Seeking Community in Kitchener-Waterloo

Submitted by lgemmel on June 25, 2014 - 10:11pm
Community: Programs and Policies gathering encourages deep conversations

This week’s gathering of more than 150 people at Victoria Park in Kitchener, Ontario, has been an opportunity for “deep conversation” about the power of community.  “Community has a Job to Do” is the theme of this year’s Community: Programs and Policies event, which has attracted participants from government, nonprofits, neighbourhood groups, faith communities, and arts groups, featuring representation from across Canada, the United States, and two people from New Zealand. 

“It’s a gathering, not a conference” insists Paul Born, President of Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement, in his opening remarks.  That is because Tamarack is deeply commitment to creating events that are not just show and tell, but which are built around deliberate and engaging learning opportunities for the participants.  This design is quite deliberate: Tamarack believes that much of the learning is from each other, and so the gathering itself models the kind of behaviour and community conversations that Born and his colleagues have been advocating and leading for years. 

Mind you, there are some pretty significant speakers on the agenda this week.  John McKnight, a celebrated community-builder, co-creator of Asset-Based Community Development, and Co-Director with Jody Kretzmann of the ABCD Institute based at Northwestern University in Evanston Illinois, is a key note speaker.  But McKnight, who is 83 and a bit of a celebrity in our field, doesn’t just fly in, give a speech, and fly out that afternoon.  John is here for the duration, an active participant in a learning “pod”, chatting with participants throughout the day, and presenting several workshops on different aspects of his work.  And his work continues: he is still actively contributing new ideas and insights, and is eager to continue to share his experience and learn from others. 

Peter Block, who worked closely with McKnight as co-author of The Abundant Community, is another prominent writer and thinker who participated on Monday afternoon by Skype from his home base in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Block’s live image was projected multiple times around three sides of a wonderful community meeting room in a reclaimed heritage building called The Tannery, which houses a mix of corporate offices (Google), retail businesses (an Irish Pub), and community space. 

I thought Peter looked a bit like the omnipotent Wizard of Oz as his giant image gazed down at us (he was looking down into his webcam), but there was no smoke and mirrors here.  Block is a remarkably forthright speaker who relays a penetrating analysis of many of the ills in our society (he often refers to the “empire” when talking about the flaws of consumerism and commoditization) and insists that “Community has a Job to Do”.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the space age technology, it felt like an intimate conversation, as Paul Born wandered through the audience with a portable microphone in hand, trading jokes and quips with Peter, and inviting comments and questions from the participants.  Peter’s frank and thoughtful responses were refreshing, and the audience was truly inspired by his message about the need to change “community” from a noun to a verb and to reframe the conversation.  Iris Kachuck then shared her experience in creating and living in intentional community, and the whole group brainstormed on the Job of Community for 30 minutes before being engaged in a unique exercise of singing with the co-founders of Toronto’s Choir!Choir!Choir!, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman.   

Tuesday focussed on Policies that Build Community, and our special guest was Sherri Torjman, Vice-President of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy.  It was Sherri’s seminal thinking that led to the Vibrant Communities initiative and she has been a friend and collaborator of Paul Born for many years.  In his introduction, Paul suggested that “We are deeply privileged to have Sherri, not only here in person, which is a gift, but here in this country.”  He also reflected: “I don’t know how she does it, moving easily from deep economic analysis to the human side of policy development”, which turned out to be a perfect description of her presentation which reminded us that policy was all around us, impacting virtually every aspect of our lives. 

Using a very apt and visual analogy - A Cup of Coffee - Torjman explained that “policy” refers to both the container and the contents, and that “we need to design a better container - designing for well-being”.  Her wide ranging analysis covered everything from sustainability (Clean and Green), urban development (the importance of Mixed-Use approaches), accessibility (for families and those with disabilities), to engagement (of people in the policy making process).  Throughout, she explained the issues, cited evidence, and proposed three simple but insightful goals for each category that we can act on.  She also reminded us of the importance of creating personal communities, circles of support, and community celebration, concluding with a vision of “Designing for well-being and caring for each other”.  

Wednesday we were treated to a copy of a brand new book just released this week called living community, thirty concise and compelling think pieces from Joseph Schaeffer, which represents the culmination of more than 20 years of deep conversations with more than 15,000 people, asking the larger question “How can I be truly humane within and with others, everywhere, all the time”.  Schaeffer, a quiet and gentle man who is here participating in the gathering, interviewed 50 of the people he most admired; spending up to 3 days with each of them in order to better understand their lives.  Joe began his conversations with the simple question: “What would people be like within and with each other in a world you would like to be part of?” 

Joe has concluded that five qualities of character seem to be at the heart of living community:

  • Genuine interest emphasizes self-understanding and deep interest in understanding others.
  • Acknowledgement highlights the critical importance of seeing and knowing diverse points of view without accepting all of them as right.
  • Deep empathy makes it possible for us to become as others, to see through their eyes in the deepest sense possible.
  • Altruism is a powerful quality of character that allows us to achieve self-actualization and to support others as they do so, too.
  • Mutual trust brings together trust of others and trust of self in the presence of others. 

 I enjoyed the several conversations that I had with Joe this week and am looking forward to reading this fascinating book. 

Wednesday’s theme and focus is Programs that Build Communities - The Role of Programs in Supporting Community to do its Job, and the plenary speaker was Vickie Cammack, who is the founding director of Tyze Personal Networks, a pioneering social enterprise that delivers online networks of care for people facing life challenges.  She is a social entrepreneur who has established many organizations dedicated to strengthening community and addressing isolation, including Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) and the Family Support Institute of British Columbia. 

Vickie’s topic was how Caring Networks support Caring Communities, and she described the importance of personal networks in creating resiliency to deal with disability and diversity.  Using compelling stories and examples from her own experience at PLAN, she explained clearly why we need to move from an Individual Model of Care to a Network Model of Care and how she found a way to create bridges and pathways within the health care system to mobilize technology to support personal networks of care. 

Cheryl Smith, from the City of London, Ontario, talked about a unique approach to managing programs that joined Firefighters with Recreation and Social Programs staff to provide outreach and engagement in multiple program areas designed to strengthen the community.  London is also home to a very active Children and Youth Network.  As with the previous day, the afternoon featured a rich menu of concurrent workshops that provided a range of options to satisfy the appetites of those eager to learn more, with a live music event this evening at the Queen Street Commons Café to round out the day. 

Thursday’s program will feature a keynote address by Paul Born entitled Deepening Community for a More Effective Society and Al Etmanski will lead a wrap-up reflection to try to pull together the many threads that have been woven this week.  A closing circle will then engage all participants in discussing how to “Make Community the Point” before everyone heads off to put their learning into practice. 

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to be here this week and I am looking forward to sharing further thoughts and observations from the event in this blog and through other media.  I think it is time to get serious about connecting this community building agenda and practice to the wider field of social services, and one of the ideas we will be pursuing is how we can explore this with a wider audience and keep the conversation going. 


Wonderful reflection!


Thanks so much for beautifully summarizing our learning and the events of the gathering! Looking forward to hearing more thoughts and reflections from you.