Our little street party last weekend

Our annual Street Festival was last weekend, and wow, what a festival it was! I feel so lucky that I live on our street, with so many amazing neighbors who are now friends. When I think about community development and what community means to me, by connection to my street and my neighborhood is what first comes to mind. I interact with my street and my neighbors every single day, and how we live and play together as a community has such a profound impact on my life and on my childrens lives. I feel so so blessed that we found our amazing street.

   We probably had over 100 people at our street party, and activities included a bike parade, potluck supper, water balloon toss, talent show and then lots of socializing. Tons of kids of all ages, and my two sons (aged 7 and 1.5) ran around with them all, with lots of laughing and fun. I knew a lot of my neighbors at the street party because we have lived on the street for 10 years and we are very social, but I met lots of new folks as well, who just moved in. There was such a feeling of celebration and community love in the air. The highlight of the night was that the neighbors who started the street festival 20 years ago (!) are now moving into a condo down the street (because they are older with some health issues so can’t upkeep their house and garden). There was a  celebration of their commitment to the street and community life, and they told the story of how they started 20 years ago, with a pile of hotdogs and some flyers and their interest in knowing the names of their neighbors. Another neighbor who also was there at the beginning, surprised them with a painting that he did of their house, so they would remember us and put the painting up in their new condo. It was very touching, and so wonderful to hear the history of our street party. I feel inspired, to get more involved so that the tradition keeps going and to teach my children about the importance of community and doing the little things that matter to take care of each other. Thanks Shannon and Pam, for making our little street amazing!

Dancing at the Montreal Tam-Tams

I went to Montreal with my family this month, and the highlight of my trip was the Sunday Tam-Tams at the mountain. I love the Tam-Tams. The Tam-Tams is a public drumming, dancing, playing activity where hundreds of people join together on the mountain on Sundays to have fun. On the internet, it says that the Tam-Tams started in 1978, which is incredible that its been going on for so long. I love dancing. Not performance dancing, but social dancing, jamming, improv dancing. I hardly ever do it anymore and I’ve become more inhibited as I’ve gotten older, which is a bit sad but the truth. But this Sunday a few weeks ago, I let go and danced like I was 19 again, joining in with the drums and the other dancers.

I used to be really involved with the Contact Improv dance scene, in Toronto, Peterborough and in Montreal. Contact improv is a social dance – people meet up once a week to dance together, not with any music or choreography, but just free-form contact dance. Contact means exactly that – body contact. Weight distributed – sometimes you are slithering on the ground and sometimes you are flying up in the air like a bird. I am small, so I was often lifted in the jams and I would feel so weightless and free. I never was afraid.

Its wonderful to find community spaces to feel free – free to be uninhibited, free to dance. The Sunday Tam-Tams is this kind of event, open to everyone. People of all ages and backgrounds are there, and you are free to do what you want – play hacky-sack, chill out on the grass, drum or dance or sing. I didn’t speak to anyone there but I didn’t need words to feel part of the Montreal community.

If you are ever in Montreal, join the Tam-Tams on Sundays. 

Shout out to St. Chris – Happy 100th Birthday!

St. Christopher House is a neighborhood centre located in the downtown west-end of Toronto, and I worked there as the Volunteer Coordinator for 4 years, from 2004-2008. I learned SO MUCH from my time working there, at an organization that truly works from core community development principles. 

St. Chris celebrated recently celebrated its 100th birthday, as it began on June 12, 1912. St. Chris was started by Sir James Wood, from the settlement house movement, and its roots are located in Kensington Market. Take a look at the 100th Birthday video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMGda12CPPo!

So many people have been involved with St. Chris over the past 100 years, and I feel very privileged that I spent four years working there. I learned so much, and I want to share just a few of my learnings here:

1. A community centre can and should blur the lines between ‘client’, ‘member’, ‘volunteer’ etc. There is no problem with ‘clients’ volunteering within the center, and this model actually significantly shifts the power dynamics that are seen in traditional social service agencies. For example, the Meeting Place (a drop-in for homeless community members)  ‘clients’ are called ‘members’ and take ownership in the space, of providing workshops to each other (sharing strengths), cooking food for each other etc. 

2. Serious social policy work can and should be done within a social service context – it makes for ‘on-the-ground’ discussion and authentic community engagement. When I was there, we were working on two social policy projects – MISWAA (see http://www.stchrishouse.org/get-involved/community-dev/modernizing-income-work-adults/C) and Neighborhood Change/Gentrification (http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/curp/Bringing_People_Together_%20First_%20Final4.pdf). Working on these projects within a large neighborhood centre meant that many diverse community members got engaged and involved with the issues and leaders were supported from within this context. 

3. Inclusive volunteer management is easier in theory than in practice. It is much easier to run a traditional volunteer management program where you recruit, screen and select the best, most educated easy-to-handle volunteers, who want to give back to their community. I was 100% committed to ensuring that ALL community members who lived in our catchment area, was given the opportunity to volunteer. I felt so strongly that we couldn’t call ourselves a community development organization and then turn community members away from getting involved. However, this is easier said that done. I had to convince all the program staff in the organization that it was their job, along with their regular job of running their program, to support volunteers who might face challenges. I feel very proud of the work that I did in this area (and I know this model is still continuing to this day) but it wasn’t easy.