The glue that binds communities together

Here’s a recent column I wrote in the T-J.  It’s a business column so I worked in the biz angle at the bottom. 

I spent most of last week roaming the vast, empty desert that makes up the state of Nevada. Excluding Las Vegas and Reno, only about 300,000 people live in the entire state across an area four times larger than New Brunswick.

Driving along the lonely rural highway every 50 kilometres or so we came across another small town usually established to service a local mining operation and the occasional travellers from the road.

At the entry point to these towns there was always a large sign listing the civic organizations active in the community. It is fairly impressive as towns with as little as 500-1000 people had two dozen or more of these organizations listed including Chambers of Commerce, Rotary, youth clubs, social groups, sports organizations, etc.

In the social and economic experiment that was the Soviet Union, one of initial goals of the government was to eliminate or usurp civic organizations as they were seen as subversive to the goal of the perfect communist state.

In her fascinating new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, Anne Applebaum chronicles how the communist government deliberately crushed virtually all civic and religious organizations without realizing they were eliminating the glue that binds communities together. These organizations provided the context for people to get involved with their neighbours and build relationships worth fighting for.

I am a big fan of the power of volunteer organizations constituted to address community issues ranging from simple business networking through to those meant to tackle a community’s most intractable social challenges. This working in concert – working as community – is the main ingredient in the success of communities over time.

Because government is such a force in modern life in New Brunswick, there is a tendency among many to believe that it – paid public servants – should be solely responsible for addressing community issues.

I recently talked with a guy who was adamantly opposed to any kind of private philanthropy or volunteer support for health care or education initiatives because they are ‘public services’ funded by the taxpayer. Why should the private citizen get involved?

This is short-sighted and misses the point of community. Government can play a foundational role but it would be a mistake to diminish the role of public involvement. This is what makes us better citizens and better people.

I prefer communities where large bands of private citizens and businesses work together to address community challenges such as youth poverty, neighbourhood crime and homelessness.

I extend this thinking into the economic development realm too. Many New Brunswick communities are facing significant economic and demographic challenges and we need to marshal business and community leaders to tackle these problems just as we would crime, literacy or poverty.

Without strong local economies, our communities and province will strain to be able to offer good quality public services and infrastructure. It will also put pressure on our social objectives.

I’d like to see more business people stepping up to the plate – particularly a younger generation of leaders. Most of the business people that are active working on economic development issues around the province are the same people from 20 years ago.

Those that say economic development is “the government’s responsibility” are wrong.  The government has an important role to play representing the interests of the taxpayer but if communities are to change their economic trajectory, it will be in large part because business leaders decided to make it happen.

This is not a random thought. All around New Brunswick, communities are grappling with how they will respond to the provincial and federal governments pulling financial support for regional economic development agencies.

If this is an inflection point that leads to far more local engagement related to economic development, that decision may turn out to have been a great blessing in disguise.

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One Response to The glue that binds communities together

  1. John Percy says:

    Yes sir! Local and community organizations are vital to rural and small town survival. They have a major role to play in the economic and social health of any community. Often they can pinpoint problem areas that are specific to their locality, do not require a large government intervention or overarching provincial policy shift that may not apply across the board. I would like to see more business and service organization support for local initiatives that would drive local self-sufficiency, economic empowerment and take some of the burden off the shoulders of government. Who knows? Maybe taxes could then be applied to other critical areas that would have gone to searching for solutions to issues that local authorities have covered.

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