Community Conversations: A Big Impact in a Small Village

What do people across North America today believe the job of community is? Where do they experiencing belonging and caring? What prevents them from experiencing deep and meaningful connections with others? Beyond curiosity, these questions reveal a desire to better understand what we all need to be more intentional about strengthening our connection to one another. Every day, there are many instances of caring between people and countless neighbourhood activities that deepen our ties with those around us. A key question to be explored is: “Why are acts of community not happening more often?

Over the last two years Tamarack has been inviting communities and individuals to join in exploring this question as part of its Community Conversations campaign (formerly called, 1000 Conversations). This Seeking Community research project has now sparked and documented nearly 200 conversations — engaging more than 2,000 people — in meaningful conversations amongst faith communities, students, schools, seniors, neighbourhood organizations, government groups, and not-for-profits. The result is a rich archive of perspectives that provide a focused look at the power of community and what we need to nurture and sustain it. Click here to access a sampling of this data.

In October 2013, Tamarack partnered with the Village of Delburne Alberta — with leadership from Nora Smith of Family & Community Support Services, and Karen Fegan, the Village’s Chief Administrative Officer — to host a series of community conversations with a wide cross-section of the village’s residents. Over the next 4 months, 20 conversations were hosted and 245 surveys were collected that offered a rich snapshot of the village’s understanding of the meaning of community and their shared hopes for the future of Delburne.

A unique spin on the Delburne Community Conversations initiative was the incorporation of the “Belonging: DELBURNE” Photo Project which used the art of photography to increase community engagement and build social capital among village residents. All participants were offered a personal portrait by internationally recognized photographer John Beebe, and, the hook was that everyone was asked to bring to their photo session an object that represented a personal sense of “belonging.” Audio clips were also recorded to capture the stories and significance of each person’s thoughtfully-selected item and its heartfelt significance.

When the project concluded, more than 400 people (48% of Delburne’s population) from “all sides of the street” had participated in photos and conversations. The project’s oldest participant was 94 years old and the youngest 5 months old. The next creative step will be to install gigantic Belonging: DELBURNE photo collage murals on high profile exterior building surfaces throughout the village.

Community has a job to do.

At the Stone Soup Celebration that marked the completion of this Community Conversations’ project, approximately 90 participants reached consensus on 7 opportunities for shared action and engaged in some initial action planning around each opportunity. These plans were then prioritized based upon participants’ personal energy to contribute to that plan’s implementation.

For project organizers, five important early measures of success have already been identified from theCommunity Conversations and Belonging Delburne Photo Project. These are:

  1. The number of “new people” (well beyond the “usual suspects”) who became engaged in the initiative, and are now contributing their leadership.
  2. The affirmation by Village residents of the themes and patterns emerging from their community conversation data and the consensus around specific projects needed to work towards the Village’s shared vision.
  3. The degree of shared community ownership and responsibility around the specific projects to be actioned. One early fear about the project was that citizens would turn to their 5-member Village Council and say, “Okay, so now how are YOU going to make this all happen?” Happily, this has NOT been the case.
  4. The extraordinary uptake of the Belonging: DELBURNE art component which gave community members an equal opportunity to be heard and seen. The use of personal portraits and stories, helped foster understanding amongst residents and had a deep and lasting impact on participants’ sense of belonging; and,
  5. The attention and commitment this Project has generated with new potential provincial partners/funders who are eager to support the results of this powerful community engagement process.

Recently, Peter Block said, “Community has a job to do.” By asking one another what they understand this to be, the Village of Delburne Alberta now has a clear, shared sense of this job is for them and a deepened commitment to care for one another as they work together to make their shared vision a reality.

Click here to view Tamarack’s archive of Community Conversations.


Photos by John Beebe. Collage courtesy Belonging Delburne Photo Project.

About the Lead Author

Rachel Brnjas
Rachel Brnjas
Rachel Brnjas is a Community Animator, Seeking Community, working with the Tamarack Institute.

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