Onward

So it’ll be easier to type this online than it was to say it all teary-eyed on Friday night.

When I started Shareable Neighbourhood in 2012, it was literally just me and a clipboard and a dream to encourage the folks in my community to feel like they could make it a better place. It has been so, so humbling to watch it grow over the last three years. And now it feels like it’s culminated, and it’s bittersweet, but mostly I just feel proud of what we’ve done.
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There were always two objectives, running on parallel tracks. One got to ride above ground, and that was the mission to get people to share something they knew about Old Strathcona and Mill Creek through walks and workshops. The one that rode mostly silently underneath was to build up people’s confidence that they actually did know enough to have a voice in its direction, and build up the network and infrastructure so that they felt confident seizing opportunities to do something about all these issues they were passionate about, like urban agriculture and climate change.

That manifested first in walks about backyard gardens and foraging in Mill Creek and the history of streetcars in the area. And eventually it felt like we had the volunteer strength, experience, and passion to pursue a project together. That led us to create the Old Strathcona Greening Project, getting composters and rain barrels out and giving people the tools to make them work in their own home, and building a living wall together at Roots on Whyte. It was a really long process, but it was so gratifying to see the relationships people built, and to hear about the first time they got to water their gardens from a rain barrel, and to see kids and seniors getting dirt on their hands and building that wall of plants together.

So now that we’ve completed that project together, it feels like the right time to move on. We’ve decided that Shareable Neighbourhood is, at least officially, wrapped up. But there have been so many volunteers working together behind the scenes over the last few years, hand-drawing our plants of the river valley guide, trucking rain barrels all over the neighbourhood, and poring over tree guides together. Those connections feel like a solid legacy to leave behind. And I’m sure they will manifest in new projects together down the road.

The other thing I’m proud of is that by sticking to a grassroots model of basically being a group of friends who care about the neighbourhood, we proved that you don’t need permission to make something happen. You don’t need a degree or a politician or even a grant to get started. When you see a need, you can look to the people around you and do something about it.

I love Old Strathcona. I love the artists and writers who make this place so rich to be in. I love walking through Mill Creek Ravine and looking for the overwintering birds and edible burdock plants we learned about. I love the spirit of the people who ask about each other’s gardens, swap zucchinis, and take care of each other. I am so proud to have been a part of an organization that has made it a little greener and a little more tightly woven together.

The Facebook group will stay up as a place to gather online.

I look forward to seeing everybody around the neighbourhood.

Shareables levels up

So it’s been a long time since I’ve written about Shareable Neighbourhood, and it’s grown a lot over the last year. As you might know, it’s the little volunteer-run community group I started back in 2012 to get people sharing knowledge about local history, nature, and culture in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona/Mill Creek area. When it started, we were leading backyard garden tours, foraging walks through Mill Creek Ravine, hosting local filmmaker showcases, that kind of thing. But the plan has always been to “level up” everyone participating, by taking on projects together.

I’d say we’ve definitely achieved that this summer.

Some of the hard-working Shareable Neighbourhood volunteers
Some of the hard-working Shareable Neighbourhood volunteers working on our summer greening project

With the support of the City of Edmonton and the Rotary Club of Edmonton Whyte Avenue, we came up with a Greening Project¬†to get rain barrels and composters out to more people in the neighbourhood, for very cheap ($20). We created workshops on composting and rain barrel basics for the participants since most of them were newbies, and got tools they could borrow to install everything themselves. In exchange, they’ll be sharing what they learned on one of our public tours, and putting up signs announcing that they’ve become a Mulch Master or a Water Warrior.

It’s been tremendous fun so far. Putting together a grant proposal, making distribution maps, finding suppliers, and getting reimbursement cheques hasn’t exactly been riveting. But seeing the look on people’s faces when they finally get their big honking new composter is so satisfying. Today Finn and I led the first rain barrel workshop, and it felt so good to live the Shareable Neighbourhood spirit of being a proud non-expert, and still sharing what we know and helping other people feel more confident installing one themselves.

Next month, we’ll be doing the public tours, and then at the end of the summer we’ll host the last part of our project: building a living wall together in the Roots on Whyte community building together with Axis Mundi. We’d love for you to take part. It’s such an honour to be in the company of a group of volunteers and community members who care so passionately about this place, and want to make it better.

Enough Already

One of my favourite pictures from the whole Shareables enterprise, from last summer's walk on Plants in the River Valley.
One of my favourite pictures from the whole Shareables enterprise, from last summer’s walk on Plants in the River Valley.

Last summer, when I went door to door looking for people who wanted to show off their backyard garden for Shareable Neighbourhood, and everything they knew about growing plants, one person whose door I knocked left a thought with me in return. She was asking about the motivations and mission behind Shareable Neighbourhood, and with her I played up how much I wanted to give neighbours an opportunity to get to know each other better, and feel a little more tightly woven — like they had people around them they could rely on.

She seemed dismissive of the idea. Old Strathcona and Mill Creek already have lots of community groups, she said. Don’t you think there are enough already?

Since then, I’ve kept worrying that maybe she’s right. Especially on days like the Urban Birds walk or the Death in the River Valley walk, when only a handful of us showed up. But thinking about how Punctuate! player Adam Cope recently took his own life, and a classmate named Alex before that, and Ross Moroz before that, have convinced me that she’s wrong.

I feel like Holden Caulfield at the end of Catcher in the Rye. How he sees himself in that field, watching all those kids falling, and can’t help but feel like he’s got to catch them all. I knew Adam. I knew Ross. I didn’t know how to save them — didn’t even know they needed saving — but I feel like I understand their despair. Like life is too painful, too unbearable, and it’s relentless. It never stops. And it can feel like you don’t have any options, any ways to make it better, or make the pain go away. I’ve felt that pain before, and it’s only because I felt how strong the web of care was around me that I clambered out.

How could anyone look at despair like that and think, “You know what? We’ve got enough circles of care in our community.”

A terrestrial and aquatic food web
I’m really curious about the relationship between the raccoon and the snake. Like, really? (Photo: LadyofHats)

In ecology, we recognize that systems are more resilient when they’re more complex, with greater interconnections. Simplified ecosystems, with only one genetic variety of a plant or too few pollinators, are more vulnerable. If anything happens to one component, the whole thing could collapse.

In human communities, the same thing is true. Organizations are susceptible to collapse if too few people are doing all the work. If one gets sick, it can throw the whole organization into crisis, or more often, people will make themselves sick by taking on more than they can really handle.

Shareable Neighbourhood is partly an attempt to make our neighbourhood more resilient by showing people that they have something to offer, and others appreciate and recognize it. Recognizing that worth in one another can light up both individuals, and nurture their care and compassion for one another. Maybe, one day, when one needs help, they’ll think of the other and be less shy to ask.

With this latest walk happening tonight, we really wanted to get some of the kids at the Old Strathcona Youth Society involved, because the theme is public art, and they are a perfect model of people who have expertise that’s not accessed or recognized enough. They make street art! And when they think about the controversies around it, they have a perspective that middle class people down the street don’t. I told Jaya, one of the staff there, that I was really excited that they were participating. Here’s what she wrote back:

Doing small things with great love and compassion to create compassionate communities goes a long way!

I sure hope so.