Crisis or creativity?
An event held earlier this month, the Community Innovation and Social Enterprise conference at Cape Breton University (CBU) from July 8-10, warrants a closer examination.
Attended by 260 people from more than seven countries, this was anything but a dry academic gathering. Linked to the well-established MBA in Community Economic Development, the third biennial conference brought together not only academic researchers, but social entrepreneurs and innovators, thought-leaders, policymakers and managers from the social and community enterprise sectors.
The group which had travelled furthest, from the Hansalim Consumers Co-operative in South Korea, Korea’s biggest consumer co-operative, also brought the message that an integrated approach to co-operative farming, production, distribution and finance can work extremely well, rewarding producers fairly whilst following ethical and environmental principles. Comparisons were made with Italian co-operatives in Emilio Romagna and Trentino.
Guest speaker Mike Lewis explored challenging ideas on the need for resilience in economy, housing, energy and resource use to address the growing population trends worldwide, together with possible solutions from a range of projects.
Visiting keynote speaker Professor Colin Mason from the University of Glasgow presented approaches to entrepreneurial finance, which have direct relevance to the investment needs of business in Nova Scotia.
Closer to home, many speakers from CBU and Canadian organisations presented research findings on community development, referring back in some cases to the pioneering Antigonish Movement and the work of Coady and Tompkins from the 1920s. Living proof that their inspiration continues to carry the flame was provided by Professor Greg MacLeod and Rankin MacSween, president of New Dawn.
Danny Graham led the final morning’s discussion centred on the Engage Nova Scotia movement and the familiar challenges we face in this province. His commitment to engaging people “not in the room” and outside the circle of “Alpha male” leaders was sincere and heartfelt.
In a memorable closing intervention, Rankin MacSween exclaimed “This community is dying … but I am incredibly optimistic!”
The effect of Rankin’s declamation was to stimulate contributions from people at the margins of the ‘official’ conference – Black Nova Scotians, international immigrants, young people from community projects, and very articulate women – that they did not see their communities were dying at all, but that their projects and organisations are transforming people, their expectations and their opportunities, present and future.
This reaction should certainly give Rankin and us all cause for optimism and reasons to provide practical support and backing to community-based projects which are engaging people and groups who have great potential, but who are often disregarded and seen to be at the margins by the RAM truck-driving mainstream. An example is the Hope Blooms project in North End Halifax, which involves young people ‘at risk’ in a community garden project producing food and benefiting health, well-being and social inclusion in many ways.
So what does this mean for the mainstream Cape Breton reader who did not happen to be at, or even know about, this conference?
First, people came here – and will return – because there is a unique focus on community innovation and renewal which connects practical approaches with innovation, research and education. In many ways, Cape Breton and this province continue to be a living laboratory for the innovations and social movements which can transform dying into resurgent communities.
Second, as a wise colleague remarked: “you can always sell hope!” There was plenty of hope, inspiration and encouragement from people doing things, some big and many small, which are making many differences to their communities. These ideas provide a counter-argument to the all-too-prevailing discourse of decline that nothing can be done. People can make a difference in their communities.
We should recognise the energy of George Karaphillis and his team at CBU who organised the conference, and the sponsors who supported it. Their challenge will be to improve on this in 2017.