Exploring Community Connection

On June 9th, the Stratford Perth Community Foundation (SPCF), along with the help of several local organizations, hosted its inaugural Vital Conversation about the sense of belonging in our community.

I was pretty stoked about this community discussion as it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for the last two years. Hosting a conversation of this caliber and inviting the community to take part, helps to showcase how the SPCF can be an organization that convenes and collaborates. And when you do meaningful things, people want to get involved.

We chose ‘sense of belonging’ as the topic for our first conversation because it is a fundamental human need – just like food or shelter – and is essential to our sense of happiness and well-being.  It is also a topic that people care about – deeply, which was confirmed through the conversations we heard at the event.

Through large and small group discussions and with the help of our keynote speaker, Vital Conversation attendees were taken on an exploration of community connection. The goal was to identify areas for improvement and opportunities for civic action. The attendees didn’t disappoint and shared ideas on how to make an impact on youth involvement, communication and sharing of stories, accessibility to services, better transportation options and creating welcoming initiatives for newcomers.

In addition to the group discussions, we also hosted a panel of local citizens, moderated by an award winning Globe and Mail journalist who moved to the community 10 years ago. She navigated the panel through many questions that brought up tough issues around the challenges of fitting into a community, experiences of racism and prejudice, as well as our deep need for support and connection. For me, hearing the personal stories and experiences from these community members was emotional, raw and moving.

I’m proud of the process we took in hosting this conversation, because we worked to include the voices of the community right from the start. Even before the event, participants were surveyed and asked to identify key challenges to sense of belonging in the community. The top five themes of Socio-Economic Barriers, Cross-Cultural Relationship-Building, Connecting with Others, Accessing & Improving Services, and Welcoming & Inclusiveness were used to fuel the breakout group discussions during the event. What we continued to hear during these conversations were personal stories of loneliness, isolation, discrimination and feelings of exclusion. Whether citizens had lived here their whole life or for only a few years, people were wanting to connect with others more – to find friends. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone, including many who grew up here.

And, the Community Foundation is working to keep the conversation going. Attendees were encouraged to reflect on what they had heard, engage others in the conversation and identify ways that they, their family, friends, businesses, churches and service clubs could get involved in creating a more inclusive and connected community. Citizens were also able to download a “Kitchen Conversations” tool from our website to provide information on what they can do as a community member to impact sense of belonging. The tool also reflected much of what was discussed at the event.

In a post-event survey, participants were asked to rate actions that affect sense of belonging (based on importance) that were identified during the event. The SPCF, along with some of our event partners, plan to provide some small grants to local organizations that are making a difference and actively working on  the top actions identified by the survey participants.

A key take-away for me from the whole process was that although it’s great to have access to services and maybe create a  few more ‘welcoming’ initiatives for newcomers, it really boils down to the actions that each of us take as individuals. It is my responsibility to reach out to others, to be aware of my biases and assumptions and to be more neighborly and welcoming – that’s where sense of belonging truly begins.

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