Autumn is usually harvest time in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley but for organizers of a Family Matters’ forum at Camp Brigadoon in Aylesford, September 2012 was a time to plant seeds from which they hope to grow cultural change. The forum was funded with the support of a Rural Community Foundation leadership initiative grant.
The structure of the weekend forum for young women was designed to encourage the sharing of personal stories. Participant Lakeisha Vidito had no idea what was in store. A volunteer at Chrysalis House, the region’s women’s shelter, she is training for a career in addiction services. The weekend helped develop problem-solving skills she will carry into both her personal and professional life.
“Even if it is just an argument, I think I have learned how to step back and try to approach it a different way,” she said. But, more importantly, it offered her a rare moment of connection, when a girl she was partnered with responded to Vidito’s story about a personal trauma in her past.
“She opened up about what she had gone through. It was just a bonding moment for the two of us. Even though we were two strangers, we had something in common. It was really cool. It was like the air lifted and we could feel a connection,” she said in recalling what she called the most powerful memory from the weekend. The forum was organized as part of an ongoing effort to address community issues – like substance abuse, gambling, and domestic violence – that are impacting the health of young women, and others, in the valley.
Jean Morrison, one of the forum’s oranizers, said the initial forum, held in May 2011, was an effort to harness the power of the community to effect change. “We can’t do much alone, but if we bring together all those people who are concerned about these issues, we can do some participatory things in which each group figures out what small change they can make and then commit to it,” said Morrison in explaining the precursor to the 2012 young women’s forum. That first forum attracted 140 representatives from a diverse group of professional and social backgrounds. The Using Our Influence group grew out of that endeavour.
Late in 2011, the group began planning a similar event for young women. The goal was to gather a dozen participants, together with veterans of the earlier rural women’s forum, to enhance their leadership and facilitation skills and prepare them to look for solutions, using an Appreciative Inquiry method. “The goal was not to focus on the problems, but to capture the stories that described moments when we have been at our best in dealing with issues like substance abuse and violence,” said Morrison.
The Appreciative Inquiry model has been likened to a sociological equivalent to the local food movement. It is rooted in the recognition that in rural communities local people have to identify local solutions. “The idea assumes that the solution is within the group that identifies the problem,” said Morrison. “We can’t tell young women what to do and what not to do.”
The hope, though, is that these young women can influence other young women. They are on the cusp of leadership, says Morrison. Through sharing stories and building problem-solving capacities, they are developing their leadership skills so that they can have more influence within their peer groups. Emily Duffett is a masters student at Acadia University. She was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. She is used to focusing on her abilities not her disability and is very excited about using the Appreciative Inquiry model in her studies and in her life. “I wish this was a model more people used,” she said. “It’s made me re-think everything. Instead of the focus being on all the problems. It encourages you to think of the solutions.”
The seeds have found fertile soil in the young women who gathered in September. Morrison is confident they will make a difference. “Leadership for change is about building capacity,” she said. The Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia was founded in 1999 under a partnership agreement of Coastal Communities Network and Literacy Nova Scotia. RCF’s mandate is to nurture and support rural Nova Scotia, which makes up 90 percent of the province’s land base, and in which 60 percent of the populations lives. Through its grant programs, it supports community-based initiatives that improve understanding and offer solutions to sustain rural and coastal Nova Scotia. The leadership initiative grants seek to develop leadership capacity in rural communities.