Recap: Community Evening with Jim Diers

Last night Sharon and I attended the West Community Evening with Jim Diers, the second of three events taking place in Edmonton this week (the last one is tonight in the south service area). Jim is a community organizer best known as the former director of the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighbourhoods, a position he held for 14 years. Some of Seattle’s most successful and well-known community initiatives, such as Little City Halls and the Neighbourhood Matching Fund, started and prospered under his watch.

Now Jim spends his time teaching at the University of Washington, and travelling all around the world speaking about what he calls “neighbour power”. In fact, he wrote a book on it! That’s what brought him to Edmonton this week, at the request of the City of Edmonton’s Great Neighbourhoods initiative. Last night was the second time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Jim speak – he was in Edmonton back in 2006 for the Walkable Edmonton initiative.

Jim is probably best described as a motivational speaker. That’s what he did last night, sharing stories about the amazing things happening in communities all around the world. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • You can have a neighbourhood without community! A neighbourhood is a place with which we identify, whereas a community is the extent to which we identify with and support one another.
  • There are four key ingredients for community: common identity, manageable scale, gathering places, and a vehicle for collection action.
  • Jim says that community is the key to so much of what we care about, and highlighted four main types of community power:
    • Power to care for the Earth
    • Power to prevent crime
    • Power to care for one another
    • Power to demand justice
  • So what does it take to build community?
    • Have fun!
    • Start where people are (their block, their language & culture, their networks, their passion, their call)
    • But don’t leave them there – strive for results!
    • Focus on assets rather than needs
  • Discover the buried treasure in your community!

His presentation was incredibly high energy, and he had the audience frequently do a cheer – one half yelled “neighbour!” and the other yelled “power!” Jim himself would let out a Howard Dean-esque “Yeah!” after each cheer.

My favorite stories were actually two that I heard back in 2006 – one about the Fremont Troll, and the other about the terraced community garden known as Billy Goat’s Bluff. All of the stories were really interesting, and I’m sure they motivated the more than 200 people in attendance to want to do similar things in their communities.

As I mentioned, Jim was here for the Great Neighbourhoods initiative. Everyone received a Neighbourhood Engagement Application last night. A total of 15 will be selected to attend an action planning workshop with Jim in February 2010. After the workshop, the City of Edmonton may provide matching funds of up to $2500 for projects. All projects need to be put into action by September, when Jim will return to check in.

I really enjoyed Jim’s talk, and I’m excited to see the projects that will happen in Edmonton as a result (but don’t forget there are already many amazing things happening).

For more on Great Neighbourhoods, check out the official website and also this article on Connect2Edmonton.

For more on last night’s event, check out posts from Tamara Stecyk and George Watts.