top of page

Blog: Building Community at a Distance

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

Rich Janzen

This reflection on building community is one in a series of blogs written by the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR). CCBR’s mission is to build responsive and supportive communities, especially for people with limited access to power and opportunity.

The Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR) was founded almost 40 years ago. At that time deinstitutionalization was in full swing. Across the country people with mental health and other disabilities were being discharged in large numbers from institutions. CCBR was a leader in challenging our country to intentionally support those who were returning to community. We mobilized people around the simple question: “How can we build responsive and supportive communities, especially for the most vulnerable?” CCBR founder, John Lord, received the Order of Canada for this ground-breaking work.

Today, we live in what seems to be another defining moment. At least it feels that way right now. The health of our communities, especially its most vulnerable members, depends on us being distant from each other. We follow the advice of our public health leaders about avoiding physical contact with our neighbours, our co-workers, our friends. And yet at this time we also feel the need to lean into our interconnectedness and support each other - we need each other to cope and to ensure that no one is left behind. This contradiction is a conundrum for community builders. It’s a riddle to be solved. A paradox to be unravelled.

To help with this unravelling, we thought it might be a good time to ask CCBR’s 40-year old question in a new way:

“What is this moment of physical distancing teaching us about building responsive and supportive communities?”

Below we offer our early thoughts. They’re organized under two main ideas. We’d love to hear your reactions.

1. Listen to the experts (and they’re not who you might think)

In recent weeks, many of us have felt unsettled. Yes, we’re isolated from others and out of routine. But more unsettling is that uneasy feeling of vulnerability. What we have trusted in the past to bring about the good life may now be in jeopardy - the security of a job, an educational path, life savings, grocery store items, health. We take basic necessities less for granted as the margins of excess become thin or disappear. We may have gained a glimpse into how fragile we really are and question society’s institutions to be there in support.

Truth be told, there are people in our community who are very familiar with this feeling of vulnerability. They have been living this experience day-by-day, year-in and year-out. They know what it is to lack access to life-giving resources and how this reality disproportionately hits some more than others. They know what it is to fall through the cracks of social safety nets, and how their vulnerability has distanced them from others. Community builders in this moment might benefit from tapping into their expertise. They might have valuable insight into how people and communities muster resilience and could direct us to more enduring sources of trust. They might have ideas about how to structure society more equitably and could suggest strategies for how to build a sense of community among those who feel isolated.

We can learn from the past mistakes of deinstitutionalization – a national project now widely considered a public policy failure and the catalyst for homelessness. Despite its noble intentions, a part of its failure was not listening enough to the voices of those returning to community about how best they could be supported to live full and meaningful lives. Before we rush off with noble intentions of building community today, we should listen to those among us who have the lived experience of vulnerability and of social distance.

2. Be creative naturally (hint: you too can be an innovation leader)

Some might say that today’s physical distancing is simply a scaling-up of the online trajectory that we’ve been on for some time. Maybe so. But it’s happening at lightening speed. And that abruptness brings a certain urgency to be creative in how we build connections beyond the physical. We need connectivity right now. Have you learned to Zoom yet?

It’s not just about our personal need to connect. All across the country people are asking how they can support those who need help in their community. What is striking is how informal the responses have been to date. There have been no formal “call for proposals” or commissioned “community action plan report”. Yes, there is a need for a more systemic response (see Imagine Canada’s call for a national emergency fund for the charitable sector). But a lot that has happened so far has been done naturally by citizens raising up in creative support of their neighbours.

CCBR has often advocated for strengthening people’s informal, natural systems of support. We believe these types of supports are integral when building communities that are responsive to what people uniquely need. For example, in response to deinstitutionalization we and our partners explored such innovations as: Support Clusters (wrapping natural and professional supports around people with developmental disabilities), Consumer/Survivor Initiatives (self help organizations run by people with mental health struggles for people with mental health struggles), and Independent Facilitation (facilitators, family members, and other allies supporting people with developmental disabilities to direct their own lives).

Now is the time for new creativity and innovation. How do we build community at a distance? The good news is that we can all do it – naturally. Below are some examples that we’ve seen emerge. We invite you to share others.

  • A national listing of COVID-19 Community Response Networks supporting vulnerable community members to have access to food, housing, healthcare, and other necessities.

  • The national movement of Caremongering forming local networks to support isolated community members.

  • Nightly Applause for health care and other essential workers in Vancouver

  • Start-up guide for Neighbourhood Pods where neighbours help each other respond to COVID-19 with mutual aid.

Rich Janzen is Co-Executive Director of the Centre for Community Based Research, a non-profit organization on the University of Waterloo campus.


bottom of page