Communities are strong when their citizens are empowered

A strong leader is not enough — everyone needs to be involved and informed for communities to thrive

Community development is more than economic or social projects. It is the empowerment of people so they have resilience when faced with change and challenge.

After completing my courses on rural community development with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations, I thought about what resilience might mean and how we can assure community strength in good, and in troubled, times.

The core strength of a community is people: People who are informed, people who care, and people who have a sense of what to do.

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Here is one small example: I am trained in first aid, so when coming across an accident at my rural corner years ago, I ran for a blanket from my car, remembering that shock was part of the after-effects of trauma. I had a first aid kit, knew to dial 911, and could ring a neighbour to direct traffic.

Incidents or events may be destructive to communities when people are affected economically or socially. Encountering hurt, death, disease, economic loss, or any number of natural and man-made occurrences can leave us and our neighbours vulnerable. Distance in rural communities is a challenge and yet has never been a deterrent to help.

Some might say it is unspoken or even cultural that rural communities pull together. That is true to a degree until that community is exposed to big changes that disrupt the culture or create fear.

Rumours or the wrong information tear at the fabric of rural communities and rural community development. Clear communication is critical and ensures the voices that need to be heard are heard.

How many times have we responded to ‘Mr. J’ closing the store permanently when it was a simple renovation? Or got excited about a rumoured garbage dump that was simply that — a rumour?

Taking the time to communicate to all the stakeholders is important. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How will it affect the diversity of stakeholders? Where is the information? What are the timelines?

Before we go any further, maybe we should clarify: Who are stakeholders? What are they?

A stakeholder is anyone who is affected directly or indirectly. A taxpayer as a primary stakeholder may have concerns about snow removal costs, but the school bus driver and the student also have an interest and should have a say. Seemingly small issues or changes need discussion at every level.

And everyone should get the same information presented in a way they can understand it. For example, environmental issues from outside development can divide communities. Giving all parties the same facts presented in an easily understandable way allows for potential convergence at certain points, a common interest, or shared value. Including photographs and other visuals clarifies for those who have trouble seeing or reading. Good information delivered on time is the basis for great discussion.

Failing to provide objective facts shifts power and always will result in a breakdown at some point, pre- or post-development. Building resilience requires that every stakeholder gets the information and tools they need to make decisions for their community.

By sharing the power in the process it moves away from singular leadership. That may surprise you when leadership is my gig, but one person cannot accomplish transformational leadership. It takes the efforts of many.

The Alberta community of Bashaw is known as a great place to live. With just over 800 people, the K-12 school is open, as are the churches and stores. The arts and agriculture thrive. A few hours north, the West Country Hearth in the community of Villeneuve has 80 units for seniors. That is 80 units in a community of 225 persons — many of which were involved in the creation and construction.

These are examples of transformational community leadership that is shared among the stakeholders and provides economic and social resilience.

How did they get there?

Communication is a way of transferring knowledge or information in a way that it can be understood. You may be reading this because it is a way of being part of the conversation. If the community is bilingual, then the conversation should be in English and French. And if the community still gathers information by radio (and some still do), then that is the starting point for the conversation. It may be a combination of methods (such as a social media campaign) to bring objective awareness or to ensure a broad stakeholder invitation. Meeting in person? Then assuring everyone can get there is also a priority.

The collective action of family, community, and external stakeholders working together can build initial resilience. But it takes mindfulness, which is that ability to be conscious and aware of when things change for people, that ensures long-term strength.

If we are mindful community members and leaders, we fully appreciate that each change during development may mean starting the dialogue again — and we are OK with that.

Change is assured but the shock of change is mitigated when it meets a fully engaged, mindful, resilient community.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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