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Reflecting Back Community in Waterloo Region

Submitted by Rachel Elizabeth on February 17, 2014 - 6:30pm

A year and a half ago Tamarack started on a journey...

A journey to discover what community means for Canadians and how we can build deeper and stronger communities from coast to coast, together.

But this was a journey we knew we could not do on our own. We needed help. We needed your help.

We started here in our home of Waterloo Region, it was here that we were first created 12 years ago. It seemed like the perfect place to start on this new leg of our journey.

Over the last year I have had the privilege to be part of 40 Conversations with faith groups, youth, seniors, arts and cultural groups and community organizations. I have laughed with a group of teen mothers, cried with a group from multiple faith groups and wrestled with a group of seniors. Some conversations involved over 150 people while others involved just one or two.Some were part of big community events while others were simply over coffee.

Each conversation was unique and powerful in its own way. I can still remember all of them as if they just happened.

I want to take a few minutes to take you on this journey with me; to walk back through these conversations and as we do to explore the patterns that surfaced.

  • Group Identity and Boundaries
  • The paradox of Same vs. Different
  • Changing face of community (youth – seniors) 
  • How Technology is Changing How we Approach Community
  • Community and Consumerism (never enough time)
  • Common Experiences


Group Identity and Boundaries

One of the earliest conversations we had was with East Zorra Mennonite Church. East Zorra Mennonite Church sits in the country side outside of KW. I knew as soon as I walked in that there was a special energy about the place. People seemed so happy to be together. I can only describe it as a palpable joy.

At the core of East Zorra, is this idea of family. For many of the members East Zorra is more to them then simply a faith community, the relationships go much deeper.

When we call something a family we are saying:

  • we feel like we belong
  • we are invested in each others' lives; a responsibility to each other
  • we celebrate and mourn together
  • there is a sense of permanency to it
  • rituals, traditions, patterns
  • history

Family implies a strong sense of identity. This identity is important because it is what makes us feel like we belong. Like we are home.

The stronger this sense of identity, the more clear the boundaries are of the community.The perk of this is that you know if you are part of this family and it is very hard to fall out.

But if these are the perks to having well-defined boundaries, there are also some clear downsides. Boundaries mean that it is harder to get in from the outside.

As the group at Mannheim Mennonite church talked about, setting clear boundaries can be difficult because we do not want to build walls around our communities and also because it is hard to find consensus on where those boundaries are. But without boundaries, you do not have a strong sense of identity, and without a strong sense of identity, it is hard to build a deep sense of community.


The Paradox of Same vs. Different

When we had a community conversation with teen mothers at Monica’s House, we asked them to share their vision for the community they wanted for their kids. One of the things they shared that caught me off guard was this idea of a multigenerational community. They wanted their child to grow up in an environment where they interacted and felt loved and cared for by adults and kids of all ages.

This idea came up again when we talked with seniors at Winston Park. In fact, this idea of multigenerational interactions came up in most conversations we had.

Clearly there is a desire, here. Yet, where do you see multigenerational communities today, particularly deep ones?

More then just multigenerational, we love the idea of diversity, of being part of a group that has many different stories, experiences and cultures. I think it speaks to our deep curiosity. I think it also stems from a deep awareness that we are stronger, more resilient. That we get a better understanding of life and ourselves when we engage more perspectives.

But as was surfaced in a conversation over coffee with a group of recent graduates, more often than nought, we are drawn to people who are the same as us, where there is a familiarity already.

Think about when you came here today. Who were the people you talked to? Did you talk to people you had never met or did you first go and connect with people you already knew? Why is this the case?

Simply put, it's comfortable and easy to connect with those who are like us. Whereas, connecting with difference is hard work and unpredictable. It can, at times, be awkward. It is one of those things that sounds great in theory but in practice is very hard. Just ask anyone who has gone on a cultural exchange.

Ultimately though, if all we have is difference we never feel grounded- but if all we have is sameness we become stuck.


The Changing Face of Community (Youth – Seniors)

Our relationship to each other and to community is in flux right now. Nowhere is this more clear than when engaging youth and seniors.

When seniors share their experience of community, it is rooted in three main pillars: family, neighbourhood and faith.There was not the same diversity of communities that one could be involved in so you went deep with what you had.

The other common theme that came out of conversations with seniors was the impact of WWII. The quickest way to form a tight knit community is to create a common enemy. WWII created an intense environment of community across the country for 5 years. This served as the foundation for their understanding of community for the rest of their lives.

As the role of family, neighbourhoods and faith is diminishing in our society and we do not have that unifying common experience like WWII, a couple seniors I talked to shared worries that the youth of today no longer had deep experiences of community to serve as a foundation for them. Where will they learn what it means to be in community?

Another key shift is that we are becoming more transient. For example, my grandparents have stayed within 10 miles of where they were born. My parents, in contrast, have moved around Southern Ontario. Now, my brother is planning to move to Montreal, my sister to the US and I spend much of my time going across the country. This kind of story is becoming more and more normal.

As we become more transient as a society, not only do families become harder to hold together, but the importance of neighbourhoods has also decreased. People are finding it less important to invest time building relationships with their neighbours when they don’t feel committed to the neighbourhood long-term. It is hard to put down roots when you know you are going to move.

This is reflected in how each group views community. Before we dove into this campaign, we spent a couple months exploring what community meant to people. What we discovered was that for seniors, their sense of community was deeply rooted in a place where as for youth it was based more around an experience of connection and common interest.

Despite elders' concerns about the youths' experience of community, we have found that youth themselves have a far more optimistic view. They feel they have new tools that allow them to connect, share and mobilize in a way that could never have been done previously. They see their communities as being far more open and diverse than their parent’s generation. Previously, if you didn’t fit into your community you were alone. Now, you can find a community no matter who or where you are. The key word here is, control. This generation feels they can build the communities they want on their terms and that the sky is the limit.

Our seniors grew up during a period when our society was more communal. Contrastingly, our youth are now growing up in a society that is hyper individualistic. Both have much to teach us about how to build, grow and strengthen community. Are we listening?


 How Technology is Changing How we Approach Community?

Technology is dramatically changing the landscape of how we interact with each other. When asked how technology is changing how we build community, one person said, “It is now the medium through which we build community.”

Technology lowers the barriers for engagement. Before, if you had an interest in a particular topic, for instance, model trains, you had to actively seek out other people with a similar interest by browsing through the local newspaper, reaching out to the community hubs (like the library) and talking to lots of people. Now, a simple search online and you hear about the local model train club: where and when its next meeting will take place. The internet makes it really easy to find groups that you are interested in and any sort of information, generally. You are also no longer restrained by geography, which means you have a much larger pool of options and opportunities. This means that no matter how strange or unique your interests, you can find and interact with like-minded individuals.

We are able to engage with a much greater diversity of people, ideas and cultures than ever before. This accessibility to information is helping increase our understanding of each other, thus, raising our empathy. It makes it easier for people to jump from one geographic location to another.

Technology makes it easier for us to find people who are the same and also those who are different.  Technology creates the space for people to expand their perspectives and access great diversity while at the same time it creates space to foster greater extremism because you can choose to focus very narrowly on things that you’ve decided to care about. 

Technology makes us far more interconnected.

Technology allows us to easily be part of multiple communities both here, in our neighbourhood, and around the world. As a result, there is a much greater possibility of our actions rippling out and impacting others. As noted by students at the University of Guelph, our sphere of influence has greatly increased.

Technology increases opportunities for misinterpretation. Though there are exciting possibilities with technology, there are also risks. Staff at the John Howard Society talked about how most communication is non-verbal and that this type of communication is lost when we move online, which is mainly text based. As a result our brains do a lot more work to fill in the gaps, making us susceptible to misinterpretation. As the internet continues to evolve, people find new ways to communicate as seen through the rise first of emoticons, then memes and avatars all designed to help us communicate the non-verbal social cues.

Either way, technology is here to stay so we might as well figure out how to harness its potential.


Common Experiences:

What brings people together? Causes them to connect? Common experiences. That’s why when we meet particularly people we do not know as well, we often talk about the weather, (or in the case of today, the Olympics)... it is a common experience.

Just out of curiosity how many people watched the opening ceremonies for the Olympics yesterday? How many of you have used that as a conversations starter?

One of the fun parts of this campaign has been asking people to share their memorable experiences of community. These stories add a personal touch to the themes that are emerging.

In a conversation with the Abrahamic Peace Builders, a couple people shared their experiences with war. Their stories revolved around a village coming together to take shelter from a bombardment. It was a terrifying experience, but through this experience, a deep bond was built, food was shared, songs were sung.

Another group talked about the big blackout of 2003. They talked about how everyone on their street pulled out their BBQs and started cooking all the meat before it went bad. This was the first time they had met many of their neighbours, despite having lived on this street for a number of years.

At a couple of the rural churches, stories of barn fires were shared and how that served as a rallying point for the congregation to come together. Individual experience of suffering became a communal experience.

These three stories highlight how often times our most memorable experiences of community come when we are knocked out of our routine. In each of these cases everything else in our life is pushed to the side and we are left with a deep connection around a common experience.

It does not need to be an unexpected event that leads to a deep memorable experience, stories centered around traditions were also common: a community festival, potluck, and a family trip. In my case it was a church retreat.

The key piece in all these stories is a common experience that was shared with others.

How can we create more of these common experiences?


Community and Consumerism (Never Enough Time):

I want to take some time now to address the elephant in the room.

When we talked to people, almost everyone expressed a desire to have more and deeper community in their lives.

This would be followed by a pause and the something along the lines of, if only I had more time. Time, it is the number one barrier people talk about when it comes to community.

This lack of time and with it energy, is eroding community everywhere:

In faith groups, families, friends and clubs.

What has changed?  Where is all this time going?

One group conversation that I was part of said it was a reflection of our consumerist society. First we consumed stuff, now we consume experiences. In either case, we track to pack as much consumption as we can into our lives. We now approach community as a consumer. What that means is that we expect to build community when it is convenient for us and in the type that we want as if we were buying it from a store.Emphasis on choice.The result, lots of shallow communities without much commitment

Time reflects our priorities and so it is logical to therefore say that community is not as much of a priority in our life as it used to be. That is definitely the feeling of many of the seniors I connected with.

But I think there is another piece to this. We are being expected to do more. We are having more things to prioritize. It is harder for us to have community at the top.

Personally, I think we as a society need to move towards a 30 hour work week and have increased holidays but that is a topic for another day.

Given the context that we live in and recognizing that people’s lives are full, we can not do more community (despite the fact that people say they want more community).

So, the question that I have: Is there something we can cut out of our lives to make room for community or can we do better community?


Wrap Up: 

Now I have quickly glossed over some the patterns we have heard from all of you. In reality, we could spend an hour on each but Trudy says I don’t have that time here today, so I want to end by highlighting the key takeaways.


Group Identity and Boundaries

Strong identity leads to deep community, but it also creates distinct boundaries which can keep people out.


The Paradox of Same vs. Different

If all we have is difference we never feel grounded but if all we have is sameness we become stuck


The Changing Face of Community (Youth – Seniors)

There is much we can learn from the groundedness of our elders, our youth though have much to teach us about new possibilities.


How Technology is Changing How we Approach Community

Technology is a magnifying glass; it amplifies our potential for good or bad


Community and Consumerism (never enough time):

Community has become the new thing to consume but as a result we have no time for deep meaningful relationships


Common Experiences

Ultimately at the heart of community are common experiences that we experience together


When you want to change the world, often times it is best to start small. If you want to build community, maybe we should start small, too: with building families, neighbourhoods and faith groups.