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About Us

Learn more about our journeys in service learning, our relationships to the land we live and work on, and our research focus in this space. 

Imagining relationships across differences

How we came to work and learn together.

Katie MacDonald and Jessica Vorstermans met while working for an International Service Learning organization in Toronto over a decade ago. Over 5 years of working together in that organization, they became co-directors and continued to build strong relationships with partners in the Global South. Their work focuses on imagining relationships across differences and how they might promote change for justice, equity, and harm that happens in this space. Their past research examined service learning as experienced by hosts in the Global South. Their next research project will examine moments when people decided to live counter-culturally, and how this impacted them in a lifelong learning framework. Katie is an Assistant Professor at Athabasca University and Jessica is an Assistant Professor at York University. We work collaboratively together in many ways: thinking, writing, raging, mothering, caring, and many, many Whatsapp messages holding so much together. 

A woman wearing a white shirt, glasses, and grey pants. She is standing in a field of tall grass and flowers.
A patch of tall, blooming sunflowers planted in Jessica's backyard.
A patch of tall, blooming sunflowers planted in Jessica's backyard.

Jessica Vorstermans

Assistant Professor, York University

This is a photo of flowers were taken in my backyard. I live, work and care in Toronto, on treaty 13 lands. The photo is of the sunflowers that have been planted by the birds. They bring me and my family so much joy. I have been gifted teachings about sunflowers being important to the Wendat people. The land where I live, and the campus where I work, is adjacent to an Ancestral Wendat village. Sharing space with sunflowers helps me remember this, remember my position as a settler, and prompts me to continually commit to the work of decolonization in all of my relations and work. 

A woman wearing a winter coat, hat, scarf and glasses. She is outodors in wintery weather posing with her white dog.
Two blue flax flowers in full bloom sitting in a home garden bed.
Katie's white, spotted dog walking along a clear path between wheat fields. In the background the sky is clear with a few clouds.

Katie MacDonald

Assistant Professor, Athabasca University

The photo of the flowers was taken in my front yard. Over the past three years, I have been trying to increase the number of native plants in my garden and this was my first one – blue flax. It was an early bloomer this year and brought me a lot of joy. Native plants help preserve biodiversity and create a landscape that supports the lives of birds, pollinators, and other animals. Each year as these plants come back after a long, Edmonton winter I reflect on what it means to be in one place and watch it change and contribute to making it better. Blue flax was a plant that was used for ornamental purposes and for fibre – threads, ropes, etc. As I tend to my garden, I think about the generations of land defenders who were here before my colonizer ancestors landed on the east coast, and who continue to protect this land for our futures. 

Two women with their backs turned, looking at a city landscape. The first woman has short, fine hair and is wearing a cardigan. The second woman has thick, long hair that is braided. She is wearing a traditional dress and arm acessory. The second woman is pointing at the landscape.

Our Research Focus

In Transnational Service Learning

Our research happens at a site of rupture in service learning - volunteering and service will not end the structural violence and systemic inequities that persist. Especially living the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to see some of the main themes of our research playing out around us—the need for intentional and communal shared struggle (being in something together), the uneven labour impacts on disabled folx, racialized folx, and women, and how the super-rich continue on as normal in the midst of massive disruption and harm. Important to this work is a recognition of land - whose land are we on and what land do we move to? Decolonization, conciliation, and land back are essential to justice. Through work with host communities and students, we envision nurturing something different.

Our Land Acknowledgement

Land is an integral part of TSL but it is often not explicitly taken up. Whose land will you be visiting? What are your responsibilities as a guest on that land? Tuck & Yang's (2012) work "Decolonization is Not a Metaphor," asks settlers to grapple with their investment in “settler moves to innocence,” which are actions that aim to alleviate our guilt as settlers, without actually engaging in any meaningful work that furthers justice for Indigenous Peoples.


Santiago-Ortiz (2019) notes an absence of an acknowledgment of settler colonialism in the field of GSL. GSL is a field mostly centred on "settler moves to innocence." And while land back might be impossible for GSL participants, a commitment to acknowledging settler colonialism, working from decolonizing methodologies and a move building relationality in GSL is possible (Santiago-Ortiz, 2019).

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