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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,

Photo by Tevaprapas. From the Wikipedia Commons.

Photo by Tevaprapas. From the Wikipedia Commons.

Yes. Sometimes all you can do is sit tight and wait… On this crazy, wind-swept ship of life that is.

Please excuse this overused metaphor and let me explain more. I am not suggesting an approach of doing nothing. There are lots of things that painfully need addressing in the world, and a laissez-faire approach will not help. It is just that I am finding much can be observed, learned and ultimately achieved by taking in the landscape of where one is at. Whether that be at a family gathering (where I was at a few weeks ago) or any number of places (party, movie theatre, hairdresser, sitting at home etc.)

To be honest, I am feeling much more inwardly peaceful and becoming (I think) much more outwardly effective by taking into account the direct sphere of my potential influence and seeking to genuinely connect (i.e. making meaningful eye contact, listening, and relating) with people. This is opposed to more-or-less running out onto “street corners” (aka environmental events) in a proselytizing, Greenpeace-like fashion and trying to lure, herd, and browbeat people into changing.

To be honest, looking back I don’t know where I was exactly trying to get to or what I was trying to accomplish with all the environmental networking I’ve been doing in the past. Who was I trying to meet? What was I hoping to get done? How did I think change would happen?

Not that my past efforts have been a waste of time — I learned a lot and formed many important friendships. Nor do I think that people who do this are necessarily making poor choices, as I honour where they are at and what they feel they need to do. Just that there are so many people that I see on a daily basis that I can form important relationships with and work with to help bring about change. Even if that change is, sometimes, just in myself.

So, to bring this back down 20,000 feet, a few weeks ago at my family gathering I talked to my brother about why he likes firecrackers (yes, firecrackers!) and made plans to go on an important, family- and relationship-building walk in the woods with him and his children. And my sister-in-law’s father opened up to me about his grocery shopping habits and preferences, which is about the first time we’ve ever spoken at length. I met a little friend that my niece made today and in the process met the friend’s grandmother, who seemed like quite a caring individual although wanting a bit more company. Finally, my mother-in-law, who has been caring for my father-in-law with dementia, shared with me that she is looking forward to some time by herself next week (thanks to a community program that my father-in-law is getting involved in). I found myself greatly treasuring all these encounters and exchanges.

So, now, feeling now much more at peace with the swarm of oftentimes seemingly misdirected and insane activity going on around me. And much more prepared and willing to continue helping adjust the sails, if only a little bit, to shift humanity’s course. As a mother who spends a great deal of time nursing, cleaning dirty hands, and changing wet nappies, to name a few things, I take great comfort in this. And for this reason I share this deep meta-reflection with all of you.

Phto by Fred Hsu. From the Wikimedia Commons.

We face many environmental problems today. So many that the situation can appear overwhelming. For some, the tendency may be to act like an ostrich, by “burying one’s head in the sand”, and ignoring it. Others can choose to do the opposite, and rush around in a frenzied mayhem, attempting to address every single issue.

Those falling in the first camp may end up only further contributing to the situation. This is because they choose to block out their concerns by chasing consumerist rewards (i.e. a new car, big house) that further tax the planet. They may also choose careers that harm the planet, justifying their actions with the attitude that “If they don’t do it, somebody will.”

As for those in the second camp, while they may make some progress in the short-term, eventually they will likely become burnt out. In the process, they leave the strands of many unfinished projects in their wake. Which can leave those who were working with them feeling more discouraged than when they started. This is because all their efforts would seem for naught.

So where is the balance? How should we respond while avoiding the problems of both the “ostrich” and the frenzied project organizer? I cannot claim to have all the answers, but as a starting point I strongly recommend reading Stephanie Kaza’s inspiring book, Mindfully Green. In this book, she advocates following the “green practice path.” A Buddhist inspired text, undertaking this path is explained to basically involve 1) gaining a wider view of how our actions may be harming the planet and 2) finding ways to reduce this harm.

Kaza gives the example of how this relates to food. Eating food such as meat can cause water pollution, cause animals to suffer, harm the consumer through the causation of heart disease and cancer, and so on. However, it may be that for certain reasons (e.g. living in a colder climate, or I would add having a certain body type) you may find it necessary to consume at least some meat.

The key thing is to start asking the difficult questions about how much you can realistically do to lead a more ethical life. Embarking on this process is something that Kaza informs us is referred to as a “koan.” Based on Zen Buddhism, this is a continually unfolding puzzle that takes more than mental effort to answer. “You live with a koan,” she says, “you wrestle with it, you get stumped by it, you have sudden breakthroughs with it…”

Food as well as other basic daily activities, such as water consumption and waste production also cited by Kaza, can be a valuable starting point. After all, we all eat, drink, and make purchases.

However, I would suggest there are many other applications. For instance, how do the relationships that we form, and how we interact with others, affect a desire to not inflict harm? How do our choices about whether to have a family affect the planet? And one that I referred to earlier and that I often grapple with is, what impact does my chosen career have on the earth?

These are difficult questions and one cannot expect to come to answers immediately. “If you come to answers too quickly, you will have missed the deeper insight hidden in the questions,” she says. By the same token, do not expect to find absolute answers to all your questions. Instead, quoting poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Kaza reminds us that we must “learn to love the questions.”

There is much else I could say about Kaza’s book. Such as the need for self-care, to ensure that we have the energy to carry out our work (e.g. balancing the need to put bread on the table with a desire to help the planet). The helpfulness of considering joining a group, where others may have answers to the questions you are seeking. And, finally, the importance of commitment, or in other words taking a “vow”, to prevent harm to others and the planet. For, as Kaza states, “the pledge…helps to strengthen that intention.”

If you wish to learn more about the green practice path, I would strongly recommend reading Kaza’s book. However, for my purposes here,  I would like to end by saying I feel it is important that we consider taking up this path. We may not have all the answers or know where it will lead. But what can be more important than reducing harm to this planet and its inhabitants? It may be frightening, taking that first step. But once started, I believe many shall find that it is essential to finding a truly meaningful and rewarding life.

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