertainty grew. Discussions with LJ leads revealed that, despite the unpredictability brought about by COVID-19, IWAC members remained grounded in their collective work due to a variety of reasons, including: a determination to boost confidence in immigrant women within their homes & careers, motivation from their children, and a deep desire to complete the cycle from ideation, to co-design and finally, co-creation.

Lidiane, one of the IWAC members, articulated her personal drive as follows: “Uncertainty is everywhere – especially in COVID. “I see a lot of people losing their jobs. When I see that uncertainty is everywhere, I know this work is important”.

Through intentional adaptation, shared leadership, cooperative work, and user-centred reflection on community needs, IWAC members continued to co-develop the following three projects from the Learning Labs:

  • Childcare for Immigrant Women: Joining the BC-wide $10aDayChildcare Campaign, with particular emphasis on highlighting the barriers that immigrant women face in accessing affordable and quality childcare. Due to these barriers, many immigrant women are disadvantaged in securing professional experience and limited in their capacity to meaningfully contribute to the Canadian economy.

  • Holistic approaches to Mentorship: Developing more holistic, peer-supported, and culturally-safe approaches in information-sharing for immigrant women’s personal and professional development

  • Let’s Talk: Co-designing and co-facilitating informal peer circles where immigrant women can share personal struggles, co-create solutions, build confidence in themselves, and develop trustworthy relationships.

After the Learning Fair where IWAC members presented their research and models to an online audience of 80, IWAC members shared their feedback, stating the benefits and lessons from working as a team. They highlighted that Learning Labs were a welcoming space to hold each other in compassion and care, offered a platform to validate thoughts and emotions, invited cooperation over competition, amplified individual and collective strengths, and encouraged curiosity rather than aversion in the face of complexity and uncertainty. The golden thread within the LJ fabric, which was particularly evident during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, was intentional adaptation.

Thea, one of the IWAC members who has been in Canada since 2017, vocalizes how she experienced intentional adaptation as follows: “Without the uncertainties and bumps along the way, we wouldn’t have had success. If we had known from the beginning, how would we have been able to develop what we did? We worked hard for this; we made it beautiful together.”

When we arrive, we begin again

“When Canada geese are migrating, they take turns at the front of the V-turns being the leader, the weight-carrier, and being the follower, the rester.”

We began this story with the recognition that we are only one small element of the settlement service ecosystem in Canada. Throughout our journey as participants, leads and community partners, we have consistently been challenged to expand our imagination beyond what has felt comfortable or what has worked for others before us. This challenge, while exciting in its pull towards creative and collective visioning, has also also humbled us. Particularly, we feel humbled in our realization that the lessons we share in this piece come from the generosity, vulnerability, and courage of immigrant women who - in daily interactions - would be considered our ‘clients.’ Therefore, we hope that sharing our learning will spark further conversations and actions within settlement service delivery programs, which centre the strengths and skills of immigrants and refugees. We do not intend that the lessons herein become a blueprint for all settlement services. Rather, it is our hope that we become mirrors and lighthouses to one another - points of reflection and safe havens. As service providers, we can show up for one another by co-ideating, holding each other accountable, owning up to mistakes, and most importantly, constantly reminding each other who our greatest teachers are: immigrant and refugee communities.

For all of us, the journey has evoked various emotions which we are unable to capture in one word. What it feels like now, as we reflect on the past two years, is like an expansion of space, an un-contracting of our bodies. It feels like wearing a flexible garment that makes room for our entire being and embraces the multitude of shapes and sizes that we come in. It is a long-awaited exhalation. Because, finally, we have arrived. When we arrive, we begin again.

As the current iteration of IWAC and projects come to a close, we ask: What aspects of this work are we going to bring with us into the future? As we continue exploring new spaces and ways of being, we find courage and confidence in remembering that we are not alone. We sense belonging and transformation, everytime we rise to, and share, our strengths. As Thea Lopez, a visionary advocate behind the LJ film first envisioned by Lama and to be released at shares,

“I can truly contribute to Canadian society, I can show my kids what I have done, I am giving back, and with that I know I truly belong.”

She is one of many women whose individual journeys have formed the fabric of LJ; women who will continue to bring passion, skill and voice into community care and growth; women who plant seeds of hope for a flourishing future. In the words of the poet, Dr. Maya Angelou, “[We] come as one, but stand as ten thousand.”

With each arrival, we ask ourselves:

What does it mean to belong?

How do I bloom where I am?

When will I know that I have found home, again?

How will we collectively carry forward the work that we began here?

What will it look like for us to tend to the seeds of togetherness?


brown, adrienne maree. (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds. AK Press.

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