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Talking points 

Editorial by Kyle Shaw

While the Commonwealth Games bid was getting scuttled at City Hall last week, I was across the street having a meeting with two people over lunch. Although it was tempting to go over and watch the debacle unfolding, I stayed put. The Games might have been the biggest thing to hit Halifax since the explosion—and the mayor’s hissy fit over its $1.7 billion budget a comparable size—but the people at the lunch meeting were talking about something that will prove far more important to our future. It’s a small organization called Envision Halifax, with a budget under $200,000. And it’s making the city better, one person at a time.

My lunchmates were Danny Graham, the lawyer and former leader of Nova Scotia’s Liberal Party, and Sarah

MacLaren, executive director of Halifax’s Leave Out Violence youth support organization. Graham is also chair of Envision Halifax, which runs a 10-month program to stimulate community leaders. And MacLaren went through the course as part of its first-ever class, what she calls “the guinea pig year,” in 2005. The leadership program is dubbed “not your usual leadership program,” a slogan that sounds like savvy marketing for something that really is just the usual. As Graham and MacLaren talked, however, I started to believe it.

Envision doesn’t follow a textbook, or build teamwork through extreme camping or use walking on hot coals as a metaphor for human potential. The program is fluid and adaptable, which is certainly a strength in our fast-changing world, but that fluidity ends up making it harder for Graham and MacLaren to pin down. It is devoted to community building, but acts on the personal. And it relies on talk to create action.

“Part of doing better collectively means doing better individually,” says Graham, who goes on to describe the problem of citizens withdrawing from society. “People are checking out left, right and centre. You can see it at the ballot boxes, in neighbourhoods, at institutions. And part of that is peoples’ conversations aren’t as real as they could be. We need to find stronger ways to communicate what matters.” At another point he puts the Envision goal more bluntly. “You cut the crap. So much of what we see today is caked with crap.”

“People don’t mind taking responsibility for what matters to them,” is the way MacLaren puts the link between society and the self. “I would love to live somewhere where people feel responsibility for their town.” MacLaren says she’s not a joiner by nature— “I’m anti-collaboration”—yet she remains close to the people she went through Envision with. “You make a community, you make a community,” she says of the group. “You could try to systematically disassemble that if you wanted, but otherwise it will take on a life of its own.” For MacLaren, the mission is simple. “If we transform enough people and enough individual lives, maybe we transform our town a little bit.”

Changing a person leads to changing a community leads to changing a city: This is grassroots activism defined. A bottom-up approach. The polar opposite of a mega-project like, say, the Commonwealth Games, very nearly foisted on Halifax from the top down with a fatal lack of community consultation and openness. With the Games in flames across the street, I ask MacLaren and Graham their opinions, and there’s a distinct lack of gloating.

“While there are countless questions about whether the Commonwealth Games is affordable, the vision is born out of a view that we’re not living up to our potential as a community,” says Graham. “There are seeds of what that’s about that I applaud. One of the cultural challenges we have to face is a resistance to change. We can have an ambivalence to change here.” MacLaren chimes in with perfect timing: “‘Ambivalence’ is putting it mildly.”

But if you, gentle reader, want to be part of change, Envision Halifax might have a place for you. Graham tells me he’s looking for people to join the organization’s steering committee, and the next leadership program is accepting applications. For more information, email: info@envisionhalifax.ca or go surfing at: www.envisionhalifax.ca

Is the Commonwealth Games failure a win for the people? Speculations to: editor@thecoast.ca

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