Communities and the State of our Economic Landscape

By 2017 Groundswell participant Evelyne Young

I’ll never forget my first experience of living in a tight knit community. It changed my perception of the meaning of tolerance and friendship and taught me how to barter & trade. Most importantly, it showed me how to depend on others in a way that felt counter-intuitive to the social landscape of Vancouver, where I grew up.

But I’m not writing this to tell you about my experience living in the bush with my fellow tree planters. I’m writing to tell you about the importance of community, and the lack of opportunity that exists for people in Vancouver to feel a true sense of belonging and place.

I once read in an academic journal that the strongest communities in Canada today are representative of the weakest communities from the 1960s. Why does this matter, you ask? Because it’s indicative of the way we’ve come to organize ourselves as a society, and telling of what we’ve lost in the process.

Communities play a vital role in creating human capital and quality of life. They are the birthplace of collective innovation and social movements, but on the subtle end of the spectrum, communities provide us with a sense of connection to place. Connection to others allows us to discover our authentic selves and feel the full weight of our personal worth. Without this, it’s difficult to be confident about our purpose in a way that contributes to our people and earth.

Many youth I speak to today feel a sense of not belonging. They say there is a lack of meaningful opportunity in Vancouver, and often feel “lost” or spiritually deprived. It’s difficult to spend time with friends that are working long hours to survive in Vancouver’s economic landscape, and it’s difficult to find social activities that are free. People are always in a hurry, and it’s rare to find yourself indulging in an impromptu hour-long conversation with your local store manager or neighbour.

I think it’s fair to say that many of our activities today revolve around the economy. Most often, proposals for socializing involve going out and spending money, be it at a bar, movie theatre, show, or any of the myriads of profitable entertainment options in Vancouver. It’s no secret that the economy lays out the groundwork for how people organize themselves.

Markets dictate the jobs, products, and services that are available, and the easiest way to engage is through the exchange of money. We look for solutions in products and services, often experiencing a sense of scarcity through lack of funds, without realizing that it’s not money we’re missing, but community.

Community comes with many free skills, services, and products. People who live in strong communities are not entirely dependent on money to get what they need. Instead of buying, they receive commodities from friends, neighbors, colleagues, and other familiar faces close to home. In return, they give and share what they have. Suddenly, resources are no longer scarce, but incredibly abundant. People no longer depend on money, but on relationships.

Imagine for a second that you have a headache. Ordinarily, you would go to the store to purchase Advil or Tylenol, return home and lay on the couch until it passed. In a community, you would walk to your neighbours to ask for a favour. They would give you a couple painkillers, listen to you vent, and give you some extra advice on how to deal with the pain. Later, they might check up on you to see how you are doing.

The difference is subtle, but the impact is huge. The experience of the individual, the consumer, is entirely changed. They are no longer just a number for a profit, they are someone significant who deserves love. Understanding this subtle difference is what gives many customer service businesses a competitive edge. People don’t just want to buy products, they want to buy into relationships.

Businesses do well to create a brand that might mimic the trustworthiness of a close friend or relative when offering services to create customer loyalty. But there is no substitute for authentic community. More and more people want to know where their money goes once it leaves their hands. Will it be used to fund the deforestation of wild landscapes across the globe, or will it stay local to fund services for people in their community?

Groundswell is providing support to those who are willing to reinvent the wheel and create social enterprises that not only operate for profit, but for the communities in which they serve. Instead of people working for the economy, the economy should work for the people. One day spent at Groundswell will expose you to new ideas that can be worked into pieces of community gold. And that, my friends, is a movement I urge you to join.