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.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Best Defense

It was a warm summer day, and I was listening on-line to the smooth jazz on KWJZ Seattle, chilling out with a cold pop as I drained the day’s cares along with my beverage. That’s when an ad on the radio kick-started both my attention and my blood pressure.
An outfit calling itself the National Crime Prevention Council sponsored the ad. These folks vigorously alert Americans to the dangers they face due to home invasions, muggings, and other crime. The ad itself was blatant fear mongering designed to ensure that properly frightened listeners install more deadbolts on their door, surveillance cameras on their streets, and security systems in their homes. While it sounded like a public service announcement, its aim was to boost sales for the crime prevention industry.
Yes, there is a crime prevention industry, and it is very skilled at manipulating our fears. They paint a scary picture of the multiple faces of evil lurking whenever we open our doors. We then wall ourselves off from our neighbors, turning our attention inward rather than towards the world around us.
The crime prevention industry performs a legitimate service, and, like any other business, they use skilled marketing techniques to ramp up demand. Marketing fear pays off. Many of us succumb to the industry campaign and trade off money and personal freedoms for the specious illusion of security. We live in a secured fortress, prisoners of our fears, and terrified by the world outside our doors.
Yet that isolation drives us away from the very force that gives us the greatest security, which is our active, committed and engaged participation in the world around us. Citizens in active, committed and engaged communities have a mutual interest in each other’s well being. They understand that they are accountable to their neighbors for their actions and inactions.
What does this community ethic look like in day-to day living? What will an active, committed and engaged citizen do when they observe a crook at work? Will they phone Crimestoppers anonymously, hoping to score a reward, or will they phone the police, identify themselves and report the suspicious activity? Do active, committed, and engaged citizens keep an eye on their neighbor’s property in their absence? Will they stop to help an injured stranger on the street, even if that stranger looks, smells, or acts differently? Are they their brothers’ keeper?
I don’t buy the fear monger’s advertising campaign. Life is short and precious- much too precious to live in fear behind walls that insulate us from the world. I choose a life rich with community interaction; supporting and being supported by my neighbors. In my world, risks and mistakes are learning opportunities, and true satisfaction comes from being an active, committed and engaged member of my community. How about yours?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What's His Role?

Alberta’s Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett’s blunt assessment of Alberta’s film and television industries pulled no punches. Speaking at the Banff World Television Festival he said, "I sit here as a government representative for film and television in the province of Alberta and I look at what we produce, and if we're honest with ourselves ... I look at it and say, 'Why do I produce so much sh**t? Why do I fund so much crap?”
Those remarks received a lot of media attention. Most film and industry leaders agreed that the remarks were ill timed and delivered in a venue that embarrassed Alberta’s cultural community.
Yet his remarks raise a bigger question. Are his comments accurate? Is Alberta’s film industry producing “crap”? And if so, what does “non-crap” look like?
These are important questions for Alberta’s creative community to consider. Is it the role of the creative to produce work that makes folks feel comfortable and appeals to a broad spectrum of people; or is it to push the edges as it portrays the realities of life? Is it appropriate for government ministers providing funding for the arts to bluntly criticize the work of Alberta’s creatives? Should he or she who pays the piper call the tune?
The reality is that the creative's role in the restaurant of community living is to provide both comfort food and new-age cuisine. There will always be those who produce mainstream art that the masses enjoy, and there will be those that tweak and twang our sensibilities and sensitivities. What often gets forgotten is that yesterday’s radical- hello Wolfie Mozart- often becomes tomorrow’s Old Master.
Where the cheese gets binding is when public money funds the arts. Expecting a politician not to pander to his base is akin to expecting a dog not to chase rabbits- to a point.
That point comes when the politician becomes a cabinet minister. Cabinet ministers should be local, national, and international champions for the communities of interest in their portfolios.
Being a champion means that the minister does not publicly trash the efforts of the communities of interest represented in his / her portfolio. Should Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden speak to the International Beef Congress and say that Alberta’s beef mostly sucks? What if Tourism Minister Cindy Ady told a panel discussion on Canadian tourist destinations that Banff and Jasper were highly overrated?
Do you get my drift? The problem here is not the quality of Alberta’s film and television output. That industry is doing what the creative process and its’ marketplace always does- provide both a reflective and visionary perspective on our life and times. Perhaps the problem is simply that the Minister needs reminding that he’s not the television and film critic for the Calgary Sun.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Duke's Lesson

There are very few old-time ranchers who, when facing St. Peter at the gates of the Holy Corral, won’t confess to ignoring the messages sent by a willing horse. I’m talking about the times when the rider ignores his horse’s signals regarding the operating environment.
Years ago, I ignored the warnings of my buckskin partner Duke and sent us down an ice-slicked slope in pursuit of a runaway cow. We wiped out halfway down, and Duke and I parted company as we slid down the slope. When he got to his feet, Duke was favoring his hind leg. The look he gave me spoke volumes.
Although Duke was soon as fleet and savvy as ever, I never again over-rode his judgment. I learned the consequences of ignoring the messages of the willing horse.
Alberta’s political leaders might consider this lesson as they ponder the message sent to them by the Wandering River Volunteer Fire Department. The Wandering River crew recently announced that they were taking a “time out” from providing highway emergency response service along Highway 63 on the way to Fort McMurray. Along with protecting the lives and property of the folks at Wandering River, the fire crew was making an overwhelming number of trips for serious vehicle collisions along the high-accident highway. Sheri Johnson, the department's acting fire chief, said on average, there is one serious accident on the stretch of Highway 63 every week — and most volunteers aren't capable of handling the often-bloody outcomes. "There are a lot of people who don't feel it's the volunteer's job to be scraping people up off the highway, which is what we've done a fair amount of," she said. "A lot of people just can't handle it."
Ms. Johnson’s comments are spot-on. Volunteers in rural Alberta should not be expected to carry out difficult and dangerous tasks performed in urban Alberta by paid professionals. Volunteering to fight fires within one’s own community is much different than serving as first responders to the carnage on Highway 63.
Why are local volunteers shouldering such a complex and difficult burden? Is it simply because they live alongside this under-sized and over-used ribbon of blacktop? If that’s the case, why aren’t those industries whose operations drive the traffic load assuming more of the burden? They don’t because governments coping with “bust cycles” download complex and risky responsibilities such as highway first response to the volunteer sector in rural areas.
There is a more than a whiff of arrogance and entitlement about government and industry’s approach to the volunteer sector. Both know that community volunteers save many, many millions of tax dollars otherwise paid for by industry and / or taxpayers. Yet they regard the volunteer horse as impervious to overwork and abuse.
The Wandering River Fire Department has just sent a very strong signal to government and industry. You can ride a willing horse too hard. Will government and industry listen and respond with the same courage shown every day by Alberta’s volunteer fire departments? Across Alberta, other community volunteers will be carefully watching. Like any old-time rancher knows- one should never ignore the message from a willing horse.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Bad Idea!

Alberta’s Liberal Party recently announced a twelve-point plan for improving political governance in Wild Rose country. There were eleven points worthy of serious discussion and – with apologies to my canine friends- one dog. The one that barked suggested that Albertans voting in provincial elections receive a $50 tax credit. Sadly, that woofer got most of the media attention and the good points didn’t receive the attention they deserved.
So why is paying people to vote a bad idea? Let me count the ways: Our troops are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to give the gift of democracy to the Afghanis, while the home folks won’t vote unless they’re paid. Paying democratic slackers to do their civic duty insults those Canadians who take their citizenship seriously and faithfully vote in municipal, provincial, and federal elections. It also sends a dangerous message to all citizens, implying that the state will absorb the heavy lifting of good citizenship. That’s a very dangerous idea.
Communities that are active, committed and engaged don’t happen by Divine intervention, government assistance or by accident. They happen because the citizens in such communities work darned hard.
Outside resources and agencies can play a positive role in community evolution. Federal and provincial government programs not tied to a particular political or economic agenda can assist. Organizations such as the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association (ARPA) provide invaluable access to resources and information vital to community building.
Even organizations like ARPA must be constantly aware of the risks inherent in doing too much. When the music stops, we must pay the orchestra. When government grants disappear, active, committed and engaged communities must self-finance. When ARPA moves on to other challenges, the active, committed and engaged community will continue to develop its’ own capacity.
Sustainable community evolution happens when a community has the courage and the commitment to empower itself. There are no silver bullets or magic wands. Active, committed, and engaged communities engage themselves in the painful self-examination, spirited discussion, and hard work of community change and evolution. They succeed because they have made the social investment required for success.
What about those communities where most folks don’t give a rip- where a handful of overworked volunteers do the bulk of the hard work of community building? How about the communities where the number of citizens choosing not to vote exceeds those who do? Those communities should begin writing their own community obituary, for their days as a functioning community are numbered.
Compared to the difficult elements of community development- consensus building and conflict management- voting is a piece of cake. When citizens no longer value community responsibility enough to exercise the right to vote, they turn their backs on participation in an active, committed, engaged, and democratic community. The bottom line: Paying people to vote simply enables bad citizenship and insults the efforts of true community builders. It’s a bad idea. Woof!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Schools Make A Difference

Closing a school is a lot like breaking up a longtime love affair- it’s hard to do. School closure is a process that fills everyone involved with a sense of failure and loss, and the pain doesn’t go away quickly.
Some inner-city communities here in Edmonton are losing their schools, and their residents and the Edmonton Public School Board are feeling the pain. Residents know that the loss of their public school diminishes the intrinsic social value of their community and the market value of their homes. For Board members, closing schools is the exact opposite of what they want to be doing, which is growing public education.
Across Alberta, school closures are the inevitable result of changing demographics, past and current urban planning policies, rural depopulation, school board and Alberta Education policies, and community disengagement from public education. The reality is that most folks without kids in a community school don’t give a hoot about the school until the padlock looms. Then the community isolation from the school ends, but it’s much too late. School Board administrators present the public with the relevant provincial and local policies, the low enrollment numbers and the future projections of enrollment; all justifying the closure. The Board grits its’ teeth and closes the school.
Are school closures the predictable and inevitable? What can we do to strengthen the viability of community schools and public education?
Schools are vitally important to every one of us both socially and economically. That’s why community schools built, maintained, and staffed by public money should respond to local community needs. They are not the exclusive property of trustees, school administrators, teachers, students, or parents. School facilities should host and support community initiatives pertaining to adult education and family programs. Entire communities need to be involved in the design and program planning of new schools and retrofits of existing schools.
We need a public discussion on the allocation of the most important asset in public education- time. The amount of class time available for a child in a school day is the most valuable commodity in public education. Constant pressure on our schools to expand the curriculum, and the ever-increasing costs involved in public education make every in-school minute a priceless asset.
Then why in the name of sanity are so many school buses disgorging homeward-bound students in mid-day? On early dismissal days, some rural Alberta students spend more time on their school bus than they do in their classroom.
Would these kinds of changes save every school from closure? There will always be school closures that are painful for communities, trustees, and the students forced to relocate by the closure. That’s just an unpleasant fact. What is unacceptable is the continuation of the status quo.
What will change the status quo? Change will happen when ratepayers demand that their trustees and provincial politicians take actions protecting community schools and public education.
Public education is important to our youth, our communities, our economy, and our society, yet we only pay attention when it fails. The closure of schools across Alberta is a painful reminder that when it comes to public education issues, ignorance is NOT bliss.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Summer Of Opportunity

Before long, we will be enjoying another Alberta summer. This summer is special, for the scent of wild roses drifting across the breadth of Alberta will herald the approach of local political renewal.
Yes, we are approaching Alberta’s tri-annual municipal elections. On October 18th, we will have the opportunity to re-seed Alberta’s rich soil of grassroots democracy. Can we expect that most Albertans will do their part to bring grassroots democracy to Wild Rose Country?
Only if we also expect Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to quit federal politics to run off together to Wainwright and open a sushi restaurant. Given our abysmal record of political engagement, we’ll be lucky to get enough candidates in some communities to fill the School Board and Municipal Council seats by acclamation.
That’s a dismal state of affairs. Political representation at the Municipal Council and School Board level is the pinnacle of grass roots governance. Decisions made at those Board tables directly affect people’s daily lives. Their policies shape the community’s future.
Yet too many of us don’t participate in local democratic renewal. We don’t stand for office, actively support someone, or even bother to vote. It’s simpler to studiously avoid the process and the issues shaping our community’s future.
Even when we engage in the process, we use the filter of immediate self-interest as our decision-making guide. “Good old Bill or Mike or Hazel promises to lower taxes and that’s good enough for me. Why should I ask them where they intend to find the bucks to clear the streets and operate the landfill after they’ve cut our taxes? That’s just a minor detail. We always get grants from the province. Somebody else can worry about the future; not me” It’s a familiar refrain across the province.
That attitude raises three interesting questions. Why should our provincial government treat communities choosing not to invest in themselves the same as those that do? Should the province tax Peter, who regularly invests his own money in maintaining his property, to give to Paul, who doesn’t? How can we develop strong, self-reliant communities when our provincial government grants disempower local governments and create a municipal culture of dependency?
The impact of that culture of municipal dependency is what drives the Old Prairie Dog’s First Rule of Municipal Politics: The difficulty in recruiting strong municipal politicians increases in direct proportion to the degree of mess left by their predecessors.
That’s why we are truly approaching the summer of opportunity for many Alberta communities. Now is the time to seek out people with a community vision and the willingness to champion public investment that will provide local governments with the resources required to build active, engaged, and committed communities.
That’s the challenge facing every Albertan who takes the concept of democracy seriously. My challenge to you is this: If not you, then who? Your summer of opportunity awaits.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons From St. Albert

Early this month, a nasty community controversy put the quiet municipality of St. Albert on the national media map. A husband and wife owning a local business wrote a letter to St. Albert’s Municipal Council opposing a proposed Habitat for Humanity project in St. Albert. The letter, reprinted in the St. Albert Gazette, is available online at
The couple objected to the perceived community impact of the Habitat for Humanity proposal. They expressed fears that an upscale, affluent community like St. Albert would suffer increased crime and higher local taxes due to the influx of less affluent people. The authors observed that the children of these poor families would not fit into the earthly paradise that is St. Albert.
The letter upset a lot of folks. According to one of the authors, even his mother found letter’s tone and content offensive. The blogosphere erupted into a predictable firestorm of condemnation of the letter and its’ authors. There were even calls for a boycott of the couple’s business. The writers’ few defenders fell back on the stale old “anti-political correctness” rant.
Yet while the contents of the letter are offensive, the letter itself is commendable on three counts. It raises an issue lurking unacknowledged in affluent Canadian communities from coast to coast- community diversity. Do we want our communities to reflect Canada’s economic and social spectrum, or do we want to live beside folks who look, smell, and live like us? If we are as egalitarian as we profess to be, why are developers across Canada- including St. Albert- marketing upscale new communities with an appeal to “exclusivity and privilege”?
We need housing for the economically disadvantaged, the physically and mentally challenged, and individuals re-integrating into society. Yet such housing inevitably triggers nasty NIMBY eruptions. Though its’ content was malodorous, the St. Albert letter surfaced community diversity as a valid community issue.
The letter to Council also presented the issue in a responsible manner. There was not a backhanded, anonymous, on-line campaign fuelling community anger. Instead, the authors wrote and signed a public letter to the people elected to make decisions on their behalf.
The letter’s authors, when confronted with a firestorm of anger and criticism, had the grace to publicly recant and apologize. In doing so, they showed more maturity than some of their critics.
Community diversity is an issue requiring respectful discussion. The question is: Are economically and socially- segregated communities consistent with our community value structure? That controversial letter to St. Albert Council contains a powerful lesson. One can fundamentally disagree with the letter’s content- and I do- but we can’t duck the issue it raises.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Drives Our Values?

Daily news reports from France and Quebec highlight the serious social upheaval resulting from conflicting community and personal values. The debates over the right of religious Muslim women to cover their faces in public are heated, nasty, and divisive. That rancor is not surprising, for our values shape who we are and how we live as individuals and communities.
Yet we often fail to examine what shapes and drives those values. What lies at the root of the powerful values? Are those particular drivers valid? Do they represent the individuals we want to be and the kind of society in which we want to live?
The debate over the niqab- the full-face veil worn by some devout Muslim women- provides fertile ground for this kind of examination. From the viewpoint of the Muslim women opting to wear niqab, it is fundamental to the way they publicly conduct themselves as devout practitioners of their faith. They believe that the Koran dictates the sight of their uncovered faces will cause carnal thoughts in men not their husbands.
Yet there has been long-standing and ongoing debate among respected Muslim scholars as to whether or not wearing niqab is required or optional for women. For those who view wearing the full veil as fundamental to their faith, the question is simple: In a free society, what right has the state to determine and dictate how they shall observe the tenets of their religion?
On the other hand, the perceived sexist implications of niqab offend many women who fought the long and hard battle to ensure societal and workplace equity. They ask a powerful question: Why should women cover their faces and bodies to ensure that men don’t think prurient thoughts? Are men no different than rutting animals?
There are also those driven by the memories of September 11th, 2001. They fear that the niqab may hide the faces of terrorists wishing to do harm to western society, and believe that exposing the faces of those wearing niqab will increase public safety.
Then there are those who see a middle ground. These individuals believe that in the general course of social life, a free society should allow people to wear what they wish. However, they also see a need for citizens to show their faces for specific purposes- for purposes of universal identification such as driver’s licenses and travel security checks.
I’m in the latter group. I can see the need for facial exposure in situations where all citizens comply with a process that is demonstrably for the public good. Beyond that, I am a believer in civil liberties. What people wear- or don’t wear- is their own business, regardless of race, color, or creed. I cherish the opportunity to live a life free of oppression or fear. No one- terrorist or parliamentarian- will take those freedoms away from me.
You may disagree, and that’s as it should be. If we have carefully considered our values, and what drives those values, we can sit down and have a respectful conversation and either come to agreement or agree to disagree. That’s the best way to avoid the ugliness afoot in France and Quebec.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Streets of Springtime

I’ve just returned to Edmonton from a two-week holiday on Saltspring Island. Our traveling threesome-my partner Barb and our English cocker spaniel pup Zak and I - had a great time enjoying the many attributes of Saltspring.
Being a spaniel, Zak is nose-driven, and he was overwhelmed with a whole new array of scents, as well as the croaking ravens and the miniature Island deer. As his primary walker, I experienced his excitement at this new place, and I learned something new about my personal community values.
Community cleanliness is very important to me. I don’t like litter. Those of you who have experience walking a pup know how attractive street trash is to dogs. That attraction means that we clearly see the litter on sidewalks and streets.
There is a huge difference between walking Zak in Edmonton and on Saltspring. Why? There was almost no street or road litter on Saltspring. One sees pinecones, earthworms- even banana slugs-, but none of the coffee cups or empty cigarette packages or takeout food wrappers or flyaway advertising inserts that too often blight the streets and sidewalks of Edmonton.
Why does this difference exist? I have a hunch that it has a lot to do with community values. There is a very powerful community desire and determination to have a clean environment. Students clean the area around their schools, which develops a strong sense of civic responsibility. Service clubs and individuals regularly pick up the small amounts of discarded refuse. As a result, individuals in the Saltspring community feel personally responsible for the cleanliness of their community.
Some of these initiatives are not unique to Saltspring Island. There are communities in Alberta- Alix, which is just east of Red Deer comes to mind- with the same kind of community ethic. Yet I suspect that there are also communities in Alberta where community cleanliness is not a respected value.
Communities can take simple steps to decrease public litter. A municipality can work with advertisers and publishers to stop distribution of advertising and newspapers to households without a secure mailbox. Community associations can work with fast-food outlets to develop outlet-based anti-litter campaigns. School boards can develop anti-litter programs directly involving and empowering students. Dog owners not cleaning up after their pets can be fined.
We’re back home, and Zak and I will continue to navigate the littered springtime streets of southwest Edmonton, picking up trash as we go. We’re certainly open to a change of scenery, so if your community shares our values regarding clean streets, we’d love to visit!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How Environment Shapes Community Values

I spent a good chunk of my life living in the shade of the Cypress Hills in Southeastern Alberta before moving to the bright lights of Edmonton. It’s been an interesting transition, and it’s taught me how our environment shapes the way in which we apply community values.
Let’s consider the value of neighbourliness. Most Albertans place a high value on being good neighbours. Yet that value gets expressed much differently in the Cypress Hills than it is in Edmonton.
In the Cypress Hills country, there’s a lot more miles than there are folks to occupy the landscape. There aren’t people around us to bail us out of trouble.
Edmonton is a big city, with all the people, traffic, and congestion that goes with urban life. People surround me on the street, and every conceivable business and service is at my fingertips.
Yet a person in trouble may get help quicker in the Cypress Hills than in Edmonton. It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it– like starving in a supermarket, but that’s the reality of life today. It’s also an excellent example of how our physical environment can shape our values.
Let’s consider a scenario where you’re a gent driving home late on a bitterly cold winter night in Edmonton. You see a female driver stopped at the side of the road struggling to change a tire. Do you stop to lend a hand? Chances are that you won’t. It’s late, she wasn’t really signaling for help, she can use her cell phone to call for help– you know this script. You focus on the road ahead and boogie on home.
Now let’s shift the locale to the Graburn Road that winds its’ way from the TransCanada Highway to the Cypress Hills. You’re a Cypress Hills rancher, it’s late at night, and as you come around a bend you see a truck up ahead in the snowy ditch. As you get closer, you see it is Fred Stumpkopf. Your family and the Stumpkopfs have been feuding for three generations. Surely you too would focus on the road ahead and boogie on home?
Not on your life. You would stop, grab your snow shovel, and help Fred get his truck back on the road. Between the two of you, there wouldn’t be ten words spoken, including his parting; “Thanks for the help” before you each continued on your way.
That’s because one of the cardinal sins in the Cypress Hills country is leaving someone stuck. It’s right up there with starving your livestock and having a portrait of Pierre Trudeau hanging in your living room.
In the Cypress Hills, the isolation has created a powerful need for mutual support, and that need has driven a dominant community value that demands personal responsibility for others.
Here in Edmonton, the complexity of urban life has eroded our desire to help our fellow man. Again, our environment shapes our values. There’s no “right” or “wrong’ value sets here; just the reality of living in communities with different environments.
Where does that leave me? Which values have I adopted? The Cypress Hills has shaped my values, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

Friday, February 12, 2010

High–Speed Roulette

There’s an essential component of the concept of “engaged communities” that is badly- and sadly– lacking in most of rural Alberta. That shortfall is the alarming lack of high-speed Internet access. It goes to the very heart of “engagement” and threatens the future of the communities most at risk in post-boom Alberta.
Internet access drives global economic and social engagement. Without high-speed digital access, you’re not going to attract new residents and you won’t retain your young people. If you’re not wired, you can’t tell your story, and if you can’t tell your story, you’re hooped long-term. That’s today’s reality, and it will only become more pervasive as technology evolves. Yet rural Albertans- normally a progressive lot- are adopting a less-than- flattering posture with their rears in the air and their heads in the sand when it comes to their uptake on digital access.
Alberta’s Supernet strategy; rolled out with much fanfare and huge investment has failed to achieve its goals. The failure occurred not because of an inherent flaw in the Supernet concept. It failed because there was a lack of a “first mile strategy”- a strategy to entice rural residents to make the necessary investment in Internet access.
I use the verb “entice” very deliberately. Government assistance has created a dependency in rural Alberta that gets in the way of progress. If the economics don’t yet justify private sector investment, and if the province doesn’t foot the bill, the very best of new initiatives will become a very, very tough sell in today’s Wild Rose Country.
That’s how it has been in Alberta, with the result that many third world countries have a higher rate of Internet uptake than rural Alberta. That spells doom for many communities that are on the cusp.
What makes it sadly ironic is that it doesn’t have to be that way. A historic model exists that could be reconfigured to lead the way to a digitized, energized and invigorated rural Alberta.
That model is the old Alberta Government Telephones. AGT had a mandate to bring telephone service to all Albertans, even those residing in its’ remote corners. It used the profits from urban operations to expand service to remote parts of the province. At completion of the province-wide rollout of phone service, AGT was privatized.
A similar crown corporation could spur Internet uptake in rural Alberta. Without that uptake, community outreach will only extend about a hundred kilometers down the road. In today’s wired world, that’s a one-way road to extinction.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Change Challenge

Today, around the world, a battle is raging between two powerful and competing themes. While global in nature, the conflict has profound implications for local communities like yours and mine.
The first theme is that change is inevitable and powerful, and that humankind must adapt to new realities. It believes that we will adapt through education and training and by constantly revisiting, reviewing and revising old norms. The desired outcome is an optimistic and egalitarian society in which social and cultural values and norms morph into a more global sense of community citizenship.
The competing theme sees change as a negative force requiring powerful resistance. Change is a threat to traditional social and cultural values, and is an inherently destabilizing force in communities. This view sees comprehensive public education as an agent of that threat, undermining the anointed or appointed community leadership. “Educated elites” are mistrusted and gender separation is encouraged.
That’s the general nature of the opposing forces in this global battle- and it is truly a global conflict. French lawmakers are debating legislation forbidding women from covering their faces in public. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls attending school are the targets of acid attacks. Israeli political debate swirls over whether or no there should be forced gender segregation on public transit. The legal code of Saudi Arabia mandates caning for women observed talking to men other than their husbands. In the U.S., recent federal government initiatives to reduce the public health threat posed by the over consumption of salt is being strongly resisted by groups raging about “Elites” trying to regulate and change “the American way of life.”
That’s a snapshot of the nature of this very nasty battle. It’s a war without rules and without boundaries. Canadians– including Albertans– are seeing the opening tussles in our communities. In Quebec and British Columbia’s lower mainland, we have already seen community pushback against the changing face and values brought about by change.
Where does your community stand on the preservation of its’ historic nature? Does it see change as inevitable, manageable and desirable, or is it as seen as a threat to the community value structure? Is the community focus on planning for the evolution of the community, or is it on protecting and preserving tradition and heritage?
Active, committed and engaged communities should thoughtfully prepare their response in this battle for the future direction of their communities. How they respond could well determine their long-term community survival.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Open For Business

In a world of internet-driven “instant fame”, we sometimes forget that enduring success doesn’t happen quickly or easily. That’s true in our personal and professional lives, and it’s true in community-building. Active, committed, and engaged communities don’t happen by accident, and they don’t happen overnight. They are the result of hard work by all community sectors working together.
One of the key elements in progressive communities is a strong nucleus of support from their business sector. Yet there is very little public discussion about the role and responsibility of business in the evolution of the communities in which they operate.
Why is that? I suspect that it is at least partly due to the powerful influence of key “anti-tax”, “pro-business” lobbies like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. These organizations reflexively resist taxation- the source of capital for public investment- as an impediment to business growth. Their media sidekicks portray tax increases as a flagrant attack on the interests of those patriotic Canadian (and multi-national) businesses who bring jobs to Canadian communities. Such groups give short shrift to the significant business interests in community social investment or community environmental protection.
Does business really have an interest in community self-investment? Do successful, sustainable businesses require good roads in the community to serve their customers, suppliers and workers? Does a school educating current employee’s children and tomorrow’s workers benefit a sustainable business? Does a company operating in a community for the long haul benefit when its’ host community has a sustainable physical and social environment?
There are many businesses in Alberta that answer with a resounding “yes”, and they back their words with their resources. They contribute their taxed and donated dollars, and provide the volunteer contributions of their staff to the community. It’s worthwhile noting that these community-minded businesses include businesses with local, Canadian, and/or multi-national ownership.
There are also companies that drive hard bargains with host communities for free land, tax holidays and other perks paid for by the community. Yet, as the people of Edmonton recently learned, companies like Dell Computers quickly hightail it out of town when the going gets a wee bit rough.
Sustainable businesses are an integral part of holistic, sustainable communities. Community leaders are right in working hard to attract business that generates employment. However, it’s a two-way street, and it’s two-way bargaining. The community needs to sell itself to the business and the business needs to sell itself to the community.
That’s why active, committed and engaged communities will continue to seek businesses that are in business for the long haul and the common community good. They will quickly weed out those who are looking only for the “least-cost site”. After all, who needs a business that’s here today and gone tomorrow?