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This is a repost of an article I wrote for my business website.  You can read it there if you like: http://www.socialfire.ca/component/content/article/1-latest-news/36-our-backyard

This is an opinion piece about taking responsibility for our own community.

A few years ago my doctor went to Africa with family (wife + 3 kids) for 6 months to volunteer as a doctor there.  I remember asking him when he returned to his normal practice here in Kamloops “How do you adjust to coming back to work here?”

In Africa most of the cases would be life or death scenarios.  Look at childbirth – in Africa it is a very dangerous scenario for a woman, on average 1 in 16 die!  In the US that number is 1 in 2500. (stats from this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3206960.stm).  Compare that to Canada where healthcare is free and so many of his patients will be there due to cold viruses or are hypochondriacs who refuse to take responsibility for their body and health.  How do you remain passionate and supportive in such a different environment?

His answer has stuck with me for many years (I asked this question 9 years ago).

To paraphrase him, he talked about the fact that there are many problems in our community, but most people seem to ignore them – become desensitized.  It is much easier to travel to another country for a limited amount of time and focus on fixing a finite problem.  There is no lingering responsibility.  Goto Guatemala and help build a school – it is discrete and satisfying.  Conversely, if sign up to tutor children at a group home in your own community, is a much longer commitment and won’t deliver the same consistent gratification as a one time project.

I support helping out the global community, so don’t construe this article as me saying we shouldn’t volunteer or fund-raise overseas.  But there are so many people with altruistic intentions and sufficient resources – how do we get everyone to channel some of that energy to fixing problems in our own backyard.  How can we ignore, or claim to be powerless to help, the bums wandering downtown or the line up at the food bank; then go visit a foreign country and build a well or bring clothes to an orphanage.

We need to do both.  We to see everything going on around us at home – in our country, in our neighborhood, even in our family – as well share our wealth with the global community.  Try to be fair with your resources.

On the flip side, I find it interesting that most business CSR initiatives are locally based.  In Kamloops for example, the last United Way Day of Caring was a group from RBC building a community garden downtown (http://blog.unitedwaytnc.ca/?p=4663), Interior Vault is big supporter of the Food Bank (http://interiorvault.com/about.html) and many businesses are stepping up to help out with volunteers for the Western Canada Summer Games (http://www.2011wcsg.com/sponsors/).  So maybe business entities are compensating for the tendency for individuals to look elsewhere.

Food for thought.

I have had the same doctor for 15 years.  In that time he has take 2 extended leaves to volunteer overseas (I happened to give birth in both those time frames!).  Once he spent a year in Africa, he brought his 3 children (ages 10-15) with him to help out – what an amazing experience.  The second time he went to India for 6 months to teach in a medical university.

I respect my doctor immensely for doing this.   But the first thing I ask when he gets back is: how do you do it?  And I am not talking about how does he manage to move his whole life to a developing country for months.  How does he come back!?!?

When he works in Africa or India, the patients and doctors he works with desperately need his knowledge and experience.  He is saving lives everyday.  But when he returns to his cushy practice in urban Canada how can he face all the overweight, hypochondriacs that monopolize his time (and I hope I am not seen as one of them!)?

His answer surprised me.  He said it is easy to go to a developing country and see pain and suffering and reach out to help.  But most people, turn a blind eye to same pain and suffering in their own backyard.  In Canada, it seems, most people expect someone else to take care of our societal problems.

So many people I know, including myself, do this exact thing: fund raise and volunteer in exotic developing countries and feel really good about it.  But what do we do to help the homeless in our own town?  How do we reach out to the neglected children in our own neighborhood?  How do we contribute to our own community centres and associations?

Is this right?  Shouldn’t you take care of yourself and your own before reaching out to others?  Otherwise your foundation might crumble while you are looking away.  My doctor’s insight had a huge impact on the way I think.  I have always gravitated towards making an impact in my own backyard – I feel most comfortable when I can see the impact I have.  But his comments instilled that belief even deeper, because I don’t want to take my community for granted.

I am sure one day the word Sheeple will end up in Webster’s dictionary – it is such an entertaining and descriptive word.  From Wikipedia: The implication of sheeple is that as a collective, people believe or do whatever they are told, especially if told so by a perceived authority figure believed to be trustworthy, without critically thinking about it or doing adequate research to be sure that it is an accurate representation of the real world around them.

People want to be accepted by friends and society, so it is hard to constantly challenge the perceived limitations of your surroundings without eventually losing some of that acceptance.

Having a very strong opinion or value is often met with disdain.  Think about it, what about the person is determined eat only local food, turning their nose up at sugar and imported apples – they are very determined to be this way, how do you feel about them?  Or the person whose main purpose in life is to fight for equality for their race – everything in their life is seen through the lens of achieving this dream, does this endear you to them?

What about the happy go lucky person, who plays within the rules and looks at the bright side of most situations.  They engage in meaningful conversation and won’t rain on your parade, but they don’t personally challenge the system.  Sometimes they might talk about it, ponder what sucks and what could be better – but grabbing onto a mission and moving change forward is out of their comfort zone.   That is me, that is most of the people in my life.  And I feel like we are all sheep.

Is that bad?

Are we just generally happy with the society we live?

Are we hesitant because what we fight to change for might end up be much worse than what we have?

Is our context just so small that we can’t imagine any independent action that would improve our life or the world around us?

I think might be it.  We are surrounded by large companies and big government.  Our communities are fractured and most people spend hours each evening watching TV or surfing the internet instead of hanging out with neighbours or contributing to their surroundings.  Very few people have influence and connections at the corporate or government level – so the understanding what is good and bad and what can change at the level is out of reach.   The media we devour is national and global.

But we have abandoned the place where everyone of us could have this knowledge and impact – our neighbourhoods, towns and cities.  So we are all sheeple in the context of these huge complex societies (corporations and governments) – we are all armchair experts in this area.  But in the one area we could be trailblazers and an active part of the evolution, we shun – staying in the comfort zone of our household and workplace.

Writing an article for the NY Times is a little far fetched for more us.  Writing an article for a community association newsletter would be easy and most welcomed – heck you could even be the editor.

To not be a sheeple – it isn’t hard… you just have to make an effort to contribute at your level of influence.  Get organized, get involved and show you care in active ways.  I think if we all did this we would see more diversity and more vibrant communities.

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