Mar 2, 2020 | Community and Partnerships
This month’s blog is written by a colleague and friend Leigh Vachon who is currently serving as the ED for Victoria Manor. She writes from a unique perspective that I personally have learned from and hope you will as well.
In this blog she talks about connections and community and the importance of both. I can say that for me what resonates the most is how privileged I am – and I was – to have both connections and a sense of community in my life. I have managed through some challenging personal and professional times because of both. I am grateful that Leigh is one of my close connections and that I am fortunate enough to be in her community of friends, supporters and colleagues. Enjoy!
I am of a certain age where I say things like “I remember when…” nostalgically, somewhat wistfully when I recall my childhood. The idea that things were better than they are now is problematic. Not only is it statistically inaccurate globally, but also said from a place of privilege. For those who are marginalized and disenfranchised, the past is not a time to be remembered fondly. Still, for many of us it’s not so much remembering our own childhood experiences with nostalgia, it is instead a fond remembering of the places and people we knew.
Childhoods are times of wonder and innocence but for many of us they are also times of trauma and of adversity. But even at its worst of times, we will recall the communities within the larger community where we grew up as our safe spaces, be it with neighbours, shopkeepers, librarians, lifeguards or bowling team coaches, all being ones who cared for us, invested in us or sheltered us. Sometimes it was our own homes that were not safe. I remember some of the families of my friends, how their home lives were so different than my own, and for some of them being at our house with my Mom was their safe space.
As an adult, with a child of my own, and a childhood full of memories of her own, I am very aware of the differences in our childhood recollections. We have one set of neighbours to our left that we know well, but she has never played with any neighbourhood kids, she has not walked to a corner store with her friends and a fistful of change to spend. She hasn’t played outside until the streetlights came on. I miss that for her.
When I say that I remember that time nostalgically it’s much about the freedom from the stresses of adulting, but it’s also about a time where I felt connected to my Ottawa Street community. A time when I knew, if not by name but by face, the people I shared the sidewalk with. We watched out for each other. My grown up life doesn’t even have sidewalks.
I have been the Executive Director of Victoria Manor Supportive Housing for many years. My inward view is of many low-income people (114 as of today) struggling with mental and physical illness, some with substance abuse issues, many with histories of profound trauma. My view looking outwards from this inner-city home is much the same; poverty, untreated and unsupported health issues are glaringly juxtaposed against the beauty of this historic neighbourhood. Substance abuse and crime rates continue to climb as governments, social serving agencies, institutions and community advocates all try to apply pressure to the wound of social disconnection.
It’s an oversimplification to say that the causes of our societal ailments is the loss of connection to our neighbours, but I do believe that the complex issues we are facing have been building on the shaky foundation of gutted communities.
With school closings, community centre and library amalgamations, malls and plazas and big box shopping developments, we streamlined and centralized, but we cut ourselves out of the lives of everyone around us. Convenience has replaced connection.
The loss of connection to each other, the loss of recognition of ourselves as part of a collective is what Clifford Longley calls "retreat from the common good." When we no longer know each other, it becomes easier to live individualistically, to perceive our needs through the singular lens of “mine.” We are not “us” anymore. Over time the lack of “us” has become a lack of compassion and a lack of social conscience. It makes it easier for people to steal from or to hurt each other.
Rebuilding and revitalizing communities is our greatest opportunity to alter our current upward trajectory in crime, homelessness and illness rates. We need to walk on those sidewalks and look directly into the eyes of those around us. No more heads down, just getting ours.
I have taught a Community Practice class at St. Clair College for the last few years and this idea of reconnection for change underlies every lesson I teach. Nakita Valerio wrote, "shouting 'self-care' at people who actually need community care is how we fail people." Community reconnection serves not only the common good, it serves each of us. Valerio goes on to explain “community care is a recognition of the undeniable cooperative and social nature of human beings and involves a commitment to reduce harm simply through being together.” It might be a cliche, but people do in fact need people.
I was honoured last semester to have Janice Kaffer, CEO of Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare speak to my Community Practice students; much of what I have said here resonated throughout her presentation. Hospitals, like schools, like policing, have had to adjust their sails in response to shifting needs. We are losing people every day to substances, to homelessness, to illness, to loneliness; whatever our big institutions and public sectors were before they cannot remain. HDGH is committed to taking the work of the hospital outside of hospital walls. Access to services in the places people call theirs is a return to community members looking out for each other. Consistent and compassionate community outreach is giving people a face to recognize and in time, to trust.
I am proud to sit as a Director on the Board of Assisted Living Southwest Ontario (ALSO). Frequent collaborators with HDGH, ALSO has challenged itself to get people what they need, where they need it, creating a hub model of service called - communities of care. Along with Janice, Lynn Calder the Executive Director of ALSO, and several other innovative partners, have been connecting people to much needed supports, and reconnecting them to the idea that they are a valuable part of our community.
Because they are.
Not all of us are hospital CEOs or the Executive Directors of organizations, sometimes we feel like we don’t have the power to affect real change when we feel something is wrong in our communities. But what I believe is that the citizens of any community have the most power, they have the power to unite – our numbers are enough to make the changes we want to see. And of course that means voting, it means volunteering, it means learning and educating – it means active civic participation. The real power however is in how you treat the people. Meet your neighbours, say hello to strangers, do not let any service interaction pass without asking your server how they are today.
It takes some personal inconveniencing to reconnect disconnected communities, but I think it will be what saves us from a continued decline into incivility. And remember that our communities are not only comprised of those who we easily call neighbours it’s the people we pass on the sidewalks that may not live on our block but instead live on our streets.
Community means all of us.
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