A community-first approach to establishing your park group
The scariest time for community park groups is the beginning. When you’re just one person with a good idea about the potential of your park, there’s no knowing whether other people will ‘show up’ to make it happen. Faced with this possibility, Ana Cuciureanu parked her park dreams in the background, and gave her full attention to connecting with her community.
The scariest time for community park groups is the beginning. When you’re just one person with a good idea about the potential of your park, there’s no knowing whether other people will ‘show up’ to make it happen. Faced with this possibility, Ana Cuciureanu parked her park dreams in the background, and gave her full attention to connecting with her community. How she did this, and the underpinning convictions behind her approach, are worth sharing.
After signing up for her City Councillor’s (Shelley Carroll) newsletter, Ana signed on to every event that came her way. In fact, she went out to ‘about’ 15 events in under three months. Ana found herself in knitting groups, ESL workshops, public events, library meetings, budget sessions and resident gatherings in every corner of her community. This whirlwind of community immersion shaped Ana’s vision of what her park and park group could be.
“Make time to talk to people,” Ana says. “Not to poach them for your own purposes, but to authentically connect.”
This was the first lesson she learned from attending a whirlwind of community gatherings.
“I was a nobody and yet everyone invited me to every meeting and they were so transparent,” she says.
Seeing this made Ana realize that her priority was connecting to the community. The park group, though still important, was secondary.
Be open to learning
In the community meetings she attended, Ana learned about her communities needs. The process wasn’t linear, but she emphasizes “no time is ever wasted time if you’re listening.”
In one meeting, Ana heard that seniors in her neighbourhood were advocating for transit because they couldn’t walk up a steep hill on Sheppard Ave. In another, she learned that the school environmental club needed access to outdoor space. Another showed her that activities like knitting engage newcomers because the activity doesn’t require access to a shared language.
Listening gave Ana clues that helped her form ideas about how she could best serve local seniors, kids, different language groups and a host of others through her park group. These nuances simply would not have been available to her had she not been present and listening wholeheartedly.
Partnership is about giving support
Ana’s approach to partnership is the opposite of a transaction or business deal. The question: “What do you need. How can I support you?” is the question that she consistently heard around the table at various meetings. She understands that this question helps eliminate hierarchy and helps people find the authentic places where there interests intersect.
Ana gives the example of walking through her park and seeing pockets of people hanging out together, but separated from others they don’t already know. Ana always has a desire to pull groups together because that’s where magic happens. “If they get connected,” she says,” new possibilities are created that weren’t there before.” That’s her approach to partnership. New possibilities created through connections.
Ask who is not here? And then ask, why not?
When Jay Pitter spoke at Park People’s National Conference, she asked participants to always remind themselves to look around the table and ask: “Who is not there, and why.” This resonated with Ana who sees power in bringing people together in new ways and public space’s potential to offer creative solutions to existing challenges.
Ana gives the example of connecting to Toronto North Local Immigration Partnership (TNLIP), Working Women Community Centre, and Centre for Immigrant and Community Services. Meeting and engaging with these newcomer organizations helped Ana learn that in many cases, isolation keeps newcomers from accessing programs and services that are available to them when they first arrive in the community. Ana started to consider how the park could create a bridge between newcomers to the services they need.
The next group Ana is focused on connecting with is the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, just down the street from the park. She has recently received a grant to lead nature walks and workshops on using native plants found in the park as natural remedies. This will help connect the park and the community to this 40-year-old institution in the neighbourhood.
Authentic curiosity is the spark
In the last six months, Ana’s park group has grown to 7 committed core volunteers. A recent Arts in the Parks event brought out 250 community members. There’s no doubt that Ana’s approach brought returns. However, what’s most clear is that returns were not the real-end game in her whirlwind tour of community meetings. After five years living in her neighbourhood, Ana has established reciprocal trust, but also a sense of how the park group can serve the community. It’s a journey fuelled by Ana’s authentic curiosity to know her neighbours. As such, the possibilities are endless.