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Recently, there was a community conversation with the Bennett Healthcare Centre in Georgetown. Over an hour, six seniors and two staff members discussing and explored their experiences of community together. Some conversations flow very smoothly and naturally, while others the groups struggles more to unpack this sometimes very amorphous term called community. This conversation fell into the second category. Through creativity and patients the group was able to discover some really valuable insights about community through their experiences.
Insight 1: Framing is everything
The focus of the 1000 Conversations Campaign is people’s experience of community. It was under that focus that this group of eight people got together in Georgetown. However, as the conversation got started it became clear that finding personal stories about community might not be as easy as it first sounded.
There are times, when community does not work to stir conversations. People struggle to connect it to their personal stories and ideas. When this happens, either conversation does not happen (i.e., there is awkward silence) or people share stories and ideas that do not connect with the theme of community. To overcome this challenge the Bennett group started to play with other words. They tried: family, neighbours, church, school, and friends. These are words that represent places where people often experience community.
Ultimately the word that served to generate the most energy was neighbours. One woman shared a story about how her neighbours used to help her with groceries and work around the yard, she lamented losing this and worries for others who do not have neighbours who support each other. She expressed fear that today’s society is losing a sense of neighbourliness.
Another man shared how he was from a big family and how him, his siblings and a bunch of their neighbours formed a band that traveled and performed. This remained one of his fondest memories and still has contact with some of those original band members.
By changing the framing from communities to neighbours the Bennett group was able to have a rich sharing of stories and insights.
Insight 2: Storytelling as an anchor for identity
At one point in the conversation one of the staff members shared how he tries to retell stories to persons who are struggling with dementia. This helps them retain some sense of self-identity even as much of it is slipping away.
The group got thinking that community is the same way. It is important for a community to retell their collective stories because it reminds them of what they are capable of and what it feels like to have this potential come forward. It helps build and fortify their identity. In the hustle and bustle of people’s daily life they can sometimes forget these stories.
The group continued this comparison: dementia happens as the connections between brain cells are lost, as this happens the neural relationships that formed and communicated people’s stories are also lost. They shared how in communities these day’s people move around so much that the same effect is happening. As people leave a community, they take with them some of the stories of that community. They are then replaced with new people who do not hold these stories. Over time powerful community stories can be lost and with it the identity of the community. The group talked about how it was therefore important for a community to tell and retell their stories, to keep them alive, to fortify their identity and to lay the groundwork for new stories to be created that build on this identity.
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Sometimes the most important insights take time and persistence. The community conversation at Bennett Healthcare Centre was a reminder of this.