We’re all community developers now

By David Parkinson

The apricot tree in our backyard is blossoming already... and we're back on Daylight Savings Time... spring is surely here.

The apricot tree in our backyard is blossoming already, we're back on Daylight Savings Time, and Seedy Saturday is coming. Yes, spring is surely here!

What do you do? Nowadays, if people ask me what I do — which mainly happens when I go back to Toronto, where I was born and grew up — the closest I can come to a coherent response is to say, “I’m a community developer.” And since I’m still very new to this sort of work, I can still feel the gulf between those two words and the reality of what it is that I am trying to do in my two paid gigs (food security, literacy) and the many unpaid littler gigs and games I’m involved in around the community. But somehow “community developer” sounds about right.

Why do we need community developers? As with so many things in our society, we have taken a bundle of capacities that were once widely shared around, and we have ‘professionalized’ this by converting it into expert knowledge that comes from formal education or from having a job title attached to you because of what you do for your money. And so we suggest that regular folks no longer have that skill — that only professionals do. That sends the message that this is not the sort of work one does for free; it’s someone else’s job to take care of it. And so it goes… all the little things that used to keep a community together have been done away with, outsourced, or turned into problems that only experts can solve. So we have special people like me, called “community developers”, and maybe we think that that means that no one else needs to do that work.

We all need to become community developers. Everything I see going on around me makes me certain that this funny, ill-defined job of community developer is about to start becoming much more widespread. After many years of allowing our communities to slide away from us, there is a renewed interest in rebuilding what has been lost — and maybe to start building some of the things we never had. So right now we have people in the community whose job it is to try to ‘develop’ the community; but more and more we’re going to have people doing this work because it’s the only way to get things done. We won’t be developing the community because we are ‘community developers’, but because the natural result of the work we do and the way we get it done will be stronger community.

Why now? I’ll tell you what I think is going on. (Your mileage may vary.) The market and other major systems at the centre of our society are failing — and they’re failing fast. We have some huge problems staring us in the face which are now starting to cause trouble for our economy and our political structures: namely, climate chaos and resource depletion (peak oil and peak everything-else). And underneath these problems are more basic problems like overpopulation, the failure of Western governments to regulate the financial sector, and rapacious globalized capitalism. And underneath those problems are even more basic ones, and so on and so on until we get down to your choice for Ultimate Source of All the World’s Problems (USAWP). (We won’t go there now, but let’s go there in some future post.)

It’s problems all the way down. I don’t really have one chosen USAWP. And for now the real question is: OK, so we have all of these problems, and we can talk about them or explain them on many levels, from the concrete and superficial all the way down to the very profound and abstract. So what? Aren’t we at the point where it’s just not enough to talk about this or that problem? They’re getting to be a dime a dozen in this best of all possible worlds.

What about solutions? Well, no surprise here: it’s solutions all the way down too. And, like problems, solutions come in different flavours: from the more superficial, quick-fix kind of solutions down to the really fundamental solutions. I’m much more interested in long-term, deep solutions; the kind of solutions that we can call radical (from the Latin word radix, meaning ‘root’), since they go to the root of the matter. Our leaders — both the elected kind and the self-selected kind — tend to think in terms of superficial solutions. (They can’t help themselves; it’s part of the game of leadership that radical solutions are off the table.) But I believe that our culture’s resistance to radical solutions is weakening, because the usual stopgaps are no longer working and everyone knows it. Get ready for the shake-up!

What’s a good radical solution? Getting back to this talk of community development, I believe that one really good place to put a lot of effort is in rebuilding the informal networks of family, friends, neighbours, and associations that go to make up community. One of the reasons my husband and I moved to Powell River was because we could see some of these changes coming and we wanted to be in a place with stronger existing community networks. And we found that here. But we all still need to rebuild and strengthen the fabric of the community. I have some ideas about how to do that; probably you have some ideas too. So how can we rub our ideas together to produce sparks? The trick is to create opportunities for us to come together to have free-flowing conversations about the future we want to build together. We need common efforts, small-scale and low-overhead ones, simple and resilient ones, which bring people together around common goals and create ties of friendship and mutual aid. I see a lot of this going on now, and we need more and more of it.

Developing community is a radical solution. And that is because it is a precondition to many other solutions to various problems we face: without a strong and supportive community, it’s going to be tough to start and sustain projects like regional composting, backyard-sharing, car cooperatives, co-housing, community kitchens, and many of the other good ideas that are out there. I believe that we need to do the deeper work at the level of the community before we can expect success in more specific efforts. This is not to say that we should not work on these specific projects, but we need to make sure that each one of them has a community-building component built into them. Projects that strengthen community networks are more likely to keep going, because they will be continually rebuilding and refreshing the community networks they depend on. Projects ‘airlifted in’ without the full consent and cooperation of the community will not succeed in the long run, because they will not automatically create a community of supporters and champions to keep the project running no matter what. This may sound very basic and obvious, but it is not.

How can we develop community? I don’t have the answer to that. This is a question that we need to work out a common answer to. But I can say that I see a lot of effort percolating around the region, some of it in the area of local food production, but also in other areas that directly respond to the challenges of climate chaos, resource depletion, and an uncertain global economy. I am optimistic that these small efforts and networks are going to start getting bigger, stronger, more ambitious and more successful over the next few years. We all need to involve more people in what we’re doing. Start a little project and hope it grows. Talk to more people. Spread the word. Hold potlucks. Teach somebody something. Keep learning. Find ways to start a conversation in the community — about the community. Never give up the right to imagine a future different from the one presented to us by our leaders. Demand more choices. Keep telling our leaders what we want to see. We need to get rid of the notion that community is something that happens by itself once every individual’s problems have been solved. The opposite is closer to the truth: when we work on community, we solve individuals’ problems: the desire for meaning; the desire to be working and playing with other people; the desire to be contributing to something larger than what one person can accomplish alone.

What are we up against? One of the strongest forces we are up against is the mindset that expects every problem to have a ‘free-market’ or privatized solution. That has become such an entrenched way of thinking about everything we do that to suggest a cooperative or non-profit way of getting things done seems almost laughable. We need to work continually to open up spaces in the conversation for ideas that may seem on the fringe, but which are ideas that have served humans well for hundreds or thousands of years and are still working just fine outside the totally marketized Western world. If power means anything, it means the capacity to control the decision-making processes that determine who gets what. And so we need to keep demanding to be part of the decision-making. No one will let us have that; we need to take it — because it is ours. Remember: it gets harder to marginalize non-mainstream ideas in a time when mainstream ideas are being exposed as fraudulent and destructive. Now it’s time to see who can tell better stories about who we really are and where we’re all headed together.

Whew! I know. That’s a lot to process. But this a kind of high-altitude précis of some of the topics I intend to cover in my weekly ramblings, along with some more down-to-earth coverage of local events and initiatives. As we move into uncharted economic waters, we’re all going to have to learn new skills, connect with new people, and start new projects. And bubbling underneath all of that activity is going to be a rebirth of community and the development of a more resilient regional social network. We’re going to need that in the coming months and years, and it’s everyone’s job to work towards it — whether you call yourself a community developer or not.


2 Responses to “We’re all community developers now”

  1. 1 Gimmi March 17, 2009 at 18:31

    I have my worries that — as you say — you name people “community developers” and that’s suddenly professionalized (if it isn’t already — wasn’t Prez. Obama also a “community developer”?) I guess priests, shamans and medicine men and women were professional community developers as well…

  1. 1 The decline and fall of community radio « Slow Coast Trackback on April 6, 2009 at 21:27
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