Get Your Assets in Gear!

When we talk about assets, as in, asset-based community development, we’re not just talking about the neighbourhood. We’re talking about you. And you. I know you think you suck, cause you know what things you’re no good at and they rattle around in your head, popping up just when you wish they wouldn’t. You try to fix them, get better at them, hide them. It doesn’t really work that way – unless you’re a type A in which case I don’t envy you your road!

If you focus on what you’re good at, give us more of that, give yourself more of that, then it’s not even about giving yourself a break, it becomes about reveling in your talents, skills, quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The Strategic Coach would have us delegate the things we are not good at, that is, if you are a highly successful entrepreneur and can afford to do so. For the rest of us that’s what family is for. Yay family.

If you look at the average anything you see a straight line, and yet that line is made up of dots above and below it, probably in equal number.  Nobody’s average at everything. And chances are the people who represent the dots below the line, are above the line on the next average. If you focus on your above the line skills and share them with the rest of us, you strengthen the average.

And anyway, averages are like money (and debt!) – it’s all imaginary. But those things you do so well, they’re as real as it gets. As Don would say, “More please!”



I had a scary dream yesterday. I was in a familiar place, large stone houses and storefronts ending in a cul-de-sac. Trees and greenery, blue sky. I was going about my business when you came to get me. And you were there, and you too. Familiar faces all. You were convinced I had to die.

You took me into the basement of one of the houses and led me to an old iron bed with a spring box, no mattress. A half-window let light in. Was I contained or did inevitability hold me there?

I had this sense that you had killed me before. I was frustrated that we’d come to this again. That I couldn’t communicate why you were mistaken, why this was wrong. I was sad to be leaving things undone.

As you got the fire ready, a small girl with a bag full of feathers came and joined me. I told her she couldn’t be here or she would die too. “I know,” she said, snuggling in, and I realized she’d been there all those other times as well.

And I woke up crying…

Creative Industries

When I opened the Heart of the Hammer it was to provide a space for the people involved in community-building in the neihgoburhood to meet casually, to get projects started and off the ground, to be comfortable and welcome and the enjoy some of the finer foods and beverage available to us.

I had no money and thought that I didn’t need any. (long explanation about THAT deleted) In the end I borrowed about 30K in start-up funding alone. If I had tried to borrow the money outright, people would have said “show me a business plan”. If I had shown them a business plan, it would have demonstrated that there was insufficient density/volume/revenue to support a cafe in our neighbourhood. It would not have been a wise investment. And yet, it was our neighbourhood that needed it.

As it happened I borrowed the money in incremental amounts as it was needed over the first six months, and it was invested not by people looking for financial gain, but by people who saw what was happening and believed in the necessity and the benefit of it. After a year and a half we have begun to pay back the loans and now find that there is a sustainable model emerging with new unforeseen benefits.

A lady from India went abroad to study and work and then returned to her village with the desire to preserve and share her cultural heritage. The area had no money and no industry, nothing but talent and skill and a rich community culture. So she asked some of the people to make paper and they made it from whatever grows there. She asked the story keepers to tell the stories and asked others to write the stories and they did so in wonderfully beautiful calligraphy. (I am envisioning reed pens and home-made ink.) She asked other people to illustrate the stories and they did with vibrant colours made from local resources.

As you can imagine, this took a long time. When the first book was only half finished, a publisher (Canadian?) was known to be in the big city and the woman knew that she could not pass up this opportunity. She took the half-finished prototype to a meeting with the publisher and asked if they would publish it? The publisher was so captivated with the work that she said she would take ten thousand copies (10,000!). The woman was thrilled but embarrassed to admit that she didn’t have the money for the printer and so must ask if she could have an advance. The publisher said, “You misunderstand me. I don’t want to print the book, I want ten thousand hand made books, hand illustrated and hand written.” And instead of royalties from books printed in the big city, the village became employed at using their talents and skills to share their stories with the world. They have made many books since that first one in the same way. (This is a true -as I remember it- story and the books are real. I forget the details.)

I believe that we are in the same position here in Hamilton; we need to leverage our art/talent/skill and merge it with our vision/energy/passion to share it with the world and see what new industries emerge. It needs to come from the ground up and if we build it, the benefits will come and the investments will follow.

We need to transform our creative art into creative industries. As they say at The Print Studio: Art is the New Steel.


When I was 11 I ran away from home and walked around downtown Guelph until after dark. This was pretty radical and I was sure I would get in trouble but it seems like no one noticed. Go figure, seven kids.

When I was fifteen I used to run away from home and sleep on the rocks at the Beach. No one noticed I was gone and though I spent the nights worrying about bugs and drunks and high tides I was pretty well hidden and enjoyed being alone.

When I was 28 and felt like I’d been looking after other people too long I took great big pieces of chalk and wrote all over the walls “How come nobody ever feeds ME?” I’m not sure this accomplished anything, though it may have spawned the chalk mural that became a feature of the apartment.

Last Thursday when I was uptomyeyeballs in unsolvable problems and ready to snap I left the cafe in the care of the neighbourhood and ran away again. I didn’t get far actually but I enjoyed being alone and able to think and sleep and relax and get a few things done. And I came back with some clarity and some direction that might lead to solutions.

And in my absence neighbours looked after the cafe and cleaned and shopped and entertained each other. We may not have a lot of staff, but we have a really big team. And somehow this feels like progress.

City of Distinction

It is a strange and awkward honour to be singled out for something that is so fundamentally collaborative. When I saw the long list of women who were nominated in the Community-Building category, it seemed to represent the great engagement that is happening here in Hamilton. And it takes many.

It takes investment, commitment and even risk-taking from organizations like the City of Hamilton and the Hamilton Community Foundation. It takes guidance and wisdom from people like David Derbyshire, our local leader in community development. It takes the involvement of all the people in the neighbourhood, like Julie Hooper, who is always helping everyone. The kids call her the Neighbourhood Fairy God Mother.

From my place in the cafe I can see and hear about all the effort that you and you and you are putting into our community, and so it seemed… awkward to be singled out. And yet, the more I thought about the team effort, the more I wished we did have some recognition, some symbol that said, “Look what we’ve done so far!” At the Award Gala I got a glimpse of what is going on across the city in so many neighbourhoods, in so many fields and disciplines and I realized that we really are living in an oasis of hope.

I also came to understand that the large organizations need US for leadership and guidance. It is not enough to say “fix this”, we have to be able to say, “here is the problem, here is our proposed solution, these are the people who are on board to help in this way, here is what it will cost, here is how long it will take, here is what we hope to accomplish and here is how it will sustain itself or grow or end the problem. AND, here is what we need you to do.” I don’t know why this only came to me last night. Learning things the hard way…

Thanks to Lynne Manns for nominating me and to all the people who wrote letters. I learned an awful lot from this experience. I feel as if all of us are thanking each other, congratulating each other and saying. “What’s next?”

Collaboration is the magic and together we can build the future we want.