Putting a charge back in your community

Neighbourhood activist Jim Diers shares his experience building more caring, more resilient, and more responsive communities.

Chilliwack residents took a step toward creating a more energized and active city on Wednesday.

But the next move is their own, said neighbourhood activist and author Jim Diers.

Diers was invited by the City of Chilliwack to share his experience in building more caring, more resilient, and more responsive communities in Seattle.

Born in Burnaby, Diers has been working with individuals and community groups to reclaim and reinvigorate neighbourhoods by channeling the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the people who live there.

“There is incredible, untapped power in our communities,” Diers told a crowded Rotary Theatre at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre.

He said governments have a role to play, but ultimately it is up community members to identify their needs and mobilize the resources necessary to meet their collective goals.

Diers is no stranger to this effort. He began work in the 1980s and his ideas have since spilled into 17 other countries.

And they’ve seen results. One example is an innovative partnership between local government and community groups. Governments agree to provide funding for a community initiative that is matched to the number of volunteer hours groups are willing to commit.

Since its inception in 1989, the “Neighbourhood Matching Fund” has mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers and completed more than 5,000 community projects.

By working together, communities can make their neighbourhoods safer, healthier, and more sustainable, said Diers. He offered a few tips on how to make that happen.

The first and most important, he said, is to have fun. Too often efforts are led by what a friend called “the GDs – The grim and determined.”

Community activism should not be a chore. “If we want to build community, we need to lighten up,” he said.

He gave an example familiar to many in the room. There was a problem bridge in a Seattle neighbourhood that was a magnet for drug use, crime and homelessness. City officials had thought to fence the area off, but one community group had a better idea. They sculpted an enormous troll that now draws residents and tourists and has become the focal point of special events.

Motivating people is never easy, Diers said; you need to speak their language. You have to tap their networks, discover their passions, and reach them at a block-by-block level. “If you can tap into what people are passionate about they are more likely to get involved,” he said.

That can be a challenge in an isolated world, where many of us spend more time online or in front of the television.

A way around that is to create “bumping areas” within the community where neighbours are more likely to bump into each other, share ideas and discuss issue. That can be as simple as children’s play area, or a “Little Free Library” like the one recently introduced in on Garrison Crossing neighbourhood.

With any community project, said Diers, it is important to aim for results. Saving the world may be a noble goal, but it might be better to choose something a bit more achievable, like construction of a community garden or the reclamation of a vacant lot.

Whatever the task, use all the human resources your disposal, he said. That means ensuring all members of the community – regardless of what label (elderly, at-risk, homeless) has been assigned to them – have a role to play in the project. Everyone has unique talents and special gifts. “Focus on those gifts and they become citizens of our community.”

Using these tools, neighbourhoods can make themselves safer, more engaged and better positioned to respond to an emergency or a disaster. He gave the example of Christchurch, New Zealand. Devastated by an earthquake in 2011, the city was left scarred by vacant lots where buildings once stood. Some lots were turned into meeting areas, other gardens, and one a dance floor were residents could plug their iPod into a Dance-O-Matic – an abandoned washer that was now equipped with speakers.

“There, in the middle of devastation, people were dancing,” he said

Diers urged participants to initiate their own ideas and not wait for government.

“We need to build this movement,” he said.

His urging has already had an effect. Coun. Chris Kloot, one of four city councillors at the meeting, is calling on volunteers to help organize a Rosedale community day.

For more on Jim Diers Neighbour Power project, go to www.neighborpower.org/

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