Towards the end of last year, I took a job with the Niagara Community Observatory. I was entering the final stretch of my doctoral studies, and I was excited to research local government in a region that I’ve called home for nearly a decade.
The job was also something of a capstone on my time as a student – a transition into the real world and the pressures that come with it. There was a lot of transitory anxiety, but I was excited to start putting down roots in the community.
I started simple. I joined a running group, expanded my café circuit, and began spending more time at local markets and community events. I also began hanging around local neighbourhood associations in the Haig and Fitzgerald, eager to learn more about the work they were already doing in the community. Eventually, I developed deeper connections to groups like the Downtown St. Catharines Association and Niagara Glowriders, working with both to advocate for active transportation infrastructure in Niagara.
Things culminated in the Fall with Neighbourhoods 101 – an event about community organizing hosted collaboratively by some of the groups already mentioned. A wonderful panel of community advocates spoke about their work in Niagara, and the experienced and vociferous Dave Meslin (author of the great book Teardown) delivered the keynote.
As we near the end of 2023, I find myself reflecting on these experiences, and on the role of community groups in building better cities. I’ve learned a lot since the year began, and I’ve seen the infectious optimism that can be unlocked through effective organizing. The groups I've worked with are all serving as key conduits between residents and local institutions, and they are helping to translate cynicism and critique into action and accountability.
They’re not always this, of course. Groups can often be monopolized by grievances, and it is easier to organize when you’re angry than it is to articulate a positive vision for your community.
Yet the people I met this year are ready to build. They’re at the table, working with local institutions to create more vibrant, sustainable, and equitable communities, volunteering their time, resources, and expertise. At a time when the challenges facing cities are so clear, we need more groups like these at work within our cities – and these groups need more of us to lend a hand.
Here’s to an even busier 2024.