Category Archives: Change

To not be a racist you have to know you are a racist. 

There’s so much I wish would change.

I am sure you feel the same way, too.

Problem is sometimes what I want to change are those that would, if they could, transform me into a variation of them. And, yeh, that’s about the same thing I want to do to them.

What is it about us that insists others should live as we want them to? Could it simply be arrogance or pride or that old self-aggrandizing, snide sense of entitlement? Why is it so many of us think the disenfranchisement of others is caused by some thing or somebody over there.?

I believe that who we are is a complex web of yin-yang attributes. Good and evil are coupled together. The same with love and hate. You get the picture. Who we are is about which we way we are pulled or influenced to lean. Sometimes we actually do not realize which way we turned or why.

Raise your hand if you are against racism.

Imagine asking that in a coliseum of 100,000 people. You would see 200,000 arms waving in the air.

It feels good. People are united in such moments but moments lead to others and hours later all of us have returned to the small circles of our lives. It is there in our small worlds where we are who we are – good, bad, ugly, or even worse. It’s there in our small circles where our fears and worries and lack of understanding weave within us a tightly wound ball of fear. We hate what others love and see light where others see darkness. We need our circles. Life there can be very good. Life there can be fucked up, too.

I live in a small circle, too. It is rich with people I value and trust, connected by a collective desire to make a difference in the lives of others (and of course our own). I want to think there is nothing about me that even hints of racism. I am sure others in my circle have a similar sentiment.

I won’t speak for them, but truth be told I have quickly judged another because of her accent or got hyper-focused when I noticed three Indigenous men walking toward me on a city sidewalk.

I have been confused by another’s culture or just been completely unaware of an unintentional clash of values or ritual. Haven’t you? How much of what we are afraid of is rooted in the dark, muddy pit of ignorance? And when that’s true, how possible is it to recognize it for what it is when we are in that state of mind?

When I was young lad in Chicago I was walking in River Park one late afternoon and noticed around the curve ahead there were three Hispanic men sitting on a picnic table drinking beer and laughing together as one of them rattled off a story.  They paid me no mind; they were in their own space, having fun, being friends. Even so, I thought of turning around and heading back to safer ground. (I chuckled when I wrote “safer ground” because as you well know there is no ground that is safe.)

I carried on. This fear I had was unfounded. As I walked one them caught my eye and nodded. I nodded back and smiled. An hour later I was playing poker with four university friends. Yeh, all white guys from middle class America (well, one of them had a rich Daddy) and what are we talking about?

We are talking about changing the world. We are talking about love and peace. And yep, we talked about women but as we talked about what we would “do” to Sally, or how hot the Jamaican girl in the back row in Ethics class would look in a maid’s outfit, it never crossed our minds that we were playing with evil. How easy it is to speak truth and live lies.

This will sound cliché but for many years my best friend in Chicago was black man. Not only that, he was taller than my six-foot-seven frame and both of us were buff and had personality that got noticed in the bars or at the diner and on the street. Taxi drivers would step on the gas when we were trying to wave them done.

Jim was a good man, a laid back, here I am, soft spoken gentle soul. I was a better man when I was with him. I am pretty sure if he were here he would  lean back in his leather chair and rub his grizzly beard, and with a small smile, say, “Back at you. Back at you.”

But we were big and strong and we had this serious look about us – think of the expression of a face so focused it spawns a scowl –that most others perceived as mean. We got wary looks at white bars and exactly the same when we drove south to hit a blues club.

One night a short, slender Vietnamese man came up to us at the bar. He was drunk. I am sure we were, too. He had this whimsical mien about him. He swallowed down some of his draft and leaned into us and said, “You two scare the shit out of me.”

Jim and I looked at each other. It was unexpected. He stood there watching us. I swear he was holding down a smile.

Jim and I turned to him. Jim said, “Let’s share a drink together.”

And so we did.  The story would be perfect if we all went on to become bosom buddies, but frankly, we were just three drunk men talking about whatever, drinking drafts and shots at the Wise Fool’s Pub on Lincoln Avenue.

Jim and I never talked about race. We talked about who we were, our histories, our ambitions, our experiences. We laughed, acted silly, enjoyed quiet times listening to John Coltrane or Fleetwood Mac back when they were a blues band. It was good. Our friendship was easy.

We shared our goodness. We heard each other’s biases and each us made remarks about other groups of people that, let’s just say, would not be used as best practice in a Diversity Training Manual.

Jim and I were racist, a black man and a white man with a bond between them – that racial contrast was our shared gift – but nevertheless we were racists.

And since then, if I am honest, I have feelings about others who seem so markedly different from me – feelings that carry worry about what I do not understand. Feelings that cast shade across the stereotypes I have created and nuture. Can I really say seeing the name of a Muslim man on a resume I am reviewing does not immediately frame how I approach what’s coming next?

Racism is quiet as often as it is loud. It can cause a hurricane of evil or permeate our senses like like the scent of a flower. It exists in the spaces between the words we use. It causes the heart to race and an eyebrow to raise.  You can taste it when you assure yourself you are not racist.

Today at the post office I stood behind a Somalian family. I smiled and said hello to their children, who turned out to be 8 years old and one. I talk to people in public places. The one-year-old was smiling at me. He looked at his father and then pointed at me. The father seemed nervous. How many times does a hulk of a white man talk to his children with care and respect?

“Your children are beautiful,” I said.

He smiled and for the next few minutes we talked about family and children, and how much we were enjoying the spring weather.

So, what do you think?

I am not saying my story is your story. I actually hope you are a better person than I am and please trust I think am doing okay as a human being.

Ask yourself some uncomfortable questions. Or don’t. No one will know either way – of course excluding you.

I will leave you with this:

We create differences. We experience people and want relationships that matter with other human beings. But often we don’t know how to reach out to those so near who live so far away in a culture and a language we cannot fathom and yet we want to engage. I believe this is true for most of us.We want to engage.

When we talk of differences we are really talking about what fuels humanity. What we call differences are actually synergies there for us to embrace together. Governments can’t legislate them into action. Human service programs won’t cure the distances we feel we must sustain because we can’t envision an alternative we can trust. Urban planners create an Area Redevelopment Plan that fosters good will and peace.

What needs doing can only be done by communities and is why governments and funders should invest resources in building community capacity and help foster community engagement that is not about a project but about connecting synergies that can be channeled into a collective voice that will not be denied a place at the table.

Try thinking about diversity and refraining from any mention of “differences.” Think about how we might talk about inclusion with little if any time spent talking about what separates us. Shouldn’t we dare to truly ask ourselves to what extent our impassioned work to honour diversity has actually widened the distance between us.

Asking upside down questions, even those – perhaps especially those – that are heretical and disruptive, questions that you wish would go away, is one way to kick start change. We have to shake ourselves sometimes. We need to shiver in the wet, cold air of struggle. We need to keep on walking when the rains fall and the wind rises and spins and turns us round and round.

We need to think differently. We need to invent new language. Changing our language helps new perceptions and ideas to emerge. If we want to change things, we need language that drives us forward, not settles us into that old comfy sofa of convention.

There’s so much I wish would change. I am sure you feel the same way, too. Problem is sometimes what I want to change are those that would, if they could, transform me into a variation of them. And, yeh, that’s about the same thing I want to do to them.

What is it about us that insists others should live as we want them to? Could it simply be arrogance or pride or that old self-aggrandizing and often snide sense of entitlement.

To not be a racist you have to know you are a racist.

Just imagine what could be possible if that was our starting point.


My Basketball Coach

I have always been tall and husky.  I was my current height, 6 foot 7 inches, in my freshman year of high school, and I was a basketball player and I was pretty good at that game. Back then a guy my size was automatically assigned the center position.  And that’s where my coach put me – in the center of the action. Today most guards in the pros are taller than I am.

I was a good passer and had a half decent hook shot and turn around jumper, but I felt out of sorts as the team’s center. I really wanted to play the forward position. I dribbled rather well for a big guy and I could shoot well from a distance.  In fact, I could hit from three-point range before there was a three-point rule. I knew I could score more and pass even better as a forward, but I said nothing.

Fortunately I had a coach who paid attention to his players. Each day before the official start of practice, I shot hoops and did some dribbling exercises. My coach was always there early as well and he saw over time that I was a high percentage shooter from the outside and that I could drive well to the basket when I had to.

When he told me he was moving to me to forward, I was averaging about 12 points a game, with 6 assists and about as many rebounds. As a forward, my average points per game doubled, assists rose to 10 a game, and I ended up being the second highest rebounder in the league. We were 2 and 2 when coach moved me. At the end of the year we were 12 and 3 and made the District Championship, winning it with a 20 footer at the buzzer. I was driving to the basket when I saw our point guard was all by his lonesome at the free throw line. I was half way to the hoop when I passed back to him. His shot rose into the air in slow motion and every player on the floor watched it float through the air and swish into the net as the buzzer buzzed.

Back then, it seemed like every coach discouraged the long game. They wanted lay ups and jump shots taken in the lane. That makes sense  but a good coach keeps an eye out for what can work best for the team, even if what works best defies common practice, defies the norm.

Truth be told, our players were successful with layups and short shots even more so than we had been because now they had a point guard and a forward that could shoot from the outside. That drew the defense out further and further and opened up other players for the easier shots.

My coach chose what would work best for the team, even though his choice was not conventional at the time. Instead of keeping me in the center position he worked with me to refine my jump shot. He taught me how to follow through with my wrist and how to put the proper spin on the ball.  He made me dribble more with my left hand because I wasn’t as good with my left as I was with my right. He worked with me to improve my talent.

My coach was the first leader in my life, after my father. What he taught me about the game of basketball contributed to who I am today and how I see what is going on around me.  I am grateful for his lessons and his willingness to believe in something different from what he was expected to believe in.

The day my coach told me he was moving me to forward, I told him that’s what I had hoped for but didn’t want to ask.

“How come?” He bounced the ball twice and added. “You should always speak up about how you think you can contribute.”

That was the biggest lesson of all.

Development as Community Strategy

Posted first on the blog of the Edmonton Community Development Company, where I am the Executive Director

In my first three months as the executive director of the Edmonton Community Development Company, I estimate I have had over 100 meetings, most of them being one to one conversations or small group discussions about the communities in which people live and/or work. We talked about community aspirations, community pain, and the plethora of ideas people and groups have and are working on to strengthen communities, in particular the people who reside in them.

I believe that change begins with conversation and that we must have conversations with others who see possibilities others don’t and who view challenges through a diversity of lenses.  One of my major goals has been – and will continue to be – understanding others, understanding what drives them, why they see the solutions they see, and also understanding our differences, and yes, our disparate perspectives on community change. Understanding one another may not always lead to agreement, but I daresay agreement is nigh impossible if we do not understand one another.
meeting-icon-clean1I also believe, based on my experience, understanding our differences is the only way we can resolve them. It’s not easy, is it? After all, don’t we come across others whose ideas rankle us, who advocate for actions we believe are misguided or just plain wrong? The challenge is how to hold up our difference and then work with them in order to find ways for us to move forward together. Roger Martin, who wrote the Opposable Mind, talks about how effective leaders are able to hold opposing ideas simultaneously in their minds and then work with them to foster new or better ideas and courses of action. His research indicates the importance of Integrative Thinking as a key approach to not settling on decisions that are the result of either-or choices. I infer that either-or choices are what create and sustain divisiveness and cause encampments based on rigid ideology.

I work in an environment steeped in history about, and memories of, community development – or in the context of my work, community economic development – that were driven by narrow self-interest or an inflexible devotion to a particular focus that did not gel with others. In the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood, we see how development has impacted area residents. These neighborhoods are where an inordinate percentage of housing stock is social housing, special needs housing, and shelters. The impacts of a high number of human service institutions also being located in these neighbourhoods are significant. Not only do residents experience the symptoms of homelessness (drugs, needles, drunkenness, human waste, vandalism, etc.), the high incidence of these realities deter others from developing businesses or market housing or from otherwise investing in urban core neighborhoods.


I have met with and talked with many residents of urban core neighbourhoods and I have not heard anyone suggest that services to the homeless or to others who are living in poverty should not exist. What I do hear is that residents want balance. They want Edmonton as a whole to share the responsibility of addressing social problems. They do not feel they should have to take on the lion’s share of hosting solutions to these problems. I think that’s fair. It is not about Nimbyism and frankly it is not about moving residents to a culture of Yimbyism (i.e. Yes in my back yard!). Nimbyism is typically a pejorative term that those wanting to do development assign to their opposition. It becomes  a broad brush stroke used to paint those who disagree with development as unreasonable, self-serving if not selfish. It fosters a stereotype that avoids the underlying issues that I suggest are worthy of address. Is there not rationale at times for those who do not want a development in their back yard?

And Yimbyism. Here is the risk: that this term reflects a movement to persuade residents to say “yes” to development that they do not want. I recall attending a workshop put on by a group with community engagement expertise. They were promoting how to get residents to say “yes” to development. Without going into all the content, it felt to me like the workshop was more about persuasion, if not manipulation, when community engagement should be about seeking common ground. I realize purists will say this is the purpose of Yimbyism; however, my warning is that all of this could become nothing more than two ideas in opposition to each other that focus more on getting to what “I” want than to what “we should do together.”

Development should be a community strategy, not just the strategy of entrepreneurs. In the context of my work, development in a community should not be what I think it should be. I see my role to be one that is centered on understanding what community wants and what community wants is not just about aspirations, it is also about addressing the pains that community residents are experiencing. What I have been hearing from all those I am meeting and talking to has reinforced my belief that communities require and deserve strategic development in their areas of town.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Many, if not most, urban core neighbourhoods are lacking in anchor institutions or businesses like mainstream grocery stores, financial institutions. child care, and so on. Many of their main streets suffer from boarded up or dilapidated store fronts or empty lots. In areas of town where lower-income people live are where pawn shops, pay-day lending businesses, and other businesses abound that deliver costly services or products (e.g. mini-marts) to people who face daily financial struggles. Sometimes there are bars along the main street in which drugs are sold and other crimes occur. What residents are telling me is that want help in re-developing empty store fronts, help with building on empty lots, and help with getting rid of unwanted gathering places where crimes take place. They want the development we undertake to be strategic, to address problem properties and reinvent those spaces into developments that not only reflect community interests and aspiration but that result in creating more possibilities for future development.

Food security is a common theme I am hearing about. Residents do not want to live in food deserts. They want more choice than the unhealthy foods offered by mini-marts at expensive prices. They want opportunities to grow food and to see in their neighborhoods the social, health, and economic impacts of a farmer’s market or opportunities to create local enterprises that contribute to enhanced food security. They want to see more jobs in their neighborhoods and more housing that attracts new residents to their part of town.

Residents are telling me they want us to be strategic about what properties we purchase and redevelop. They want us to  redevelop boarded up homes or repurpose a dwelling that takes advantage of its tenants. They want development that adds to the possibility of young people or people of modest means to actually be able to own a home.

The Edmonton Community Development Company was not created just to do development. It exists to be a strategic developer that does its best to act on community needs and interests. Residents don’t want us to come into their neighborhood to sell them our solutions. They want us to work with them to foster development that enriches their lives as a community. And that is exactly what we are committed to doing.

Yeah, I know. We won’t please everyone. There will be limits to what we can pull off, but we are going to try. I promise.

Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements

Cross posted – also available at
Please consider following that blog if you want to keep up to date on my work at the Edmonton Community Development Company.


Strong Towns is an American movement that a colleague turned me on to the other day,  and it is not only a provocative movement, it offers an array of new thinking about the rules that cities and towns have when it comes to development, whether housing and business development or the inclusion of city services in an area like a recreational centre.

One thing that really caught my eye was the case made by Strong Towns to abolish parking requirements for new development.

One article provided a bit of a case study around thinking differently about parking in a town called Standpoint. A large bank wanted to build a branch in a neighbourhood that had historical significance. That development, according to the “rules” would have to provide 200 parking spots for the development to be approved. Alternatively, the bank could pay $10,000 per parking space not created. While such payment seems cost prohibitive to a development, the irony is that the parking requirement (apparently in place for the good of the community) could be bought off. This suggests that money trumps what is good for the community (according to the rules) or it could mean that this parking requirement was not all that necessary.

The bank bought a pizzeria and tore it down, but still did not have sufficient parking, so it began exploring buying a café and other businesses to meet the requirement. In other words city rules indicated that for the bank to be a viable development, other businesses (i.e. small businesses) would be torn down. Not really a desired economic development result, is it? And certainly not indicative of policy and rules that support small business development.

Interestingly there was a city owned parking lot a block away from the bank’s intended site, but that had no bearing on the rules. But my guess is that a bank and its patrons are not all that interested in customers having to walk a block to do their banking. As consumers, we want the convenience of parking right by the places we spend or, in this case, keep our money.

That said, in the Edmonton context, and our collective desire to foster more walkable neighbourhoods, shouldn’t we come to terms with how that goal might conflict with our conventional views of parking requirements? If our environmental concerns are to be actionable, don’t those concerns indicate that actions are necessary to reduce automobile-centric development?

In the end, to keep the story here short (read it all here), creative minds came up with an alternative solution. The parking requirements were reduced to the parking the bank had already created through demolishing the pizza business, without any in lieu payments, and instead the bank agreed to include a business incubator in its development, which apparently is so successful that the bank promotes it as part of its community programming.

This seems like a win-win-win from where I am sitting. The bank gets its development without destroying additional businesses, avoids paying the in lieu of parking penalty, and creates a needed economic service in the area that benefits local entrepreneurs.

While I am not yet decided on where I stand about the abolishment across the board of parking requirements, I suggest we need to tie together goals (like reducing reliance on automobiles and creating more walkable neighbourhoods) and also perhaps be more analytical about parking. For example, during the day many people leave their neighbourhoods to go to work and currently  the far majority do so in their cars. This frees up parking for business that operate during the day. At night these businesses close and the residents return home. In other words, the demand for parking changes with the time of day and should be considered by a municipal government in terms of the rules it wishes to put into place related to development.

Our current requirements of parking tends to favour large developments by large institutions that have the means to include the parking expense in their business development or expansion plans. They can, if necessary, buy up land to accommodate the parking requirements and sometimes in the process destroy other businesses. Small businesses cannot afford to do this. Not only that, small businesses become stuck at their current size because the cost of expansion, which includes creating a place for cars.

In a city where the goal is to improve environmental conditions, advance walkability, and foster more use of public transit, perhaps it is time to review and adapt parking requirements, if not abolish them altogether.

Perhaps seeing a development as a single entity subject to rules only about its own existence, we should be looking at shared parking requirements across developments and consider the demand for parking at various times of the day. Perhaps consumers need to change their expectations of parking at the front door of a bank or another business. And perhaps a rethink of parking requirements will actually foster more development that benefits a neighbourhood beyond the purpose of said development and increases the tax base for the municipal government.

Suggested Reading

What happens when you fill your city with parking? Lots and lots of low value land, and not much else.

Send this video to anyone who needs a crash course in why parking minimums are a major problem for American cities.

My city leaders keep insisting we need more parking. How can I, as a citizen, make the case for less?

We’ve built too much of the wrong stuff in the wrong places and market demand may never catch up or reinvent these landscapes.

Whether you’re a city staffer, nonprofit leader or just a strong citizen who cares, there’s something you can do to advocate for an end to parking minimums in your town.

Upside Down Thinking about Funding and Funders

Funders should apply to community agencies to fund them.

Can you get your head around that?

I know. Funders won’t do that, but imagine if they did.

What would that look like?

Why would that approach be more impactful and cost-effective than current practice?

Would this upside down version of funding foster more partnerships?

Would there be a transformative power-shift?

I am as certain as you are we will never have a ubiquitous funding system where funders write proposals to community groups hoping to be chosen to invest in their work. But perhaps innovative ideas have more of a chance when we suspend certainty and embrace a wild idea or allow ourselves a bit of time to consider a heretical proposition. Continue reading Upside Down Thinking about Funding and Funders