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community building

Last week, I met for coffee with Glen Pearson, Marty Leveque and Sean Quigley. We had a long discussion on what it is to be and make community, a conversation I’m still digesting.

I feel as if my understanding of community is constantly changing, and I hope, evolving. Growing up in the small town of Wiarton, the community was very close-knit, with seemingly everyone involved in town organizations, including community boards/organizations, church groups, charities, political parties, and public office in Town Hall. The culture was very close, supportive, though sometimes almost claustrophobic with everyone so aware of everyone else’s lives.

Then when I was 15, my parents and I moved to the town of St. Thomas, which with a population of about 37,000 (along with its close proximity to London) seemed massive. In Wiarton, the closest large population was Owen Sound with a population of about 24,000, whereas I had moved to a place where the nearest city was London. Needless to say, it was a large adjustment.

In living in St. Thomas and then London, I have struggled to re-discover what it means to be in community, living in much larger urban areas where the frameworks I came to know growing up weren’t so readily apparent.

This change in my life was along the backdrop of the shifting of our world from smaller communities to a global village, with the advent of the internet, global contact and global shopping/shipping. As our scope of consciousness has broadened, we face questions of where our place in the world is, what role our community has in our lives, and how we fit into our community.

In some ways, we are enjoying a new freedom by becoming unrestrained from the societal constraints of previous generations, from expectations of joining certain clubs/associations, political parties, religious institutions. But at the same time, we may be becoming detached from the societal pillars that are foundational to our communities. Our greatest challenge as a global generation may be re-finding where we belong, and re-discovering the role we have to play in building the community we want for the future.

I am heartened as I see around me many people, communities and cities working to re-discover their roots in this new global reality, to work to truly see themselves even as they try to find their place. London has a great way to go yet, but we’ve already come so far, as more and more citizens take up this call of discovery and re-discovery.

One person that has helped both with my personal journey as well as helping build our collective consciousness as a community is Glen Pearson. Glen has built a remarkable body of work on citizenship, public engagement, and what it means to be a community with his blog “The Parallel Parliament”. His latest book, “A Place For Us: Thoughts on a City in Transition” gives poignant thoughts on London’s past, about the challenge we have of truly discovering who we are, and how we can work together to build a community of the future we can truly be proud of.

This takes me back to the conversation I had with Glen, Marty and Sean. One of the main points was stories Glen shared of his experience in Sudan and elsewhere, and a recent mission trip Marty was part of in El Salvador. Marty and Glen described how their experiences have changed their perceptions, of our society’s assumption about what it means to be a “developed” and a “developing” country.

Although through relief and long-term efforts, “developing” countries are being lifted slowly out of grinding poverty, they are also losing something of themselves in the process, something we may have already lost. While countries we consider developing (and therefore unfinished projects) are gaining something of a middle class and relative wealth, they may be losing their sense of community as the individual becomes self-sufficient, self-satisfied and self-secure. The countries we consider “developing” may have a great deal to teach us about ourselves, about what we have lost, what we must find again to be truly whole and healthy societies.

One of the most fulfilling projects Sarah and I have taken up in our new community of Argyle is joining first the Strengthening Neighbourhoods Argyle Steering Committee, and then the Argyle Community Association. It gives me both a sense of achievement and a source of hope to be part of a new generation renewing their commitment to their community, and staking a claim in its future. It is a terrific way to acknowledge all the hard work and dedication of the generations that came before, and to take up the torch for generations to come.

The global movement has been blamed for furthering the shift of power from the many to the few, sparking events of global consciousness and awareness, including first the Arab Spring and later, Occupy Wall Street.

In examining groups like Occupy Wall Street (and closer to home, Occupy London), I appreciate the effort and expression of such groups, working to bring awareness to massive global issues, and representing the 99%, the 99/100 working hard for a living and yet being left out of global politics and global power.

But in following the movement, and speaking to many that were/are a part of it, I became disheartened. There were some I encountered that want to “change the system from the inside”, but far too many in my opinion refused to have any connection, collaboration, cooperation with people in public office, or even in places of authority in general. I believe we should, need to work with existing organizations, even as we shape them through participation to the future we imagine together. Imagine if we all worked to:

Occupy community associations.

Occupy charities.

Occupy religious organizations.  

Occupy corporations.

Occupy small businesses.

Occupy community organizations.

Occupy service boards.

Occupy City Hall.

Occupy Queen’s Park.

Occupy Parliament Hill.

We all have a part to play in our communities. My hope is that in finding our role in our community, we may each learn more about who we are, awaken a deeper understanding of who we are as a community and society, and build bridges to the future we all desire.

Next post: Re-Creating Community