The Beginning and The End

Welcome to Community From Within, my new blog which will outline my personal journey in the realm of community development based in a small (tiny) village on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, Canada, but also including experiences across our county and province and internationally.

This site is for anyone interested in community economic development, community organizing, asset-based community development, rural development, international development, local and regional politics and so forth. My goal is to provide you with a framework with which to envision your own part in the development of your own community, however you may define that. I do not at all pretend to have all the answers and indeed, you may follow along and be left with more questions than when you arrived here.

In my possession are pages upon pages of notes, letters, emails, and other tidbits that I have amassed over the last twenty-five years or more and this site will be a repository for many of them as I begin to organize and edit and augment the ones I hope you will find most useful.  My hope is to put them into some sort of coherent order to illustrate my own journey in the world of community development, from my upbringing as a child watching my parents volunteer, becoming involved with and then leading a number of organizations, to running in a federal election, and ultimately stepping away from any involvement whatsoever, whether from burnout and frustration or simply a lack of time, and finally being able to reflect on my beliefs about what community development is.

I begin this now without the concrete answer of what community development is or what it means. In fact one of the last times I was working independently on a major project I had a discussion with some development professionals about how the term itself was outdated and we needed a new term to describe what was happening today. I proffered my terms for a project under the heading Community Enhancement as a way of distinguishing myself from the pack. I was offered the job but declined in the end because by the time the tendering process was completed I had accepted another position with a large company that paid a lot more money and didn’t come with an end date (at least not one I knew about).

Therein lies of on the major facts of community development work that will play a major theme along this new road I am heading down today: in the vast majority of cases, if a job exists at all for someone with experience, community development work doesn’t pay big money. So is this type of work simply for the altruistic people of this world? Or perhaps it’s just for people who are chronically unemployed and liberal-minded?

All of this has been weighing on me for the last few years but very recently a good friend sent me some information for a job posting in the field of community development saying it was “right up my alley” and you know what? In many ways it was, but two things, I was not (and am not) looking for a new job, and also, if I were, this one paid less than half my current salary. I’d go bankrupt if I took that job!

Something that keeps nagging at me is whether community groups can really make a difference or does real community development come from individuals who have succeeded on their own and simply contribute to the success of the community by virtue of their individual success. What I am trying to get at is this – think about the lifelong, chronically underemployed volunteer with a community development association who has toiled and sweat through the trenches of board meetings and public forums and fundraising and grant writing and who usually ends up paying out of their own pocket to attend some big community development conference because their organization can’t afford it… and they go there to listen and to learn about all the great things happening elsewhere and the hope is to take those new ideas and methodologies back home and employ them in a meaningful way to create something – anything – that will lead to growth or positive change or progress (however you prefer to term it). What happens if an idea works and leads to some new jobs? Does this person get one? What happens to the organization if the person is now employed full time and doesn’t have time to volunteer like they used to? Is that why the person was involved all along? Is there an ethical dilemma here?

Now go back to the big conference with all the great ideas. Where do they come from? Is it really volunteers in non-profit organizations that are making the difference and spurring economic growth? Or individuals who run their own businesses?

I admit there are great examples on both sides, but my hypothesis is that the truth lies heavily on the idea that meaningful, long-lasting, positive, community economic development comes from individuals who have an idea and run with it unencumbered by the micro-bureaucracy of local community development groups.

I’ve been to a week-long gathering where one of the main themes was deep democracy and working through a problem until you reach complete consensus is certainly admirable, but I’ve also seen perfectly sensible ideas drawn and quartered on the floor of a public meeting because of the objections of an irrational few.

My hope would be to disprove this hypothesis and say that community development organizations really do make a difference, but as you will see, direct from my own experience, in my own hometown, our local community development organization has been an epic failure.

Full disclosure: I was a board member of the Judique & Area Development Association from its re-birth in 2002 right up until about 2014 when it went defunct. A part of this process is to analyze my own personal journey, bringing you along with me, to detect whether the failure of this group was perhaps my very own fault.

I’ve been that chronically underemployed, idealistic, motivated and optimistic, pusher of communally-philosophic methodology and practices, and I’ve cursed and sworn under my breath at the lack of support and opposition to my ideas, and cried myself to sleep too many times to count as I dreamed of making my community a better place for all. But then once I had an offer for a great job in an unrelated field, I jumped at it and for the most part, didn’t look back. So was I trying to make the world a better place for all? Or just for myself?

Again, I don’t know all the answers yet. That’s what this is about. I hope you’ll join me.

This is the beginning.

The end will be a completed volume on the subject, somewhat edited perhaps from what you may find on this blog, but certainly this project is a means to putting that volume of work together in a reasonable and logical fashion.

-Dwayne MacEachern

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