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Julie Black on the Power of Neighbourliness

Residents in a Calgary, Alberta suburb were tired of all the trash in their local green spaces. So they decided to seek a small grassroots grant through The Calgary Foundation to buy a sign to invite their neighbors to join them in a Sunday trash clean up. Each month, they moved the sign to a different green space and new neighbors saw the sign and joined in.

Many would assume the desired outcome of this project was a cleaner neighborhood – but because the grant program was designed to promote “neighborliness,” the grantmaker viewed the outcomes from a different angle. The project was a success for Julie Black, Citizen Engagement Associate with The Calgary Foundation, because “at the end there were 40 names on a list of participants who wanted to work together. These people had gotten to know each other and built belonging in a neighborhood.”

Right now, the concept of “neighborliness” is important to residents of Calgary. It’s a relatively young city which has grown rapidly in the past ten years to a population of around 1 million. The oil and gas industry is its primary economic driver, with populations immigrating from all over Canada and the world for employment.

“It’s a young and growing city where newcomers may go years without ever meeting someone who was born and raised here,” says Black. Two small grant programs (up to $600 and up to $5,000) were designed to give people the opportunity to connect, rather than stay in isolation. They’re available to residents in in-lying metro areas as well as newly developed suburbs, rather than targeted to one type of neighborhood.

That’s because “the feeling of being alone in a big city is common everywhere,” says Black. “It can come from different reasons such as poverty, or working in a big corporate job that is fast paced or living in a neighborhood designed for cars rather than people. A longing for neighborliness can be common to everyone.”

In talking with grant recipients about the impacts, Black says that “people told us they had seen improvements in social capital across social difference. They felt their groups had developed greater capacity and made more connections. And they saw that their neighbors who joined their small projects felt better about where they lived.”

The Calgary Foundation’s grassroots grant programs have started to bring grant recipients together for regular “project fairs” to share their stories. Black says these gatherings create connections across neighborhoods and inspire new ideas.“People love to hear about the great things others are doing,’she says.

And while neighborliness promotion might not be easily quantifiable, Black says the success of these small grants is apparent in the stories. She talks about an elderly woman in an apartment complex who was troubled by kids playing in the parking lot because she thought they were blocking her way. A small afterschool program run by parents encouraged youth and adults in the neighbourhood to get to know each other. By the end of the project Black says the woman was “no longer shaking her fist in anger” at the kids, but had grown to enjoy them.

“I don’t know how you would get to that outcome without a project like that – when you know each other’s names and share something, the feeling of the neighborhood changes.”

And Black says her involvement has also changed her.

“I’ve learned much more about where I live – there is so much more taking place in the city than I realized, and that is uplifting. Every day I get to see the quality and integrity and generosity of people, and their warmth.”

She says some of the projects are led by people who experience discrimination and deep hardship, and  the outcomes can be deeply life-changing. “It is immensely heartening to work together to build and create something – to focus on a solution without denying the existence of injustices.”

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