Creating Communities that Care

Not that I’m name dropping or anything but I had a meeting this week with Susan Aglukark, a unique, three time Juno award winning singer.

It’s a long story as to how that came about, but the point is that her name and a comment she made during our conversation is responsible for the thinking tangent that prompted this column.

During the talk, Susan, who is by the way a lovely, intelligent, thoughtful woman known for her social activism, shared a bit about the cultural influence of her Inuit background.

She explained that the harsh reality of the Arctic meant she was raised in a culture that by necessity had to think first about survival. To survive, it was essential to downplay one’s own individualism and think instead about the broader community and their collective needs. Putting oneself first could put others at risk.

As she pointed it, while putting community first was valid for Inuits, it wasn’t necessarily a great strategy for developing her own career as it meant she just wasn’t conditioned to putting herself first. Instead it was something she had to learn.

Contrast that conversation with another I had the next day with a senior educator from western Canada who said that enrollment numbers in all of their community and social service programs was dropping off despite the demand and job opportunities for graduates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it was because the jobs weren’t perceived as being well-compensated. The idea of helping, making a difference, or giving back to the community seems to be declining as a motivating factor for today’s students.

While the two conversations represent extremes I’m thinking that somewhere in between there has got to be a healthy balance of caring for both ourselves and for our communities. Without this balance today’s young generation will miss out on the joy of giving. Additionally, there’s no doubt our communities will suffer.

So what can we do it about it?

Newfoundland has a long standing program called SWASP – Student Work and Service Program for secondary or post-secondary students. 

There is brilliance in its simplicity.

Students complete an 8-week (280 hours) community service placement with a nonprofit organization and receive a $1,400 tuition voucher as well as a $105 weekly stipend (to a maximum of $840).

It’s a win-win situation in that often under-resourced nonprofit organizations get additional help while students are exposed to careers related to communities and get help paying for university or college. It often means they are able to work summer jobs in their own communities.

The funding and delivery of the program is a joint initiative of the federal and provincial governments and the Community Service Council of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Toskan Casale Foundation, founded by the family that created M.A.C. cosmetics, has recently initiated another innovative program to promote youth involvement in community with a program called YPI (Youth and Philanthropy Initiative).

Motivated by a desire to be impactful with the money they distribute to charities, they introduce young people to the joy of giving by having them go out and research a charity of their choice using a variety of tools provided by their Foundation.

The students then come back to their schools and share what they’ve learned with their classmates, explaining what the organization does for the community and why they deserve a grant of $5,000.

A panel from the school then decides a winning charity from among those presented. 

The best part is that even if a charity is turned down, the kids who did the research stay engaged with the organization sometimes ultimately raising even more than $5000.

These are both excellent, tried and true programs and, while on some level it seems strange that we should have to teach the joy of giving to one’s community, it might just be one of the most important investments we could ever make.

Posted on 08-10-08

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