Discovering Assets of a Small Town

Conversation with Priscilla Corcoran Mooney

Priscilla is the former mayor of Branch, Newfoundland, a small town of 250 citizens on the Atlantic coast. There she led residents to think about their assets and how to make their community stronger.

Listen or view transcript below:

Running time: 00:54:00

Priscilla Corcoran Mooney is the former mayor of Branch, Newfoundland, a small town of 250 citizens on the Atlantic coast. There she led residents to think about their assets and how to make their community stronger. This is a transcript of her conversation with John and Peter about her experiences there.

John McKnight: Well welcome everybody. I think we really have a wonderful opportunity to explore all possibilities of what a very small community can achieve because we’re talking today with the ex-mayor of a little town in Newfoundland called Branch. Priscilla, welcome to the show and I’m wondering if you could give us your description of Branch. What’s it like? How big is it? Where is it?

Priscilla M.: First of all thanks for inviting me to be with you today. Really excited to talk about Branch [inaudible 00:02:12]. Branch as you said John, is a very small community. We have right now a population of about 230 people, and we’re nestled in a valley right next to the Atlantic Ocean in a bay called St. Mary’s Bay. We have a river running through our community that’s known for its salmon population. Our community is divided almost into two areas, an eastern section and a western section. We’re divided by a bridge. In Branch it’s very common to see roaming sheep and roaming horses. We have some farmers, but the center of our community is a place known as the [gulf 00:02:50], where I’m from. I kind of like to refer to it as downtown Branch, and that’s where our fishing industry is located and our wharves and our crab boats and our cod boats.


We also have a lovely community center where people gather quite a bit. We have a church on the hill and we have two beaches. I would add that’s what Branch looks like. What branch feels like is, it’s a very … It’s a community that has very strong roots and the people who are from Branch and who live in Branch have a very strong sense of belonging and that’s something that our community members are quite known for in this land.


John McKnight: You’re on a bay there. Are people most involved in fishing these days?


Priscilla M.: We would have quite a few fishermen and also people who would be connected to the fishing industry in a variety of ways and have different functions within the industry. We would also have farmers and people more recently involved in tours and related industries. In Branch and in Newfoundland in general, in the last ten years, we have a culture that’s very, very accustomed to commuting for work. We would have people who actually travel to Albert and even farther places, even further away for work in the oil scene. A lot of different industries but I think fishing still remains kind of our core industry.


John McKnight: I think I detect a little bit of an accent, at least listening with a US accent. I’m wondering are the people in Branch of a particular nationality?


Priscilla M.: Most people in our community, most people who have lived there all their lives or who have grown up in Branch would definitely be of Irish descent, and if you think about the map of Newfoundland and we’re located right on the very bottom of the Avalon peninsula. A large percentage of the Avalon would be all Irish descendants. Our community was actually settled by a man from Callan in County Kilkenny, Ireland in I think it was around 1740.


John McKnight: 1740. Are people still living there in Branch, you think, whose ancestors came in the 1700’s?


Priscilla M.: 100%. We actually have a man … Our very first settler’s name was Thomas Nash, and we’ve had quite a few Thomas Nashes through the centuries and we still have a gentleman with that name today. He would be a direct descendant of that very first Thomas. The names that would have arrived here in the 1700’s would still be in Branch today. We’re happy to say we have new names because we have people who have moved to the community, but definitely still have that presence.


John McKnight: I think Branch became famous across Canada because of when you were mayor, there was an effort to identify all of the, I don’t know if I would use the word, assets that you have in Branch. You developed 21 assets, 21 reasons a person would like to be in Branch. What led you to try to do that?


Priscilla M.: At the time, our council was … Our council came in at a time, it’s interesting to note, at a time when Branch was at almost like a make or break time because we had had no election for 12 years, so every council before us had been acclaimed. In 2005, there was a group had formed, and I think they were called the Branch Revitalization Committee. Just really a big group of people who met to talk about what we could do, how we could build on the great things happening in our community and it was kind of from that that people became in interested in maybe having a new council, maybe even having an election.


That group disbanded and some members did end up as councilors in 2005. It was first election in quite a while, so it was a really fresh feeling of change and how we were moving in a really positive direction. Two years later in 2007, we hosted what we call in Newfoundland, and I think you would have this in the states and probably everywhere in the world, we have something called a come home year. It’s almost like a giant reunion for anyone who has any connection to Branch.


We had massive amounts of people come into our tiny community. People who hadn’t been home in years and people who knew somebody who knew somebody so we had basically a huge celebration in 2007 for two weeks. A lot of music, a lot of food, just general merriment and get togethers. In preparation for that time when we knew our population will grow and we would have some exposure, our council decided that we would come up with a list that would be, you know, basically an inventory of some reasons that we would see that people might want to move to our community. So we developed this big poster, and it was called the “Top 21 Reasons to live in Branch”. So it was really mainly to attract people to the community who might’ve in some sense said that they’d like to live in Branch.


John McKnight: Would you give us, could you read us the 21?


Priscilla M.: The top 21 reasons to live in Branch, also as I thought about this today, I also think it’s almost the top 21 reasons to stay in Branch, for those of us who live there. Our list starts with:


Magnificent scenery; low tax rates, we don’t have any property tax; dynamic volunteer opportunities; the singing kitchen; low crime rate; proximity to healthcare providers; opportunities for business development; a wellness approach to living; excellent schools, Fatima Academy; recreation opportunities; this is everybody’s favorite, eligible bachelors; the sea at your door; warmth and friendliness; good place to raise a family; The Wester’ Cove; artisan well water-system; fresh fish; close to magical Cape St. Mary’s; Branch River; the sunrise over St. Mary’s bay; and the last reason, it’s home.


John McKnight: Oh. Considering that, did you have these three bachelors on your list? Did you not have any single women?


Priscilla M.: At that time, I think we did have more bachelors than we had bachelorettes. But if we were to, and there’s actually movement underway to revise this list. So I think that will be more inclusive next time around.


John McKnight: Do you think the list and the sign and the publicity has brought any new people to the area?


Priscilla M.: I think it quite it did initially. And this I wanted to backtrack a little bit. One of the reasons that we started to think about these assets if, I don’t know if you have a visual of our picture over the Top 21 Reasons, but the bottom part of it is, it’s almost poignant this many years later. It says: We like to reach a population of 500 in 15 years. That statement, or that wish or goal, came from a meeting that we had had with a government group, and they were actually community engagement group that the government has go around to little communities to talk about what’s your future. At our meeting, we had said we see our population growing. And it might’ve been foolhardy to say, 500, but we did see it like, we were going to buck the trend of rural populations decline. And we were going to go upwards. So that’s where 500 came from.


I think we also felt a little bit deflated, when the government officials said “oh” she’s laughing, said that’s very funny, to think that your population will grow. So I think it was just another movement towards that why 21 Reasons were important. But it did bring attention to us, because we had our public radio station, is CBC. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. We had a phone call from them a little while after from home here to ask if they could do a radio documentary on the Top 21 reasons.


They did, and it was broadcast across Canada on a show called Sunday Edition. Within minutes of the show airing, we had phone calls from people. From all over Canada. Who had expressed some interest, in finding out more about Branch. Or at that moment, just wanting to move there right away.


John McKnight: Another thing that you initiated when you were mayor, I think, was something you called “Singing Kitchen”.


Priscilla M.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


John McKnight: Can you tell us how that, what that is?


Priscilla M.: Yep.


John McKnight: How it’s evolved?


Priscilla M.: The Singing Kitchen was one of our first big initiatives as a new council. We had seen in our community that we had so many older adults, but not a lot of socialization opportunities. I don’t know if it’s true for anyone whose listening, but recreation committees in our community and really in lots of places, tend to be made up of younger people who focus quite a bit on children activities. So we saw that in our community and that’s where our committee wanted to say we’re very interested in children. So we wondered how we could have, create some type of a way that the older adults could come together.


We came up with the idea of having a community kitchen. We didn’t limit it to seniors. We asked anybody who wants to come, could join us. Basically, it still exists. The Singing Kitchen is a community kitchen. It happened initially weekly, it happens now bi-weekly. We meet every second Wednesday from early January until late April. So kinda our time of year when the days are shorter. We get together to have a very big, hearty meal. The meal is cooked by a team of volunteers, five women, and served by local high school students. It costs, I think now it started at $5 a plate, $6 a plate now. And it really, it’s an effort to bring everybody together to have meal, to have a chat.


It’s grown quite a bit since 2007, so that now, it was more of a Branch initiative. Now we have people from all of our surrounding communities attend. That’s the biggest, how you devour numbers, we have about 160 people. And as the evenings get a little longer in April, we dwindle down to probably about 100. But it’s a much loved affair in Branch.


John McKnight: You mentioned to me one time that you show photographs, or videos about Branch, its history, and that’s the way you get people to get in to talk with each other about the community. Can you tell us a little more about that?


Priscilla M.: Yeah. When people, we noticed … well it was funny, because when we started to plan, the very first day, our meeting, we had just suggested that maybe 30 or 40 people show up. So we got a surprise. But I will add, for anybody who knows the scene of community kitchens. We do the week before, we have a sign-up sheet, so we know how many people will come. So it was a warm and a good surprise to see how people came initially.


But we added the singing, because we really wanted people to socialize. Because it is very easy, to come and sit and eat and go. So we thought maybe people would stick around. We have a very strong tradition of music and storytelling and recitations. We thought people might share some music after the meal ended. But at six, when people were getting ready to go, or when the news would come on, we noticed people were rushing home for evening news. And there was really no music.


So then we tried to change that by, we parked up a big screen and we got a cable TV subscription. And we tried to show the evening news in the community center. And we tried that a few times, and that didn’t work. So our new plan, the one that actually did work, was one of the ladies who was the volunteer with cooking the meal, she’s very good audio-visual person. So she developed every week, and still does, a different slideshow made up of people Facebook pictures, and pictures from Branch from years ago, and interviews and just all kinds of tidbits related to Branch that get people talking. So you’re having your meal, but then you’re turning to the man next to you and you’re saying “whose that on the picture?” Or “was that in 1965?” Or “what time is this?”. So it created conversations.


John McKnight: So what you found is, I suppose, that what people are most interested in is each other and your place. And that you would give them reminders of that, that brings them together in discussions and relationships that might not have been so strong in the past.


Priscilla M.: You’re right, and that was a byproduct of the Singing Kitchen. Because I think we achieved our goal of initially getting people out. But we weren’t really sure, really what would come out of it. So seeing all those connections. And I think I mentioned to you too before John that seeing people connect to you if you wouldn’t. And you would imagine, in a community of 230 people, that that’s just one big network of people. But it’s really not. We would have people who know each other really well, and people who everybody knows one another, but they wouldn’t have conversations or discussion all the time. And that’s the Singing Kitchen that changes.


John McKnight: One other thing, I know you developed was a community garden. You said a bit about it.


Priscilla M.: Yeah, the community garden was almost kinda an extension of the Singing Kitchen, because the Singing Kitchen got us thinking and talking about food and food security a little bit. So we knew in our community, there was a little bit of a resurgence of kitchen gardens. But mostly, they’re owned by older adults in the community who had them for a long time. So some of the younger families had said they’d liked to have a garden, but you know, didn’t always have land or really sometimes just access to knowledge of how to start a garden. So we used a piece of land that we had next to the beach and we set up as a community garden with, I think initially 20 raised bins. We had a wait list in the beginning of people who wanted to have their own plot.


We also used the very middle of the garden as the Singing Kitchen bins. So we grow root vegetables; carrot, turnip, and potatoes. And we use those throughout the winter as the vegetables for Singing Kitchen, and it helps cut down a little bit on cost.


John McKnight: Another thing that I know you have recently initiated is, you’ve always had a corner store. And you’re trying to see whether that store could be a place for, healthier emphasis might be there. Would you tell us what you’ve done there?


Priscilla M.: Yeah. I think again, all extensions of what- we’re obviously very interested in food in Branch. But the Arm University here in Newfoundland, or main one- or the only one really. Even Memorial University of Newfoundland. They have a great public health department. And they were interested in learning more about how people access food in small communities. Basically, they launched a campaign to find a community that would be at least 45 kilometers away from the nearest grocery store. Branch is 65 kilometers away from the nearest large grocery store. So people really do have to travel to get their larger groceries.


The university came and kinda did … had a look at our convenient store, and decided that it would be a really good place to do a potted project. So they came to the community and they set up in our community center and did a baseline study, did a questionnaire type research, where they ask anyone in our community who was interested in being about to tell, just tell them about their food habits and what they would eat and where they would get their food. And they will come back again, and finish that.


But in the meantime, they also did a major renovation of our convenience store, so there’s …. Just a tiny example: we definitely have access to more healthier foods. But we also now have access to foods that are packaged in ways that make sense and reflect our community. We have a lot of people in our community who live alone. So they weren’t really interested in coming to buy a big giant bag of grapes. So now grapes are packaged in little tiny packages where, in an affordable way, where people could really access those healthy foods. They also changed their deli section and their pre-packaged ham which is that now they make everything from scratch. Also when you go in, you don’t see candy and potato chips anymore. You have a healthier view when you walk right in.


It’s really made a difference to our community. For me, I think it was important in terms of looking at how people who are living alone come access food, because a lot of people in our community can’t travel those 65 kilometers to a large grocery store. So they really do rely on that community store for a lot of their groceries.


John McKnight: Wow, that’s a- I know you have other stories as well. But, pardon me, this may be a good time to stop and ask Peter: Reflections? Questions?


Peter: It’s a very romantic image that we listening to you, Priscilla. You know, it’s almost idyllic. I feel like I’m listening to a Disney movie or something like that. But, is there any aspects of living in a small, in the way that you live, that’s confining or claustrophobic? Or do you, what’s the other side?


Priscilla M.: The other side, Peter, you’re right. I always say, and this may sound very unusual, but I love Branch the way you would love a person. I just have a huge connection to it. But I think for my community work, and it’s been a little while now, I try to be tactful about it. I think something that we have seen, in all those initiatives that I just listed off, we sometimes in small communities … I know in Branch, we struggle with allowing everybody to be involved.


So if you get something that’s very successful, like the Singing Kitchen, it can become very, it can get a very strong sense of ownership by those who made it successful. We started, for example, with two teams of ladies who cooked. And now we have one. And as the community has changed, and people, especially younger families moving in, and there are people who are interested in maybe becoming a Singing Kitchen helper or cook, they’ll kinda get the sense fairly quickly that the team exists as it is and it won’t change. So, I think in a very small place, that that’s one of the things that we always have to be careful of, is it’s very easy to pick out one group people who are really good at doing something, and never ask anybody else to be involved.


The other thing that’s different in small communities like Branch is, I have very good friend from Germany, and he runs a very successful pantry series out in Capes of St. Marys’. And when he became involved in some our local initiatives, and he saw some of the tensions between communities groups, he was very confused by it. We explained it to him, by saying in small communities, on all of these committees, people know each other. Not as committee members, but as family members and as friends. So when we sit at a table, we’d likely could look over at somebody and say “well in 1986, this happened and blah blah blah”.


John McKnight: Right.


Priscilla M.: Whereas in his committee in St. John’s, in the city, at the folk art council, they don’t really- they go back their neighborhoods and they will never see each other again until the next month. But we live so closely together that that sometimes, I think there’s a benefit in that because we also have a great respect for one another. But it does, you do get a sense that the connections are so personal sometimes, and we see each other every day. That makes a difference too.


Peter: So I’m sure everybody, they have historical conflicts, like you said: 1980, so and so.


Priscilla M.: Yes.


Peter: As a mayor, how did you deal with that? What was your way of thinking about how to handle the fact that people had a history and stories about each other, and some of it wasn’t so wonderful.


Priscilla M.: That was a big, it was a struggle for me because my personality is very, I was really just trying to keep the peace.


Peter: Right.


Priscilla M.: It was fine, because for the first four years, everything just went very smoothly. We had one big issue around our water system that came up that created huge divide in our community. We had six to eight months where people just, it was a very dark time. And I learned, you know, it is okay to have a gentle nature, but sometimes, you do have to face the music. You have to just lay it on the line, and have a huge honest conversation about things.


For me, that was a really big struggle. I’m happy to say that I learned a little bit from it. And I learned also that when you’re in the midst of a situation like that, or a midst of any of this work that involves people, that a bit of kindness does go a long way. If you listen to people, if you genuinely listen to people and take all perspectives into account, then people feel like they’ve been heard? It really makes a difference.


So I think that for me was one of the learning- I also think I came in at a time when we were just on a high. So it helped that we were just in a good vibe. Come home year had happened, lots of new things happening, so it was good. But, I’m not sure if I still really know how to handle all of the personal intricacies of rural committee work. If anyone online knows, I’d love to hear it. But at the end of the day, it does still work out, and people are pretty happy with one another.


Peter: Interesting. So you, how many people live in Branch now?


Priscilla M.: Right now, our sign says 230. But I think it fluctuates a little bit. We have some summer residents, and people who have moved in the last little – I don’t know if it reflects, but if I would guess, we’re between 230 and 250.


Peter: Now, do people want it to grow? And get larger?


Priscilla M.: Yeah that’s a really interesting question. Because in our early days on council … so our council was always a very young council. We had young parents, and we had an idea at one point that maybe we would purchase a piece of land and kinda create our own version of a subdivision. Because we had people who wanted to move to Branch, but they didn’t want … when you move into a small community like Branch, you don’t, you can’t just come in and, you know, it’s not a postage piece of stamp. You have to clear a land. And there’s a lot to be done to even get a house up. So we thought maybe if we did that and we got the septic in and the hook-up for the water, they could come in.


Peter: Right.


Priscilla M.: But that did not fly, especially with the younger people in council. Because they kinda said, you know we’re here because it is Branch. So we don’t want to be in a community that has a subdivision and where there’s a lot of people. So we recently have had some new people move in. We’ve had a group of surfers who moved in. They bought an older home in the community, and they’re kinda transient. They stay for a couple months, and then they move on, and then they come for another while. And they’re a huge asset to our community because they made us think about things sometimes in a very different way.


They’re also, and we love this, I don’t know if you live in a rural community and it’s a beautiful place, people sometimes tend to come to your community and you know, appreciate the view and clean air, but they don’t get involved. And that’s not looked upon very nicely in small communities. The surfers came, and they got on committees, they help with community gardens. And they became a part of the community. So I think we are welcoming, but we still have a little ways to go.


Peter: Let’s see, somebody typed in … let me read to you, facilities: it says are there organized, systematized methods for residents to support one another when individuals face illness, grieving, depression, financial hardship?


Priscilla M.: I wouldn’t say there would be an organized system, but I’m really happy to say that there’s a very informal support network that exists though in our area if somebody does pass away, if they are facing any type of hardship; people are very, very quick to come together and especially if there’s any type of financial need to raise money, to offer help. I think I’ve seen that grow more and more with the years. And I think our incomes have changed. People have higher income. So people are really ready to help out in any way they came.


We live, fairly in proximity to healthcare providers. We live a ways away from most health systems. So I’m thinking when you say depression and mental health issues, well people, there’s very strong support networks. So people help out in any way they can.


Peter: Would you-


John McKnight: Is there a tradition or way you go about raising money when somebody needs some money?


Priscilla M.: Yeah, one of the things we usually do, is there’s often a dance in our community center. And at the dance, then we have things like tickets or just general prize draws. On average, something like that in our community would raise seven or eight thousand dollars from people come out. And people come out to support a cause like that, that might not always be involved in a lot of community events, but they really make sure to that they support something like this.


Just to give you an example: this coming Sunday, so we have garden parties in our area. And these garden parties are really church fundraisers. In recent years, the community has decided that they would split the money with our church. Give half to church, half to the community for community initiatives. This come Sunday, the garden party happens in Port Lane, which is seven miles from Branch. That garden party will raise at least, in one afternoon, about fifty thousand dollars.


Peter: Wow.


Priscilla M.: And ours just happened last Sunday. We don’t have the final number, and that will be the twenty, St. Brie’s was twelve. So over every second Sunday, between late July and into August, that’s how much money is raised. People come out to support things that they believe in. The garden parties, as you can see, will be something that will be very important to people.


Peter: [crosstalk 00:30:22] That some surfers have begun to show up. They come for awhile but then they leave. I wonder, having such a historic community of people, many related, have lived there for a long time. One other non-rural Disney problem is that sometimes those kinds of communities are not very welcoming to people from the outside. I wonder whether you had any experience with new people coming who weren’t part of the gang, let’s say. And how they’ve been accepted or not, how does that go?


Priscilla M.: I think for us, and you know we have a place in Newfoundland called Trinity. It’s a very well known tourist community. I think their population drops every year from like, I don’t know, to twenty-something people because they have really strong summer populations. And for us, we’ve learned through the years, you’re welcomed more in Branch, as the surfers have been, if you try to make an effort to be involved.


So at our garden party, a couple of Sundays ago, we have a family that moved and they have … I think they’re originally maybe from Malaysia. And they’ve moved to Newfoundland, and they have a summer home in Branch. But they came to our community center on Garden Party Sunday and helped make salads and they brought a turkey and that was looked upon so kindly with people that they, that they were here and they helped out. And that’s why the surfers have been so welcomed. They arrived in Branch and decided they take an interest in it. I think when lots of time when people don’t get that welcome feeling, it’s because they arrive and they love all the great things of Branch. But they don’t interact with the community and people really struggle with that.


Peter: Ah. Here in the United States and a lot of small towns, the biggest issue is the feeling that they’re dying. That the young people aren’t staying and so the community is aging out. I wonder whether or not people feel that about your community. Or have you been able to sorta reverse their idea about the future.


Priscilla M.: You know, I always say I live in my dream land a lot, and I kinda feel like a lot of people feel that Branch has turned a bit of a corner. Because we do have new people who moved in, we have opened up a lot of land, a lot of crown government land, and every time it’s opened, it’s just snapped up. So people are really moving to Branch and trying to get that land to make sure, if they not moving here tomorrow, that when the time comes and they can, that they have somewhere to go, and they have a place to build a house.


But you know, it’s an interesting time shift with the young families. I’ve thought about this during my time in council, and when I started mayor, I was young. I’m 40 now, but I found in those eight years in council and still, that the people who really keep the community going? Are not the young families. They’re interested in what their children are doing. It’s mostly, it’s the older adults. The retirees, the people who are middle life, who can, who have the extra little bit of time. They’re the people who are involved in our community.


So I have sense, that the more young people moved in, they didn’t really involve themselves. They only ran the school council. But otherwise, they didn’t involve themselves in our community initiative. So we do love to have them, they increase the population, but really the retirees who came home were the ones that really got all those initiatives off the ground.


Peter: Interesting.


John McKnight: Do we have any caller-inners?


Peter: Yeah, maybe Maggie can invite people to call in?


Maggie Rogers: Sure. If you dialed in, you can press *8 on your phone and you’ll be put into a queue. Also we got some comments and questions going on in the chat. So Peter were you going to take those?


Peter: Sure. Well I can do that and then we can invite people to call in. I think that the question, is there poverty? Is there much range of wealth and the question was, what about language minorities? Ethnic minorities? How is that worked out, what has been the experience?


Priscilla M.: Well I’ll start with the language and the ethnic minorities. I wish, I really, really, really wish I could say to you today that is an issue for us because we have a lot of people and immigrants and refugees who would love to move to Branch. Now our government, in recent days, and actually August 12th, last week; they release a new idea that was they would start to have conversations with rural communities about how we can attract people to come and live in our communities. Of so far, it was not something that ever happened. Everybody in our community would be very, it’s a very homogeneous population.


Peter: Right.


Priscilla M.: We speak the same language. So we hope that that comes. Because we’d love to grow our community with diverse populations.


In terms of poverty, I’d love to talk about poverty. Because I think in smaller communities, I would say we wouldn’t have a lot of poverty in Branch. But the poverty that does exist I think sometimes is a little bit masked, because in the last probably fifteen years, Newfoundland has had such a surge because of our oil industry and our crab fishery. Especially in our particular area. At one point when I grew up, it was everybody had basically the same income. And now, you have a very, very prosperous class and you have a group whose really not been able to move with the prosperity from oil and the crab fishery. It is, I think, a little bit hidden. If you ask most people in Branch if there is poverty, I think a lot of people would say no, no no. People choose to live like that or they’re okay because they have enough to eat, or they have a house and not really seeing the true, really what low income does to people. So we would have marginalized groups, even in a community of 230 people.


Peter: Thank you. Anybody call in, Maggie?


Maggie Rogers: No, Peter.


Peter: Okay.


John McKnight: Let me ask, Priscilla, you’ve done a lot of things there. Local people bought them up, the local people made them happen. At the same time, you have a government that might in one sense, I think a fairly progressive provincial government. And I’m wondering about the relationship between your community building activities and the government. Have they been helpful in ways or have they just not been involved? How do you see government in relationship to all these activities that you’re doing?


Priscilla M.: Well in Newfoundland, we have our systems, we have our provincial government. And they would be, for us as a council at that time, even now, would really be led by the arm of government that looks after municipalities. And I think as time went on, these government departments and especially the one that has connection to the council, became a lot more broad thinking.


Because in Newfoundland historically, councils existed to look after sewer, water, and taxes. And roads. A little bit in terms of roadwork. But as time went on, they were really insistent that we look at bigger pictures things. We had to develop something called an integrated community sustainability plan. That looked at all these pillars of community vitality. I think they were very helpful in this. We just changed government I think after 13 years of the same party. So we’re in a new party now. And even now I think, and we’re in a time of Newfoundland of real austerity measures. But at the same time, I think they still have maintained an interest in helping communities and you know, helping communities figure out where they’re going in the future. So I’d say we have a positive relationship.


John McKnight: But they haven’t acted in ways that have led the people in Branch to say, if anything’s going to change, the government will have to do it. It appears that the people there thought they are still in command of their future. I’m sorta interested in that interplay between the government, which might replace the local community commitments to make a better place. If I hear you, you’re saying you think the government has not acted in ways that has replaced the community’s own energy.


Priscilla M.: No, I think it’s almost been a collaborative effort. I think we did really, I think Branch still does decide what we’re going to do, and then really go. What we’ve been mostly searching for would be, not even permission, but will be for funding. Because that’s what we’re always looking first, is we need money to do all these different things. And that seems to be where it had been up until recently, a little bit more free flowing in terms of the initiatives that we did want to start.


I just think that that’s Branch’s personality, over the years. Even at times when, you know when our [tag fish recollect 00:39:58] in the early 90’s right up until now. Ideas came up and the community said well let’s try it, and hopefully it works. Our community was also, and my mother included, was always made up of very fierce community activists. So it was very common in Branch in the 1980’s and 1990’s at times of great unemployment, for women, especially, to get together, get a bus, go into government offices and just sit and wait until a government official would come out and they basically we’re not leaving until we get some response. So it’s kinda just always a foundation for us, of making sure things happened.


John McKnight: You know, are there major daughters, we got a question about, that helped make things happen or is it mostly like you said, the garden parties and the wide bass that fund what you want to do?


Priscilla M.: Yeah, the funding will come from lots of different places. It would come from, some of it … the garden parties are a really good example. Because that would be a good chunk of money that could be used for a big, some type of big project. But a lot of it would come from a government. We have a sizable gas tax. I often wish in some ways I was back on council, because the funding even since I left three years ago, has increased dramatically. So, it was, and I think also they’ve been a little bit more creative in how they allow councils to use their funding. So it would be, mostly taxes as well as in terms of councils. And the government here, has a lot of, and I’m sure it’s the same thing in the States, we have all kinds of healthy living funds and little pacts of money around community engagement that people are always trying to tap into.


John McKnight: Do young people get involved in all of this? Or … I’m sure you try to get them engaged. What about the youth? Do they kinda have their own world or are they involved in the community?


Priscilla M.: Yeah, you know I think they are involved more than they would be in a lot of small communities. We have, our youngest councilor and hopefully mayor in the future, is also a social worker. And she’s 26. And she’s been on the council for a few years, so she’s really made major efforts to make sure the young people are involved and last year, she just started a literary arts festival. And the focus is on youth and artistic ventures of youth. So, you know, I think young people feel like they can be involved, and we’re so small. And there’s so, there’s not a lot of young people in the community. That those who are in Branch are, I think they’re involved in some way.


John McKnight: They have no place to hide.


Priscilla M.: No. Right.


John McKnight: You know, we just have a few more minutes. What strikes me is that, I think the fact that such a homogeneous, in a way makes it easier, but you really resisted the modernism. You’re kinda an enclave of a community that said we’re not going to be asked a question what’s new. And I think that’s what’s really interesting, that it’s possible to do that. Even when you have all the media, I’m sure everybody’s got their cell phones and you just somehow have a critical mass that says we’re not going to become a modern community. We’re a community with a memory. And with real affection for, I think that’s … you have those thoughts too, Priscilla? What’s your thought about that?


Priscilla M.: Yeah, I think we have resisted. I think we have resisted also as time has gone on, the whole, that whole umbrella that says, and it’s for every rural community on Earth, that this is the problem. Your population is declining. This is the solution: you have to move. You said affectionately, the affection that we have I think for our community and for the great belief that we can live in these little communities. And we can commute to work, and we can, you know, create all these really. Bring all these ideas to to life in such a small, with such a small group of people. I think is just, I think it’s probably been an inspiration also for nearby communities. And I’m just, I really feel good about our future and you know, more and more people become involved. And I think Branch will always, Branch will always be around.


John McKnight: Wow. Yeah that sounds like, and it’s interesting that at the senior suppers, that the thing that has seem to work is to show pictures, give videos about the past. Or about the people who are there in the present. So, that actual event is a memory re-newer, isn’t it?


Priscilla M.: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It is.


John McKnight: It allows you to have a way of having a continuing story that the community recognizes. I think, to have a community story is always a part of a strong local culture. And it sounds like you have that kind of a story. And you’ve been building on it.


Priscilla M.: We’ve been building on it, and I think the story is an evolving story. There’s a writer, I don’t know where in Canada he is, I think he’s on the west coast and his name is Bill Radfirst. And I heard him at a conference many years ago, and he talked about how we love to talk about our memories and that’s so important. And it’s such a unifier. We have to also look for to what the future holds. So build on it and look at what the evolution of your community’s going to be. What are some of the new ideas that are going to come out. What’s it going to look like in 20 years. And it doesn’t have to look the same, and I think that is something, I kinda have that vibe that that’s where we’re going. We’re thinking forward.


John McKnight: Can you imagine, Priscilla, I think there’s neighborhood movement even in the large cities. Can you imagine that kind of neighborhoods being, having the same qualities with affectionate memory, engagement, as Branch has? If you’re in a big city that’s more diverse and not as … because you live in almost like on an island.


Priscilla M.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


John McKnight: Except you don’t have to get up on boat to leave. But any thoughts about neighborhoods and this in large cities?


Priscilla M.: Oh you know, it always just amazes me. And I have to say thank you to you two, because you really introduced me to the idea of neighborhoods. Now in Branch, I know it sounds funny, but in some way we have our little teeny-tiny enclaves that we will consider to be neighborhoods. When I think about neighborhood associations, to me, it’s just the most exciting concept. That even in a big city, of such diverse populations, that you still will come together around common concerns and common gifts and that that still exists. That to me, is just exciting.


I do find it hard to imagine, because I did live in our city here in St. John’s for quite awhile, but even, that’s a small city compared to most of yours. So it is hard for me to imagine.


John McKnight: One final question, Priscilla: I know that, by profession, you are a social worker, but you’ve been very much focused on what I would called the area of public health.


Priscilla M.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


John McKnight: And public health people seem to be always concerned more about the environment than the hospital. Now I wonder, whether you see a relationship between the kind of community strengthening relationships that you’ve been trying to achieve and do achieve there in Branch. And the health of people. Do you see, could you say a few words about that connection, that you see it?


Priscilla M.: I definitely do see it. And you know, as we read out those Top 21 Reasons today, I think if you look at them, they’re really kinda the same as the determines of health. And all of them could fit into those 13 determinants. So I think when we make that effort to look really broadly at people, and at the different factors that determine if they’re healthy or if their community is healthy or not. I think that really impacts their health in such a great way.


I know in our community, it would be very, very simple and very easy for us to say, we have one nurse who lives in our community and she’s about to retire. And I’m sure there’s going to be a major, I’m hoping there’s going to be a major movement to make sure she’s replaced. But at the same time, it’s equally as important that we continue with the Singing Kitchen so people have a chance to connect and be together and have those social connections and support networks. So I think that, all this, with the corner store stuff and all the Singing Kitchen, the community garden, all this. That has allowed us to definitely to look at food security as opposed to just the presence or absence of food in a bigger picture way. And just focusing on the gifts it has given us a chance to make, I don’t know, what could really be a sad story into a happier story.


John McKnight: That’s wonderful. Are there any other people, Peter, that are checking in with us?


Peter: Just a couple things that people have put in the chat. One is “when you hold city council, do many people show up and how do you structure that time?”. And then the second question is about social media. How does email, social media, etc, play a role in Branch? Maybe those could be our final things, and then we’ll summarize.


Priscilla M.: For social media, we’re talking to a 40 year old who is not on Facebook, and I’m still trying to figure out Twitter. But I’m realizing, more and more and more, that it’s very important. And it’s very important for our community. So our 26 year old councilor is in charge of our twitter account and the mayor, who is very connected to Facebook, so I think very much something that would’ve been pointed out about me, while I was mayor. That that was a downfall. Because you really at this day and age, you have to have some social media presence. So that’s been very positive for us.


Our council meeting are structured so that they are, everybody knows when they are, so like the first Monday or second Monday of the month. People are invited to come. And when I was on council, there was great fear when people would show up at a council meeting, because it was usually meant there was some issue going on. But it’s structured so that, while the council meeting is in progress, there is no conversation among the public. And then when the meeting completely ends and is adjourned, then there is time for discussions and questions.


Peter: I got it. Well this is-


John McKnight: One little interesting thing, what’s the gender of the members of the city council?


Priscilla M.: Right now, we have an all-female council. And it was funny, or interesting, because on the day they were elected, our capital city elected an all-male council. So there was a lot of media coverage about a community of 230 people having all-female council, and the city has an all-male one.


Peter: That’s good, that creates balance.


Priscilla M.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Peter: So any final thoughts, John? Or reflections? Or Priscilla? Any thoughts, Priscilla, about this conversation and how it … what it’s meant to you or things that struck you about our talking with you?


Priscilla M.: You know, I just like to end by saying that your work and John’s work for me as a social worker. I was schooled in right from the beginning, in strength-based social work. And to me, it was just seem very faraway and I didn’t know if it was possible. But all of your work has really, through my council life and right now in my current primary health care stuff, it just, your work and your asset-based approach, just is kinda imbued in everything that I would do and how I would think? So I just want to say thank you for that. And thanks for the opportunity today.


John McKnight: Wonderful you joined us.


Peter: Yeah, thank you so much Priscilla. You are just an amazing soul. I think I would say you’re probably one of the major assets of Branch, you just got such a … it’s just wonderful listening to your own spirit. So thank you so much.


Priscilla M.: Thanks.


Peter: And thank you John, because John really brought the asset.


John McKnight: And we should commend to everybody who may joining us, visit Branch!


Priscilla M.: Yes!


John McKnight: Such a wonderful place.


Peter: Okay you’ve been there. All right, thank you all. Maggie, you want to take us out?


Maggie Rogers: Let’s do it. Well thank you Priscilla, it’s been so enjoyable to listen to you and what came up for me, is the affection and the importance of connection and participation, and what a difference that makes in our lives. I also want to comment, I think you said that the 21 Reasons may be revisited, so I’d like to ask that when they’re done again, if you could send us a copy.


Priscilla M.: I will, yes.


Maggie Rogers: Thank you. And thanks again, we appreciate you taking the time today and thank you to all who joined in. We hope you’ll be with us next time which is October 11 with Lisa Haden of the Michigan Area Health Education Center. So I’ll also mention that these calls are recorded and archived on the abundant community website. Leslie, our site manager, is away for awhile, but she’ll post this as soon as she’s able. So until our October 11 call, next time, please visit the website and stay in touch with us. So this brings our program to a close today. Thank you again for joining us.


Priscilla M.: Thanks.


Peter: Thanks Priscilla.


Priscilla M.: Thank you, bye.

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About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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