Neighbour power in New West

Jim Diers has travelled the world to encourage community, albeit powered by people. Now, he's coming to New West

It’s not hard to pick up on the differences between Jim Diers—a man who wears many hats as an author, speaker, and activist, community builder—and this humble reporter.

For example, Diers and I are separated by a border: we’re doing this interview over Zoom.

And we also spell ‘neighbour’ (see the ‘u’ in there?) differently because of that whole Amercian vs. Canadian spelling thing.

The topic of ‘neighbour’ is something we’re elaborating on as Diers sits down for a chat with The Anchor—to talk about his upcoming visit to New Westminster.

Diers has spent years building communities through what he refers to with a smile as ‘Neighbor Power.’ One of the things that drives him each day is the ability to get people inspired by one another. Inadvertently, this has led to work around combating related topics, like loneliness and isolation.

“I didn’t really [start my work] from the idea of loneliness,” Diers explains to The Anchor, alluding to the name of the workshop he’ll soon be hosting in New West. “I started from the idea of community.”

Diers says the concept is simple: if you don’t have a community of people willing to come to the table, then it will become a struggle to help folks belong. In the same token, getting people to be willing to come to the table and talk to each other—especially in the current day and age we live in—is difficult if you aren’t willing to meet them halfway.

Diers began his work as a community activist, raising his voice as a student during the civil rights movement, and at demonstrations related to the environment, too.

“Early on—I realized [it] when I was in college—all of the students were there protesting, and there was no one from the town. And I thought, ‘how do we get people to start questioning what’s going on?’ I heard about this idea of community organizing, and I heard about [it] bringing people together, locally around their issues…and giving them a sense that they can make a change.”

You would think rallying a mayor’s house—which Diers and his community did do—would irritate municipal politicians, but when you have a read through Diers’ bio, you’ll see endorsements from former mayors: both of whom spent time running Seattle. Paul Schell and Ed Murray are positive in their words about Diers, with Schell referring to him as the ‘Pied Piper’ of the community. Murray calls him “passionate and progressive.”

“We were often fighting our local government, because they weren’t listening, they hadn’t had [the opportunity to have] a voice,” Diers notes, adding that he went so far during one protest to release a chicken into the local mayor’s office.

“And somehow, he ended up appointing me to be the director of neighbourhoods for the city!” Diers reminisces with a hearty laugh.

For six years he worked in southeast Seattle with a diverse, low-income community. Some of the moments of magic that occurred during that time for Diers have allowed him to continue to build on the work he’s still doing today. He recalls the time as a way in which he watched the citizens not only discover their community, but discover their power.

“I realized…I needed to probably figure out a new way of doing the work. I couldn’t just train people to release chickens in the mayor’s office.”

Diers was able to hone in on some important questions that have been the foundation for his work: how does one get a democracy to function—maybe even function well? How do people get governments to see active citizens as a strength, and not a problem? How—in his words—do local governments get citizens to see themselves as an extension of government, rather than paying taxes to something they’ll complain about?

“Saul Alinsky—he’s sort of, the father of community organizing—and he said there’s two kinds of power in our societies: there’s power of money, and there’s power of people. If you don’t have a lot of money, you’d better have a lot of people because that’s how you make change,” Diers tells The Anchor.

This meant flipping the script in a way that worked for the people of the community: using methods in which to gather to help people feel comfortable in sharing their ideas.

To sum it up: championing community programs that build on strengths.

“We created a neighbourhood matching fund, where we provide a cash match [from the] local government in exchange for the community’s equal match of volunteer time, in support of community projects that are initiated by the community rather than people just volunteering on the agency’s projects.”

After choosing to take this approach, Diers says the neighbourhood matching fund he was a part up ended up creating the foundations for more than 5,000 projects across the city he’d been working in.

“[We created] community gardens, new parks, playgrounds, oral histories and cultural centers, just all kinds of cool projects. And in the process, we built community, because we found a way for people to come together without going to meetings.”

As Diers gets ready to bring his brand of thinking to New West, he hopes people won’t be afraid of thinking outside the box with him. It’s also a sentiment Mayor Patrick Johnstone shares.

“The pandemic showed us just how much of an impact loneliness has on us all. I’ve heard from many residents that they sometimes aren’t sure how to get started to build connections here, and I’m pleased that the City of New Westminster can bring Jim Diers here for what will surely be an insightful talk with concrete and inspiring ideas,” he tells The Anchor in a statement.

Diers hopes that you’ll be able to join him for one of the two sessions he’ll be hosting in New West. “Making Connections to Counter Loneliness and Empower Community” will be happening on Tuesday, Oct. 10 at the Anvil Centre. Both sessions are the same discussion and run during the following times:

Be sure to take some time to learn more about Diers and the work he does by visiting his website.

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