Taking Back Community

Community. It’s become the buzzword of the 21st century, hasn’t it? I find that these days, people use it haphazardly. It’s thrown into PowerPoint decks to give a “cutting edge” impression, and tossed about in Twitter streams because all the cool kids are doing it. It’s become the theme of many a social media conference, and all the so-called experts are now experts at “community” too.

Unfortunately, anytime a word becomes a buzzword, its true meaning becomes diluted. Which is why events like the one I attended last night are so important.

I was privileged to be invited to attend the United Way Community Builder of the Year Awards Gala along with a gaggle of other local bloggers, including Andrea Tomkins, Bob LeDrew, and Marc Gagnon. Andrea and I were quite a sight at the MBNA table (thanks for being so accepting, folks!), juggling our iPhones, cameras, and notepads. Bob had a multitude of recording devices strung over his shoulder as well. We were on a mission to make media in any way, shape or form we could. You can follow our Tweetstream by searching on the hashtag #cba.

But the evening was about so much more than live tweeting and videoblogging. It was a celebration of some of Ottawa’s most upstanding citizens. It was truly about celebrating the spirit of community. Not the buzzwordy, false sense of “community” that is so easily misinterpreted in the online world – but real people, who not only genuinely care so much about making the world a better place, but are actually doing something about it.

Here are just a few of the highlights of the evening:

The Community Builder of the Year award was presented to Ottawa’s Police Chief, Vern White. Here is a man who, on a daily basis, is effecting positive change on our city. Chief White is not just sitting behind a desk. He’s out there, working hard to get drugs and kids off the streets. He’s deeply involved with the citizens of this great city, every single day. He’s making important and sometimes difficult decisions, and working with our city leaders to implement those decisions in a timely fashion. “I’m overwhelmed and honoured to be standing here,” he said. “Every day I pinch myself that I get to do this for a living. I’d do it for free.” And who wouldn’t? He’s changing the world, one street corner at a time.

What can I say about Max Keeping that hasn’t already been said? For those of you not from Ottawa, Max is an institution in our city. He was the anchor of the 6pm news on CTV Ottawa for 38 years. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and has countless other honours. He is a cancer survivor. He has done more for this city in 40 years than 100 people do in their entire lifetimes. He has passion and caring for people beyond belief. Max was the recipient of the Community Builder of the Year award in 2004. Earlier this year, when a devastating fire wiped out the CTV Ottawa newsroom, that award, along with most of Max’s other memories from his 38 years at the station, was lost. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place last night, when Max was surprised with the presentation of a replacement of his 2004 Community Builder Award. But what touched me even more was his response. “These awards are not about us,” he said. “We represent everyone that does so much to create this community that we cherish.” Cheers, Max. May you have another 40 years of helping to make our community great.

As the evening went on, we heard stories of amazing workplace campaigns, as government departments like Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Health Canada were honoured. We learned what great companies like PCL Constructors are doing to raise money and awareness. We listened as 19 year old Nathalie Gervais talked about how she turned her life around – from being a drug addict and prostitute at the age of 13 to now inspiring young people across the country to embrace their unlimited potential. “The secret to recovery for me,” Nathalie said, “was finding a passion and just going for it!”.

At the end of the evening, United Way President Michael Allen revealed new Pillars of Engagement for the organization, along with a new look and poster campaign. “Give | Speak up | Take Action” position United Way in a new light. Their goal is to no longer be perceived as just a money-maker, but as an organization who is taking action to make our community, and ultimately the world, a better place. (Incidentally, no donor dollars are used to put on the Community Builder Awards Gala. The event is 100% funded by corporate sponsorship).

Those Pillars are just words though, until there is action put behind them. Fortunately, I saw first hand last evening that there are people in this city who are already putting these words to work. They are the pillars of our community. They bring the true meaning back to the word. And their efforts make me proud to be a part of this great city, and compel me to want to do more.

It’s time to take back the word “community”. To give it the meaning that’s intended. To show “community” the respect it deserves.

You with me?

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  • May 20, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Should we use different names for online groups that congregate around common interests?

    Reminds me of something that Carman Pirie once said: communities of interest will trump communities of geography. You seem to be arguing the opposite, although actually when interest and geography coincide, it's a powerful combo.

    Great post!

  • May 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    […] Sue “Suzemuse” Murphy wrote about taking back the term community – changing it from buzzword to a more powerful word. […]

  • […] Murphy:  @suzemuse has a good piece on Taking Back Community this week that’s worth checking […]

  • May 21, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I grew up in Ottawa, living there for about 17 or 18 years from the time I was 10. I'm glad to see Max is still around. Ottawa has always struck me as a great example of a community of communities of involved people.

    Words get nullified all the time as they become the latest buzzwords: community, friend, story, tribes, narrative and so on. So it's a good idea to got back to their original meanings and intent every so often just to remind us.

  • May 25, 2010 at 12:28 am

    I guess once anything becomes popular enough, you have to worry about it becoming overthrown by those looking to be popular.

    It's kinda like the indie band syndrome; great while unknown and then less attractive when famous (even though, technically, they're still the same band).

    Which is why having folks like you remind us of the true meaning means we'll be just fine, regardless of how popular “community” becomes. 🙂



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