Champions are ready at the helm

Local government should assist with, but can’t solve all the needs of communities.

Champions are ready at the helm

“A community is like a ship: everyone should be prepared to take the helm” – Henrik Ibsen.


Jim Diers, an American community building visionary, would agree.

In 1988, he became the director of Seattle’s newly established Office of Neighborhoods, a revolutionary, but timely concept for municipal government aimed at helping community groups enhance and strengthen their neighborhoods.

Local government should assist with, but can’t solve all the needs of communities. Diers (Neighbor Power) knew that improving urban life depended on a paradigm shift; a new approach by government. He established his Neighborhood Champions Program for folks willing to take on responsibility for positive change in their communities. All they needed was a little help from their municipal friends.

This focus on what Diers termed, “participatory democracy,” gave citizens the helm in their own neighborhoods. It gave them a new sense empowerment, while rekindling community pride and responsibility.

Today, Diers presents workshops on this topic to towns everywhere. He’s conducted them in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge.

One keen disciple of the Diers model for community building is Dave Speers, the neighborhood programs coordinator in the district. His role encompasses Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge.

Last week, Speers told a group of local “neighborhood champions” – a term he’s adopted – about his own three-pronged plan to assist community building efforts of citizen groups here, including grant money, a mentoring service for those starting up, and help with sharing ideas through the District.

At the Genstar Theatre, Speers shared the details at a celebratory dinner for folks he’s already worked with. The evening focused on success stories of those who’d organized festivals in 2012, brought art and theatre our way, increased local food security, or held block parties so neighbors could collaborate on projects. Many street barbecues and fun days evolved into new neighborhood associations, such as those in Hammond, Thornhill, Albion, Whonnock, and Westridge.

Working together, we succeed together.

Leanne Koehn, of Hammond Neighbors, told me a block party her group held in July led to the much-needed beautification of Hammond pool. It also opened the door to sharing of community related topics on Facebook.

“Social media is one way to accelerate participatory democracy,” says Koehn. “People can talk about topics like better river access, heritage issues, and future projects.”

At the theatre, we listened to organizers of the farmers market review its popularity – 60,000 visitors last year. The market supports local growers that contribute to food security as droughts and floods threaten production and supply from the south.

Another speaker, Ineke Boekhorst, summarized the Downtown Maple Ridge Business Improvement Association’s on-going  support of local, popular festivals.

We heard too, from Sharon Malone of the award winning Emerald Pig Theatre – Macbeth in the park next year – Lindy Sisson of the Arts Council, a great venue for local talent, and the Golden Ears Transition Initiative led by Gerry Pinel.

GETI encompasses 21 skill sharing groups including the new Golden Ears Community Co-op.

When Kim Lauzon launches it in 2013, food growers and consumers will benefit substantially.

I shared the CEED Centre’s decision to write Fisheries Minister Gail Shea. Our letter endorses one from Maple Ridge council sent earlier following an ad hoc committee report listing negative impacts changes to the act will have on our watersheds.

By backing council, KEEPS and ARMS – which recently got a $5,000 grant towards its adopt-a-stream program – the CEED Centre tells Ottawa that we are united here in the high value we place on our local environment.

Jacquie Montgomery spoke for the Maple Ridge Community Foundation, an organization that benefits our community in a variety of ways.

She says MRCF provided grants to many of the organizations I’ve listed. Last year, “it distributed $21,000 to several community groups, and scholarships to high school students.”

The foundation has to raise funds in order to redirect money to worthy community groups. Look for a golf tournament next spring.

Speers gets the final word here: “There’s lots of amazing people doing inspiring things in our community, and we want to help them. If a neighborhood brings in a certain amount of money, say $500 to $1,000, for projects that are for the good of the community, we’ll match it.”

Terms and conditions for grants will be announced soon.

Improving communication between groups is another goal. “The opportunity for networking hasn’t been out there,” said Speers. “But if people start connecting with each other, there might be ways to collaborate on projects with similar goals. It could be a website, or facebook, some sort of mechanism that’s going to be inclusive and let program organizers share information and learn from each other.”

To receive money groups have to be charitable or have non-government status. The Neighborhood Champions Program has already proven its worth, and will grow next year as new ideas for community building funnel through Speers.  In the meantime, says, Speers, “We want people to think of ideas.” It’s a sure bet he’ll hear from a lot more neighborhood champions in 2013.


Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.