Thursday, May 31, 2007


Yesterday I had a meeting with one of my favourite people who works in the homeless sector. Just by typing that phrase, I should mention, I am contributing to something we talked about yesterday in our meeting. The labelling -- the homeless -- to define certain people in our society. Individuals are not 'the homeless'. They are experiencing homelessness -- but using the term 'the homeless', while convenient for me, is pejorative to those I apply it to.

One of the issues we discussed was NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and how to decrease it, or at least to limit its affects on efforts to build affordable housing, shelters, treatment centres, etc., in neighbourhoods. NIMBY, like The Homeless, is a pejorative term, and one often bandied about in conjunction with issues of homelessness and affordable housing -- or any change within a community that is not 100% supported by everyone.

Take for example the case of the temporary shelter set up in the former Brick Building this past winter in Calgary. Community members were pretty unanimous in their support of the need for the shelter but split in their opinions about its location. Heated discussions, in which the 'against' camp's concerns were lumped into the NIMBY basket resulted in shame, guilt, and anger being dumped on the heads of the nay-sayers. In the end, the shelter was opened, the supporters walked away feeling good about themselves and their contributions to helping those in need, while those whose concerns had been shouted down, walked away feeling unheard.

Ultimately, any debate around the location of homeless shelters, treatment centres, halfway houses and affordable housing results in accusations of NIMBYism. You're either for us or against us. And if you're against us, there's only one reason, NIMBYism.

Applying NIMBYism to the actions of those who do not agree with a proposed change or new development is a simple way for the proponents of any avenue of change to drown out the voices of those who speak out against their plans.

What if the opponents are not thinking about NIMBYism as much as speaking out about their fears; their concerns for the safety of their families within their community and fears of the breakdown of the social network that creates value in their lives and in their community.

What if we were to look at people who oppose a shelter or a treatment centre or any other social service in their community not as NIMBYs, but simply as an opportunity to reach out to create stronger community? For NIMBYism to be present in the debate, both sides must draw a line in the sand, a demarcation zone where the 'fors' are the moral right, and the NIMBYs end up dead wrong.

People whose views differ from mine are not wrong in their thinking. They simply come with a differing point of view. To reach accord, we need to both be heard, honoured and respected. We need to ask questions to understand, not to judge, and we need to listen with our minds and hearts open to possibility, not closed to the impossibility of change.

NIMBY, like most labels, is a convenient term that allows us off the hook of being accountable for how and what we do when making decisions involving someone else's life. We may live in the same communities, but if my decisions affect you adversely, to ensure you are presumed wrong, I will label you with NIMBY, which means even before we discuss our differences, you are on the defensive and I am on the attack.

Take "the Brick" shelter for example. Anyone who stood up and spoke out against it was immediately dumped into the bucket of NIMBYism. With one acronym, they were labelled lacking in social conscience. We didn't have to ask questions as to their needs, their fears, their concerns. We didn't even need to find out if they gave service to their communities or to other people. We knew it all. They were narrow-minded, alarmist, lacking in compassion NIMBYs. Why bother to try to talk to them? They weren't going to change. But, seeing as we're not NIMBY's, even though our minds are made up, let's give them a chance to speak. Let's have a meeting where both sides of the argument can speak up. At least they can't say we didn't give them a forum to voice their concerns.

In our morally right condescension, neighbours were alienated and and a rift opened up in the fabric of the community. Rather than creating a community built on cooperation, compassion, shared values and a commitment to understanding what makes a community rich, what makes a civil society work, we built fences. Walls. Us and them. Your side. My side. Winners. Losers.

What if those who spoke out against the Brick shelter were compassionate, caring, open minded individuals with a different opinion? Whose concern for their community gave them the courage to stand up as they struggled to understand what the shelter meant to their community, to their lives?

What if they turned up to the meetings without the label NIMBY? Would we have heard them differently? Would they have spoken differently?

What if we'd listened without the label of NIMBY at the forefront of our minds and instead walked in with open minds asking questions to understand not to judge, but rather willing to hear differing points of view, different ideas, different perspectives.

Then again, what if we treated those who are different than us, those who have different points of view, without the labels we attach to people we do not understand? What if we saw every experience as the opportunity to create more of what we want in our lives? What if we saw other people not as 'different' but rather as people who like us have needs, goals, dreams, ideas, issues, concerns that manifest differently than ours, but are no less right nor wrong. They're simply different.

What if we experience people without the label of 'the homeless' defining their place in our society? What if we saw them as people needing help, individuals in distress, human beings struggling to make sense of where they got lost on the road of life? Rather than judging what brought them down, what if we asked what can we do to help them get back up?

I heard an awesome quote the other day. I can't remember who said it but I want to share it, it speaks to a different point of view of how we spend our time here on earth, "Service to our communities, to other people, to society is the rent we pay for the space we take up on earth."

Service is the rent I pay for the time I spend on earth.

Hmmmm.... Like it. Works for me!

Have an awesome day everyone. Be of service. Open your minds to new possibilities. Look at people and encounters through different glasses and find value not just in the events of your day, but in all people as well. They're worth it and so are you.


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