As changemakers and aspiring changemakers, many of us experience days (let’s be honest: weeks, months, years) in which we feel stuck. Despite our best efforts, we find ourselves circling back to the same conversations, issues, political divides, or financial barriers. This is particularly true when the issues we seek to address are messy and complex.
“Stuck” is how community leaders in Bashaw, Alberta felt in 2012, when they came together for what felt like the umpteenth time to talk about their economy, social agencies, and school. Here’s a story Jackie Northey, Bashaw’s Adult Learning Executive Director, shared about how her community approached “stuck” problems in new ways, using generative conversations to change how people viewed their community and its future. This story reflects Jackie’s personal perspective about a time of transformation in her community; it has been adapted with her help from:
Northey, Jackie, & Beeston, Jann. (August 2012). Changing the Conversation, Transforming the Future: Generative rural conversations, building social capital toward the collaborative development of the “new” rural Alberta.
Northey, Jackie. (July 2016). The Bashaw Story.
Bashaw is a small town in central Alberta (population of about 850) with impressive services and physical assets for a community of its size. It has a strong culture of volunteerism and community engagement. Like many rural communities, however, Bashaw faced a declining population and economic base, aging farmers, and a younger generation questioning the viability of farming operations. In 2012, Bashaw’s average income was 28% below the provincial average, and single parent families and transiency were major factors influencing the social and economic fabric of the community. Local agencies (over 50 of them) found themselves competing for diminishing funding resources. This led to to a competitive, survivalist mindset among well-intentioned leaders desperate for the funds to continue meeting needs in their community. In addition, the local school, a local church, and the agricultural society had all experienced recent leadership changes or were dealing with divisive decisions.
The community had gathered together many times to assess their strengths and seek ways of overcoming their challenges. Each time, a document or plan was created and intended to be used as a tool to achieve a desired future. Invariably, attempting to implement these plans brought community leaders up against familiar barriers (funding, leadership, collaboration...), which tended to slow or halt progress.
A new conversation
In the spring of 2012, a diverse group of leaders from the municipality, school administration, social services, senior service organizations, business, adult learning, and farming and faith communities came together for a different kind of conversation. This workshop, facilitated by Vik Maraj and Kevin Gangel of Unstoppable Conversations, used a process of inquiry and self-discovery to help uncover the underlying mindsets and patterns that were holding back community change. The process included:
Reflective conversation: exploring the patterns, assumptions, and models behind how the community tended to address complex challenges. One by one the participants began to recognize the resigned, fearful, protective, scarce frame of mind they had been operating from. They understood that unless their way of thinking was disrupted, no tips, tools, facilitators, or even new resources would make a real difference.
Speculative conversation: exploring what could be and how new possibilities could emerge. The group redefined Bashaw as a place where human potential is fulfilled – “you can be anything here”. This allowed everyone to see that many possible futures could be created.
Shifting conversation: setting a new course of action and interaction. The group created bold ideas for how they could begin to work differently together towards a shared vision.
Action conversation: prioritizing and resourcing new ways of working together to achieve success. Collaborative initiatives were developed that not only built on the strengths and assets of the community, but needed nothing but the will of the community to begin. No immediate need for new funding sources or expertise was required for any of the initiatives to get started. It was the beginning of a new approach for the Bashaw community.
Working together differently
School as Community
After their generative conversations, community leaders in Bashaw recognized the incredible assets in their community: a vibrant arts and creative culture, a sense of belonging, and commitment to education. The Bashaw school had been a focal point for controversy and divisiveness in the past, but was now seen as a natural starting point for making Bashaw a more vibrant, creative, and inclusive place to live. A plan was developed and implemented to create a school-based performing and fine arts program, with a vision of broadening to a community-wide initiative in the future. Within three months, the Battle River School Division committed support and a small amount of funding for a part-time project coordinator. The “Bashaw Arts Infusion Project” launched at the school in January 2013, giving students opportunities to participate in art and theatre. Community members rallied together to create a video, vote for it online, and win the opportunity to host a Small Town Saturday Night Concert hosted by the Big Valley Jamboree Organization. This concert raised over $80,000 to enhance the performing arts and digital arts programs for Bashaw’s elementary, junior high, and highschool students. Over 300 volunteers came together to support the concert and school program.
Over the next two years, the school population grew as young families were attracted to the new culture of the community. In 2014, the government announced a new school building for Bashaw; however, its proposed gymnasium was too small under the formula set out by Alberta Education for provincial and regional events. This was a concern for local leaders, who wanted the new school gym to be large enough to host theatre and sporting events that could bring the community together. Remarkably--for a town in which funding and resources had been a hugely divisive issue only two years earlier--a group of community members and organizations committed to raising $400,000 to ensure the gymnasium would meet the ‘provincial sports’ standard. They engaged with the Town and County, who agreed to effectively ‘guarantee’ the funds so Alberta Education could move forward. The community reached their fundraising goal in 2017, and the new gymnasium has become a source of community pride.
Bashaw’s “unstoppable conversations” also helped the community recognize the value of caring partnerships between all generations of community members. Led by the local Family and Community Support Services (FCSS), the community developed several inter-generational initiatives, all of which could be accomplished with existing assets and funding. Examples included: a one-to-one program in which youth and seniors built relationships through activities like reading, interviewing for historical articles, and painting nails; the integration of school events with programming at seniors’ homes and spaces; and a mobile playground that brought young families into senior spaces. Service organizations committed to supporting these initiatives with funding, volunteers, and community assets. Over 125 volunteers raised $20,000 by volunteering at the Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose. The community was learning to work together to raise and leverage funds.
Over time, Bashaw has become a more visionary and collaborative place to live and work. Like any community, Bashaw still encounters disagreements, politics, and competition. However, at the heart of the community is a group of leaders who have experienced the “old” and “new” ways of working and are committed to cultivating a hopeful, collaborative, forward-thinking, and creative culture. The town’s nonprofit and government agencies now come together every year to discuss priorities. Recognizing the importance of working together to meaningfully address complex challenges, many community agencies have stepped up to tackle mental health issues together over the past two years. This has led to a coalition of regional and local partners working to create a rural model of response to the issue of mental health. A community wellness team has also been established with members from Education, Adult Learning, Justice and Family and Community Support Services to ensure issues are identified early and addressed quickly.
The school has become a vibrant hub in the community. Only a few years old, the new school has already exceeded capacity and continues to grow - an anomaly in rural Alberta. Currently, the regional coalition is working on issues of transportation and access to services for individuals and families without the means to travel.
In six short years, the community of Bashaw has designed and created a new future – one where they “can do and be anything by working together.”
Jackie’s advice for change-makers who feel stuck:
Almost any issue can begin to be addressed with a “change in conversation.” The community’s attitude and frame of mind can be changed starting with a few people being willing to think differently; not everyone needs to change at once.
Your community has choice and agency, regardless of what happens “to” your community when decisions are made by government or other external groups. Gather your assets and your strengths, and create what works with what you have. This leads to new models and new perspectives.
Jackie Northey is the Executive Director of Adult Learning in Bashaw. You can reach her at email@example.com.
ABSI Connect is always looking for Albertan organizations and individuals with stories of social innovation. Do you have a story about how you, your community, your organization, or your coalition are learning to solve complex social or environmental problems in new ways? Let us know.