Feature Funded Project

New Insight

Blind psychology expert Collin van Uchelen deconstructs the process of connecting to one another

Sometimes vegetable stew includes turnips. Usually it has potatoes, onions and carrots, but it might also include grains and seasonal farmers market produce like squash or zucchini. Each time it’s made in one of the workshops put on by Collin van Uchelen, PhD, it’s different. It all depends on what ingredients people bring. And that’s the point.
The stew serves as a microcosm of community engagement itself. “It’s different every time,” says van Uchelen, “and that’s a metaphor for the diversity you get within a community when everybody is sharing of themselves.” It could be a potluck dinner or a community garden plot, but in van Uchelen’s workshop, The Heart of Belonging, it’s part of an interactive exercise that examines the psychology of community and encourages interpersonal connection and a sense of belonging.
Lidia Kemeny, who oversees the Vancouver Foundation Neighbourhood Small Grants program that funds The Heart of Belonging, attended one of van Uchelen’s first workshops in Kitsilano in 2012. She brought turnips as her contribution, and remembers how simply and effectively the resulting stew demonstrated van Uchelen’s point: If you invite people to participate and give them a role, a purpose, you’ll foster community engagement. “It’s not just about showing up,” she says. “In the end, when we all share that stew, you can just sense the ownership that people have in that meal.”
It seems rather basic, but the entire workshop takes on another level of meaning when people realize van Uchelen is blind.
Van Uchelen describes his blindness as profoundly disconnecting. “If I have any word to describe its impact, it really disconnects me from so much of what’s around me,” he says. “The visual world, the
expressions on people’s faces, the look in someone’s eye, what’s written on the newspaper headline, what’s on the bulletin board, the treasure you find at a garage sale, the obstacle blocking your path on
the sidewalk. When you lose your eyesight, you lose a lot of opportunity for engagement and connection.
“The core issue for me is that my sight loss has really required me to make extra effort to maintain connection,” says van Uchelen. It’s part of what makes him so attuned to the psychological sense of
community, and why his workshop is so successful. “Connection through sight is hugely important, but it’s not the only way to be connected.”
Van Uchelen’s sight loss is not an issue in the workshop. He doesn’t bring it up except to introduce the volunteer working with him and his guide dog Rico. His condition, retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive degenerative condition that eats away at night vision and peripheral vision, hasn’t affected his visual acuity as much as it has slowly and insidiously reduced his field of sight. He can see high contrast – car headlights at night, a streetlight against an inky sky or the kaleidoscope of fireworks. “It doesn’t get any better than fireworks for me – they’re high contrast, bright, moving and flashing. That’s how to get my attention,” he jokes. Every summer, he heads to English Bay for the Celebration of Light. “It’s a fairly intense scene,” he says of the fireworks spectacle he’s still able to see, “but quite meaningful for me.”
Diagnosed when he was 20 – over 20 years ago now – van Uchelen acknowledges that his condition has irrevocably reframed who he is. After speaking to a blind psychiatrist about the trials of med school and rotations for a sightless person, he decided to pursue a career in psychology instead of medicine. Today, he has a doctorate in clinical and community psychology, and he recognizes that his lack of sight may have actually opened him up to a new way of seeing in the context of community versus individual.
For 25 years now he’s been an advocate of “collective living,” in which residents share living space, meals, cooking and shopping. “It’s more fun, lighter impact on the planet, more economical and interesting,” says van Uchelen. “It’s a way that I can have a bit of a sense of community in my life on a daily basis.” He even founded Vancouver’s Collective House Network, and much of the material for The Heart of Belonging workshop is inspired by his collective living experience.
It comes back to the tug between community and an individualistic society that celebrates autonomy. Van Uchelen covered this dichotomy in his doctoral dissertation and contribution to The Handbook of Community Psychology, asking, “How do people become empowered as citizens in their own communities and lives as opposed to victims or passive recipients of conditions?” For him, empowerment takes place in the community. It’s the core of his academic work and manifested in his workshops.
Even before his PhD and post-doctoral work, van Uchelen travelled to Indonesia as an undergrad on a cultural immersion program to study folk healing. In Sumatra, he connected with a dukun, or folk healer, who not only ministered to van Uchelen’s sight loss but also tweaked his view of the role of culture and community in health and healing. Looking back now, van Uchelen says, “My sight loss ended up becoming a piece of the stuff I’m interested in now.” He went on to pursue community psychology at the University of Illinois, study with renowned psychologists, minor in medical anthropology, and work with First Nations communities here in British Columbia. Today, his learning curve continues: he’s now studying Braille so that he can better lead The Heart of Belonging.
It comes back to that veggie stew. We’re all ingredients in one big pot that meld and simmer and become more flavourful together. The Neighbourhood Small Grants program itself is like that stew, says Kemeny. There’s a huge variety in the people and projects that come through Vancouver Foundation. “Collin is unique, there’s no question about that,” she says, “but the way the Neighbourhood Small Grants program inspires people to share their gifts is not.” Whatever the life experience and skill, it’s about people willing to connect and share their teachings with the larger community.
Fittingly, van Uchelen’s own efforts to promote connection and engagement among others has deepened his own community engagement. After leading the first Heart of Belonging workshop,
he was inspired to get involved in Vancouver Foundation’s Kitsilano area Resident Advisory Committee. There, he helps to promote the Neighbourhood Small Grants program, reviews applications for funding, and supports successful applicants in making their project impactful. He’s also gone on to lead workshops in communities all over metro Vancouver. “This opened a whole new pathway in my life
– I’d never heard of Neighbourhood Small Grants two years ago,” says van Uchelen. “To be doing what I’m doing now, with the program, is really meaningful and fulfilling.”
Story by: Barb Sligl Photos by: Vincent Chan

Read more stories from the Fall 2014 Vancouver Foundation magazine, Building an Empowered & Vibrant Future.

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