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Valuing the Intangible: The Impact of Deepening Community

Posted on April 2, 2015
By Sylvia Cheuy

In a recent webinar exploring six patterns of social innovation, Tamarack Thought-Leader Al Etmanski spoke of his hope for a "resurrection of the ordinary" which he described as "recognizing ordinary people and their extraordinary power."


Al's phrase struck a deep cord and reminded me that simple things that are easily overlooked can often be powerful sources of profound impact. Community is one of those things: so ordinary and obvious that it is often assumed as a given. Yet, increasingly evidence is demonstrating the profound impact that face-to-face connection and strong circles of friendship have on our health, our ability to learn, our resilience and our life expectancy.

The choice to deepen community - to connect regularly with family and friends; to chat and share stories with neighbours; to take time to contribute to and enjoy local celebrations - is, on the one hand, is so incredibly ordinary. On the other hand, strengthening connection to our neighbours and choosing to invest in the strengthening of social ties within communities is proving to be an important strategy - and necessary prerequisite - for achieving meaningful impact on a range of complex community issues. In The Village Effect, author Susan Pinker states, "Surprisingly, face-to-face social capital in a neighbourhood can predict who lives and who dies even more powerfully than whether the area is rich or poor." Citing a 2003 Harvard study of the social capital - reciprocity, trust and civic participation - of 350 Chicago neighbourhoods, she shares, "the higher the levels of social capital, the lower its mortality rates, and not just from violent crime but from heart disease too. Clearly the place makes a difference to your health."

Rediscovering the capacity to deepen community in our neighbourhoods and cities is a skill and practice that we need to be more intentional about cultivating. Across Canada and throughout North America, municipalities and organizations are discovering the value of building this capacity. By investing in the leadership capacity of neighbours and working collaboratively with neighbourhood leaders, municipalities, together with non-profit, philanthropic and local business organizations are discovering they can have a greater impact than could ever be achieved by independently delivering programs and services. Below are just a few of many examples of the power of deepening community:

Grey-Bruce Region, Ontario: The Power of Conversations to Deepen Community

In the spring of 2014, a team from the Grey-Bruce Health Unit launched a Community Conversations initiative in partnership with Tamarack. Part of a national Deepening Community campaign, the goals of the Grey Bruce project were: to reveal and strengthen community connections; to increase community engagement; to build consensus on opportunities for shared action; and, to nurture diverse community leadership.

Over the next six months, a total of 47 conversations were held with more than 400 citizens representing ten different sector perspectives across the region.

A survey of participants revealed that 89% of them were interested in working together to strengthen their community after having participated in a conversation, and their feelings of connection to each other increased by 8% after the conversations. Some comments include:

  • "Good community takes work and participation."
  • "A community acts like a mirror, helping you to see yourself."
  • "Community is…dedicated people from different backgrounds committed to improving our community."
  • "Friends go in different directions but community, whether large or small, works together for a common goal."
  • "Strengthening connections is important."

Later this month, a series of community celebrations are planned to share back the results of this project with participants and highlight opportunities to strengthen capacity for community action.

Baltimore, Maryland: Creating Better Outcomes for Babies

Two neighbourhoods in Baltimore are making positive progress in improving health outcomes for their youngest residents: those under 1 year of age. In 2010, following the news that the City of Baltimore's infant mortality rate was the 4th worst in the United States, a collaborative effort known as B'More for Healthy Babies was launched in the priority neighbourhoods of Upton-Druid Park and Patterson Park.

Led by the Office of the Mayor, with co-leadership from The Family League of Baltimore and the Baltimore City Health Department, the goal of B'More for Healthy Babies is that "all of Baltimore's babies are born at a healthy weight, full term, and ready to thrive in healthy families.

The project was launched in 2009 and collaborates with 150 community partners and residents to raise awareness; keep organizations and residents informed about the issues contributing to infant mortality; and, ensure access to a range of programs and services to support all infants and their families to achieve optimum health. In six years, B'More for Healthy Babies has already generated some impressive results. These include:

  • A 24% decrease in infant mortality
  • A 32% decrease in teen pregnancy
  • A 10% decrease in low birth-weight
  • A decrease in the racial disparity between white and black infants by almost 40%; and,
  • A decrease in the number of sleep-related deaths - which has been the biggest contributor to lower infant mortality - in Baltimore

These are just two stories that illustrate what is possible when neighbours, cities and organizations work and learn together. Tamarack is pleased to offer leadership to document, champion and accelerate the important work of deepening community. Are there stories and resources for building neighbourhoods and communities that you can share? If so, please email them to Christie Nash at: who can help you post them on the Seeking Community online learning community.

From June 8-10, 2015 the Neighbours: Policies & Programs gathering held in Hamilton, Ontario, will focus on Re-imagining Cities ~ Re-engaging Citizens and bring together leaders in neighbourhood-building from around the world. Joined by renowned community-builders John McKnight, Jim Diers, Vickie Cammack and Paul Born, attendees will learn from one another and explore opportunities to accelerate our collective capacity to strengthen neighbourhoods and deepen community. Later this month, the webinar: Imagining and Engaging: The Hamilton Neighbourhood Story will also provide an opportunity to discover the highlights, results and learnings from that city's neighbourhood action strategy.

By committing to work and learn from each other, we will rediscover the power - and accelerate the practice - of deepening community, together. Please join us and add your insights, wisdom and curiosity to this growing movement.

Sylvia Cheuy, Cities Deepening Community

Sylvia Cheuy

By Sylvia Cheuy

Sylvia is a Consulting Director of the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Idea Area and also supports Tamarack’s Community Engagement Idea Area. She is passionate about community change and what becomes possible when residents and various sector leaders share an aspirational vision for their future. Sylvia believes that when the assets of residents and community are recognized and connected they become powerful drivers of community change. Sylvia is an internationally recognized community-builder and trainer. Over the past five years, much of Sylvia’s work has focused on building awareness and capacity in the areas of Collective Impact and Community Engagement throughout North America.

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