Friday, September 4, 2009

The Social Side of Community Engagement

Albertans have a curious attitude towards the social element of community life. We talk a lot about the “Alberta way”, irrigating talk-show radio’s arid pastures with verbal cloudbursts extolling the wisdom found in small-town Alberta where “Community comes first.”
Yet reality is often different. When Alberta communities make important public decisions, some see economic gain as the fruit on the tree. Environmental concerns are the potential risks to the tree’s fruit. The social element of a community is the bird that might be enticed to come to sing in the tree.
We are puzzled when boom–time Alberta workers from places like Newfoundland and Saskatchewan make their money and return home. How can they turn their back on Paradise?
Do we have something to learn from Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, where life in socially engaged communities is often quite different? In those communities, the economy is the trunk of the tree providing support and feeding nourishment to the branches. The environmental element is the leaves– the sunlight receptors ensuring vigorous, sustainable growth. Anchoring the tree are the roots –the social elements of community life. All three are essential and interdependent.
Socially–engaged communities endure because of their attributes. Diversity is one of those attributes. Social diversity adds zest and vigor to community life. Yet in much of rural Alberta, the amount of social diversity is somewhere between Slim and Zippo, and Slim just moved back to Regina.
Alberta didn't start out that way. The homesteaders who broke the land and built the foundation of this province were a motley crew from all over the globe. Many were economic and/or political refugees with differing faiths and values. A common desire for a new and better life united them, along with the stark reality of their mutual interdependence. In the community “code” that governed life in that era, one never – ever – left another person alone and stuck in the ditch, even if the stuck person was your worst enemy. To do so would irrevocably stain your reputation.
Diversity can lead to conflict, and that leads to the second attribute of socially engaged communities– the ability to use conflict as a tool in building a tolerant and enduring society. Properly managed conflict is to human progress as yeast is to wine. Discussions focusing on listening before speaking, and on mutual engagement rather than posturing, lead to deeper understanding and creative solutions.
All too often, the preferred community governance “Modus Operandi” for resolving issues is issue-avoidance or unilateral decision-making. Avoiding issues always resolves them in favor of the status quo, and unilateral decision-making disempowers the community. However, open and respectful conversations on important community issues leads to a deeper examination of the issue, and the possibility of alternative solutions.
Rocky Mountain House is a good example of a community with the courage to discuss and act together on a social concern. That community engaged in a thorough examination of the issues involved in Video Lottery Terminals. The community made its decision after thoroughly discussing the pros and cons.
Regardless of whether we agree with the outcome, we should applaud the community’s courage, for there are risks associated with this kind of open discussion. Would this community discussion tear open wounds that might take generations to heal?
It took courage and a strong belief in the validity of community social engagement to take such a chance. Rocky Mountain House had that courage. That’s the kind of guts that built this province, and I believe it’s the real “Alberta way”.
In the next post, I'll share my views on environmental engagement.

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