A stronger community starts with us


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In last week’s column, I wrote about the impact prolonged isolation can have on our health. I listed many harmful side-effects, which include depression, heart disease, cancer and suicide. I also offered a few suggestions of things we can do to cut back on the isolation and build (or rebuild) relationships.

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In last week’s column, I wrote about the impact prolonged isolation can have on our health. I listed many harmful side-effects, which include depression, heart disease, cancer and suicide. I also offered a few suggestions of things we can do to cut back on the isolation and build (or rebuild) relationships.

The reaction to that column has been surprising. While some readers appreciated the focus on our mental health at a time of year when many are under higher levels of stress, I also received a number of comments about the impact isolation is having on society at large.

One reader talked about the influence of the internet (social media in particular) on the way many of us form and continue relationships with others. Other readers mentioned many things that used to bring neighbourhoods and communities together no longer exist or play a far less influential role in society than they did years ago.

Another reader asked this poignant question: “How are we supposed to build a strong community if we don’t know who our neighbours are, and never have any interaction with them?”

There’s a lot to unpack there. My focus last week was the effect of isolation on the health of individuals, but it’s clear a lack of social interaction can also impact the health of neighbourhoods and communities.

There are many definitions of what a community is. An article on the US National Institutes of Health website says “A common definition of community emerged as a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.”

The Cambridge dictionary defines “community” as the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality.

There’s a lot of overlap, but the significant point is the common interests and ties. Indeed, commonality is the foundation of community.

With that understanding in mind, the problem facing many communities — Brandon in particular — becomes clear. As a city with a university, a college and a major employer that is constantly hiring large numbers of employees who do not intend to live here over the long term, Brandon’s population is far more transient than in many other Canadian cities of similar size.

That’s one group, but there is a another segment of our population that may have been born and raised in or around Brandon, but plans to move elsewhere if a better job opportunity materializes, or when they reach retirement age. Indeed, we all know Brandonites with “escape plans.”

But here’s the big question: is all that transience and lack of long-term commitment to Brandon the cause of a problem or the consequence of a problem?

Is it possible people don’t want to stay here — and don’t see the point in contributing to building a better Brandon — because they don’t think it’s worth the effort? Or could it be because they don’t see the point of expending time and energy because they don’t see others doing it?

This brings us back to the issue of isolation. It’s possible our lack of communication and collaboration with our neighbours isn’t just harmful as individuals; it could also be harming our community.

Dr. Tracy Brower writes on the Forbes website “Community is critical to our overall well-being and the decline of our connectedness is coming at the same time mental health issues are on the rise … We are social animals and our instinct is to find strength in numbers. We appreciate a small circle of people, but need larger circles as well.”

Author and entrepreneur Kevin Daum writes on Inc.com “The #1 required skill for today and the future is community building because no one will accomplish much anymore by themselves.”

An article entitled “Strengthening Your Community” on sprectrumam.com lists five critical components to building stronger communities: trustworthy leadership, clear communications, connection, meetings and necessities, and avoid apathy.

If those are the keys to stronger communities, the nature and size of our problem becomes more obvious. In a survey conducted by the City of Brandon earlier this year, many respondents expressed concerns regarding a “lack of collaboration with community organizations and institutions,” “poor communication,” “ageism,” “lost trust,” “disconnected” and “groups don’t feel welcome to contribute.”

As a mechanic once said to me, “there’s your trouble right there.” We can’t build a strong community if a substantial number of Brandonites distrust city hall, feel our city government doesn’t communicate well, and believe their opinions and contributions are unwelcome.

This a big problem, but solving any problem begins with acknowledging it exists, and understanding what’s causing it. Once we’ve done that, the next step must be a solid commitment from our mayor and city council to provide strong and transparent leadership, better communications, and a more active and inclusive approach to community-building.

That would be a good start, but the need for action goes beyond our mayor and council. We all bear the responsibility to provide more “community glue,” starting with us each trying to be better friends and neighbours. If we each commit to spending more time and energy building bonds in our neighbourhoods — and less time online or sitting in front of our televisions and computers — we could soon find that others will do the same.

We could eventually find we live in a city people want to move to, not from.

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