My office was jam packed last Friday. Over the course of the two-hour Community Drop In about 40 people came through. Most stayed for the whole time. I was wowed, as I have been since I started doing these drop ins, by the wisdom, compassion, generosity and hard work of Victorians.
Here’s how it goes: People pile in, pour themselves a cup of coffee or tea, slap on a name tag and find a seat. First thing I do is ask, “What’s the agenda?” the agenda is set by the people who come. Here’s the agenda from last Friday.
Everyone introduces themselves and says why they came, then we go through the agenda. I keep things moving so every topic gets covered. I track action items so nothing gets dropped and I can do the follow up work I say I’ll do. People share ideas and ways to get connected on the whiteboard.
At 1pm promptly I run off to wherever I’m going next and people stay as long as they need to exchange information and connect with each other.
Some Highlights from Last Friday’s Community Drop In
A Pedestrian Mall is Not A Closed Street
There has been much talk about Government Street lately. Much of the talk has been about storefront vacancies and closing it to cars. The discussion on Friday was not about closing Government Street, but rather, about opening it up. Members from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and Walk On Victoria talked about their plans to work with the Downtown Victoria Business Association and Government Street Merchants to ‘place make’ Government Street. To open it up to more people this summer. I said that I’d be happy to help move their proposal forward once it is developed, with input from everyone affected.
Homeless in a Park
A woman came to talk with me about how distressed she was by homeless people sleeping in a park near her house. And the people there who were homeless said they were distressed because they had nowhere safe to sleep. No one even had to connect the dots. She spoke. Then they spoke. And a hush fell over the rest of us as they quickly developed a shared understanding that they had a common problem.
Then the generous and wise group set to work coming up with solutions. Someone from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network suggested engaging the Reserve Constables from the Police Department – who just had some training in this regard – to convene a conversation between the nearby homeowners and the people camping in the park to find some shared solutions. I said I’d make sure everyone gets connected. Someone else suggested that maybe City Hall needs to designate a permanent place for people to camp and provide facilities. I said I’d raise this with Council. Ben Isitt has also proposed this. One of the people who is currently homeless said it’s really hard if you’re sick and you just want to stay in bed and get well and you have to take your tent down at 7am. A third person – a homeless veteran – suggested that the armouries could easily sleep 350 people and that they should be asked to open their doors.
Small Business Struggles
A young entrepreneur wants to open a restaurant. He came just to let me know about the struggles he’s having, especially because rents are so high. The place he was looking at is 800 square feet. The base rent is $35 per square foot. The triple net (which a commercial landlord in attendance explained to the group was “all expenses related to the building, including property taxes”) is $17 per square foot, $11 of which is for property taxes. That’s more than he can afford to get his business off the ground. Everyone jumped in with names of building owners he could talk with, and ideas about how to help young start ups, including checking out the Young Entrepreneurs Society. Prosperity through Economic Development is one of the proposed objectives for Council’s Strategic Plan and is something that I would like to lead.
The Oath I Never Took
The final moment of the inspired conversation was when a First Nations woman, who had sat quietly for the most part stood up at the end to present a shawl to me that she had made. She had made it to thank me for not taking an Oath to the Queen but rather for focusing my efforts and attention on the people, and on her people. She explained that the design is a beaver with a rising sun. Her uncle said to her, “But a beaver is not a symbol for our people.”
She said she knew at that moment, when her uncle said this, that she was making the shawl for me – the beaver is a symbol of Canada, the sun, a symbol of her people, the First Nations and Canada working towards reconciliation. She said she had faith in me, that I have the courage that it takes to make the changes that are needed. There was no longer a dry eye in the room.
I hold these Community Conversations every two weeks. Different people come every time. The schedule is here. When I started them in January I had no idea what would happen. Community is happening. Connection is happening. Happiness and belonging and the road to prosperity are happening. People are coming together, and leaving with more than they came with whether it’s a new connection, a new idea or a commitment to take some kind of action, big or small, that will make Victoria better.