A few weeks ago I attended an inspirational event, Working Groups: Cultivating Action, hosted by Transitions Victoria. I was enjoying my Saturday morning coffee while reading FOCUS magazine, and looking forward to a day of leisure with my sweetheart. That was, until I read an article about Transitions Victoria. Within an hour I was on a bus downtown to make the 11:45 registration. I was motivated to connect with other people about something I am very passionate about. As a somewhat introverted perfectionist with a few lingering social anxieties, I am not often motivated by an opportunity that involves public speaking, group work and crowds. However, it my strong belief that what we need more than anything else is community collaboration around issues of sustainability, and this belief is beginning to overshadow self-centered insecurities. My cause is becoming larger than myself, yet the ironic surprise is that I am perhaps benefited by this most of all.
You can read all about the Transitions Towns movement here and about Victoria’s involvement on their blog. If you want a piece of the action or just want to learn more about local events, check out the Transitions Victoria Ning site. Now, I want to tell you about my personal experience last Saturday.
I arrived at ten minutes before noon to a stream of people entering a church community hall, heading towards a registration table headed by three enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers. There were already over one hundred people in the room, most of them gathered around the front wall putting little green and red stickers on what appeared to be a network of circles, each labelled with a topic. After I registered and made myself a name tag, I was told to grab some stickers and put a red sticker on my vital topic and a green sticker on my second-most vital topic. Already, I liked their simple approach and organization. It was easy for me to place my dots, because I had come specifically to connect with others who were passionate about food security and community. Some people were having a more difficult time deciding on their sticker issues, not yet having found a focus for their energy and concern. I put up my stickers, grabbed a fair-trade organic coffee, donated by a generous local business, and sat back to record what I saw.
The energy in the room was not unlike a town-hall meeting, the air buzzing with issues, personality and community-spirit. There were people of all ages and description in the room, and men and women were equally represented, though cultural representation was not especially diverse. Still, there were people here! People who care enough about these issues to volunteer their precious Saturdays to build community and make things happen! I spoke with one woman, however, who said she only came because it was raining. If it were sunny, she said, she would be outdoors. Fair enough, personal health is important, but I sent a quick thank-you to the universe for the rain. The man sitting next to me had come, not because he felt strongly about a particular issue, but because one of the organizers is a friend of his and had wanted to support her. So really, community building was important to him even if he hadn’t articulated it this way. Later, I heard him speak about travelling for the first time and how seeing public art in Spain had led him to question why we don’t celebrate public life this way in Canada. These were passionate people, but at the same time they were just regular people. By a show of hands, most of them had never been to a community-building session like this one.
I won’t go in to how we dispersed ourselves across 20 topics, each of us attending three 50 minute planning sessions, each with a dedicated leader and scribe, but I will say it took about 30 minutes – pretty impressive! This group decision-making was an interesting exercise in itself, because, of course, conflicts were inevitable and it was impossible to satisfy everyone, (though it still took time for someone to verbalize this to the group.) There were differing opinions over where the issues of Water belonged until it became clear that it needed its own group altogether.
We were told that there was a two-feet policy, which meant that anyone was free to leave at any time or else move between groups if more than one topic interested them. This is the grade-school equivalent of being told that we can go to the bathroom or get up to sharpen our pencils whenever we like. When it comes down to it, organizing adults really isn’t much different from organizing kindergarten students. We were also reassured by the reminder that this was just an initial coming-together and there would be as many opportunities as we wished to revisit our discussion in the future. Sighs of relief all around – sometimes we need a reminder that we are autonomous beings.
My chosen groups were Food Security, Re-Skilling and Community-Building through Arts and Events. The Food Security group was so large that it filled half the room and there were so many ideas that it was impossible to focus our discussion. One man talked about the Zeitgeist movement and passed around his business cards; Another woman wants to start a Kale revolution in Victoria (like!); A young woman from New Zealand was interested in making Victoria a fair-trade city, and offered to share her NZ connections. Every single idea presented was relevant and inspired, but we very quickly unearthed far too many topics to discuss in 50 minutes with a group of 50. An event was planned for a weekend in February when I would be away. We ran out of time. I would have to wait for the next event.
There were about 15 people in the Re-skilling group, a perfect size for focused discussion. Most people were there because they weren’t entirely sure what this term meant, though every single person more-than belonged. It was a very exciting group. We were all concerned about losing the skills most of our parents inherited, many of them basic survival skills. We all wanted to feed our families, build our own shelters and bring together the islands of modern ideas about work and leisure. We wanted to be less dependent and more self-sufficient. One woman in the group invited us all to her off-the-grid sustainable farm in Saanich. Another woman wanted to coordinate Re-skilling workshops with first-nations groups. I shared my ideas about bartering knowledge for labour and trading skills, getting away from a money-based economy when it came to Re-skilling. I glowed when I saw listening ears and heads nodding. These people really believed in these ideas! We decided to begin building a website and networks. I felt we made real progress in under an hour.
I was feel nearly over-saturated at this point, but I shuffled into my third group, Community Building through Arts and Events. This group was the most joyful of the three. It was a motley crew of older poets, younger summer-camp leaders, gulf-islanders, theatre-students, and creative people of all different backgrounds. One guy was only about 18 and had moved from a suburb in Ontario where, he said, no one knew the meaning of the word community. He looked like he had found the golden ticket and was at the gates of the chocolate factory. This group was all about action and self-expression. I felt very at home with these people, as I once felt with my drama friends back in high school. We have all kinds of plans and I can’t wait to play with these new friends!
I had to leave early, but I left confident that my name and email were in the hands of the generous individuals who have volunteered their time and talents to organizing events, communicating with and mobilizing us eager members. Normally, I would take on one of these roles, but I am still trying to decide where to direct my energy, in the meantime storing up knowledge and honing my antennae.
Overall, I felt this five-hour community-building workshop was a great success. However, on this blog I promised to talk about the challenges I discover on my journey, and I saw something that day that I could not ignore. I don’t know if this particular quality is embedded in human nature, our culture, this city or if it is merely a projection of my own self-centered anxiety, but I saw a tendency in myself and others that will be a significant barrier to our future survival as a community if not checked: competition and ego. The larger the group and the wider the individual members’ interests, the more palpable this was. Competing voices, opposing or even crossed-over agendas (!), a wish to dominate and take ownership: I saw this human quality, whether innate or learned, standing between myself, ourselves, and the greater good that we were supposedly there to nurture and protect.
I strongly believe that collaboration and selfless giving of ourselves is essential for the health and survival of human community. I see individualism, ego and competition (essentially, capitalist values) as directly opposed to these needs. The Transitions movement will play a small part in breaking this down. It is my idealism that leads me to feel disappointed that the event wasn’t simply a big love-in – I’m always on the look out for a utopia I can curl up in.
Perhaps the most valuable connection I made that day was with a woman my age who really seemed to understand the meaning of transition. She feels that it will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to ween most people off of the lifestyle they now enjoy (and completely dismantle the deeply flawed system that supports it). She believes we need to direct our energies towards finding a sustainable balance between local and global economy; in other words, not cutting off our nose to spite our face. She offered the thoughtful, balanced perspective I think I really needed to sustain my hope for our future, and I regret that I was the only person who heard her speak to this openly and candidly that afternoon.
I think it is important to remember that extremes, individual agendas and lack of balanced discussions brought us to this tipping point in the first place. The last thing we need to do is alienate people. Educating others and even changing their minds won’t happen if we try to shove the remedy down their throats. I think the town-hall approach still works, but there needs to be wider representation and room for many voices. More listening; less ego. We need to be ready to approach these discussions with a true awareness of other people, their needs and their essential value, before we will be able to work together.