What would a city of community-led solutions look like?

A new age of unlikely alliances has arrived.

Why It Matters

If we tackle complex social issues without including affected communities, we’re inevitably left with short-lived solutions. Below, two leaders explain why investing in new types of alliances and local leadership are critical for meaningful change. Crafted in partnership with Evergreen in the lead up to the 2019 Future Cities Canada Summit at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto.

Communities across the world are striving to address complex but similar challenges related to employment, poverty, homelessness, environment, public health… the list goes on. 

The issue is not a lack of solutions — rather, it’s where the solutions are coming from, and who gets to define what problems those solutions are supposed to address.

Well-meaning attempts to ‘level the playing field’ for marginalized communities and neighbourhoods typically involve large-scale institutional efforts led by entities external to those impacted communities, trying to implement solutions that were researched and developed without any consultation, participation, or collaboration from local people.

Given that these initiatives involve large dollar amounts, they gain widespread attention and profile, meaning that other models of problem solving — ones led by and with the communities in question — fall under the radar.

These alternative models are known by different names, including asset-based community development, and are commonly expressed as ‘nothing about us, without us’. This will be the theme of Future Cities Canada Summit 2019: ‘Catalyzing Community Solutions’.

I spoke with two leaders on opposite sides of the world about the power of unlikely alliances for community solutions: Diane Roussin, Project Director of Winnipeg Boldness Project, supporting children and families in Point Douglas, Winnipeg, and Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of England’s Power to Change, developing community businesses in England.

The Winnipeg Boldness Project was originally created with the aim of improving early childhood education outcomes in the Point Douglas neighbourhood in north Winnipeg. “It has since evolved into a more holistic mission to make life better for babies, kids, and families, in all of its interconnected ways,” Roussin said. 

“There are two sides to Winnipeg Boldness Project. The first can be described as a platform that really allows voices to be part of the problem definition and solution finding. These voices are those typically not included or invited to be a part of that process. We call this ‘centering community wisdom’,” Roussin explained. “The second aspect is the community solutions that the platform actually produces, prototypes, and scales.”

For Alakeson, the journey can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis. “A confluence of economic forces have resulted in the decline of our ‘high streets’ (i.e. retail main streets) in communities across England,” she said. “Retailers who closed shop left behind more than just vacant storefronts — it was accompanied by a dearth of vibrancy and activity in our town centres.

Power of Change’s ambition is to create better places through the growth and impact of ‘community businesses’ as a way to reverse that decline, and to do it in a way that is sustainable, that has longevity.”

Both organizations believe in the power of community solutions. Describing Point Douglas’ demographics, Roussin said, “Our neighbourhood has a strong Indigenous presence along with newcomers, other racialized residents, people of colour. It is also typically perceived and described by outsiders, whether it’s the media, police, even professionals like social workers, in a very negative way. Yes, the community faces definite challenges, but usually that’s the only part of the story that makes the news.” 

Stereotypes can be created and perpetuated. “I see and live another narrative: people love it here!” Roussin said. “The people who live here have been here for generations. It’s home. I’ve had the privilege of being raised up and mentored by generations of women before me, and I’ve witnessed the best examples of unlikely collaboration I’ve ever seen. People coming with sophisticated solutions, people mobilizing and taking action.” 

“The majority of people and organizations who have power and influence don’t interact with this neighbourhood in this way, and don’t have the strengths-based view that I do,” Roussin continued, “yet they are typically the ones who get to define the problems that we face.”

Roussin broke down what The Winnipeg Boldness Project does in simple terms. “Somewhere, somehow, a group of people get together and based on experts and research, decide that what this particular community needs is access to coffee. What [we do] is go to our community and actually ask them: ‘do you need coffee?’ And they’ll say: ‘Actually, the coffee is fine. It’s the cup that’s the issue.’ We shift the whole dynamic so that the community gets to define the problem and the solutions. We help prototype those solutions and engage others to make them a reality.”

In the UK, Alakeson is also working towards these types of localized solutions. She explained that the response to decades of regional inequalities has been “wave after wave of government-led regeneration programs” — but with very little lasting legacy to show for it. “Things improve when the money is there,” Alakeson said, “but because we usually do not invest in the leadership capacity of people in the local community, there was no longevity to the impact.”

Community solutions means recognizing the strengths, alliances, and assets already present in communities, even ones in decline or facing economic and social challenges, and building up and investing in community-owned assets, as opposed to relying on something external,” Alakeson continued. “For us, that’s community businesses.”

Alakeson likened these to social enterprise, but pointed out that, in addition to creating a social or environmental impact, they are first and foremost locally rooted. “That means they provide goods and services that meet the needs of their local community, and they operate with the principles of accountability to that community, whether that is building trusted relationships through ongoing and regular consultations, all the way to community ownership through shares or other forms of democratic governance and decision-making.

We’ve also helped communities set up structures to collectively own, govern, and operate land, buildings, and other property like renewable energy assets,” Alakeson continued. “Owning that capital allows them to generate revenue for the benefit of the local community for example, or maintain affordable rent in perpetuity for residential or commercial tenants.”

I asked Alakeson to pick one community solution that made her beam with pride, and she pointed to Liverpool. “It’s a place that has been through decades of challenges from race riots to wholesale demolition of neighbourhoods, leaving the community blighted and empty. A small number of mostly women stayed, and taking it upon themselves to save what was left of their community — just four streets in Granby. They took ownership of the land and buildings through a Community Land Trust and worked to create community space that included affordable housing, social gathering spaces, and opportunities for training and employment. In 2015, the architects they worked with won the Turner Prize — the UK’s biggest visual art prize, and the first time it was awarded to a collective or to architects. It’s an amazing story of community resilience, unlikely alliance, perseverance, and ingenuity.”

Reflecting on the same question, Roussin said, “In the beginning, the project was focused on early childhood development, for kids 0-6 years old. Children were showing up to school, but weren’t school-ready. When we went to verify this with the community, we quickly found that the jargon of early childhood education did not resonate. But when we made it about how to make things better for babies and kids, — not just 0-6! — everybody was interested. We found that we could not talk about children without talking about the environment within which they live: families, neighbourhoods, nature.

Improving the lives of babies and children will impact and improve healthcare, justice, so many other systems. And with the conversation grounded in this broader, more holistic context, we received a laundry list of ideas from the community on how to make life better for kids and babies. This is where our prototypes come from.”

Thinking ahead to the Future Cities Canada Summit, both Roussin and Alakeson shared what they hope audiences take from their stories. 

Alakeson said, “There is a tendency to almost belittle ‘community solutions’ as small scale, amateur, not very economically effective. Actually, these models of community ownership are ambitious and powerful, and can really turn things around for local economies and neighbourhoods.

Roussin highlighted the importance of centering community voice and wisdom. “There’s lots of jargon for this now: civic participation, human-centred design. But don’t forget Indigenous ways of being and knowing. It’s all about interconnectedness, the concept of all my relations — we are all in relationship with each other and all things.

Roussin and Alakeson will join Gabriella Goméz-Mont, Founder of Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Experimentalista & The Urban Taskforce, to discuss Community Solutions for Future Cities at the 2019 Future Cities Canada Summit at 9:45am on November 7th. Tickets are available here.