Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cutting Through the Bull****

As fermenting grapes become wine over time, oft-repeated myths become “truth”. These myths are especially pervasive and powerful when it comes to environmental and social issues. A good example of the power of an unchallenged myth is the perception that environmental protection has a negative impact on community economic growth. That’s why many folks think environmental protection has a negative impact on economic growth.
This is a myth. Sustainable economic growth helps to build community environmental capacity. Economic growth that poses unacknowledged environmental risks to the community is a dagger pointed at the heart of the community’s future. Ask the people of Hungary living below the recently burst toxic dams if their economic benefits were worth the environmental costs.
What is the linkage between a community’s economic and environmental interests? Responsible economic development openly acknowledges and mitigates potential environmental damage. It looks for economic activity like new farming operations recycling community wastewater that resolve present environmental issues.
Community environmental assets are economic assets. Tourism and hospitality ventures focusing on community environmental assets make everyone winners.
Responsible environmental planning recognizes the need for a strong economic base to maintain community services and infrastructure. The residential tax base alone is often incapable of supporting community aspirations, including environmental protection.
We’re all too familiar with the folks who play the black / white game. Quick-buck boys who try to ram economic development proposals through the planning process without independent environmental assessments have left their mark on Alberta’s landscape. The unrealistic demands of environmental Luddites wanting to turn back the landscape clock to pre-settlement days have too often poisoned the well of public opinion against environmental protection.
The nature of the planning processes used by communities can have a negative impact. Dysfunctional planning processes driven by the old myth and planning structures often turn equally compelling community interests against each other.
The time has come when active, engaged and committed communities see the old script about environmental protection for the bullwhiz that it is. Why should economic development planning operate in splendid isolation from environmental and social planning? Wouldn’t outcomes determined by collaborative processes that value and balance equally compelling yet competing interests better serve the community?
It takes a community with the courage to trust the various community groups to work together to create an integrated community plan. Integrated planning also requires a community with the vision and courage to know and balance their own community aspirations, and one that has the patience for such a process to happen.
Do such communities exist in Alberta? Will we see this kind of planning? The conventional wisdom, driven by our old image as a bunch of redneck boomers, would say that would happen when cowboys wear earrings. Yet who would have thought that Canada’s first Muslim mayor would have been elected in ------ Calgary???? Folks, keep your eye on the jewelry counter.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Social Growth- What's It All About?

A funny thing happens when you ask the average Alberta municipal politician about the social growth of his or her community. First, they look as lost as a cowboy at a Tupperware party. Finally, they start hemming and hawing and babbling on about the “darn friendly little town we have here”.
He really doesn’t have a clue about what you’re talking about. That’s because he doesn’t see social growth as a key indicator of community development. To him, community growth is all about jobs, new housing starts, and the other economic benchmarks.
The quality of our community’s social life is important. Ask folks in Alberta boomtowns like Fort McMurray or Brooks whether the quality of community life in their communities has improved or declined.
Probe beneath the surface of many communities and you might find the evidence of social decline. Gather information on the incidence of spousal abuse, illicit drug trafficking, and usage. Look at the data on student achievement scores and voter turnout at elections. We might also survey elements of social growth like community friendliness, volunteer participation, and other benchmarks that the community values.
So why don’t more communities compile and publish this kind of data? It’s because they choose – and I use the word deliberately- to ignore data quantifying the state of social harmony, vitality, and citizenship.
Why do we choose to ignore the whole picture? It’s because to see- really see- the evidence of social decline would force us from of the warm, comfy chair of illusion into the cold grip of reality. Even worse, it might compel us to look in the mirror for solutions.
After all, community social growth begins when citizens and businesses take individual responsibility for the quality of social life. For citizens, it means understanding that a living in a free society comes with simple but powerful responsibilities like voting, volunteering, and practicing neighborliness. For business, it means mitigating the negative impacts its operations may have on the social fabric of the community.
How do we begin? It begins with the courage to take a comprehensive look at our community. A community brave enough to identify and quantify its own social growth indicators has taken an important step. From there, they can develop and implement the action plan required to face and resolve social issues. With that underway, they are en route to becoming a truly active, committed, and engaged community.
Where does a community find that courage? It starts with the courageous citizen who sees social growth to be essential to community well-being. How does that citizen drive social renewal? It’s a simple three-step process. That citizen speaks clearly and honestly about community issues, leads by example, and works collaboratively with others to achieve their social goals.
Are you prepared to begin the three-step program towards improving the quality of social life in your community? Are you that kind of citizen? I hope you are, for your community needs you.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Economic Growth- Alberta Style?

How has the average Alberta community coped with economic growth in the past three decades? It’s about the same way a cowboy copes in the bucking chute as he waits for the bronc under him to settle down. He pulls down his hat, grits his teeth and nods his head; yells, “Let ‘er rip”, and hangs on for dear life.
There’s got to be a better way. The rodeo ride only lasts for ten seconds, but the economic and psychological impact of our boom and bust cycles has affected generations of generations of Albertans.
Yet economic growth is the fuel driving a community’s aspirations. What is the right kind of economic growth for active, committed, and engaged communities?
Growth driven from within the community enhances sustainability. A community supporting local businesses helps itself by creating new jobs boosting the local economy. Contrast the long-term community impact of locally-owned businesses with “here today, gone tomorrow” developments typified by the call center operations that seduced and then abandoned Lethbridge and Edmonton.
Economic growth should be consistent with the community’s values and aspirations. Should a community valuing its pristine air and water pursue large-scale garbage-recycling operations? Does a community priding itself on its’ tranquil, family-friendly social environment pursue economic growth resulting in a large influx of transient workers?
Some communities are paying the price for rapid, uncontrolled economic growth driven by industry promises to come or remain in the community if their demands are met. Yet there are also examples of significant economic growth that support a community’s values. Alix, Alberta, located between Red Deer and Stettler, is a community where a large-scale business supports local values and goals. Rahr Malting, a key driver in the local economy, actively supports community activities, and is a key steward of the community’s crown jewel, Lake Alix.
Seasoned bronc riders don’t pull the pin on the chute gate until they know they are ready, and communities don’t have to jump at every fast-talking promoter waving the promise of jobs. Communities don’t have to pursue developers lacking both the will and the resources required to remediate the negative community impacts of their operation. They can choose to exercise extra-special wariness when the developer is playing communities against each other.
It’s municipal election time, and citizens should know where their Council candidates stand on economic development. Do potential leaders favor planned development consistent with community values and aspirations? Or do they subscribe to the “never-seen an economic development proposal I didn’t like” philosophy guiding much of Alberta for the last thirty years? Smart voters will want clear answers to those questions before nodding their heads in the voter’s booth.
Next post- the lowdown on social growth

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Is Community Growth?

We’re in the warm-up to the most important day in Alberta community life, and no, I’m not referring to the day of the 2010 Grey Cup victory parade in Calgary. The most important day in Alberta community life is the triennial municipal elections, and Oct. 18th is the day for beginning our new municipal governance cycle.
Very soon now, candidates for local government will be at your door and a community hall near you, sharing their perspectives on local issues and asking for your support. Your job as a responsible citizen is to ask questions that get beyond the usual political rhetoric.
You might start with the word “Growth’. Most wannabee municipal leaders will tell you how they will promote “community growth”. That’s when you look them in the eye and ask, in your best Peter Mansbridge voice, what they mean by “community growth”. Do they mean community economic growth? Community social and cultural growth? Community environmental growth? And while you’re at it, why not ask them for their definition of “growth” in each of those areas?
If there were homes for abused words, “growth” would be one of the first residents. “Growth” has many potential meanings. It can be a carefully planned increase in depth and richness of existing attributes and assets, or an increase in diversity. Growth can be an increase in the volume or quality of activity or outputs driven by local community aspirations and values- the Okotoks model. Finally, growth can be an increase in the volume or quality of activity or outputs driven by outside forces indirectly imposing their will on communities, as has happened in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Alberta’s seemingly eternal boom / bust cycle has given many communities first-hand experience of the outcome of growth driven by outside forces. Communities across Alberta reel from the cost of paying for boom’s excesses with today’s lighter wallets.
Might this pain be a direct result of seeing “growth” as only positive, and failing to measure the negative impacts of that growth on the community? If we’ve learned one thing from the latest recession, it is that “limitless growth” is a lie. Growth for the sake of growth is exposed for what it is- failed dogma.
That reality raises some interesting questions. Should communities independently develop and administer their own standards and plans for economic, social, and environmental growth? Should citizens expect their local governments to adhere to those plans? Must proposed “growth” respect and support those plans?
These are appropriate questions to ask our would-be leaders in this run-up to October’s vote. If Albertans hope to ever escape the Boom-Bust Monster’s grisly grip, heavy-duty thinking about growth is first on the to-do list. In my next three postings, I’ll examine the possible implications and permutations for “growth” on the economic, social, and environmental fronts. We’ll start by remembering Bill Clinton’s immortal phrase - “It’s the Economy, Stupid”.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Invisible People

Robert Pickton’s evil deeds challenge every value we humans hold dear. They transcend the essence of humanity, and raise some troubling questions. If one of us can perpetrate this kind of evil, how many more Robert Picktons walk among us? And if they do, how do we stop them? How does a community protect itself?
Leaks from the inevitable probe into the initial police investigation are helping us understand how Pickton was able to wade in blood for so long. Even after Pickton’s name surfaced as a suspect, police and prosecutors chose not to act because potential witnesses were drug-addicted prostitutes and therefore not credible witnesses.
Today, it’s easy to point fingers at the cops and prosecutors and want to hold them accountable for their professional actions and inaction. Yet they are but the canaries in the coalmine providing us with a signal of a deeper societal issue.
I remember a sunny day on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton not too long ago. A friend- let’s call him Ed- and I were having a chinwag and a coffee when we saw one of Edmonton’s aboriginal street women staggering past our outdoor table. “That breaks my heart”, I said. Ed’s response shocked me. “I don’t really notice them”; he said.
There are a lot of “Eds" out there. Many of us living in “respectable society” do our best to ignore those in our communities who remind us of our human frailty. We stay disengaged and silent on the issues of addictions, prostitution, and homelessness. Sadly, some stay mute even when their own loved ones live rough on the mean streets of our inner cities. These women and men are truly “invisible people”.
Some of us might say, "What can I do? This is a huge societal issue that one person, no matter how well meaning and skilled, cannot resolve. I focus on those issues on which I can make a difference”.
While commendable, that pragmatic stance doesn’t resolve the issues of drug addiction, prostitution, and violence against women that are at the heart of the Pickton rampage. Those issues won’t stop until individual citizens in communities engage the issues head-on.
Where do we start? For starters, we can increase our individual financial support for those blessed souls already in the field working with the vulnerable. Next, we can truly engage and join them in their work by lobbying politicians and policy-makers at all levels for new approaches to address the issues of homelessness and addiction.
Our politicians must understand that fine-tuning the status quo will only result in more dead women at the hands of the next Robert Pickton. We need multi-disciplinary strategies rooted in understanding and compassion rather than dogma and punishment.
Next, we can come together as active, committed, and engaged communities across Canada and recognize that those street people are our brothers and sisters. We can begin conversations- without judgment or blaming- with those vulnerable people. What do they value? What are their needs?
We must act now, for the next Robert Pickton could already be stalking his prey. I see those “invisible” people he preys on. Do you?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Race Is On

This has not been the best of summers for the Canadian professional chuckwagon racing community. The action at the sport’s signature event, the 2010 GMC Rangeland Derby with prize money of 1.15 million dollars, resulted in four dead horses.
The death toll triggered a furious wave of public condemnation reflecting a huge change in public opinion in favor of animal welfare. People who had been ambivalent about the sport, and even some former supporters, are now calling for its’ abolition.
Chuckwagon racers see the four horse’s deaths as unfortunate but unpreventable, and refuse to consider the possibility that the sport could be banned. Yet how they ultimately respond to the Calgary deaths will determine the sport’s future.
Denial is not an option. The chuckwagon honchos can bluster and blow until their tarps fly off, but their CBC television coverage and major sponsorships are toast unless they get ahead of the onrushing change.
People have learned to vote with their wallets. It is no accident that McDonalds- yes Ronnie Mac and the burger folks-is among the most powerful forces for farm animal welfare reform. They don’t want to face well-organized consumer boycotts. Is GMC prepared to face a buyer boycott if it continues Rangeland Derby sponsorship?
Adaptation to change threatens all communities, not just folks racing chuckwagons. All of us must accept some hard realities pertaining to change. Change is inevitable, and in today’s world, hits at warp speed. Social networking technology makes it possible for people all over the world to create megalinks overnight supporting causes that “stick” with people. The picture of four beautiful horses dying to satisfy their owners interests is easy to draw, and resonates deeply.
The only way to outrace change is through creative thinking. It’s time for innovative thinking on the part of the chuckwagon community. Ideas that may seem flat-out goofy, such as reducing the prize money, should be on the table. After all, like Corb Lund says in his great “Trouble in the Country”, cowboy song, “ When the money gets big, people get hurt”.
What if all competitors had a direct stake in horse welfare? Why not put a chunk of the prize money into a special pool paid out to all competitors if no horses die? If horses die, the money goes to the S.P.C.A.
The chuckwagon racer’s fight for survival is not unique. They are not the only community under siege. Rural communities wither as the social infrastructure disappears; young people leave, and local businesses close. Inner-city communities watch as homelessness and drug addiction strangle their neighborhoods.
How do we adapt to high-speed change? We won’t adapt by enlisting the help of the usual suspects- governments of all stripes. Dramatic change happens from the inside out.
It takes courage for a community to accept the reality of change, and to find the adaptability to meet change head-on. While that sounds like a tall order, that’s exactly how our forebears built western Canada. Are Alberta’s communities up to the same kind of challenge? All we know for sure is that the race with change is underway, and right now the outcome is in doubt.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book of the Year

Active, committed, and engaged communities happen when individual citizens decide that it is in their interest to live in empowered communities working cooperatively and respectfully for the common good. These individuals also understand the importance of leadership in its various manifestations. Many of them have walked on Leadership Road and have learned that it can sometimes be a rocky, lonely place.
Like them, I’ve walked some of those challenging stretches of “Leadership Road”. While difficult and humbling, those early experiences were also huge learning opportunities.
Since then, I’ve walked further down that road. I’ve taken some excellent training (“The Art of Leadership”, available at the Hollyhock Institute is superb) and devoured many books on the subject.
I recently completed one of the best books- fiction or non-fiction- that I have ever read, and it is all about leadership in difficult times. The book, titled “Team of Rivals” and written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a history of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
It’s a massive book (750 pages without notes, 880 total) telling the social and political story of America before, during, and after the civil war. Yet for all that scholarly size, I couldn’t put it down.
Why? Ms. Goodwin is that rare breed- a historian who is a both a great researcher and a compelling storyteller. She brilliantly relates how the newly emerging power that was America in the 1800’s ripped itself apart over the divisive issue of slavery.
We learn how a child born on a dirt farm in backwoods Kentucky became a lawyer and then President of the United States. Ms. Goodwin tells how Lincoln guided the Union government to Civil war victory by assembling and leading a cabinet composed of many of his political rivals. The book focuses on the relationships between the members of the war cabinet, both at the political and personal level.
Above all, this is a book about leadership. Within the book, Ms. Goodwin lays out Lincoln’s leadership strategies and skills, and how he was able to manage himself and lead a team of rivals through dangerous and shifting political waters with the nation’s fate at stake.
She highlights the powerful role played by the family members of leaders, and how the pressures of public life impact the families of leaders. Especially interesting is her description of Lincoln’s intuitive understanding of the power of storytelling, and of the coping skills he used to escape the terrible pressures that came with his office.
“Team Of Rivals” is a must-read for anyone contemplating a walk on Leadership Road. While very few of us will ever experience the kind of challenges faced by Abraham Lincoln, all of us who want to live in active, committed and engaged communities will gain from his story. If you read one book this year, make it “Team of Rivals”. It’s a must-read for everyone with an interest in leadership.