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Joined hands

Photograph provided courtesy of Fred Hunsberger

This June I am planning to go to a gathering put on by the Tamarack Institute in Hamilton called, “Re-Imagining Cities~ Re-Engaging Citizens.” And I am excited! So much so that I feel absolutely full of ideas and have decided to blog again about a host of different things. To start, I’d like to explain a little bit more about what will be happening at the Tamarack gathering, why the theme of this gathering speaks so powerfully to me, and how I feel this is something our communities need right now.

The skinny on what’s happening

First, let me give a brief overview of what will be happening. The overarching theme of the gathering will be exploring how to smartly engage with community members in the creation of strong cities, starting at the smallest level of individual neighbours and moving up to neighbourhood groups and other community organizations. And, not to just attempt this, or go through the motions, but to create needed change intentionally, strategically, and in a shared way, in order to harness the full resources of the community.

Specific topics that will be explored include establishing strong citizen-municipal partnerships, and how the ways we relate affects our communities. We will also get to the nitty-gritty of community building by thinking about its relation to regional food systems, and the impact of community on social isolation and loneliness. This wide-ranging agenda is targeted at anyone concerned with deepening community, including community builders, neighbourhood leaders, policy makers, planners, and researchers.

Given the gathering’s theme, it is appropriate that President of Tamarack, Paul Born, will be speaking at the event, sharing insights from his book Deepening Community. As the name of his book suggests, he explores the need to develop deep community, by which he means places where we get to know and care for one another, celebrate our common stories and diversity, and develop a belief that we are all ‘in this together.’

My journey of community engagement so far

I am looking forward to this gathering for a number of reasons, but the greatest one is that I like how it will be taking issues down to the micro level of communities and neighbourhoods. I think it is partly my long-time commitment as an environmentalist that draws me to this work. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the adage ‘think globally, act locally,’ and believe that trying to make changes in this world starts at the community level.

My enthusiasm might seem a bit surprising, given that I am an Urban Planner and that planners often create legal instruments like laws and policies that shape, at a high level, how we live. And indeed, I have done this both as a planner and a community organizer, examining for example how federal trade agreements could affect local food procurement and the influence of the provincial legislative framework on pit and quarry management. I have also attempted to make other grand sweeping changes by speaking on global climate change, presenting on the importance of pollination, and running workshops on local food production. Throughout this work, I have been thinking a great deal about what is needed to make broad changes throughout the country, if not the world.

But to be honest, I am more hopeful about working to bring change from the ground up at the community level, and getting involved by sitting on my city’s environmental committee to make municipal level change, coordinating a community garden, or simply caring for the woods behind my house (removing invasive plants and litter) and making soup for people I care about.  My conviction that change IS possible at the local level is so strong that I even helped organize a three-part resiliency series for my city in partnership with Jean Robertson at the Upstart Collaboratory for Collaborative Culture Designing, the then Mayor of Waterloo, Brenda Halloran, and various other community organizations and individuals. By resiliency, I mean the ability to deal with changes, stresses, and shocks, such as a shortage of food.

Moving towards deep community

There are many reasons why I feel we need to move to a deeper sense of community where we know and care for one another. In economic terms alone, we all end up paying for a lack of deep community. For example, providing housing is actually cheaper than leaving homeless people on the streets, because it costs less than funding shelters, emergency care and correctional services for them, with one report showing that costs can be three times less.

Another economic reason for building deep community is the effects of helping children early in life. Examples can include investment in early learning or home learning, all of which can have benefits to society as the children grow up, such as increasing their likelihood of holding down a job or volunteering in the community.

At the deeper social and emotional level, lack of community can lead to a host of challenges including mental health problems, fear of crime, and the previously touched on debilitating sense of isolation. Moreover, even if we are not experiencing these problems ourselves, we are impacted and can suffer when we witness the suffering of others. Although more from of an environmental perspective, Joanna Macy talks about this sort of thing in her book, World as Lover, World as Self, with how people often end up feeling discouraged, depressed or overwhelmed from witnessing the troubles going on in the world today.

Next steps

Attending this Tamarack gathering on “Re-Imagining Cities” will be a big step for me compared to what has occupied me mainly of late. In addition to the various community level activities listed above, what I have left out up to this point is that my time has been occupied at the extreme micro-community level with caring for our young daughter. It is also for her that I feel going in June makes sense, because I have a strong belief that major change is needed for her to have the kind of future I wish for her. This change will require more than what I can do on my own, and calls for an intentional connection with others in the community.

Out of this wish for my daughter and my commitment to deepening community, next steps for me following attending the gathering will be to report back on what happened. It is my intention not only to listen and learn, but also to take advantage of the opportunity to network, connect and share my ideas. If this excites you as much as it does me, stay tuned for my upcoming blog posts. This way the dialogue around how we might create deep community can continue and broaden, to include those unable to attend – for the benefit of us, our neighbourhoods and cities, and the planet as a whole.

This article was originally posted on the Tamarack Institute’s site, www.seekingcommunity.ca.

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