Rarely are speakers as inspiring and passionate as they were on October 12, 2016, during a public panel discussion on community wellness, well-being and belonging at the Victoria Conference Centre.
Hosted by the Victoria Foundation and its sponsors, along with the City of Victoria, and moderated by Mayor Lisa Helps, it was a distinct privilege to listen to two remarkable thought leaders and panelists, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and CEO of the Aga Kahn Foundation of Canada, Khalil Shariff.
Victoria’s Mayor Helps opened the session by asking the audience to consider three questions when thinking about community belonging and cohesion — “Why is belonging important to you? What do you do to create belonging in your own life? What can City Hall do?” The audience was asked to participate at the end of the session by recording their responses on sticky notes that would be gathered by City staff, collated and used to inform a follow up public session later in the year. Mayor Helps then introduced the guest panelists and moderated a nearly two-hour conversation with them, which flew by. Throughout the entire two hours, you could hear a pin drop.
It’s no question that Mayor Nenshi is Canada’s “rock star” of civic government (though he would probably dislike and deny this label), and Khalil Shariff is a compassionate articulate voice for a movement dedicated to peace and inclusion. They also brought a personal touch to the discussion — both men have enjoyed a long friendship whose paths have crossed many times during the past 20 years. Both men are also Muslim Canadians and, therefore, understand better than the majority of us, about what it means to achieve well-being and a sense of belonging in a pluralistic society such as ours.
While they each share a deep appreciation for what we have in this country, a diversity that the majority of Canadians embrace, Mayor Nenshi and Mr. Shariff caution that our unique pluralism is “fragile.” Using the metaphor of a fine piece of bone china (strong but also breakable), they suggest that not only must we advance the goals of inclusion and belonging but at the same time, we must also protect these goals, a social tension which they believe creates a greater sense of responsibility for citizens, leaders and institutions.
Mayor Nenshi had some searching questions of his own about community wellness, well being and belonging — “Who are we? How do we live together? Who do we want to be?” In a lighthearted moment, he talked about the role of a city mayor, that mayors most often deal with “poop (Mayor Helps chuckled and so did Mayor Nenshi), clean water, first response” and other services that guarantee a quality of life for all citizens. But he quickly reverted to a more serious issue, that of community wellness and, in this context, as a community leader and mayor, he is strongly committed to addressing root causes of poverty, homelessness and addiction, all of which Mayor Nenshi believes begin with isolation.
Mr. Shariff agreed, stating that “isolation is a toxin” that leads to distrust, hopelessness and despair. He noted the tremendous irony of such isolation occurring in an advanced information age, when we are connected and overwhelmed like never before by electronic communication, especially by social media which Mayor Helps referred to as “anti-social media.” To combat the isolation felt by individuals, families and communities, Mr. Shariff suggested we embark on the “entrepreneurial pursuit of a civil society,” through leadership of “a certain competence and character,” that is anchored in a “basic ethical posture” that encourages and supports belonging and hope. They both agreed that governance is essentially “a conversation with citizens” that should focus on responsibility for the public good.
They floated the idea that community belonging, wellness and well being are key to creating ‘institutional strength and community assets.’ They believe that the experience of belonging “is the outcome of a series of interactions with one’s community” and that “social capital and belonging result in a circle of affection.” A reference to “our neighbour’s strength is our strength” again illustrates the significance of belonging and inclusion as defenses against marginalization.
Expanding on the idea of achieving a civil society, Mayor Nenshi asked a number of questions: “What do leaders do? What do citizens do? What do I care about? How do I make a difference?” He admitted that leaders have “the power to do bad stuff,” and therefore, it is critical to ensure that “we are all in this together,” that we must find ways of “appealing to hope.” Mr. Shariff agreed and suggested that we must “bring people on the outside into the inside…and unleash humanity” by “appealing to the best in people.”
Mayor Nenshi revealed a simple truth about civic engagement from a citizen’s perspective — “was I asked?” To build on this notion, the City of Calgary has launched a civic engagement and community service initiative to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday next year. Called “#3 Things for Calgary,” citizens are asked to participate in three acts of service that Mayor Nenshi hopes will instill a habit for a lifetime of service to the community. But he talked about a 4th act — “Don’t be shy. Talk about your service.” In other words, celebrate community service by sharing your success and inspiring others.
Mr. Shariff reinforced the power of service or as he called it, the “service ethic,” by suggesting that we must build “new and innovative platforms, an ‘ask’ for people to come together…to encourage creative leadership.” In essence, the message that both men so eloquently delivered was best summed up by Mayor Nenshi: “How do we help people understand that the community doesn’t happen to you; you are part of building it.”
Later, questions from the audience reflected similar themes about how the roles of families, faith communities and volunteerism, for example, lead to a sense of belonging and meaning.
Moderator Mayor Helps wound up the session by asking each of the panelists to provide three thoughts on the issue of community wellness, well being and belonging:
- Khalil Shariff – Create innovative, imaginative platforms for civic engagement, value the fragility of Canadian pluralism (one that is unique, diverse and transcends faith) and work to overcome isolation and dislocation.
- Mayor Nenshi – Big issues have surprisingly small solutions, how do we model behaviour and how do we help ordinary citizens to achieve extraordinary things.
As I left the Victoria Conference Centre, I heard people describing their experience as “awesome, amazing, inspiring, uplifting, mind expanding…” What a wonderful opportunity this session provided to all of us, a time to learn, to engage and to support our communities and one another, realizing that yes, we truly are all in this together.
Thank you to the Victoria Foundation, its sponsors, the City of Victoria and to Mayor Lisa Helps for their vision.