Community-Accountable Design


Why we retreat and you should too

At the end of September, the four of us gathered in Toronto for a 2-day retreat. It was our first time being in the same room together at the same time — Shameela and Sylver are based in Toronto but have different schedules, Lupe lives in Montreal, and I am mostly in Vermont. We see each other almost every work day, but only from the shoulders up and in two dimensions. Such are the limitations of current video conferencing technology *sigh*

Photo: Animated gif of 4 women of colour on a video conference, each posing with a tea vessel. From left to right the names in the windows read Una, Lupe, Shameela, and Sylver.
How we normally see each other

Co-existing even briefly in 3-dimensional space, unmediated by screens, was such a nourishing experience. Team retreats can be hard to find time and budget for, but we left with stronger bonds and a cohesive vision for the future.

Here’s why we retreat and you should too!

Reason 1: Eating is for humans

When we facilitate co-design sessions, we always try to share a meal with the folks we’re collaborating with. Eating together allows us to connect as humans before we begin working together, and humanizes our relationships. For us, it’s the strength of those relationships that carries us through the inevitable hard parts of the process.

But outside of a co-design session, each of us eats lunch alone (sad trombone). So we made it our first order of business to address our shared need for nourishment. And we ate! Basil noodles, sizzling tikka platters, homemade eggs, and injera with curries. Luscious meals that will sustain us long after parting ways.

Reason 2: Reflecting on our shared history strengthens our collective identity

After each major project, we debrief as a team. However we rarely get the opportunity to step back together to celebrate, see whether we are moving towards our collective goals, and look at patterns — both positive and negative — that are emerging.

Photo: Two women of colour on a settee, discussing ideas. The one on the left is standing on the settee, holding a marker. The one on the right is lounging and laughing. Behind them are two sheets of chart paper with writing on them.
Looking back & looking forward.

Our last retreat in 2015 left us with a heap of notes, which we reviewed in the way some people might look at diaries from their teenage years. We were so full of enthusiasm and ideas! And we still are. Incredibly, we have made significant progress on almost all of the goals we had set as a team.

Of course, we still have challenges. We took a lot of time to talk about moments that were hard and decisions that we might not make again. What I love about this team is our willingness to learn from these moments and keep adapting.

Reason 3: Imagining the future moves us forward together

That adaptive capacity is what keeps us moving as a flock, and flocks like to move in a common direction. Like we did in 2015, we took time to vision together, dreaming up goals small and large. In the future, keep an eye out for more talks, skill shares, and better explanations of what we do — the last item is an ongoing challenge for us.

We set aside a significant amount of time to set clear intentions around team care and self care practices. As racialized women who are immigrants and/or come from immigrant families, the projects we work on can be emotionally intense and even re-traumatizing, so care practices are the core of our studio culture. However we’ve never had an intentional discussion around what we want to commit to as individuals and as a team. Writing down our team care and self care intentions — alongside our current practices — unearthed some needs we might not have known we had, and some practices we might not have known we needed.

Photo: A sheet of chart paper with handwritten text. Under the heading “Team Care” is a list of items such as check in with each other, tea time, and celebrating each other’s successes. Under the heading “Self Care” is a list of items such as eating better, walks, and travelling.
Setting team care & self care intentions

Reason 4: You get to say goodbye

The happy kind of goodbye, where you part ways knowing that you leave feeling closer than when you arrived.

Tips for retreating well

  • Focus on good, nourishing food and if possible try to cook together. Our advice would be to share at least one extraordinarily memorable meal.  
  • A retreat space doesn’t have to look a certain way, so don’t hold off until you can afford a fancy retreat centre in a secluded location. The important thing is being together outside of your regular workspace (or in our case, workspaces). We used the meeting table at our Toronto studio and an AirBnB in downtown Toronto as our retreat spaces.
  • Take notes. You’ll be very happy you did. And remember to take turns in the note-taking role to give everyone equal opportunity to participate and record.
  • Make room for non-work stuff. We visited an art exhibit that Shameela had a piece in. We also squeezed in a little dancing.
Video: Two women of colour (Sylver and Lupe) sit at a table in a restaurant, dancing with their upper bodies. Behind them is a mirror and in the reflection, a third woman of colour (Shameela) can be seen dancing as well.
Dancing is key.