2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
Since starting my position as Director of Community Development with Upstream, I have been asked a few times to explain what it means to ‘develop community’ in this context. My answers have varied, and I often point to the three-branch structure of Upstream as an organization, which consists of the Think Tank, the Story Shop and the Community. I talk about how vital community and public support is in calling for change, and how an engaged community of upstream thinkers is needed. This response positions my role in the organizational structure, but it doesn’t say much about why I think it’s important or what community has to do with the Upstream vision.
Upstream is about finding and fostering common goals around a healthy society, using the social determinants of health as our roadmap. Given this, and based on definition 2., above, community development is exactly what Upstream is about. The social determinants of health are factors that have a greater impact on the long-term health of individuals and communities than commonly considered factors like genetics or lifestyle choices. The social determinants of health include poverty and income, race and marginalization, education and early childhood development, food insecurity and housing.
Upstream is about finding and fostering common goals around a healthy society, using the social determinants of health as our roadmap...community development is exactly what Upstream is about.
Thinking upstream recognizes that we need to take collective action on these root-causes of poor health. It recognizes that they are interrelated. One individual or organization’s expertise and focus does not exist in isolation from another’s, nor does it have to be in conflict. Thinking upstream is an acknowledgement that by working together across these determinants, we can set new goals – big goals. The Upstream frame is about putting health at the center, and making sure that what we decide to do collectively as a society – through policies, programs, and priorities, move us closer to that goal. We call this changing the frame or applying a new lens. This shift is not simple, and requires long-term, strategic thinking and action about how we can best take care of each other and our planet. This is what community development means to me.
Thinking upstream is an acknowledgement that by working together across these determinants, we can set new goals – big goals.
This sounds pretty perfect, right? Maybe, too good to be true! Sure, I’ll admit it: community building isn’t easy and working together isn’t always simple. Many things can get in the way: conflicting views, conflicting personalities, lack of resources – human, time, financial, or other.
In fact, sometimes what drives each of us individually can drive us apart, by leading each of us to think that what motivates us is most important. This division is dangerous, because it prevents us from seeing opportunities to work together. Although it’s complicated, I believe building community is worth it. In fact, it’s necessary. In order to tackle the inequality that exists in Canadian society, we need to reveal the systems that enable some people and populations to thrive, while keeping others in ill health. We need to replace them with collective systems that keep everyone healthy, happy and well.
There are a few reasons why I think this work is important. First, I’m embracing this goal of complete physical, social, and mental wellness for our society. Thinking upstream, by promoting ideas and solutions that aim at the root causes of poor health is far from being a new idea, but the need for action is as real now as it has ever been.
Second, the downstream effects of poor collective decisions, underserviced populations, and inequitable opportunities – the poor health our society experiences – are felt by all of us. We all pay for heightened use of downstream services such as the healthcare and judicial systems. We all suffer from the effects of an unequal society.
I find it truly awesome to think about what we can achieve together. Upstream thinking opens space for all kinds of possibilities- complete streets; quality, accessible day care; a basic income for all.
Finally, I think community development and the upstream frame are important because I find it truly awesome to think about what we can achieve together. Upstream thinking opens space for all kinds of possibilities- complete streets; quality, accessible day care; a basic income for all. And these aren't just pie-in-the-sky ideas, either. We can look to other communities that have chosen to tackle these issues together, for the benefit of all, and they are collectively better-off as a result.
So let’s take some time to think and work upstream together for the benefit of our communities and our planet. Let’s spend our days drawing connections, sharing resources, and asking for help. And let’s not forget that social inclusion itself is a social determinant of health. There’s something about doing this work together that makes us all better. We all deserve a supportive community to live, work and play in, and this should be no different in the spaces where we work to make change in our communities. Competition and exclusion are a race downstream. Let’s head upstream together and work for lasting change.
Hilary is the Director of Community Development for Upstream. She also co-chairs the board of a cycling advocacy group in Saskatoon, called Saskatoon Cycles. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
To support Hilary’s work at Upstream building community, and bringing community together to work for change, consider becoming an Upstream sustainer by making a one-time or monthly donation.