Waterloo School for Community Development

"a Waterloo theory would... [have] a greater sense that tradition and community must not only be critiqued but also be revised, enhanced and promoted." - Gregory Baum

-by Joe Mancini and Ken Westhues

The Working Centre has had an educational dimension from the start. Most of the education is informal, a by-product of participation in the help centre, St. John's Kitchen, and specific projects like Recycle Cycles or Queen Street Commons. People watch each other work, they ask questions and get answers, they converse. Thereby they teach and learn.

Some of the education at the centre is more formal. The ongoing program of workshops, discussion groups, study circles, and information sessions at the Queen Street locations is part of it. So is the centre’s newsletter, Good Work News. So is the book catalogue now sent widely across Canada, and publication of occasional books by the centre itself. Another part of more formal education at the Working Centre is speaking engagements to inform the wider public of the centre’s work.

The year 2001 marked the tenth anniversary of the Working Centre’s hosting of regular credit courses in sociology and political science from the University of Waterloo. The program was established as a way of bringing regular, full-time university students into closer contact with the realities of working life. The program also permits mature students to continue or begin university study in small classes with lots of discussion in an unintimidating setting.

The centre’s name for this loose collection of educational initiatives is the Waterloo School for Community Development.

Why Waterloo? Because this county, now a regional municipality, was named for the battleground in Belgium where Napoleon met defeat. Our region’s very name means resistance to tyranny. In today’s Canada, education is the single best way of continuing that resistance, and of safeguarding the pluralism, freedom, and human dignity for which the original Battle of Waterloo was fought.

Why Community Development? Because these objectives are achieved only in a social context. Education at the Working Centre is understood to be more than individuals acquiring new skills and knowledge by which to pursue their respective private interests. It is a matter of serving the public interest and improving the community as a whole.

Waterloo Region was not founded by imperial edict. It arose from the grassroots efforts of settlers finding their own way along the trail of the black walnut trees. Its defining character is a place of decentralized power, a place where ordinary people can make their own history, free of despotism of any kind.

The Waterloo School for Community Development is faithful to these democratic traditions. Its focus is not limited to politics, though citizen participation at the global, federal, provincial, and especially local levels is essential. Democracy is served through information-sharing, dialogue and debate in all aspects of life–work, family, and neighbourhood as well as the larger political domain.

In 1986, the great Canadian theologian and commentator, Gregory Baum of McGill University, spoke of his dream of a distinctive, Waterloo kind of social theory. He contrasted it to the “critical” approach of the Frankfurt School in Germany, which highlighted faults in the status quo. Baum wrote that “a Waterloo theory would differ from the Frankfurt theory by a greater sense that tradition and community must not only be critiqued but also be revised, enhanced and promoted.”

The Waterloo School for Community Development aims to develop a Waterloo social theory in Baum’s sense of the term, a sense that corresponds to the name and history of this place. The Working Centre plans to maintain and strengthen its program of educational initiatives, including training, research, publishing, mini-courses, and possibly an annual conference for sharing new ideas on work and community.

The Waterloo School is of interest to people who:

  • are working to create meaningful ways for people to produce a living on their own and in locally organized groups;
  • are creating projects that are ecologically sound; and
  • recognize “that tradition and community must not only be critiqued but also be revised, enhanced and promoted.”

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