Measuring a community’s well-being

by Monty Laskin/Caledon Community Services

The start of the school year always has a “gut-check” moment for kids. They contemplate their goals and (hopefully!) make a pact with themselves to learn and blossom. Parents do the same. We take a deep breath following a summer of some R & R (hopefully!) and look at our year ahead. Fall is a good time to take stock and gauge the progress of our lives while also setting goals for the way ahead.

Should this kind of evaluative exercise also occur in communities? Just replace the contemplative child or parent with the community, then have that community sit itself down and set priorities for the way ahead. Makes good sense. I expect this is exactly what our Mayor, Town Council and many other Caledon leaders do every day. Those who are passionate about the power of community to improve quality of life spend a fair bit of time figuring out what to do and how to do it.

In community organizations like Caledon Community Services (CCS), we focus on “impact measures”. This is to say, what impact are we having with our services and how can we measure the results of our work? It stands to reason that when we ask governments, the United Way, small and large business and thousands of Caledon residents to invest in CCS’ community work, we best show them the impact we’re aiming for and the measurements that are evidence of our results.

What should a community use to gauge its progress? Robert Kennedy said in the late 60’s that we’re missing the boat entirely when we measure the progress of our lives and our communities. “We seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the accumulation of material things. Our Gross Domestic Product counts air pollution and advertising. It counts locks on our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts…cars…and television programs. Yet, the GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages or the intelligence of our public debate…It measures neither compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures every, in short, except for that which makes life worthwhile.

Community well-being isn’t often the first thing people think about when they commit to generating positive impacts in their lives. How strange that is because it is precisely community well-being that has profoundly positive impacts on peoples’ lives. Look no further than a wonderful event recently held by Caledon Meals on Wheels that welcomed our treasured seniors to a beautiful dance where they could bip bop the night away with some Glenn Miller tunes and Nat King Cole crooning. The joy this event brought them was immeasurable, the positive impact profound. And not just on them but on the people who organized it and gave of their time and donations to make it perfect. I’m also reminded of Brampton Caledon Community Living, a tremendous organization that supports and empowers people who have an intellectual disability, in partnership with their families and the community, to lead enriched and meaningful lives. BCCL brings their clients into the Exchange in Bolton every week and they light things up in the kitchen, making pastries and all kind of other delicacies. They bring joy to all who work with them; their connections to our community brings joy to them.

There must be room when measuring a community’s progress to stand up for the things that enrich our lives almost beyond measure. Sure, our economic outputs are important and the widgets produced in a thriving economy are good for any community. But to measure Caledon’s progress this way without considering the things that people and organizations do to create an inclusive and compassionate community is to miss the point of why Caledon pursues progress in the first place, no?

When asked why you are proud of your community, I suspect your responses are largely about how it cares for its own, no matter who they are. The real measure of any community’s progress is how it gives to its members and ensures a place for absolutely everyone. Exactly like Caledon Meals on Wheels did in hosting a seniors’ dance and like BCCL does in providing stimulating programming for their clients. These kinds of organizations achieve exactly what Bobby Kennedy talked about. They make life worthwhile. That’s the real measure of community progress.

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