Learning together: Lessons from our grant communities

Johanna Henderson is a Communications Manager with BC Healthy Communities.

The close of 2021 marked the first full calendar year of the COVID pandemic. For us at BC Healthy Communities, it also marked the completion of what was unknown territory: the first round of our PlanH grant program conducted entirely under pandemic-related restrictions.

Though we, like many other funding organizations, didn’t know exactly what to expect going into this time, what we did know from our previous experience working with and in communities across B.C. is that their resilience and resolve would go a long way in making things happen in spite of COVID. And as we worked with communities over the year, we were continually inspired by their creativity, perseverance and commitment to creating healthier communities together.

The BCHC team got together in early January to look back at the successes of the past PlanH funding year and to reflect on some of the most important lessons communities taught or reminded us this year. Here are a few of our favourites.

There will never be a perfect time to start making change, so start now.

As Anne Frank said, “​​How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” The circumstances of the past few years have made much of our work with communities more challenging—particularly when it comes to facilitating community connectedness and increasing the accessibility of public processes. Even within this context, communities have managed to make strides forward—connections formed and capacity built that would not have happened if they’d continued to wait for the right time to come.

We saw new approaches developed and used by communities to respond to their particular community contexts, as well as current conditions, reminding us that there are always opportunities for new, better processes to emerge.

Don’t focus on the barriers; set your sights instead on what you can do in spite of them.

Hand in hand with the lesson of ‘never a perfect time’ is this one: there are never perfect conditions to act. This past year, we’ve been so inspired by the creative thinking of communities working around challenges such as physical distancing, indoor capacity limits, and other restrictions. From basic shifts such as moving activities online and outside, to more time-intensive approaches such as staggered participation and one-on-one or small group outreach, many communities were able to foster more connections between community members instead of watching them wane under the weight of restrictions on gathering.

Small gestures can have big impacts.

Among the greatest benefits of multisectoral collaboration (one of the five pillars of the Healthy Communities Approach) is how it allows for sharing of perspectives, abilities and understandings to the benefit of all involved. When speaking with communities about our work with them over their grant year, we were surprised and delighted to hear that often the ‘small’ supports we offered—things like reviewing a document or helping to plan a process over the phone—played an important role in their projects’ successes. In turn, many of the lessons we learn and end up incorporating into our own reflective practice as a team come from the knowledge and ‘context expertise’ of our community partners.

Things don’t always need to be done a certain way.

In planning school, instructors often recite Abraham Maslow’s law of instrument: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” They share this as a reminder not to let the tools of your trade—processes, approaches and models—dictate how you understand and address challenges in your practice. As a multi-disciplinary team that provides support to dozens of communities each year, we have an abundance of processes and models in our ‘toolbelt’. However, what we don’t always have is the nuanced understanding of a problem that a community member holds. We saw new approaches developed and used by communities to respond to their particular community contexts, as well as current conditions, reminding us that there are always opportunities for new, better processes to emerge.

In Fall 2021, we kicked off work with a new group of grant communities through PlanH; and as of January we’ve started working with a second cohort of school communities through our Active School Travel Pilot Program. As we embark on this new year, we’re excited to continue not just to support our partner communities, but to learn with and from them.

Share this article: