What do a former CFL player, a novelist, a YouTuber and an engineer have in common? At Walrus Talks: Belonging, it became clear: they’ve all struggled to find their own sense of acceptance.

Western University and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities hosted the third-annual Walrus Talks event on Tuesday night. This year's focus was "belonging," and as always, the goal of the event was to present multiple perspectives about a single topic, encouraging audience members to consider unfamiliar ideas.

Each of the eight speaker approached belonging in a distinct way, speaking about what it means to belong in a community or how they found their own sense of identity.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, an associate professor at Ryerson University and a best-selling author, discussed what it’s like to identify as an “Arab Muslim Canadian who also happens to be gay.” He said at times it’s easy to feel alienated from either the Muslim community or the LGBTQ+ community.

“These are two identities that are often seen as incompatible, at best, and sometimes antagonistic of each other,” he said.

Novelist Heather O’Neill explored belonging in the fashion and media industries, focusing on the commodification of violence against women. She described her experience as a woman who is aware of the misogyny present in magazines and ads, making her weary of her own identity.

“Female passivity has always been highly prized in art and fashion as an ideal of beauty,” she said.

For Jonathan Hood, a former CFL linebacker and Western PhD candidate, finding a sense of belonging has been integral to his success. He compared being an individual to being a seed that can only grow in the right environment. He said when he was in high school, he felt like a young man that didn't belong. He was in a school that didn't have enough outlets for his energy — "a good seed in the wrong soil." When Hood moved to a school that was a better fit, he was able to flourish as both an athlete and a scholar.

On the other hand, Molly Burke, a YouTuber who lost her vision due to a genetic disease, told the audience that she has never felt a sense of belonging at all.

“I live in a world that’s not made for me. The world is made for the average, but that’s not who I am,” she said.

She explored belonging within the scope of disability, explaining that it’s hard to feel like she belongs when her surroundings aren’t always accessible to her.

Walrus Talks: Belonging also featured Hanny Hassan, the chair of the board of governors at Western; Erik Mandawe, artist-in-residence; Kim Samuel, a scholar specializing in social isolation; and Carol Todd, the founder of the Amanda Todd Legacy Society.

Shelley Ambrose, the executive director of The Walrus Foundation, hopes that the event spiked intellectual curiosity in its audience members, pushing them to think about belonging themselves. 

“We want everyone to learn something different,” she explained. “Every audience member that we have brings their own perspective, so what resonates with people varies.”

If you missed Walrus Talks: Belonging, you can watch it, as well as all past Walrus Talks, online.


Checkout Jonathan Hood on the Gazette's radio show The Undergrads earlier this week: