Smart and CaringThis week the Conference Board of Canada published a significant report relating Canada’s standing on things like child poverty, inequality and gender equity. Sadly, our “social score” has been sliding down in recent years, leaving us 7th out of 17 developed countries.

For those fighting poverty it is hard to argue with the conclusions drawn up in the report, such as: “Our middle-of-the-pack ranking means we are not living up to our reputation or potential.” It’s true and we’ve felt it for years. By continuing to compare ourselves with other nations in such issues we lull ourselves into a false sense of security. The key for any nation is to compare itself with itself – past promises, commitments, aspirations, investments, its own history. Judged in this context, Canada has been declining.

Yet a report of this scope often fails to take account of the actions taken by communities against the increasing reality of poverty. While it remains true that governments across the land have failed to develop and effectively resource cooperative ventures to deal with realities like aboriginal and child poverty, homelessness, even unemployment, the majority of our communities are endeavouring to find ways to reverse such neglect.

London, Ontario, my home, has witnessed more than its share of economic challenges in the last few years, exacerbated by the loss of manufacturing, stubbornly high unemployment, and political dysfunction. It hasn’t been easy. Sensing the lack of investment and interest from higher levels, London has been attempting to pull itself together at the local level in ways that have actually inspired hope and innovation. Coalitions have been coming together on issues like social service reform, housing and homelessness, affordable housing, mental health coordination, and food security.

No clearer measure of how our community is upping its game can be seen than in a change of direction of one of its key funders. The London Community Foundation has invested in community building measures for over 50 years, becoming one of this country’s top 10 foundations in the process. Yet something has occurred in the last two years that has, to a certain degree, seen it reinvent itself.

It listened to the challenge of Governor General David Johnston to build more “smart and caring” communities and decided to make it its own. Recognizing the overall rise of poverty, it set about to fund those initiatives that might more effectively assist those struggling in poverty’s grip. It struck up new task forces, worked with other local groups to define the challenges, undertook research, and began drafting in people and organizations that could halt the decline.

When the London Community Foundation announced recently that it would be investing $500,000 in affordable housing, it came as a surprise to many. It was a marked departure from its previous patterns, but it signaled a new era in community response. Bill Brady, a former Foundation board member, commented recently that the affordable housing measure, “Is perhaps the most exciting development in the Foundation’s history that I can recall.”

The ability to think outside the box and previous patterns isn’t unique to just the Foundation in London. Groups like the United Way, WOTCH mental health services, faith organizations, My Sister’s Place, even the London Police Department, to name but a few, have stretched themselves to develop innovative ways of breaking poverty’s grip.

The lack of effective government response in recent years has left our communities challenged but hardly stagnant. Powerful trends are shifting the roles that local actors play. The old ways of doing things are being fundamentally changed and challenged.

None of this takes away from the importance of conclusions drawn by the Conference Board of Canada’s recent report; they are valid and disturbing at the same time. Governments have a role to play and must come back to the table instead of shrinking away in silence. But it doesn’t mean that Canadians have gone to sleep in the face of such challenges. Losing confidence in the abilities of governments, and even the global financial system, they have turned to creativity within their local environs to deal with the downward pull of poverty. We are learning that civil society plays a key role in modeling the kind of organizations, individuals, movements and partnerships that help us recognize the public good, a sense of service, trust, and cooperation that will be required to prepare our communities for the coming age.

Governor General Johnston’s challenge for “smart and caring communities” is moving through the streets of where we live and reshaping how we look at our cities and one another. We are “coming of age” as communities – especially in how we treat the marginalized in our midst. However we address the challenges listed in the Conference Board’s report, civil society, awakening from its slumber, will be the key driver and innovator in tomorrow’s communities.