Creating resilience

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, November 2014

The surest ways to safeguard our neighbourhoods.

Two things have happened since I pondered the attributes of real neighbourhoods and genuine community in my column last month. First, I read In the Garden of Beasts, an exceptional and gripping work of non-fiction by historian Erik Larson. Set in Berlin in 1933, it details almost stitch by stitch how a civilized and moderate German society was systematically unravelled and then re-knit into such a horrid aberration of itself that it willingly helped launch one of the most evil and ill-conceived wars of all time.

It’s nice to think that we could never be manipulated that way.

Nonsense, the notorious Nazi, Hermann Göring, would have scoffed. During his post-war trial for crimes against humanity he declared that while no country wants to go to war, every country can be taken there. How? Regularly move the post of normalcy by increments so minuscule that docile, law abiding and otherwise-occupied citizens won’t realize how far they’ve deviated from their true values and principles until it’s too late. 

It always starts with talk of patriotism, bolstered by signs and flags and music and marches. Who would argue against that? Gradually that hype morphs into divisive us-versus-them propagandizing, which invariably instils fear of real and imagined enemies and induces the offering of our money and children to shore military might. 

But that’s just the half of it. Inevitably word trickles down that the enemy is also within, that evil folks and terrorists are probably lurking behind every bush. Now we become a people divided and suspicious—of a reclusive neighbour with strange cultural habits or the downtown merchant with the mysterious religion. 

This is how it came to be that German citizens stood by—helplessly at that advanced point—while their Jewish neighbours had their rights and lives systematically stripped away. This is how the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the roundup of Japanese Canadians and their prolonged incarceration in BC’s interior (and the expropriation of their land and possessions, for which they have never been compensated. Big injustices happen when the hammer of paranoia comes slamming down.)

And, using the most iconic straw man argument of them all, this is how post-9/11 America came to declare war on Iraq when the bugaboo was something and somewhere else altogether. 

But there are ways to guard against such community unravelling. Which brings me to the second new thing for me this month—learning about a fascinating community-building project that is being piloted in Victoria West. Building Resilient Neighbour-hoods is a collaborative regional effort to strengthen local resilience at a time when much uncertainty exists in the world and—now more than ever—we need to live with our eyes wide open. It’s a timely effort, given the increasingly solid evidence that sustainability, cooperation and inter-connectedness of the social and practical kind at the local level are what keep us strong and grounded. Resilient neighbourhoods are better able to evaluate external challenges for what they are and better equipped to respond appropriately.

Victoria West residents are currently immersed in several community-building ventures that promote food security, local economic development, energy efficiency and social cohesion. One is “Resilient Streets” where neighbourhood dinners and the sharing of resources such as tools, gardens, books and baby clothes are the new norm. 

Neighbourhood revitalization is happening across town as well. The Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group Society has been working for years to bring employment, investment, and environmental sustainability to the vibrant Fernwood community. Successes include initiatives in childcare, affordable housing, family programs, recreation and urban sustainability.

And then there’s Clare Street, a neighbourhood with terrific community spirit. Clare Street established Victoria’s first roadside book lending box and also organizes street parties, carpooling and grocery sharing. Most radical of all, Clare Street neighbours have moved their patio sets to the front yard to encourage social interaction. Who wouldn’t want to live there?

This month we remember our fallen and veteran soldiers. In the moment of silence at the cenotaph we grasp that the purest honour of their sacrifice is to let it not have been for nothing. Göring’s derision aside, we can live inclusively and resist becoming pawns in ill-conceived agendas. Here in Victoria, resilient neighbourhoods are showing us how.

Trudy suggests two ways to make our own neighbourhoods more resilient—tap into the wealth of ideas at www.resilientneighbourhoods.ca and cast an informed vote on November 15.