Social networks during natural disasters

How Community Catalysts Could Shape Neighbourhood Development and Resilience

Author: Trevor Popoff

Sue Gwynn has been working in the field of community advocacy since she was a kid; or at least, that’s what her mother would say. 

Sue Gwynn

At the start of her career in advocacy, she was defending the small kid in class. Now, inspired by her job at Community Hubs Calgary, she’s introduced an idea that centres the thoughts and ideas of those who actually live in underserved areas (namely, her Northeast Calgary stomping grounds). She calls it the Community Catalyst, and it could permanently alter the thought process behind how we solve community issues.

Gwynn’s idea for the Community Catalyst was born after a hailstorm walloped her neighbourhood. A traditionally underserved community made up of many new Canadians and racialized groups, the impact of the storm rocked the area’s residents. “I’m very much a zombie movie kind of person, and it reminded me of an apocalyptic event,” Gwynn said. “It looked like nuclear warheads went off and sheared the siding off of these buildings.”

Gwynn’s phone began to ring off the hook. Among all of the calls for help was one family who sticks in her mind to this day. “Every window had been smashed out of their home,” Gwynn said. “They had a snowdrift in their kitchen. That’s unacceptable.”

The family, which included a young child, were all thankfully safe, but the effects of the storm were felt long after the hail stopped pummelling the neighbourhood. Furnaces stopped working due to damaged motors. Washers and dryers that had rooftop ventilation broke down due to hail-ridden vents. Gwynn then watched on as residents waited, and then waited some more, for both insurance companies and the provincial government to help out. The story even garnered national attention, with the CBC highlighting the plight of residents waiting extended periods of time for service or even being dropped by their providers altogether. So, she took matters into her own hands. 

Gwynn decided to gather groups of residents so they could create the support they needed internally rather than rely on outsiders who she felt didn’t truly understand their needs. “We wanted it to be residents for residents,” Gwynn said, “because we’ve had enough of people making the decisions for this area and deciding what residents here need.” 

The Community Catalyst works in two layers. First, there’s what she calls the inner ring, which is made up exclusively of residents. “They dictate what they want to do and the trajectory [of projects], Gwynn said. 

Then, there’s the outer layer, which is made up of larger organizations who are able to fund the ideas of the inner ring. Current members of the outer ring include Samaritan’s Purse, Vibrant Communities Calgary, the Canadian Poverty Institute and Calgary Police Service. “Whenever the inner ring has a question, or would like to work on a project, the contacts are all there in the outer ring,” Gwynn says. The outer ring can also attend meetings to hear what the community needs for themselves. Many members of the outer ring supply grants too, so pitches are regularly thrown their way from community members for improvements in the neighbourhood. 

Most of all, the outer ring is present simply to listen to the inner ring. “These people (the outer ring) are used to jumping into action and being the ones who set the goals and outcomes for projects,” Gwynn said, “and it’s very difficult sometimes for them to take a back seat, and to just listen.”

When both the inner ring and outer ring are working harmoniously, good things happen. One of the first projects Gwynn’s Community Catalysts produced was a food bank set up in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse. Having received umpteen calls asking for food referrals, Gwynn identified a need, went to the outer ring for help, and the help arrived. It was the quintessential Community Catalyst event.

Gwynn feels that her model of Community Catalysts could easily be implemented in other communities. “As long as they have the strong will to do it, it is 100 percent duplicatable,” she said. “You have to find the sort of people that are really, really interested in just listening to the community. They’re there, there’s more than one in every one of these NGOs and GOs. You just have to find ones willing to work within the Catalyst. Once you do find that sort of magic, it just happens.”

Trevor Popoff is a writer currently based in Toronto. He is passionate about global environmental issues and uncovering unique ways that society is dealing with climate change. He is currently studying journalism at Ryerson University.

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Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW)

Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW) explores ways of communicating and promoting community adaptation to the rapidly increasing risks and hazards of extreme weather and the public health impacts.

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