The very act of participating in community initiatives can often have a profound impact on increasing a person’s sense of belonging in a community. How many community workers, for instance, have seen people that were once marginalized blossom into leaders right before their very eyes? Someone crippled by chronic depression, for instance, all of sudden making deputations before a municipal council?
While there are many factors that come into play, the reality is that it is in giving that we receive. It is essential that Community Health Centres provide opportunities for the people they serve to make a difference, to have their voice heard.
How to make that happen? It is important that our approach to working with everyone we serve start on the basis of what is right with the person, so that they can find outlets to share their gifts. It is by asking these questions that clients can rediscover their true value.
Feature: Smile and Say Hello: You Belong - Oxford County’s Story
Working within my community, I have learned that I can be responsible for making great things happen. This helps to build a sense of responsibility, and a sense of pride when I see what I’ve done is actually helping others. I feel like I belong when I am involved. - Karen
How did Smile and Say Hello Oxford come about?
During a community education event about the CIW, attended by both service providers and community members, the community spoke up. They felt that one of the top areas our community needed to focus on in order to flourish was Community Vitality.
United Way of Oxford later shared what they learned via their community conversations and one of the themes that was heard from the community was a need to feel an increased sense of belonging. They said things like: “We need to help people develop a sense of community and take care of each other” and “I want a community where everyone says hi to each other on the street”.
Many meetings and brainstorm sessions later, “Secret Change Agents” and the idea of a “Smile and Say Hello” movement was born as a simple tool to increase community belonging in Oxford County.
Tell us about the Smile and Say Hello initiative and its “Secret Change Agents”
Our Secret Change Agents are people who make positive change in the community in ordinary, subtle ways. They are people who notice others, help others feel welcome, feel like they belong. Secret Change Agents empower others to have a voice, to shift minds; they work quietly, with a purpose and passion, and play a role in strengthening our community. No role is too big or too small. We need people with ideas and people with resources. We need cheerleaders and doers, volunteers and thinkers. Everyone can play a part. It takes the whole community to create community-wide change.
Some of the tools that Secret Change Agents have created and been involved with include:
2. chalkboards with messages of hope and belonging to place in public locations like park benches and bus shelters;
3. smile candy-grams distributed to people at random;
4. “Share a Chair” chairs set up at summer festivals that invited people to “have a seat because you never know who you’re going to meet”;
5. “scarf-bombing” the community in the winter months to spread warmth to those who need it;
6. fun and engaging activities like thumbs-up Thursday and high-five Wednesday (smiley faces drawn on your thumb or palm, respectively); and a
7. 3-minute video about community belonging and how to spread it.
What we have learned is that community belonging doesn’t just happen, you have to put yourself out there. - Sean
Social media — Facebook specifically — has been a great tool to keep Secret Change Agents engaged and connected to one another. People share resources and stories, as well as the tools that have been created and ideas for future tools on the website. We also use the Facebook page to promote free local events where people can gather in shared spaces as well as share articles and stories of people doing Secret Agent type work, although they might not identify themselves as Secret Change Agents.
Another reason we are successful is because we’ve tried to maintain a Turned Outward approach to initiatives. For example, we try to avoid long meetings wrapped in policies and red tape and have really focused on what we can do as a community to increase community belonging rather than what is stopping us. It’s a very strengths-based, community-focused model.
Can you explain what the concept of “Turning Outward” is all about?
As we try to get things done in our community, we can face incredible pressure to turn inward and to focus more on our own organization and its internal workings, our branding, the very survival of our organization, and the endless to-do lists, all at the expense of Turning Outward and really hearing from, and being with, our community. Turning Outward may be more time consuming in the beginning, but it pays off in the end when you’re offering spaces and places that the community has identified as a need.
What have the challenges been?
Another challenge has been to change our mindset about what it looks like to engage people. Although we often have the same Secret Change Agents coming out to meetings and executing initiatives, with every new adventure come new people! Those who are full of ideas but don’t consider themselves doers are always welcome, because we have doers for that. We also have some Secret Change Agents who comment and leave feedback on our Facebook page but never come to a meeting or event — but they’re just as engaged as the next person! Each initiative draws the Secret Change Agents that are interested in whatever is being organized. Although sometimes we wonder how we can engage more people, we realize that this doesn’t need to be a concern, as people will become engaged as they need to or see fit for themselves. It’s about creating opportunities for that to happen.
What have you learned so far?
- Allow spin off-groups to be created that offer venues for people to continue to meet, and keep in mind that groups don’t have to be structured.
- There are many easy ways to incorporate the language of belonging in and around the community. Recently the Oxford County Celebrates International Women’s Day added “helps create places and spaces; increasing a sense of belonging” to their AppreSHEation Award nomination criteria. Also, Suicide Prevention Day provided an opportunity to sell smile cookies at local bakeries with the following message: “talking changes lives, smiling changes moments”.
- It takes a village. Our partners include formal agencies, service providers and community members. Community members are the people who continue to drive the Smile and Say Hello movement!