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by: Meaghan Trewin, Communications Coordinator

Mark Cabaj (MBA, BA) is a Safe and Caring Board Member, and Founder and Associate (Former VP) of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement

For Mark Cabaj, community engagement and development is a way of life. Growing up in St. Paul, Alberta, Mark enjoyed supporting local public and not-for-profit groups such as Boys and Girls Clubs and Friendship Centers. As part of his university studies, Mark went overseas to Eastern Europe to complete undergraduate work on solidarity, leading to the opportunity to work directly with international development organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations Development Program.

When Mark returned to Canada to pursue further education, he opted for the graduate program in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Waterloo. The broad and integrative approach of the Planning program appealed to his own understanding of the organic, complex and sometimes messy reality of community change and well-being. “Issues of community are challenging, it never ends. I’ve always been interested in exploring how we can tackle complex problems and not treat them as simple issues on steroids.”

While still living in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, Mark ran a multi-sectoral initiative, taking what we would now call a collective impact approach, to reduce poverty in his community. Building on the success of this initiative, Mark co-founded the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement to mobilize and support communities to solve complex issues. At Tamarack, Mark took on the roles of Vice President of the Institute and Executive Director of Vibrant Communities Canada, an affiliated network of 15 urban collaborations whose aim was to find new ways to reduce poverty.

In his line of work, Mark often gets asked what it means to build a healthy or vibrant community. Ultimately, however, there is no one definition: “I enjoy the fact that in every new situation I go into, people are trying to figure that out for themselves.”

The real challenge in his community consultation work is developing and implementing solutions that are effective, authentic and dynamic. Each community has a unique background, unique needs and unique goals. Rather than offering a cookie-cutter solution, Mark helps break down boundaries within communities to identify common solutions to shared problems. “Building the connections and getting on the same page is part one; part two is developing an adaptive solution. The word adaptive is important because, when we have a complex issue, sometimes impacts are predictable, sometimes they are not. You need to be constantly gathering feedback, adapting your strategy as you go.”

Looking forward for Alberta’s urban and rural populations, Mark sees tremendous opportunity to reinvigorate our communities. “One of the prime things preoccupying me right now is the idea of social capital as a driver of community and individual well-being.” Social capital is the interwoven network of relationships among people who live and work in a common community, the ties that bind friends, neighbours and colleagues together.

For example, community members build social capital by living in the same neighbourhood, having kids that go to the same school, visiting the same grocery store, carpooling to and from work, sharing a snow blower, taking fitness classes together – overall, having multiple inter-dependencies to lean on and connect with one another. The research is clear: these connections that we build foster trust, cooperation and shared social values, and ultimately lead to happier people and more engaged communities.

According to Mark, twenty-first century life has consistently cannibalized opportunities for building social capital. Things like cars, urban planning, television and social media make it possible for two people to live two houses down and never have their lives cross in any meaningful way. And if they can’t connect, can’t develop relationships, can’t develop trust, then they can’t develop social capital.

For Mark, the question at hand is: How can we create the conditions to rebuild social capital? “To turn things around, we need to find ways to connect within our own communities. There are a lot of ways to do that, and one of them is to get really involved in existing local institutions.” Schools in particular are one of the best places that community members can still consistently come together.

“I think that is also part of the reason that emotions get really high when a school closes
– it’s one of the last places for building social connections for many neighborhoods, which
are left simply as a bunch of individual homes.”

Similarly, community leagues and community associations within urban centres such as Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer offer another one of the most underutilized assets available to Alberta communities. In many areas, the majority of households belong to the community league, and consistently come together for recreational sports and community events.

Asks Mark: “What if we did more than soccer together? What if we rebuilt these institutions, the schools and community leagues, and broadened their mandate to include village building?” The benefits of more active and vital neighbourhood institutions could include increased safety, caring and inclusion, and an overall stronger sense of identity and well-being for everyone in the community.

This article appeared in our June 2015 News Bulletin. Click here to read the rest of the bulletin!

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