Dianne Fitzgerald Interview Transcript

Nov. 16, 2000
Dianne Fitzgerald
Chief Executive Officer
Nova Scotia Co-operative Council
550 Prince St.
PO Box 1872
Truro, Nova Scotia B2N 6C7
W Ė 902-893-8966
Fax Ė 902-895-0109
Email Ė dfitzger@fox.nstn.ca

Dave Beckwith:
The list of questions is very, very simple: what do you do and why do you do it; what sustains you in your work; and how can we advance community organizing and activism.  So you know, starting with who are you and what do you do would be great, however you want to start.

Dianne Fitzgerald:
Okay, so in the context of me personally as opposed to the organization? Well who am I, Iím Dianne Fitzgerald, and I wear many hats as most community development people do, Iím a part of a worker cooperative, called the Atlantic Institute; and Iím on contract with the Nova Scotia Cooperative Council, which is a cooperative development organization. We are essentially an arm of the provincial credit union cooperative system, so my particular bent comes very much from the cooperative and credit union movement and system and thatís where I spend most of my energy trying to mobilize and stimulate and facilitate the resources of that system to do broad based community development. Itís quite an onerous task sometimes because the cooperative and credit union movement has changed so dramatically.

Howís that?

Well they have very much moved away from their values and principles and have gotten into their mode of survival. Theyíre competing head on with the big guys, with very big pockets, whether it be the banks or the super market conglomerates. So because theyíve had to be focusing on their survival, theyíre not thinking about why they do it and who their owners and their members are. So the organization that Iím working with here is the development arm of those organizations, so basically theyíve given the mandate and the resources to this organization to do development so that they donít have to be concerned about it as a day to day business point. So that works well in terms of having a mandate and having resources, but when you need to connect to the broader system and to go back to these folks it becomes a bit of a challenge. But, what sustains me? I just love the work I do and I canít imagine doing anything else.

Why do you do it, how did you get into this, why are you doing something that pays, not that I know how much you get paid, but,

Well I ask myself that question all the time. Well you know, when I ended up in new Hampshire taking the masters program in community economic development I sort of sat back one day and scratched my head and said whatís a little girl from rural Newfoundland doing in New Hampshire? It just sort of hit me that I was there and almost just ended up there. It wasnít something that was planned and I didnít have this burning desire. It just seemed like I ended up where I was supposed to be and in terms of the work I do itís the same kind of thing. Maybe it comes from my own sense of reality of having grown up in a rural isolated community in a family that was relatively poor and having the sense that Iím going to do good things and Iím going to be better at this. So my sense is it comes from that kind of a reality, and I supposeÖ in the plan of life, I just ended up doing what it is I was meant to do and here I am.

Rural Newfoundland, what was the name of the town?

St. Maryís Bay, Mt. Carmel. And it was a community of about 1000 people, and very rural.

And you went away to school and never went back or?

Well, moved into the city as most rural kids do, went to university, followed my love to Nova Scotia, which is why I ended up here, and never went back. Iíve continued the same kind of work, though. So itís always, the work Iíve always done has always been the more grassroots, project oriented basis. Although my particular interest is probably different from some of the people who work within The Institute, which is what makes The Institute so interesting.  Iím particularly interested in policy and alternative finance. So a lot of work I have done has been in that area. And Iíve been able to do some really non traditional kinds of things like work with chambers of commerce and get them thinking about community development and what not, itís so far out in terms of their reality, but it makes it so much more fun.

And so you went to school in Newfoundland and came down here to work and what was your work?

Well when I went to the University of Newfoundland I studied to be a teacher and I did teach for a couple of years. Then when I came here I taught for about a year and a half here, right in this community in fact. I was teaching a lot of young black kids, high school dropouts, people with enormous problems in terms of entering the market place. And it was at that time that I started thinking that what Iím doing in the classroom has to be connected somehow to whatís going on in the community, in the real world. So I think it was that kind of experience that got me out into the community and wanting to know more about community development and then I went off to New Hampshire and studied so,

So when did you hook up with The Institute?

Well I actually started The Institute about 7 years ago. It was basically an idea that came to me in terms of how can I work independently, I didnít want to be an employee for somebody, how can I work independently but structure it so that I can have other people come and work with me. The cooperative model enabled me to be able to do that. And then others just came along.

How many workers are there in this workers coop?

Well, thereís about 4 of us, but thereís only 2 of us who work sort of full time at this. Weíre sort of the partners and then thereís a half dozen other people who are associates that work with us on a project by project basis.

Iíd be interested if you have some stuff; I want to collect up background and that kind of thing. And so we talked a little bit about why. The question about what sustains you is really interesting to me because it goes beyond the daily issues, it has to do with how do we get more people into organizing, how do we have a better effect and how do we keep people in for the long haul. Do you have any reflections on that, through your own experience? What really keeps you going in the hard days and how do we multiply that?

Hmm. Thereís a couple things. One is having the opportunity to work on really exciting kinds of things. And sometimes theyíre really tough and sometime the bureaucracy is insurmountable. And sometimes you fall down because of resources. But when youíre working on really exciting things, when youíre building models that are models of change, models about new thinking and new kinds of things, even though theyíre just a seed of an idea, those kinds of things really excite me and theyíre the things that keep me working at it. The other thing that keeps me going is seeing the change in the people that I work with. Seeing those kind of people make change in their own lives or be excited about a job opportunity or have their kids get in to a day care or get accepted for a loan at the credit union. When I see that kind of stuff happening, and I could be having a really bad day, Iíll run into somebody on the street or somebody will call me about something and thatís just the stuff that makes me realize Iím doing the right thing even sometimes when I think Iím not.

In the way of sort of communicating to other folks what the reality of your work is, can you describe some more of those situations?

Well yah, one example would be something that Iíve been working on for about 2 years now. And itís called the cooperative employee partnership fund. That is an idea or seed of an idea that began with my thinking how do I combine the resources of the system that Iím working with, the cooperative credit union system, how do I combine those resources with the needs of the people that Iím working with? In this case theyíre social assistance recipients. And through thinking and writing and talking and bringing other people around the table to talk about the idea, we came up with this employee partnership project. Itís an initiative whereby we go out to existing cooperative businesses, ask them if they have a growth and development opportunity, a business development opportunity, and if they do, would they be interested in setting that up as a separate business, jointly owned by them and the workers. And the workers in this case are the people on social assistance. We got a great response from the system on that and many organizations came forward with some really good ideas and we have 3 or 4 huge things weíre working on right now which are really exciting. So that was sort of where it began, we came up with a business approach, focusing on employment of people who are traditionally poor. We got the system to say yes, Iím willing to be a partner on the business end of it. Then we took it one step further and went to the credit union system and said are you willing to be a partner and what are you willing to do? And of course, you donít ask them what theyíre willing to do; you have to provide them with the model. So we asked the credit union to do a couple of things. We asked them to do asset financing, lines of credit for the business and in some cases theyíre providing loans for the workers to buy in with their own equity. So that was the credit union system and they came on side and then we thought, will the workers we want get involved here? Social assistance people wonít or will be hesitant to leave the perceived comfort of welfare if we donít have the right checks and balances in place in terms of support. So we went to Cooperatorsí Insurance, and said will you be a partner and this is what we want you to do. We want you to design a specialized insurance program that provides insurance for the business, but also a benefits package for these workers. The benefit package is dental, health and the basics that they were getting from being on social assistance. And then we went to the appropriate government partners, department of community services, department of economic development and we said youíre paying out right now somewhere in the vicinity of 8-12,000 dollars a year for people to be on welfare. And we know from research and talking to these people that thereís no dignity and self-esteem and all the other good stuff, while theyíre on welfare. Would you be willing to allocate the value of that social assistance in one lump sum to us, and we will use it as an equity investment on behalf of the workers, and lo and behold, after they got up off of the floor, because it was such a non traditional idea, they said, we kind of like it. So they agreed to do that and they gave us a $CAN 250,000 seed fund, where we were able to make equity investments on behalf of workers in new cooperative ventures that the workers were owning. So we got a little bit smart there and we said, well why would we use our own money, why donít we use the money of the financial system? So we went to the credit union,

The capitalists donít do that why should we!

Yah, thatís right! So I went to the credit union system and said, we have this pool of money that we want to do these kinds of things with. Youíve agreed to be a partner weíd like you to do one more thing. Rather than us making the equity investment directly ourselves, we would like for you to do a loan with the client and we will guarantee the loan and we liked that better because it allows the clients, the person on assistance to start developing a financial relationship with an institution, and it gives them a positive credit history and in many cases they didnít have that. So we liked that method better. Of course weíre keeping our money and weíre investing it and growing it and weíre using the interest for a technical assistance fund. So that works well. And then we had to sort out the business part of it; we had to put in a whole network of support for the workers themselves. So thereís a personal development component, thereís training, thereís ongoing training on the cooperative model, we had to, and we learned these things really quickly. We had to deal with issues of transportation, and day care and all the stuff that traditional business people donít think about. And the other interesting piece was that the cooperative system, our cooperative partners who were essentially the managers of this new micro business, jointly owned by them and the workers; they had no concept of what the issues were dealing with these clients. So here we were doing all this training with the clients around,

And you have to bridge the cultures to the other partners.

We realized after the first 6 months of piloting this that we had to also have a training program for the partners, because they had no concept of the reality of working with the clients. A real funny example that comes to mind, in our first project we had 11 workers, and it just so happened that they were all men with a fondness for drink. The manager, the coop partner was paying the workers on a Thursday. Well lo and behold, most of them didnít show up to work on Friday, well guess what, the manager had no idea,

What happenedÖ?

Yah, but they had absolutely no idea that that would happen or why it was happening, or you know, why donít these people realize they have to show up for a job and they donít check out at 5 if production is not there and so on. We had to go back and revamp the whole partnership and management system to get them to understand, you know, there was two cultures going on here,

Thatís why we have a weekend,

There was 2 cultures going on here, so we had to do training with the workers and we had to do training with the coop and management part of it. But that is such an exciting initiative to be able to get the whole system to come together, sit around one table and say weíre willing to do something and give something in a tangible way rather than just saying, off the cuff, that yes, we believe in concern for community and we believe in social justice,

And we put it in all of our ads,

And all feel good stuff, well hereís an opportunity guys to put your money where your mouth is. So thatís the kind of stuff thatís exciting.

Yah, that sure is.  What is the size and scope of the cooperative system in Nova Scotia?

Itís a $CAN2 billion dollar business, 400 individual businesses, almost 300,000 member owners,


YupÖout of a population of 800,000?

And it touches peopleís lives in a gas station in a gas station, cooperative,

From the cradle to the grave, we say. Right from the day care up to the funeral home, and everything in between.

So what do you, why do you do it, what sustains you, any more thoughts on those three questions before I go to the next chapter?

Well, thereís lots about it and thereís lots about it thatís really exciting. Iím really big on demonstrating that something can be done when somebody says it canít, so I spend a lot of time working,


Well, yah I suppose you could call it that, but you know, working with government on policies for example. I mean, Chris Bryant is a dear friend, but we give him a hard time because weíre always lobbying and doing advocacy work on legislation. That kind of playing in that arena is exciting, playing in the alternative finance arena is exciting and then actually demonstrating through some new models that some of this stuff can work, so thereís always something thatís going on thatís exciting.

One of the things Iím curious about, especially in Nova Scotia, but really across Canada, is the question about where if thereís a continuum between being inside the system and totally outside the system, the closer to inside you get, is there a point where you lose the ability to advocate and to organize and to innovate? And where are we in that continuum?

Well, I think there is, and my experience is that organizations and people who depend upon government for their operating support are in far less a position to be able to do lobbying and advocacy and we see that all the time. We are in a little bit of an enviable position because we donít receive money from government; we receive it from the system. So weíre able to be always on top of legislation and policy. I think if youíre very much in the system and if you depend on the system, itís very difficult, because people donít want to bite the hand that feeds them.  What has worth I think is when you bring government in as partners on certain things, so that theyíre just one partner, theyíre not the controlling partner, theyíre not the total finance partner, but if you can bring them in.  I work as well on a national level with the Canadian Community Economic Development Network, a national organization of organizations and practitioners right across the country. And we kind of have the same philosophy there, that we donít want to be in bed with anybody but we want to have relationships, positive relationships with people. Weíre doing that even with the banks for example, on finances. So somewhere in the middle of having positive relationships, not being in bed, and I think demonstrating what can be done, not through force and coercing but by convincing people that they should do it. Pick banks and credit unions as an example, we spent a long time trying to convince them that they should be involved in development finance, well guess what, they donít get it. So unless you can demonstrate and show them and give them the model through which they can participate, theyíre probably not going to do it. So that would be the place on the continuum I would say,

Where does the pressure come from in terms of positive change in Nova Scotia?

The pressure comes from numbers.

Whoís got the numbers?

Well, Iíll use the sector Iím working in as an example, The coop and credit union system is a 2 billion dollar business in Nova Scotia that employs 7500 Nova Scotians, so when we go to talk to the premiere or to Chris Bryant in economic development, we get a hearing because of those numbers. Weíre a part of the electorate and we can rally the numbers behind us if we need to go focus on the steps of the legislature.

Does that happen?

We donít protest on the steps of the legislature but we do go directly to the premiere and lobby on certain issues and we get change on that. So there is strength in numbers and in terms of mobilizing grassroots organizations. I think one of the biggest tragedies of development in this decade is the fact that everybody works so much in isolation and thereís so much competition and turf protection. I think part of that has come from the fact that government has gotten so much involved in community economic development and has taken that as their umbrella and their mantra, that they end up funding their organizations and it ends up competing with and keeping others in isolation who are not funded. So what seems to be working even nationally, in our national network, where we have you know, 85 members across the country. Weíre able to get a meeting at the PMOís office; weíre able to get a meeting with Levi-Strauss. Weíre able to get a meeting with some of the national foundations because weíre big in numbers, weíre a broad representation across the country and we have documented good practices and success stories, so we need to do more of that growth.

Now how do you fight against that isolationism? Iím thinking specifically of the tendency of folks to create a category that they can be at the top of. If you broaden the category, you can get a bigger category, you get more people, but you donít stand on the top of it anymore. In CED especially, I think, how do we avoid becoming defined very narrowly as a delivery system for economic development, or is that a problem?

Well, at the very least it is a problem and it has been a problem I think from the network that Iíve been involved in. But by and large I think if people understand CED and are true to CED, their nature is about inclusion and broad representation and sharing of resources and ideas and that kind of thing. If I think about it nationally, the organization has gone from being a small group of people who wanted to protect what they had done to create a national movement to an organization thatís completely open. Thereís always the tension between what is and what isnít. What is CED and whatís not CED and who defines that? I think Iím coming more to my own sense that it has to be whatever it is that people in their own communities say, rather than you know, a president of the board in Ottawa saying, well CED is this kind of thing.

What are some of the fault lines that thatís cutting around now? You said that what it is is getting included in or out, what are the issues in that?

Well, thereís kind of two factions. There is the government group and they define it a certain way. They define it primarily based on how many businesses did you create, how many jobs, what things are there, how much wealth have you created, how much new money is circulating, all those kinds of things. And then you have another stream, a parallel, of organizations that are working hard at the social end of things, environmental issues, day care issues, family issues and all that stuff, and somewhere the two have to have to cross over. The question is who defines that, who has the right or the authority to define what that is for any given community? And thatís why organizations get excluded because when you look at some of the, if you were to go out and talk to government folks or other community development folks and talk about well whoís who in the CED world, probably six of those, the really dynamite CED organizations would never be mentioned because they donít fit that definition of what it is.

What are some examples of those, dynamite but not traditional? I assume some of them that youíre working with?

Yah, I would think, Arthur Bullís group [Marine Resource Center, Digby, NS] would be one and theyíve only come on the radar screen in the last few years and theyíre doing dynamite work. Iím thinking of the Affirmative Industry Association of Nova Scotia, which is a group that works primarily with post mental health consumers. Doing really good work. I can think of several groups in terms of the disabilities community, I can think of some groups in the black community and because theyíre not main stream, they donít get on the lists, even though theyíre doing good work.

And if we donít get to have everybody on our list who is doing good work, we donít have enough power.

Thatís right. And I donít know the answer to how do you bring all of this together, and you know, you think about it all the time and nationally you think about it all the time. I donít think we have any real handle on whatís going on in either the region or the country, but you could spend the next 10 years going around talking and writing and you still probably wouldnít catch everybody.

Yah, itís frustrating but exciting.

Yah. Thereís a lot of duplication though because we donít know whatís going on, we end up reinventing the wheel, government is ending up funding other organizations to do the same kinds of things,

So both are bound to fail.

Yup, yah.

The next sort of area Iíd like to talk about a little bit is what is it going to take to advance. Thereís no easy answer, but what are the missing elements or what are some positive signs or hopeful signs and are you hopeful and why?

Yes, I am hopeful. I think itís going to take some political will and by that I donít mean funding, you know, but for the government to understand what it is and to be knowledgeable of what it is and whatís happening in the community. Thatís an important thing I think. And the other is, we need to somehow move our agenda from being the thing you do instead of something thatís real work, to being mainstream. That this is a strategy, itís an agenda, itís an approach just the same as a traditional business approach or a cooperative approach, but the movement as being recognized as an approach as opposed to being the fringe. I think we have to do that for them Ö

What does a supportive government do, what are the best policies to support and nurture and advance CED work?

Well, first of all I think that government has to be involved in a kind of contact with the field and that they havenít done it for a while. It has to be from a policy level. I think again their strategies and their policies and their approaches to economic development have to have a consistent approach. You need to search the recent documents you know, the Prosperity Documents in Nova Scotia. No where in it does it mention anything about community development or cooperative development or grassroots development. Itís all about the business and itís all about international trade and information technology and global buyers and all those things. Those are all very important, but thereís lots of other stuff thatís really important that has to be included as well. The other thing, I think the government can make it appealing for those with money and those with power to be in partnership, they can create incentives that would enable community organizations, grassroots organizations to bring in those resources that we need to be effective. Iím thinking of things like legislation around the use of and exporting RRSPís, (Registered Retirement Savings Plans). Those kinds of issues. So that would be the policy work.

What happened here when they tried to do that?

Well thereís a long history of that. The most recent one is what happening with the RDAís (Regional Development Authorities.) In some communities they are working marvelously, and in other communities they arenít. What happens with that agenda is that itís structured as a whole new system and infrastructure in communities that excluded what was already going on, other organizations, people doing good things. Many of the board members of those organizations have a business development agenda theyíre evaluated on that basis. Theyíre becoming dependent on government funding and they still have to play to their political sponsors. So, if I look at the really successful events that have happened in this province, it would be examples of things happening without government being the driver. I donít think the government can be the developer or the driver, they can be a supporter, they can be a part of the policy level area, they can create the environment by which development can happen, but they canít do the development itself.

One of the problems in community organizing is very very definite shortage of activists and organizers. Is there a problem here and what do you do about it?

Iím not sure that it is a problem here, but Iím not even sure if itís a problem across the country, because Iím always encouraged when I go to these national events or local events and the number of new people that Iím working with. Our system and network are also coming across those people in their own movements, in their own situations, their kids are coming in, Iím not sure itís a problem. I think the bigger problem is one of credibility and one of, credibility isnít the right word. That point at which people organize and get to where either they get ignored because theyíre not credible or they havenít done their research or whatever and they get completely disregarded by the nation. Or, they become so big that they lose their focus and they become self-perpetuating as opposed to realizing why theyíre there in the first place.

So you see a pretty wide view in the next generation coming up?

From the networks that Iím involved in, there is no shortage of people. The really exciting thing is that more and more younger people are taking a leadership role. I mean in some of the networks Iím in, Iím one of the oldest there, which is quite interesting, because Iíve always been sort of,

The kid in the row,

Yah, as opposed to 40 and gray and 25 years in before you know it, so.

Right, so, well, I was just going to ask you if you were hopeful and you already said you were, you are hopeful. The two sort of closing, focusing questions that I always ask, what else should I ask about and what questions do you have for others? So whichever one youíd like to take a crack at.

Hmm. Well what I would like to know from others is how do we recoverÖhow do we scale up whatís working. Thereís a lot of communities who have done our stuff, but we all live and work in our own communities and we donít know about it or weíre not sharing it, or weíre not learning from it. I think if you had some understanding and some sense of whatís working and how can you transfer that, that would be a really wonderful contribution to further the work. That would be my big question, what are people working on that they really believe in significantly and think that they could do that somewhere else? And how do I let people know, other than in my own network, how do I let people know, so that somebody in Saskatchewan can get their credit union around the table to cooperate and do these things?

And itís nothing to do with the local particulars, itís not salt water related?

Thatís right.

Yah, I think itís a question thatís true, in terms of that question, itís also a question of, personalities in leadership. Some people are able to do it and others are not and again I think that some people can walk beneath the waterfalls, ahead of others and get them to believe in what theyíre saying and then others canít. They get you know, Ö the question of leadership, how do we do that?

I wonder, would you characterize yourself as an agent of social change?

I would say, yes, but I would add a piece to it, and I would say, making change by utilizing the resources of the traditions of cooperation, whether that be industry or government policy or credit union policy, somehow what Iím doing is trying to bridge the gap.

Do people have a say in policy? The legislature is not that far away, thereís a large number of legislators, theyíre locally accessible.

Sure, people have access to their member of parliament all the time, or their MLA all the time, they can get into groups and have them in to their meetings and you know, protest and all the rest of it. Still, itís that consciousness that I was referring to earlier, that thereís a general sense of apathy about you know, whether or not things can really change, are we wasting our time kind of a thing. And thatís probably our biggest struggle because even when we want to do things, organizations want to do things, we have to get overÖ

Itís not going to work anyway so why start trying.

Yah, itís a waste of time, weíve tried it before, weíve been there before, deja vu, all that kind of stuff,

Well, theyíre about to take away peopleís homes. (New welfare rules) So if you have too many assets you canít get coded, so,

I mean, can you imagine? Can you imagine?

No, itís a big change.

Well, itís so counter productive to what weíre trying to do.

Talk about asset building. First letís make youíre really hopeless and helpless and unable to get yourself out of this situation and then weíll give you a little money.

There are a lot of people in this province who believe that the system is there to keep people dependent, and I think thereís some truth to that in terms of policy and how the bureaucracy works.

A number of your projects are supported by HRDC, which is the welfare bureaucracy isnít it?

Oh, god, no, we have a department of community services, itís a provincial jurisdiction. Yah, we have a power play that goes on between the municipality and the province and the federal government all the time and if one doesnít want to make a decision theyíll have to jump to the other and vice versa. Itís a wonderfully interesting time in the political environment of this country. The big hope in the last election was getting an NDP government in Nova Scotia.

Theyíre much more used to being in opposition,

Oh, yah, and they do a good job at it.