Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beyond "stranger danger"

Wendy Sarkissian. World-renowned social planner and innovator. Wendy's consulting career spans over 30 years and ranges from developers’ boardrooms to low-income housing projects. Her work includes collaborative approaches in community engagement, housing design, public open space, designing for children, older people and people with disability, earning her over forty professional awards. She is Adjunct Professor at Bond University, Adjunct Associate Professor at Curtin University in Australia and a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia. Wendy's most recent books include: Speak Out: Step by Step Guide to SpeakOuts and Community Workshops (2010), Creative Community Planning (2010) and Kitchen Table Sustainability: Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability (2009). 

I’ve been working in a neighbouring community for the past few weeks and have marvelled at how privileged I am to live in a vibrant place with a great sense of community. Because when there is no sense of community or one that is shot through with stigma, prejudice and sexism, it’s very dispiriting. It’s dispiriting even to hear people talking about their community.

A few days ago I was speaking to some local women in that community. We had never met though they were all friends and colleagues. Within half an hour of talking about life in their community, three of the eight women were in tears. They told stories that chilled my blood; that made me shake with anger: of men in the local pub (even the publican) showing photos of local teenage girls having sex. Sharing images on their Blackberries in the pub. Men with daughters just their age.

They told stories of a good police woman and others unable to assist in domestic violence situations. No safe houses or refuges. Women sleeping under the bridge. Deep-seated racism and sexism, as well as a deep local antipathy to newcomers. Stories of government indifference to the needs of women, isolated rural folk and older people. It was truly appalling.

In my community engagement work, I often speak about social capital and the need for community capacity building. I can learn a lot without leaving home. In my own community of Nimbin (population 330), we have social capital by the truckload. And what’s important is that it’s not just relationships with family and familiars that count. Its wide-ranging networks of activism, green politics, Left and anarchist politics, feminists, ecologists, Permaculturists, hippies, communitarians, cannabis law reformers, peace activities, activists of all descriptions... We are many communities, not simply our tiny geographical one.

Preparing to go to dinner to celebrate the birth of a new book, I put on my track pants and ugg boots [women's sheepskin boots]. I find an old, almost threadbare but still warm shawl. No need to dress for dinner in the winter in Nimbin. (One day last winter, deep into my writing, I headed to the local café in the morning for a good coffee. An hour into the newspapers and a second cup, I looked own to discover that I was wearing my bedroom slippers! Nobody noticed or cared.)

Acceptance of difference is essential to community capacity and community safety. I believe that when we shun strangers and emphasise “stranger danger” policies, we make people “other”. The women I spoke with felt that they were "other" in their own community. There was another, dominant, culture operating in their community and they were not part of it.

But, I reminded them, “We hold up half the sky.”

Not that sky, apparently.

There are many ways of being different. For community safety to flourish, we need to embrace all of those ways. Sometimes a small backwoods community – like mine – can offer some suggestions.

But then there are the security cameras in Nimbin, which the merchants love. They begged for them

And that’s another story...

Wendy's forthcoming book SpeakOut describes techniques directly relevant to the SafeGrowth model.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Steven Woolrich said...

Wendy's guest blog is certainly inspiring and demonstrates the need for taking action in our communities. As disturbing as some of these realities are, each and everyone of us has the potential to initiate change. I'm often reminded that even small changes can make a huge difference! It really boils down to taking the time and effort to make these things a reality.

I'm currently working on a steering committee in Red Deer, Alberta that is focusing on a social marketing campaign that will address homelessness and addictions. As a CPTED practitioner I'm often a good resource person, offering various perspectives on creating safe communities.

"Acceptance of difference is essential to community capacity and community safety", as Wendy states, is critical to our success! I spend a great deal of time in our downtown, watching how people interact with both their environment and each other. The fear of crime in certain areas has increased during the past few years and some residents claim it is not safe. I beg to differ as I observe many of these individuals avoid or shun strangers they believe are a threat.

The media often contributes to these issues because it makes a good story, when in fact, many of our communities are very safe in most cases. I recently sat on a park bench downtown and spent some time speaking with a homeless man who had been darkened by the summer sun and clinging to his shopping cart full of cans and a few choice possessions. There was something very familiar about him and a few minutes into the conversation I recognized this person. He had worked for the same company I had been employed with for many years and was now living on the street. Life can be harsh enough without us adding to the problems and treating people as "others", as Wendy wrote. Embrace change and accept "difference" for it's our diversity that creates strong, sustainable communities.

GSaville said...

How true Steve! Great story. People like Wendy, and yourself, are the activators of positive community action. We need more of you!

True also that media are so often the enemy. But not always! The good ones (and they still exist) can be our best allies.

Check out my current blog about the excellent media coverage by MacLean's Magazine and the Montreal Gazette about the NCG prevention group and their graffiti-removal strategies.