Informal Community Development

By Stephanie Mancini, Good Work News, December 1999

We met Jim Lotz at a conference at the Marguerite Centre in Pembroke, Ontario in February. Paul Schwarzentruber, the director of this centre for retreat and reflection, operated by the Grey Sisters, hosted a conference there on community development. Jim Lotz was a keynote speaker. He has studied and written about community development in Canada. He is a great promoter of writing and telling stories of community development and he wrote the story of his trip from Halifax to Pembroke to Montreal.

Lotz weaves a story of his trip, the experience of being involved in community development and some of the overall lessons of community development work in Canada. The Working Centre’s experiences are mentioned in this report. I’ve quoted from this report below, and the full text can be obtained from The Working Centre or from Jim Lotz directly. “Community development works at the place where structure and anti-structure meet, in liminal spaces where people come together to meet informally. In such places, people can determine ways of becoming participants in personal and community development – not bystanders or victims of the dreams and schemes of others.”

The Working Centre’s experience has been that formal and informal structures meet around concrete resources (or access to tools as we wrote about in the last issue of Good Work News). This concept of resources stands in sharp contrast to the ideas of providing services or programs that primarily offer formal structures without allowing for unstructured space and relationship building.

The word “resource” springs from the Latin word resurge, to rise again. A resource is defined as a source of supply, support, or aid; the collective wealth of a country or its means of producing wealth. Both of these definitions offer insights into a model of resources that can be used over and over again to aid the collective well-being of the community.

Good Work News is full of examples of ways people make use of community resources. I could choose from a wide range of examples, but a look at the initiatives that have risen around transportation reflect the diversity of ideas that spin out of this meeting of the formal and informal at The Working Centre. A group of people concerned about air quality started over a year ago, which The Working Centre has participated in and supported. The Working Centre was asked to act as a sponsor of a request to the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation to organize the local Commuter Challenge this June (see page 2).Recycle Cycles will be located in the new space at 43 Queen and will continue to recycle bicycles and to assist people in repairing and maintaining their own bikes. This project combines the simple acts of bike repairs with building community cooperation, bicycle advocacy, and learning about how communities build and develop potential. Links have been built with the Stop Highway 7 group and others interested in looking closely at how Planning and Policy issues around transportation affect the environment. These concerns about transportation have a significant impact on lower income people. So many of our tax dollars go to build roads and shape neighbourhoods where a car (or two) quickly become a necessity. Lower income people ride bikes, walk and take public transit. The Transit Users’ Group gathers monthly at The Working Centre to look at issues related to public transit including policy and planning issues; ways to encourage more bus travel by local citizens as an environmental response; and addressing the issues of supports for lower income people who are the primary users of the bus system.

The challenge is to support and sustain these projects and yet still allow for informal creativity as Jim Lotz says’

“Community development seeks to help communities to make better use of their resources, to develop approaches to change that strengthen what is of value and to adopt, adapt and improve new ways of handling the stresses and strains of change.”

What works in one community may not do so in another, and much harm has been done in trying to apply the one big solution to the complex problems of community revitalization. Over the years I have become increasingly aware of the moral, ethical and spiritual basis of community development. What right has anyone to intervene in the life of a community, to question those in it about what they are doing and why, and to impose their own views, ideas and agendas on others?

Effective community development relies on three basic approaches:

  1. The accumulation, evaluation and transmission of reliable information from trustworthy sources to all community members.
  2. The ability of individuals and communities to be resourceful and to engage in sustainable development that uses community resources for the benefit of all in an efficient manner.
  3. Organizing and motivating individuals and communities to share what they know and what they have for the benefit of others in the community.

In the past, community development has been seen as a way of ‘solving’ the problems of marginalized regions and people living on the edge of society. Thus it has often become a social movement. The quotation from Psalm 118 illustrates how many people see community development – as a way of encouraging the rejected people in our society to create new, more compassionate and open societies...

To many people involved in community development their task resembles picking up fine sand in two hands. When you think you have gathered something, you find what you had has trickled away.

Excerpted from Lonesome Roads, by Jim Lotz, a report on a visit to community development ventures in Ontario and Quebec, February 11-16, 2000.

Subscribe to Job Postings Feed Subscribe to For Job Searchers Feed Subscribe to The Working Centre Feed Subscribe to Commons Studio Feed