Grassroots Heroes Weave the Social Fabric
BY ROB HOWATSON
They came clutching their homemade posters―men, women and children of every skin colour, from every neighbourhood of Southeast Vancouver. The families filed excitedly into the Collingwood Neighbourhood House gymnasium and taped their display boards to the walls. They had glued photos to whatever materials they could find, and beneath the images they scrawled captions to explain how they used small amounts of money from the Vancouver Foundation to host community-strengthening events on their streets.
With all the posters hung, people mingled before the displays and shared tales of meeting people in their districts. They spoke of block parties, backyard barbeques and park picnics; and the animated conversations continued as everyone sat for dinner.
This was a modest buffet meal in an East Van gymnasium, certainly not the top event on the city’s social calendar, but the annual Neighbourhood Small Grants Project Celebration held at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House November 6 proved a crucial point: people still yearn for a sense of community.
This despite the fact that in recent years, there has been a growing mass of gloomy literature published about the decline of social connectedness in our world. Robert Putnam’s bombshell book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community draws upon a substantial array of data that show his fellow countrymen disengaging from political and civic life over the past 40 years. He claims that the average American entertains friends at home half as often as they did in 1975. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining. People still go bowling, but they don’t join leagues―hence the title of his book.
While it may be tempting for Canadians to dismiss Putnam’s Yankee-centric work as not applicable to our situation north of the border, a June survey by the Vancouver Foundation found that most Metro residents do not know their neighbours, nor do they participate in community activities.
In light of these disturbing findings, the informal celebration at the CNH gym assumes a noble stature, because the Neighbourhood Small Grants recipients, who posed proudly beside their event posters, are forging connections in an era of growing isolation.
As desserts began to circulate, Sheri Parke, NSGP coordinator, invited some of the grassroots heroes to share their experiences. First up: Monika Garg, a diminutive 27 year old who immigrated from India only nine months ago. Her English was shaky and her Punjabi accent thick, but Monika soldiered through her summary of the kids’ talent competition she staged for 40 guests in her neighbourhood. When she finished, the audience eagerly applauded her courage.
She was followed by Che Nolan, one of the organizers of the 5th Annual MacDonald Park Block Party. He reported that 200 people from his Sunset neighbourhood contributed to the potluck meal that they enjoyed in the tiny green space that anchors their community.
Other grant recipients present that night included Miriam and Wayne, a Collingwood couple whose home was burgled shortly after they moved into the area. They joined a block watch program and used NSGP money to create wooden address shingles that they distributed free to their neighbours. The shingles are hung in their back alley to help police locate homes when they respond to 911 calls in the area.
The crime-fighting couple sat at the same table as the trio of teens who decorated a boring, beige earthquake preparedness container in the playground of Fraserview’s David Oppenheimer Elementary School. The students used their grant to paint a brightly coloured nature scene on the bulky metal bin.
And across the table from the artists was Nita Carvajal, an avid green thumb from Marpole who encourages her neighbours to visit her home garden where she shares seeds, teaches composting techniques and introduces people to one another.
These community builders were a small sample from one table that stood among 13. The entire gym was full of progressive individuals who saw their crudely designed posters cloaking the walls as a weaving of the social fabric in our city.
Before the evening’s entertainment took the stage, Lidia Kemeny, Vancouver Foundation’s director of grants and community initiatives, stood to address the big question: WHY?
Does it really matter if we know who lives across the street or down the block?
“Research shows that when neighbours know and trust each other, streets are safer, people are healthier and happier, our children do better in school, there is less bullying and less discrimination,” explained Kemeny. “We are simply better off in many of the ways that matter.”
© Copyright (c) 2012 Renfrew-Collingwood Community News