Innocent (Tony) Atuanya Interview Transcript

Nov. 10, 2000
Innocent (Tony) Atuanya
Executive Director
Watershed Association Development Enterprises WADE
PO Box 2832 East
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia B2W 4R4
fax – 902-435-4859
cell – 902-483-4343

Dave Beckwith:
I'd really like to talk about what is it you do and why do you do it, and what sustains you in the work, what keeps you at it? Whichever one, how did you come to community development work?

Tony Atuanya:
Well, we live here in a large, predominately black community in Canada, with about 10,000 blacks here in the Nova Scotia province of Canada. The Preston area is the largest indigenous black community in the province. The blacks here have been living here for over 400 years. There is a tremendous deficiency compared to everybody else in terms of educational achievement, economic achievement, social development achievement and those type of things. We've found out there's a tremendous need to look at these areas and find ways to deal with them. So we organized ourselves here in the Prestons, we formed a volunteer board of directors and we are now positioning ourselves to come up with a strategic plan to help our people move from where they are to where they should be as far as the main stream of the economy being in the province. That's why I'm here. In doing that job we try to build bridges with those who have, we'll look for partnerships and partners and eventually when we get support and begin to make a number of things happen, then we might be able to do some sustainable development along the WADE.

You've just done the asset mapping process,

We've just done the asset map, we've done a 5 year strategic plan,

How old is WADE?

WADE was incorporated in 1983, so that makes us 17 years old. It's generally a volunteer organization; we're making a lot of progress.

How long have you been involved with WADE?

Eleven years.

And how did you come to this work?

My background, actually I graduated in computer science. And you know, having lived here for all that many years and my interest to join in the struggle to get things happening, to work on development. And I've taken a lot of courses at University and that kind of thing. It's one of those things you just get involved in and you don't know how you get involved in it.

There's a slippery slope.


Why? Why not make money in business, why not Microsoft?

I think for me the joy of seeing my next door neighbor begin to get a better job and have his children in better schools and have a better home; and seeing the community try in different ways you know, to improve the infrastructure, the environment in the area and begin to knock at the doors of government to get their attention. I mean, those are the types of things that count. So money might come later on with it, I think my involvement would enhance my ability to actually as you might say, make more money at some point, but for now, I think we have to deal in our infrastructure that will get a lot of people you know to begin to look like it’s getting better.

The program of WADE is job training and job search assistance?

The program of WADE is community development. We are a community development organization, we do the employment creation, job creation, training, education, environmental issues, we look at infrastructure. We have a lot of land base that we want to develop. We address constituent’s needs, we address policing needs, we want to make sure that our people are safe at their homes.

The role you play,

I'm an executive.

Your organization plays the role of delivering the services, or brokering, or,

Facilitating the process. We play the role, without having the money, because we're nonprofit, but we have built development around our board members and our staff members to be able to find resources to address the need that we have in the area and that's how we evolve. We have a number of partnerships, a number of government agencies and NGO's and everybody else and there's a lot of things happening here, you can see the growing middle class and growing infrastructure need. There's more involvement health-wise. There's been a tremendous change in that with new schools and new community facilities. So we're making a lot of progress.

How much of it is protest or advocacy, or action for change and how much of it is sort of taking on a new program yourself, or,

You know, I think we're lucky here in Canada and in Nova Scotia that we don't, we used to fight a lot to get things done, but I think governments are listening to us right now. I guess the economy, the moneys are available, they listen to us, they have the means, there's a dialogue between the communities and the government. And as long as that is being maintained, that proper dialogue, then they hear from us, we hear from them. This whole thing is about we come up with plans that are workable and get them funded. I think the government is very sympathetic to our needs and they're addressing a lot of our needs. There's still some areas that we have to work on, but we don't have to fight in the streets. I remember using what do you call, those protest signs, to make my message across. We haven't done that yet, but I'm praying it doesn't come to that. But, the government, especially the federal government, they've been very supportive.

Where does your operating support come from here?

Our operating support comes from the federal government, mostly federal government, but we'll be able to articulate small other partnerships. At any given time we work with 11 partnerships, you know, so we try to identify organizations and agencies that have specific dollars

So they pay part of the bill.

Yah, we go to the table and say, listen we put this you put this and away we go. Just recently we had a civic number project.

Civic number?

Civic number, you know, the pizza guy comes and he's looking for number 5 and he can't find it because there are no civic numbers, so we're going to take money to buy the signs and put them on homes. We need a partnership with the municipal government, the Canada post, they are delivering mails, the RCMP, the fire department, the health people that have to go pick up you when you're sick. We have come to the table and chipped in money here and there and now we have a pile of people now having civic numbers on their homes. We actually had an order that just arrived yesterday that I still have to deliver. So this type of partnership is the type that is going to make things happen.

And the neat thing about that kind of project is it gets you into every house, too.

It gets you into every house, people see you, they aren't afraid, you know?

What's the size of the staff of WADE?


7 staff?

Yah, seven staff. And the focus is output. We have a number of people that make sure that people that can't get transportation can get access to talk to them and give them a hand and fill out forms, and do resumes and get them information about housing and that type of thing. So it's really working.

What's the participation, do you have membership from community members or do you have an annual meeting?

What we've done here, Dave, is we've moved to organize the communities into local governments. So we organized homeowner associations and they have elections every year and they elect an executive. The two senior executives from each of the associations get a membership in the board of WADE. So it's a democracy, there's about 5 associations. The voice of the people is what the board of WADE actually is. Exactly.

And so, how, if that's a pyramid with the board of WADE, at the top, how many are at the bottom of that? How many on each board?

Each association can have up to 12 executive members.

So there's…

Two senior members to the board of WADE. And that's where we get together and design projects and programs and services that will impact on the home owners and the rent payers or whatever you might call them. So it's a true democracy.

And how many people in the area that you cover geographic area?

10,000 give or take. .

I'm very interested in what it is that sustains you in the work, what keeps you coming into the office everyday?

I think there's a challenge. You know, I have a wealth of information that people need, people will walk in off the street. The guys come in here for particular information every 15 minutes or less than that. So we have compiled a large database of information that will help our people and the coming year they're being served. It's a challenge to which you know, there's some good days and some bad days, there's a lot of tremendous paper work to be done, the files and contracts we have with different agencies, accountability, you know. I mean, I have the liberty to actually not show up for work but I'm always here at 7 in the morning. I have a trail of meetings with people. I think that's what motivates you to see progress coming to your area, people coming in and getting answers. I think that's what motivates me. I wouldn't trade this job for any other job.

Having fun.

Having fun doing it. A couple of gray areas which could be a number of things, but we have a good story to tell to local groups. It's just that a lot of times we tend to work in a box, you know, but we have to find a way at some point to be able to move this story over North America and the world, and tell them about our successes here and our failures, and how we've done things, you know, how we move over 2 million dollars of money to do a number of things.

What would you say are a few things that you've learned from your work?

The thing that I've learned from my work is the ability to work with a diverse community, ability to work with an area with diverse needs, ability to learn volunteerism, ability to be a negotiator. You know, you don't I always think you have to go to university to learn how to be an administrator or a negotiator or this kind of stuff. I think this is the type of thing that you can pick up from doing it. You learn the skills, and how to build with people the trust, you have to gain trust with people. You have to also work hard, hard work. So, so much so much, you know?

I'm interested in the question of the connection to the government. One of the things that I see across Canada is that a continuum, from outside the system to inside the system. If you're a government worker and you work in the ministry, you're on the inside. Or you're totally outside the system. Here's the question, the closer you get to the government, to the inside government do you lose the edge of community base, of serving the hardest people to reach, dealing with the poorest people, dealing with the heaviest needs? The edge, maybe it's social justice verses delivering services.

I think for me, though, there is a very clear separation between the community and the government. If you become part of the government, I have to be able to challenge a bureaucrat that you have not put a nickel into social justice or whatever the case is, I need to be able to go back and say, hmm, he was right. There's gotta be a very clear distinction between the community and government. In saying that, the government should act have a facilitator, and it should be the group that is involved with the plan. It's just like going to a local area with a pond in the winter time and you’d like to play hockey on that pond and you're an outsider, it's the local people that know exactly where the thin ice is!

And you pay if you don’t listen!

That's right! The local people, I don't' care whether it's been in Louisiana or California, I mean all those places have very small neighborhoods and neighborhood problems and developmental issues, they understand and they know exactly what the problem is. So my analogy about hockey, it’s the local people that know where the thin ice is and you walk in and you think you are a big time hockey player with all this money, you come into the local area and want to skate on that little pond, guess what? You could be more than 6 feet under ground, you could be 28 feet!


So I mean, the thing is you need a clear definition of community and a clear definition of government, the role of government is to facilitate, the role of community is to go out and exactly tell the government where the problem is, this is our problem. In the past the government used to bring in money, bags of money, computers - but how do you know that's number one priority for us? We have to come out with priorities and then bring them to you. They say you can't do this, you have blah, blah, blah, and that's how you make a lot of progress, see there's a will to make progress in this province and in local areas.

And sometimes it takes a little persuasion to create that will.

Sometimes it takes a lot of persuasion to get that will. And the way to deal with it is after 1 or 2 years you look at a longitudinal study and say, gee, people are complaining about these things and nothing is happening. You will then see a number of things happen, that's when people start to organize, begin to mobilize, begin to look for leadership, begin to look for challenge, and begin to knock at the doors of things that we think should not be a part of a very positive atmosphere. That's when you get riots and stuff like that.

Does that happen in the black community in Nova Scotia?

In the past, we saw more of it in the past than now, there are still a number of areas that are still particularly troubled, you know, the housing subdivisions. We have a lot of places in Nova Scotia, you know, I 'm opposed to housing subdivisions that are primarily occupied by people from a particular income bracket. All you are doing when you build that kind of subdivision is you're giving a recipe for hate for government and they see it right now. There are a number of subdivisions that people say, oh no, I'm not going in there, you have created that environment. I believe to integrate people into the community, and there's a bunch of low-income people in a housing subdivision, that ends up being the so-called projects. That's where the number of shootings and stabbings happen, predominantly in those areas you know, drugs and all that kind of stuff.

What do you think it will take to advance community organizing and activism in Canada, in Nova Scotia?

I think what it would take to elevate things, there has to be a very strong investment in community organizations’ capacity building. You have to go in there and identify organizations in local areas, you have to invest not big money, just small money in building, teach people how to organize, how to do paper work, how to write proposals, how to identify opportunities, how to identify assets, how to identify areas of concern, how to negotiate the government, how to identify resources that the government has.

Where does that teaching come from?

That will have to come from government, it will have to come from a dialog, there has to be a dialog between the government and the community. I don't know how you're going to do it, you'll have to create many original strategies, many economic zones where you can go in and work with small groups. With a large body of land with very few people, in a way you create an area the size of New Mexico. You might have many little areas. I would really strongly suggest the government consider doing micro-regions in Canada, based maybe on population or geography, that kind of stuff.

What about from the infrastructure of organizing? Where do organizers get trained, where do organizers in the business get support?

Well, you know, when it comes to organizers, I started as a volunteer, a volunteer on the board. I think in terms of training you have to have a will to be part of an organizing body, you have to learn from people who have more expertise than you on that board and I think that we don't really have any model. There's been no way to train organizations and mobilize their abilities and mobilize their assets, some type of investment. It doesn't have to be all financial investment, invest in some type of way to help people and go to talk to them and show them how to do things. Right now we articulate organizationally different groups and informing them about programs. So we don't have any real priority dollars for the training of organizations. Now we're exploring the line, looking at foundation dollars that we can get to address these needs. The organization has to be informed, it has to be well organized to be able to do things. That's really a deficiency in government expenditures, they don't have these areas, they ask how many jobs did you create, that kind of a thing, but where's the building, that kind of stuff. But people need to be developed,

This is an extreme short version of an interview, I usually ask for an hour and a half. I really appreciate your openness, and I do want to request some information about WADE. I will then leave you with two questions, you can take whichever one you want. One is, what question did I forget to ask, as I talk to other organizers both in the United States and Australia and in Canada what questions do you have for them? What observations do you have for other organizers? Or what questions?

My question to them is why is there a reluctance to form a network of information sharing, you know? I mean, we all have organizations, some are more developed than others, why is there a tremendous reluctance, you know, for different organizations to network and share information and help little folks. There has to be a clear definition of how to create a network, a network of community development activists you could call it. We just have to share information on how to do things and how to mobilize your efforts, discuss issues on how you deal with government, practical issues on how you dealt with the private sector. But there seems to be a very strong reluctance in the global sense of it, that we have tended to be so polarized in our thinking, we are so comfortable working within these concrete walls around our little towns in Australia and the U.S. and Canada, and in Africa and all that. This today is a global economy and we have to begin to form a network of information sharing and begin to realize that what we know in terms of development could be used by somebody in other parts of the world. I think that the long term question to organizers is why is their reluctance to be well organized, in organizations to share information and network and build relationships and that kind of stuff. We have to start doing a huge network of community organizers, not to take over the world, but to begin to build infrastructure development in local areas. That is what my question would be to you, David, to any people in the future.

And finally, was there a question that I forgot to ask you that you think would be valuable to share with other folks?

Well you know, I think one of the questions that you forgot to ask me was in the area of education, education, you know, I think that is something that we have to explore at another time. I believe very strongly that the more we have, the more people that we have. GED or what you call, high-school, we have to look in terms of education, how high is educational ability in different local areas. I think that's something that we really should consider asking when we go into small towns.

Education is really power.

Yes, power. I got my education solidly, but the masses also have to be brought into that picture.

How many kids do you have?


How old are they?

Seventeen, fifteen and thirteen.