Shadowed Work … a Confessional Tale

By Marie-Claude Plourde


For three years, I have been passionately involved in a professional association labelled as a non-profit organization (NPO). The mission of the Association du design urbain du Québec (ADUQ; Urban Design Association of Quebec) is to promote and to make known the practice of urban design. Urban design is a field in emergent state that seeks to contribute to the renewal of today’s city and benefits to our “living together” following a human scale approach. The mode of existence of ADUQ, in 2018, is essentially based on volunteering. This volunteering force works to embody their mission by placing itself at the articulation of the various elements constituting the urban design field, thus creating networks and promoting the dissemination of the day-to-day content. However, “in my day” (2012 to 2015), we operated beyond the media watch. We dedicated our energies to anchor the NPO foundations through the realization of events, written productions, the development of public spaces and through the creation of urban objects, etc.

During my involvement, I thus participated in all types of activities at the cost of several hours of implication a week, yet deeply enjoying contributing to positive changes in Montreal’s urban lifestyle. I had the feeling to improve the well-being of Montrealers but also of the planet, since a human scale city is less harmful for the environment. More specifically during my years with ADUQ, I was one of the instigators of the Village Éphémère (Ephemeral Village), today known as the Village du Pied-du-Courant.

Image by Jean-Michel Seminaro

The Village Éphémère had as an objective to reveal an under-exploited urban space as well as to highlight the new generation of professionals linked to the planning field. The idea of implementing this event emerged while all ADUQ members were more and more breathless. Indeed, for nearly two years that the group was volunteering to build its legitimacy. Thus, the seed of the Village Éphémère did not immediately (never has) unanimity among the members, that is why the major part of its organization was the work of few individuals. Nevertheless, this work was under the seal of ADUQ, because acquiring personal credits for the benefit of the association’s mode of existence was not questionable. In 2013, we successfully held a first edition and, spurred on by this success, in 2014 we came back for a second (and last!) edition.

Given the scale of the project compared to our almost inexisting resources, the adventure of the Village Éphémère is fraught of many tensions. For examples, those tensions had materialized between the members of ADUQ or with our various collaborators, with the public space or the material for construction, and with the weather as well obviously. I can qualify these tensions as being both productive or harmful, either because they were sometimes energy-consuming or because they fuelled our attachment to the project.

There are multiple avenues to this story. However, choosing a direction here was quite simple, it seemed relevant to me to share with you the hidden side of the volunteer practice I experienced. Why not discuss the tensions that can inhabit the heart of a volunteer? In other words, I dare to talk about the “dark side” of the volunteer.

Image by Jean-Michel Seminaro

During the process of the Village Éphémère and long after my disengagement from the project and the association, I was deeply inhabited by a specific tension. I was caught between the anonymity required by my “Aduqian” position (we were a group and not individuals) and the tacit principle of disinterestedness that underlies the voluntary act, with the desire to be recognized for my decisive role in the project’s success. Moreover, I felt this tension tenfold because I judged this desire pernicious in a context where I was acting for a cause. My dedication to the cause was boundless, to the point of affecting other spheres of my personal life: the project would not have been able to flourish without my participation limitless (that said very humbly I assure you). From its earliest days, the Village was a great success and paved the way for many other “ephemeral” projects—nowadays, we can cross a “ephemeral” project per square kilometre in Montreal! To this day, while some of my fellow are associated with this project, giving them legitimacy and admiration, my work is still hidden in the shadows.

I reassure you, writing these words I am no longer consumed by this dilemma between my involvement, which was by definition selfless, and my need for recognition and esteem by my peers. The experience has shown me, on the one hand, to fill myself with the appreciation of the people who are dear to me and whose judgment I truly value and, on the other hand, to smile at the memory of this very human need for recognition.

Hoping that this brief confession will make some of you not feel guilty of experiencing such feelings. The need for congratulation and recognition, even if we feel the context does not lend itself to it, is human. It may be better to recognize it and forgive yourself of our humanness, thus avoiding sinking in the “dark side”, and get caught up in a spiral of frustrations!