Monthly Archives: March 2012

Do social services support or erode society?

Photo: David Sky (creative commons)

As someone involved in both community service organizations and my local neighbourhood, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship between these two realms. I recently came across John McKnight’s discussion of the tensions between community services and capacity building. He states that “[paid] service is not care” as it can only be a “freely given commitment from the heart of one person to another”. McKnight argues that within the context of the United States, the extent to which neighbours care for one another has diminished and that citizens have become increasingly reliant on services. This, in turn, has eroded our overall social and personal well-being. These ideas are very similar to those of Robert Putnam.

This point of view left me feeling uncomfortable. While on one hand, I agree with these notions and see capacity building among citizens and neighbours as vital, I can also see a role for community services. In particular, there are three themes related to my personal context that keep coming to mind. As you will see, the comments in this post end more with questions than answers. I invite you to contribute comments that provide examples of positive experiences with community organizations, that generate discussion, or that help us answer some of the questions I pose below.

First, I appreciate the role that community organizations play in my society. There are times when the needs of my neighbours or myself are beyond what I can meet. If community centres, public health care, schools, libraries, social organizations, and so on were to disappear tomorrow, my community would be worse off. The key question is how to best integrate these organizations into the community and vice versa. How can we imagine these organizations not as service providers, but as supporters of community? How can community members feel ownership over these organizations? How do we avoid building this as a ‘service industry’ and instead find ways to decrease competition for turf and funding between community organizations, while still providing financial support to those who work in these contexts?

Second, I work in a profession that I believe is inherently tied to community and to caring. I see this as complementary and connected to what I do as a community volunteer, as a family member, and in my neighbourhood. As an educator, I provide a service. More importantly, this is part of the role I play in society – one that indeed ‘comes from the heart’. Schools have a long and complicated relationship with communities. However, I see their future as one being increasingly tied to community, not in conflict with it. I wonder how we can further enhance this role? I wonder how communities can feel increasing ownership over schools?

Tied to my role as an educator is striking the balance between being engaged in paid employment and taking the time to support my neighbours and family in other ways. I am a parent, living with another parent and two children. Both my partner and myself are engaged in paid employment outside of the home. There are times when we have each backed off from our employment so that we can be more present with our children and serve different roles within our community and neighbourhood. This approach has been incredibly rewarding. However, at times, it has also been frustrating. We both enjoy our employment immensely, and both of us are engaged in work that we see as being vital to community building. Our places of employment have also contributed to a greater sense of community both for our children and ourselves. I have also been aware that backing off from paid employment has been a luxury – one that not everyone can afford. When working outside of the home, we have also relied on services, including childcare. Our relationship to these services was not one of negative value for our community. In fact, our involvement in community organizations and services has been what has often facilitated a deeper connection to other people in our community.

I would like to suggest that the relationship between neighbourhood-based caring and community-based services not be a dichotomous one. Instead, I would like to continue to focus on a discussion of how we can best strike balance. How can we reframe ‘services’ as part of our broader social organization so that they are deeply integrated into our communities? How can we facilitate services that are mutually supported by and support the building of community? How can these exist in partnership with capacity building in our neighbourhood communities?

The power of language

Photo: JoBrad

Many of us live in multilingual communities. This is wonderful in that it provides richness to our neighbourhoods and schools. It can also pose a challenge, as language can act as a barrier to sharing ideas, skills and thoughts with those around us.

In October, I posted about reaching across national borders to build community. I now turn to ways that we can reach across language borders to build community in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Learning another language is not only a powerful way to help build community, but it also contributes to our personal health. For adults, brain researchers have noted that multilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. For children, studies have shown that learning a second (or third) language provides them with more flexibility in thinking and problem solving, a greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening in general. For all ages, learning another language can be a powerful way to gain insight into another way of life, culture or perspective.

Here are six different approaches to building community through multilingualism:

1. Take a language course, download a language app or check out a language program from your local library. Many cities host language lessons in cultural centres, community centres, libraries, colleges or schools. A few communities have reached out to provide free lessons to their neighbours. In my home city, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre is always open to those who wish to find out more about Aboriginal language and heritage;  the Turkish-Canadian friendship society offers free language lessons to beginners; VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society) and ICA (InterCultural Association) both offer free English lessons to newcomers. The Canadian government also offers free 5-week French immersion programs to tertiary students and teachers. Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa is an adult Mohawk immersion program that takes place on the Six Nations Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. They have published some great ‘before’ and ‘after’ student videos here.

2. The Noun Project is attempting to create a visual dictionary that allows us to share basic information regardless of languages. Anyone can submit an image and the images can be used freely. You can see a written ‘translation’ in one of 25 languages by scrolling over it. Feedback is accepted by those leading the project and images are tweaked or removed if they do not symbolically make sense to users. The images are useful not just for reaching across language ‘borders’ but also by providing information to those who are illiterate.

3. How about starting with a ‘hello’? For a less intensive experience than committing to a course of study, try logging onto a website that teaches you how to greet someone in a language other than your own. You can hear how to say ‘welcome’ in many languages here and how to say ‘hello’ here. Jennifer Runner hosts a page that features greetings in over 2200 languages. Sue Unstead’s Say Hello was one of the best books I purchased for my own kids. There are buttons they can push to hear the word ‘hello’ in ten different languages.

3. Support immersion programs. I am lucky to live in a place where French immersion is an option within almost any school district in the country. In larger cities, programs such as Mandarin immersion also exist. Educational and language researchers have often noted that children benefit not only linguistically, but also in terms of developing their ability to solve problems, see multiple perspectives on an issue and demonstrate flexibility in their thinking. All of this is great training for becoming active community builders!

5. Teach and learn language through  Frontier College. It runs English-language and French-language literacy programs in ‘unconventional classrooms’: places like community centers, shelters, farms and prisons. Volunteers are needed across Canada, and Frontier College provides training and support to enable you to work with children, youth and adults. The labourer-teacher program allows you to work alongside labourers on farms, while teaching English in the evenings – a way to exchange experiences and skills. You can learn more about them here.

6. Ask. Simply ask your neighbour. While it may seem awkward to initially try and communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you – just go for it! With a little creativity, you will likely be exchanging ideas and information – or at least morning greetings – before you know it.

Anyone out there have a language story or resource to share?