How local action starts and spreads

Engage talks to Dana Perry, Community Sector Council NS–Valley

Photo of people gathered around a table in discussion

“When we try something new, it helps to keep our expectations low.” Dana Perry has a modest way of talking about the monthly sessions he facilitates with Nina Barnaby and Michel Carty at the NSCC campus in Digby. The group had just had their fourth monthly meeting a few evenings before, with a turnout of 60 people—twice the number that came for the first session in September. So their numbers were steadily rising, not dropping off, and all six of the initial action projects were still going strong. The people who turned out came from all corners of the community and included business owners, nonprofit leaders, the local mayor, their MLA, educators, and volunteers.

What is the attraction? “When all the usual people are trying to do everything in a small community, they tend to get burned out,” explains Dana. “If they can come to a place where other people are also ready to step up, they know they won’t be left holding all the work, all the responsibility. And by meeting monthly they can see projects moving forward. Things are happening, and that attracts new people looking for something they can get hold of. We have thinkers, we have doers, we have people from business and people from nonprofits, so there’s a chance to make new connections and work on issues from multiple angles at once. The political leaders see it as a perfect opportunity to understand the issues better and get input. And everyone cares about their community so they are there to make it work.”

People gathered around a table laughing and reading notes

The monthly format includes time to work on projects that are focused on issues like business retention, welcoming newcomers, employability, starting a hub, and creating a web portal for services. Each session also includes a chance to learn new information or skills. For example, Mary Thompson, principal of the Yarmouth, Shelburne and Digby campuses of NSCC, introduced project management skills at the most recent meeting.

All of this is happening with a zero budget. NSCC has contributed the meeting space. Dana, his co-facilitators, and resource people are volunteering their time. Dana says, “This is about not waiting for the grant. If you just start, you will have something to show to potential investors or funders later. The best grant application in the world isn’t going to prove that this is the right project for the right time, or that the right people are ready to step up.”

And this brings us back to his earlier comment about “low expectations.” Dana explains that without the pressure of a funder’s targets, people can try something and let it unfold more naturally. Someone from Yarmouth came to the Digby sessions and now wants to start something there. Others who came to the Stepping Up conversation Dana facilitated in Middleton last June now have plans to work with Dana on a series of community dialogues in Wolfville that address each of the focus areas in the We Choose Now Playbook (the strategy that followed the Ivany Report), with a first session on welcoming newcomers. These dialogues will bring together people from all sides of the issue, so the community can educate itself and start looking for opportunities to take action.

And who knows where things will go from there?

For more about the Defining Community sessions in Digby, visit their Facebook page. To contact Dana directly, send him an email: dperry@csc-ns.ca