At a recent TEDxToronto Salon, Teresa Toten made a remark that resonated with me the most. Teresa said that inclusion is about telling and listening to each other’s stories.

It’s a beautiful answer. I spent Canada Day in Ottawa, and although the weekend was full of meeting interesting new people and catching up with old kindred spirits, it had a rough beginning. My train ride was 2 hours longer than expected, the bus downtown was stuck in traffic for ages, and when I finally crossed the road on that hot hot day to drop off my things, a jeep of people shouted out, “Hey! Hey you! Don’t you know you’re in Canada and it’s Canada Day? It’s not Halloween!”

For the rest of the evening and weekend, though the thought “I can’t believe someone didn’t like my pretty hijab!” remained, it was on the train ride home that I began to think about the experience more, and to wonder: when something negative happens, what causes one to either laugh about the experience or to feel less connected from those around them as a result? So much discussion about diverse communities centers on the idea that one must simply integrate and become part of the community in which they live, but what actually makes that experience possible? Is integration and involvement merely a one -sided responsibility?

On the train I realized that it is because I was able to share my story that  my weekend was salvaged. I spent Canada Day with the friends of a friend, and witnessed remarkable behavior and understanding that day. Despite religions being different, I saw friends wait for others to finish praying, I heard friends listen carefully to what each other wanted to do and try to accommodate it, and received so much kindness during the day that the good I felt far outweighed any bad that had happened earlier.  The isolated incident in the jeep was categorized correctly in my mind, as simply an unfortunate, random thing that had occurred, and not representative of Ottawa as a whole.

In Karen Armstrong’s remarks at Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon earlier this year, she mentioned that before she passed away, the Mother Superior at her convent spoke to her and gave her encouraging words, and in the years afterwards when she found herself struggling, the memory of that incident was a comfort. The point of the story was that your words and how you behave to someone stays with them long after the conversation between you is over, and you can have a deep impact on someone without even realizing it.

I agree. Without those ambassadors of Ottawa, my understanding of the city may have been different, but the point is true beyond visiting new places.  I’ve always had a strange talent for attracting questions in awkward places, and sometimes these inquiries are not made by kind questioners, (though that moment in Ottawa was probably the most explicitly Islamophobic moment I’ve ever experienced) but I’ve also always had incredible people around me. From parents, siblings, teachers, to mentors at work, roommates in university, and friends in undergrad and beyond, I’ve been blessed with people who have enriched my life tremendously through their behavior, their listening and their attempts  to understand. Without people to help me cope with moments and questions I’d often rather live without, it might have been much harder to grow up as someone who cares about being engaged.

Similarly I think, the answer to building healthy inclusive communities lies with all of us. It is not simply up to some people to decide to feel included, it’s not about overcoming cultural or religious ideas, it’s about creating space for us to listen to each other so we all feel heard, and that our words have meaning. It’s about meeting each other halfway by stepping out of our respective comfort zone. We all need to help build communities where participation is valuable. We all need to be kind enough that it stays with people we encounter, regardless of anything else they come across.

Shagufta Pasta recently completed her Masters of Science in Planning at the University of Toronto. She blogs at http://www.seriouslyplanning.wordpress.com.