Author Archives: janetnewbury

Emergent Design for Community Engagement

In January 2014, an informal group of community members organized and hosted a community engagement conference called GroundswellThe purpose of the event was to inspire creativity, ideas, and relationships that advance the wellbeing of our community.  Approximately 160 people participated, and the event was a great success (you can view a short video, here).  Because the conference was part of a broader participatory action research project, we also took the opportunity to collect as much data as we could, in order to better understand what community members were calling for – particularly in terms of social and economic wellbeing.

Among other things, our post-conference summary report indicated that people were hungry for more opportunities to come together, contribute to, and create a new reality in our community!  With the generosity of the Taos Institute, we acquired a small grant to help us fund some follow-up activities in order to build on the momentum of Groundswell and address some of the challenges identified by community members.

What follows are some of the lessons learned in this process of developing and implementing activities with(in) community.  For the most part, this learning can be summarized as developing capacities around emergent design.  That is, understanding that communities are dynamic systems, we cannot design projects with definitive outcomes.  Instead, we have put our energy into designing processes that maximize the potential of this ever-evolving network, inviting and responding to changes as they come:

Organizational support: The fact that we are primarily funded by the Taos Institute, which is a relationally-motivated organization, enhances our ability to roll with changing circumstances.  Rather than being bound to the projects we outlined in our initial proposal, we are able to explain when and why things change.  In this way, our accountability to the community remains central, and keeps our activities relevant.

Strike where the passion’s hot:  The ideas for the follow-up activities we are implementing (such as a bi-monthly column about the links between social and economic wellbeing, a youth-focused art experience project, and an upcoming Groundswell conference) all came from community members.  Since the knowledge and passion for these activities exists in the community, it makes sense that the leadership for them does too.  People who are well-positioned to lead these projects were invited to do so.  They have been trusted to take the reins entirely and as a result there is increasing diversity in terms of: the circles of people involved in the projects, the organizations that have decided to partner, the perspectives that make their way in, and opportunities for next, next steps for community engagement.

Keep an ear to the ground: As mentioned, things have changed since our initial proposal.  We had intended to host a listening circle (to enhance relationships and understanding among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who live in this region, which sits on Tla’amin territory).  This didn’t unfold due to emerging circumstances, which means we still have the capacity to engage in another activity.  Rather than rushing to do something, we wanted to be responsive to evolving community needs.  As it turns out, a diversity dialogue was recently hosted by another community organization in response to racist reactions to recent immigration.  The report from this dialogue (in which over 60 people participated) identified a number of areas for future action.  In line with our mandate as well, we see this emerging call for action as an opportunity to create meaningful partnerships in order to co-create new possibilities in our community on the basis of emerging challenges.

In addition to the lessons highlighted above, this kind of responsiveness requires attention to organization, ongoing communication, self-reflection, and a willingness to let go.  Excitingly, we are also finding that it generates energy and support for significant transformations in our community, which – in the end – is what emergence is all about.

(This post can also be found here.)

Tracking the Groundswell: The answer to ‘how’ is ‘us’

In his closing remarks as keynote presenter at the Groundswell conference in Powell River on January 29th, 2014, Al Etmanski said, “There wasn’t a lot of how going on today.  The answer to how is who, and the answer to who is you, and … the answer to you is us.”  In other words, it is up to all of us to bring about any changes we hope for in our community.

During the conference activities, participants expressed a strong interest in building bridges among existing efforts.   In particular, conference participants appreciated the opportunity for connections between elders and youth, among different cultures, and across sectors – and are eager for more. Being a community in social and economic transition, new realities can be co-constructed by creating such avenues for connections.  And if we take Al Etmanski’s words to heart, then we all have important parts to play in fostering these connections.

It has been nine months since that conference, and there are just another two before our municipal election.  I’ve been wondering how we might all participate in creating the conditions that can foster the priority themes that emerged during the conference?  Where do we each see ourselves in relation to creating a bright future for this region, regardless of our age, abilities, and professions?

snapshot of groundswell priority themes

It seems to me we have a community in which much of this is already taking place; we are lucky in that we don’t have to start from scratch.  Instead, we might think of our challenge in these ways:

  • to shine light on what is already taking place, especially where there is collaboration
  • to celebrate these assets
  • to expand and support these initiatives
  • to notice the gaps and address them together by drawing from our existing resources

By viewing our community through this asset-based lens, it becomes almost impossible not to see how so much of what is already taking place serves to meet some of the priority themes above.  And then, the potential for even more begins to make itself apparent.  There are many examples which I find exciting and promising as I think about the social and economic development of this region.  Here I will share just a few, and will deliberately select initiatives that were not featured at the Groundswell conference itself in order to hopefully widen the scope of what we consider to be related activity:

Powell River Marine Stroll

It can take a lot of work and money for a small business to promote itself, and it can often feel highly competitive in a geographically isolated community like ours.  A group of businesses on Marine Avenue, however, decided to reframe this dilemma as an opportunity for collaboration and mutual promotion.  Creative Rift Studio and Gallery already understands the value of partnership, with over 80 local artists selling their wares in the space.  But this summer the co-owners expanded this notion of partnership outside of their own doors to benefit the entire main drag with a collectively created pamphlet, promoting the strip to Vancouver Islanders as a wonderful way to spend the afternoon within walking distance of the ferry.  Rather than seeing rising ferry fares as an obstacle, they saw it as an opportunity to reach a niche of people who might want to walk on the ferry and spend a pleasant day strolling down Marine Avenue enjoying the shops, restaurants, and views along the way.

In terms of Groundswell priority themes, this shift from competition to cooperation helps to foster a diverse economy, enhance links between public spaces and transportation, eliminate sectoral divides, and cultivate beauty and art.  Are there ways creative initiatives like this one can be supported by policy-makers in our community?  How might we create a culture in which we all take it upon ourselves to see our own wellbeing as intricately connected to that of our neighbours, as this initiative demonstrates?

Aurora Innovative Arts Festival

This multi-sensory arts festival brought the streets alive and had something for everyone, with both ticketed and free events.  There were workshops, video and audio installations, music performances, and even a steampunk fashion show.  Local businesses in Townsite and other food and art vendors got to enjoy an extension to their regular tourist season, and the opportunity for intergenerational and intercultural engagement in public space was created.  It is clear then that many of the priority themes articulated by Groundswell participants are supported with this fun, two-day event; in fact it doesn’t take too much creative thinking to suggest that (at least indirectly) perhaps all of them were.

Given the different hats we all wear, how might we support this and related efforts?  Beyond participating in the event as either an artist or a patron, are there other ways we might remove barriers to success and pave the way for initiatives like this to thrive with a little less effort in years to come?  Recognizing the contribution this kind of event makes to tourism, for instance, might there be partnerships with the city or even other municipalities or BC ferries that could increase the reach of the event?  After all, if events draws people to the community, hotels and restaurants may also benefit. Might they be able to work together to coordinate things like travel, dining, and accommodation during this or other local events?

Powell River Community Investment Corporation

Recognizing that Powell Riverites love to give back, Sean Melrose has launched the Powell River Community Investment Corporation – a way to invest money for a rainy day which also supports local businesses and profit-shares with local non-profit and charitable organizations.  In other words, the money works twice and stays in the community.

In terms of the priority themes above, this initiative has the potential to foster a diverse economy, facilitate connections across sectoral divides, demonstrate ‘outside the box’ thinking, and balance the three pillars of sustainability.  But in order to succeed, it really requires that we – as individual community members and decision-makers within businesses and organizations – participate.  What potential might be realized in this community if those of us who have the capacity to do so collectively commit to invest locally?  Such a commitment could even serve to shrink the wealth gap in this community.

Written as I remember it, by Elsie Paul

After six years of collaboration with researchers at the University of British Columbia, Elsie Paul launched her book Written as I remember it: Teachings from the life of a Sliammon elder on May 24, 2014.  The launch itself brought 150 people of all ages together, and now the book is being enjoyed not only by local community members, but also by students, academics, and interested citizens from around the province and beyond.

Both the content of this book and the process by which it was written provides a remarkable and poignant example of the connections between local and global realities.  It demonstrates how what happens in the life of a particular person holds great meaning for others, and also how ideas and policies from outside have very concrete implications for local people and communities.  In these ways, we can understand the importance of all we do as having social and economic implications not only for those in our immediate circles, but even for generations to come.  Elsie’s story, and the way she shares it, can serve to enhance our sense of responsibility for each other in every act – small and large.

Intergenerational sharing and enhanced relations between Powell River and Sliammon were important priority themes for those who participated in Groundswell, and this book makes massive contributions towards these goals, particularly if we choose to engage with it meaningfully.  In doing so, we can also see it contributing to the themes of food as a catalyst for change, educating and building capacity, convening with the natural world, and balancing the three pillars of sustainability.  We are fortunate to have access to such a rich resource in our community as the wisdom of Elsie Paul and other elders – from Sliammon, from Powell River, and from other corners of the world.

Back to Us

We all benefit when events and initiatives in our community do well.  These are just a few snapshots of the many creative ways people are already coordinating efforts in order to support each other.  As the months since the conference roll by and the municipal election draws near, I find myself wondering how we as a community can become even more coordinated in these efforts.  What might it take to create more infrastructure to support this kind of citizen engagement around social and economic development?  How can we cultivate a culture of mutual responsibility?  How might we each find our own places in this larger puzzle, and see our daily choices as significant contributions to the future of this community?

The examples above – and so many more – suggest to me we are already on our way.