By Théo Rouhette
How can a citizen community use popular education and social action in order to transform society and its institutions toward an ecological, egalitarian and democratic future?
Challenges such as climate change and global inequity can be so overwhelming, individuals may feel powerless to respond and create positive change. But what if there was a way to organize ourselves so that together we can make more of a difference than any individual could alone?
In Montreal, Canada, Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire is a project which aims to build a public arena and communal space within which residents and students work together to decide on the priorities of their neighborhood and city. Starting in 2015, this project seeks to encourage community development and organization through popular education and social action.
This project is inspired by the field of “social ecology”, which considers a dual and simultaneous approach to addressing social and environmental problems, rooted in community development. It aims to create awareness of the ecological and democratic dimensions needed for societal change in the Anthropocene. The project focuses on solutions to local as well as global problems; although no challenge is too large to think about and discuss, solutions are always concrete and community based.
The members of the executive committee are culturally diverse, inter-generational, and gendered-balance. The process involves a close commitment to direct democracy and participatory decision making processes. The meetings are open to long-time residents as well as students living in the area.
Since the project was founded, multiple projects have been realized, such as a mobilization on the right to housing of homeless and low income people in the city, as well as a community discussion around local solutions to climate change. Ongoing projects and involvement include an upcoming public assembly of the future of Hotel Dieu, a community workshop on the principles of social ecology as well as the preparation of a presentation at the World Social Forum this summer in Montreal.
Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire is a project still in its beginning stages. Its mission statement and governance structure have only recently been developed, and many of the projects goals and actions are still in the realm of potentiality and imagined ideas. It has a small number of active members and is seeking to reach out to the community to create more social, positive inertia. Its objectives are vast and diverse, and there is no telling exactly how the project will evolve in the coming years. Aspirations include promoting cooperatively managed local renewable energy sources and reducing dependency on external sources of food through urban agriculture projects such as green roofs.
Considering its strong emphasis on local actions and participatory processes, the structure of Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire can easily be reproduced in other neighborhoods around Montreal and around the world. The vision of the organization is to inspire others rather than to scale up; ideally this could create a network of grassroots initiatives working at the neighborhood or municipal level. Each one can then adapt and respond to their own socio-ecological challenges, wherever they may be. The resulting sense of empowerment is central to this approach, so that confident and organized citizens can progressively learn how to build a resilient community.
The project also has its own barriers and challenges. Creating a long-term momentum requires dedicated activists and students, which can be hard in most cities where so many young people come and go. The absence of sustained participation and funding can slow down the momentum of these types of community-based projects.
Perhaps this project’s greatest innovation is its strong devotion to organize itself internally through egalitarian, just and participatory principles. This process reflects Ghandi’s famous advice to, “be the change you want to see in the world”. While it is hard for one person to make the change they want to see, as a community, the impact can be far greater. Building Community – Solidarité Communautaire is about creating a simultaneously hopeful and pragmatic future for Montreal and beyond.