The Canadian federal government, provincial agencies and many independent organizations work together to build cities and communities that are welcoming and offer easy adjustment to new immigrants. Vibrant Communities Calgary (VCC) is one such organization working to grow the social, economic and political engagement of Calgarians in their community, with the belief that everyone has a right to fully participate in their communities. VCC works to change those through engagement, inspiration and action. Hagir is one of the driving forces behind VCC’s ability to reach out to immigrant communities and engage them in building sustainable networks.
Hagir employs a three-pronged strategy to create sustainable networks that are anchored in communication and building relationships. “There is a gap in the understanding of what the community needed and what the system thought that we needed,” she says.
Grassroots Level: At the local level, a lot of work needs to be done on developing relationships that are beneficial to everybody. Often people, particularly immigrants, don’t feel like they are heard. Individuals with long-lived experience who have experienced poverty, discrimination and racism are emboldened with the belief that they are not heard. they say. “We listen actively to what each person has to say, understand and distil what’s being said,” she says.
Simple questions such as: What has been your experience with the system? How has the system affected you? What are challenges and opportunities? What would you like to see if you could, to make things easier? These questions would release a gold-mine of information that can be used for feedback to the system, to learn what works and what doesn’t and to show that you value their opinion.
For immigrants, it is important to feel that they are being heard and their concerns are being addressed. “We emigrated for a better life, with hopes and aspirations, but we carry baggage that manifest in different ways,” she says as she migrated to Canada when she was nine. Sometimes as community workers, you will have to weigh in on how you can influence changes at the grassroots and adopt different routes. To Hagir, working her way through the women, women’s network was the most successful one. The “ladies night” that started as a hang-out and talked about issues that drew them slowly opened up to vulnerable issues. Issues that were of concern to them, their families and communities. “Building a trusted relationship is time-consuming,” she says. But the rewards of such groups, the ability to build slow but strong momentum are sustainable.
Organizational Level: At the organizational level there are always changes happening. Many organizations are trying to figure out how to become less racist and more welcoming of different groups and more diverse. At a business level, organizations fail to make sweeping changes. The external show of support and standing together in a movement is easy and superficial, the real need is to do it internally. What do organizations look like? What’s their staff like? Who are they buying their stuff from? Are they working with a diverse group of people?
Organizations need to apply the principles they support. The leadership in an organization needs to be able to spell out the values they abide by and demonstrate their commitment to it. Leaders need to be able to delegate power that will make an organization strong. Knowing when to say no to and standing up on your principles — there is power in saying no. Leaders who delegate and share the power understand and comprehend the ability to say no. Organizations cannot vouch to work for a community without being a part of the community. “Nothing about us without us. Who you are working with and who it is affecting needs to be constantly evaluated.”
System Level: This is where the policies come into play. How do sustainable networks affect policies? There is tremendous power in numbers. When you have built relationships, there will come a time to utilize those relationships. The most powerful social policy action you can take in Canada is vote. Vote. Creating the networks will result in policies reflective of the people. They are all interconnected. “These relationships will be working upside down and sideways – there are no sideways about it,” she says.