Building from the Roots Up

As noted in the Strong Roots story, over the span of my career I have found myself working in different fields – ranging from youth development to disability research to immigration – but throughout I have always kept a soft spot for cities, and more specifically, their neighbourhoods. Fortunately, I have been able to combine my passion for things urban with my career through work and volunteer opportunities, starting with my first job in the area of community development and community-based research. The summer after my first year in grad school, the community association for the neighbourhood I lived in received funds from the municipal government to hire summer students to support their work through preparing grants, investigating potential structures for their organization, and assisting with outreach and community research (hmm, sounds a lot like the services I provide today!).

Working with this group of committed volunteers was inspiring in many ways, but three lessons come to mind today:

Neighbourhoods and Groups Are Diverse

Working with another student hired through the grant, one of our first tasks was to create a flier introducing the association to neighbourhood residents. Our blurb about the group included the line “like-minded individuals”: taking the draft to the association’s executive committee, we soon learned that they disagreed vehemently with that description! Working with them over the summer proved their assertion, not just for the leadership of the association but also the community more broadly. Every community, whether bound by geography, mission, or common interests, will be diverse in some way: recognizing and incorporating this fact is essential for any initiative to succeed.

Research Starts With A Purpose

One of our next tasks that summer was to learn more about the neighbourhood and its residents. Our initial plan was an elaborate survey covering multiple topics that residents would complete and mail back to us. Well, that plan didn’t pass muster with the association’s leadership: they saw the primary aim of this process as engaging with residents and any “hard” data collection as secondary. After mourning our first idea, we created a streamlined version and started going door-to-door through the whole neighbourhood, talking with people on their front porches, hearing what they had to say, and building relationships. Lesson learned? Make sure you understand the aim of research before jumping to the methods – and realize that even then, your plan will likely not survive first contact with your stakeholders!

Start by Re-Imagining

Like many volunteer-driven organizations, the neighbourhood association didn’t have much in terms of cash or financial assets. From that position of want, it would have been easy to say “we can’t change things”: instead, they looked at the resources available to them and the possibilities in their neighbourhood. A vacant piece of land near an apartment building and housing co-op became a community garden, using supplies donated from a hardware and lumber store in the community, plants from a local greenhouse, and plenty of sweat equity from volunteers to make it happen. Part of the same field was turned into a skating rink in the winter, while a nearby park became home to a spring festival. The association maintained a good working relationship with the municipal government, but didn’t wait on the city for something to change: they started with what existed in the community, who they could partner with, and most importantly what could be.

Better Block

I was recently reminded of these roots through a presentation here in Saskatoon by Jason Roberts of Better Block. I won’t recount in detail the work Jason has been doing in Dallas and promoting around the world as he does a much better job of talking about his experiences – check out the video below of his TEDx talk:

Like the neighbourhood association I worked with, Jason and his small group of volunteers (in some cases it was just him!) looked at the status quo and asked “what if” – what if we changed something in our community, what if we tried doing things differently? Rather than wait for top-down structures to go through their procedures, they worked from the bottom up to demonstrate what could be and also to learn through rapid experimentation.

Better Non-Profit?

One of Jason’s examples provided a great illustration of these principles. In working to improve a block in Dallas for pedestrians and cyclists, his group set up temporary bike lanes and parking spots using white duct tape and pylons. This approach had three distinct advantages: first, it was a lot cheaper to trial these modifications to the streetscape over creating permanent changes; second, the physical nature of the experiment allowed local residents and officials to see and experience the changes for themselves in a way that no plan or abstract rendering could do; and finally, they could easily test and tweak their ideas. If they discovered that a parking spot was too small or that a pylon would be clipped by a bus rounding the corner, all they had to do was re-arrange that temporary elements at no cost.

Outside of the community development aspect, there are some great lessons in these experiences for those working for good. Similar to the Stanford $5 challenge, they demonstrated the benefits of stepping back from the mindset of constraints, barriers, and scarcity of resources to considering what we do have and what we can try. In the non-profit sector we often take a strengths-based or empowerment approach where we work with participants and communities to help them recognize and build on their inherent strengths and resources, but we don’t always take that idea to heart, limiting our activities based on what a funder will provide. I understand that there’s only so much that can be accomplished in the long run on a shoestring, but just trying something out doesn’t need to be expensive: in fact it can provide numerous benefits by helping you learn more about your community, demonstrating the potential benefits of your new program, and highlighting the inevitable pitfalls before any money is spent.

Park(ing) Day

In a similar vein to the ideas of Better Block, today marks the second annual Park(ing) Day in Saskatoon, where for one day on-street parking stalls and vacant lots are transformed into parks, stores, classrooms and more. I’m volunteering at this year’s event and by the time you read this, I will be out on 20th Street West somewhere between Avenues B and E. If you’re in Saskatoon and have a minute today, stop by and say hi, and fill out a survey! Don’t worry, I have taken my experiences to heart – it’s a very short survey, and my foremost priority will be to start conversations and connect with the residents of this great city.