Janet Larkman Interview Transcript

Nov. 9, 2000
Janet Larkman
Executive Director
Western Valley Development Authority
Venture Centre
PO Box 1478
Digby, Nova Scotia B0V 1C0
902-665-4083
Fax Ė 902-245-4551
Cell Ė 902-526-0080
Email Ė janetlarkman@wvda.com
http://www.wvda.com

Dave Beckwith:
So one of the things that I hope is that when we get the transcripts done, my wife is going to go through and do a one page, sort of Reader's Digest version, so that there's something easier to read and to study. I think having that short version will invite people into it more. So what do you do, why do you do it and how did you get started?

Janet Larkman:
I'm the executive director of Western Valley Development. We're one of thirteen regional development agencies in Nova Scotia. We are funded by three levels of government. Within the seven municipalities in our region, there were industrial commissions that were similar in two regions, in Annapolis and Digby County. We were set up in 1994 and at that time in the province there were about forty industrial commissioners and separate economic development groups across the province, but it did need funding and other kinds of help for development. The province said they were no longer going to support our individual groups, so Western Valley Development formed as a regional development group. They initially proposed 7 groups across the province, but ended up with 13, so we are one of 13. We are actually the first one to be formed. It was quite an interesting thing for the seven municipalities. It was tough for them to think of themselves as one place. That was probably the biggest challenge that we faced was to create a regional identity and create a structure where everyone feels like they are a part and their vision is being supported. So I was a part of that process. At that time I was the coordinator.

For the province, to create that process?

No, for this group. Prior to that I'd been working for the Clare Industrial Commission. So that was six years ago. How I got into this work, I really I would say that for my whole life I've been involved in community development work. For some people it's just what you do, you can't not do it. You see possibilities and you want to be part of making it happen and that's just my nature.

Why?

Well, I don't know why but, I'm a planner sort of by accident, my degree is in fine arts,

Really? In what kind of art do you do?

Well, I do some writing and I make sculptures, radio and sound, whatever, I you know, to me the medium is not the issue. So that's my background. I mean I remember my mother still has a drawing that I did in kindergarten and when I brought that home she saved it. Where I was coming from, so how did that start into community economic development? Well I think that where it fits for me, I see things that seem impossible and so it's just the fact that you know, you can see it, you make things happen, you create things. I've always been involved in the process of creating things, sort of compulsive. I'm just really drawn to seeing things realized to their potential that I see, the vision that I see. I'm really excited about the possibility of working with other people and having energy from other people's views and their potential and collectively what happens. That's really exciting. You know, I can sit here and say well this is what I'm going to do today and work with three other people and the result that we get is always something that none of us could have ever envisioned, it's always far greater. In my teens I was very involved in all different kinds of Social activism.

Where was that?

I grew up in Toronto. I first came to Nova Scotia when I was 17 on an international government program called Canada Heartbeat and when I arrived here in Nova Scotia I thought, this was home for me. I don't know why, I don't know how, I don't have any roots here, it was right; it was home for me. So in various different communities here it has been all different kinds of activism. When I was in Toronto I was involved in working with homeless and working with the people and the administrators, all that kind of stuff. I was very involved with the peace movement for some time and actually learned a lot of my community organizing skills doing that. We did a lot of street theatre as a form of social protest. It was all very interesting, and when I moved here I did this work with the people too. My objectives were still the same but the channels had changed a bit. That was about ten years ago and so it was just sort of, I want to say it was a natural thing to get involved with this community economic development agency but it wasn't obvious to me at the time. I was actually was hired to do graphic design initially, but like I said earlier I'm a compulsive community organizer so you know, I wasn't in the door five minutes and I was doing the community organizing part of things and that just began to develop. So that's common.

Well, do you get to do any art anymore?

Not as much as I would like to. I sort of need a personal focus. This is what I'm doing right now and so I put all of my energy into this with the understanding that art making hasn't gone away and it's still there and that will be my focus later on down the road, I hope. So this is very much what I'm doing now. And totally excited, totally excited by the people that are around me. We have a volunteer board.

How many people on there?

There are 19 people on the board and on staff we also have about 19 people, but that is something that continues to grow. I expect that in the not too distant future we'll have about 25 on staff. So really it's a really neat group of people. We're so much of a team and we all have our jobs but the overriding factor that governs everybody's work is the mandate of the organization which is to help our community realize its hopes and dreams. Everybody knows that whatever the particular task, they are always looking at how they fit in realizing the overall mandate.
 

What kind of programs do you deliver here, what's the mix?

A lot of different stuff. Our mandate covers across all sectors,  just to mention a few. We worked with the marine sector this year to establish the Bay of Fundy Marine resource Center which hopefully youíre going to see today. Now the purpose of the center was to bring together all aspects of all the different things you do in groups that are involved with the Bay of Fundy. You bring them together under one roof to find out how we can work together towards different ideas to have a sustainable combination using the natural resources that are there. That's an example of something that was an idea that has gone way beyond anything that we could have imagined. It's now a really vital successful organization unto itself that is now spawning other organizations so it's just, it's exponential. That's just one small example. We're involved with a project right now, a private project called IDAís Ė Individual Development Accounts. You're American so you probably already know about this. Itís been used for 20 years in the States, but it's very new to Canada. The idea is to help people acquire assets to save money for education, or starting a business or whatever. So we're one of 10 pilot sites and hopefully with the program we've discussed we'll build a national program. So that's an interesting thing for us to get involved with because traditionally our work has been focused on community organizing in a regional sense, you know, getting lots of people from different ends of the region and different things that isn't factored together. So this is a really exciting new thing for us. We're also one of 12 sites across the country that are coming together to become a smart community,

Well, instead of stupid!

Instead of stupid! That's what the pin is all about, right?

Well, maybe they've recognized that you are smart.

Weíve been officially anointed one.

Well, what does that mean?

Well, itís incredibly exciting. We went through a competitive process and 129 communities across the country competed for this. What it's all about is the Industry Canada, the federal government is looking for models, communities that are using technology as a tool of social transformation. Some visionary in Ottawa said, Hmm, what would happen if we gave certain numbers of communities 5 million bucks a piece for two years, so 10 million dollars and ask them to come up with a blueprint for using technology for transformation, social transformation. That's what the competition was all about was putting forward that challenge and saying okay, if we succeed, this is what we will do. Our vision that we put forward was really broad; we developed that vision from large-scale community consultation process. What the community had told us in our consultations with them was that: number one we have an amazing natural environment here, rich natural resources, we would like to preserve and protect what we have here. We also have an incredibly rich cultural heritage here; we want to preserve and protect that. That's what we said, we want to become leaders in the knowledge field. We want to be, you know, ahead of the game. We want to be really smart about how we use the tools that are available and using technology tools to enhance all the aspects in our community. So we said okay, great, we'll take that and we'll work with it and we put together four organizations and now we're just in the process of beginning this three-year program. Some of the things that are involved, well you know, it starts off with putting the high-speed broadband infrastructure into a rural community. When I say rural, we've got 43 towns and 6 different counties and up to Portage we have 45% of those people live outside of incorporated towns,

Really?

Yah. And our towns are very small.

What are they?

Digby, Annapolis Royal, Bridgetown, and Middletown. And Digby's the largest; the thriving urban metropolis is about 2500 people. And Annapolis Royal is the smallest; it's got 500 people. So we're talking about small towns. So it's on a roll. Where to begin, technology. Well, we need to have broadband access because that's the international status now, wanting to connect business. So it's about bringing the rural community up to a level playing field so that individuals have options, some choices. We want to keep ourselves competitive. The first thing we want to know is do we have access to the Internet and so okay, good luck, go and use it. So, that being said, that's sort of obvious. So what do you do with it? I don't know how much detail you want? Do you want to know more about it, or?

I am really interested in your story actually, and in the question of how people view activism and organizing. So, what you do is really interesting but in the context of that what, why and how you view your role as an organizer and that kind of thing. And so this technology thing it is kind of interesting because it's structural.

Yah, it's one piece of the project I'm hoping, what we're about is identifying you know, what are the tools that this community needs. We know that the community is involved, we've got the region, we've got the towns, we've got the structure and so on, what tools can we improvise to make it all happen, to sort of delve in it so that there's organizational tools, there's access to resources and funding and then there's information tools. Then there's something else which is harder to put my finger on, it's not a tool, but it had an incredible impact and that is, activism. How do you, how do you work with the community to create a base. That's been probably the most important thing that we do. Is we walk around asking you know what, this community is amazing and this community has great potential and this community is doing great things. We say that to ourselves, we tell that to people around us in our community and we tell that to people like you. I'll give you; we just finished an evaluation last month. People in here are saying you know what, we feel more positive about our community than we did five years ago, there's something that we feel, we can't put our finger on it, but we feel like things are really working out. And so there's an energy, there's a synergy and what's happening in the bulk of that is that people who traditionally would sort of stay home and grumble are saying, oh there's something going on out there and I want to be a part of it. I can see how I can have influence and have an impact. So the organization tools that we work with, we work with community groups that can champion their cause. They can get people to follow along or to partner or whatever. So one of the important things that we do is bring people together and to bring people together in a semi-structured way and to help focus what their vision is so that at the end of the day they're driving their own cause. Because they know what they're doing and why they're doing it and they figure out themselves how to do it. So it's exponential what's happened. I mentioned...

Itís really growing.

It really is, it really is like that old shampoo commercial. What's happening is that community groups that that were sort of disorganized with one or two people that maybe had a vision and they thought they did,

Can you give me an example of something like that, because that's interesting to me, taking things from a vague notion to practicality.

Okay, one of the projects that we've been very heavily involved in is working with the farming community. Just to give you a bit of history, in the past the government built the community, a grain center for the farming community to store grain. It's a sort of a brokerage house for grain for small farmers that don't necessarily have their own, you know big facilities and so on. And it was really important to them. Well the government decided that they were too costly and so they put it all out to a private sector company. The private sector company said well that's very nice but we've got a business to run. So essentially they gutted all of this stuff out of this,

We'll take the door handles, yah.

Took the door handles and closed the thing down. So there was great hue and cry, great protests you know, hundreds of tractors circling around, demonstrations, civil disobedience and all this kind of stuff to try and get the government's attention. They wanted to get the government to give us the grain center back and so on and so forth and that got absolutely no where. The farmers were very disorganized, they were angry and they had an opinion and they were willing to come out to public meetings and all that but they weren't organized and they weren't focused and they didn't truly believe that they could do it themselves. You know, it took a year to move from that, phase of, you know, how dare the government and they owe us to a year later saying, you know what, we don't need that, we can do it ourselves! So we worked with them first of all to get organized and focused. And then second of all figure out just what is it that we really want to do? Do we want to try and salvage that old thing or do we want to try and start from scratch and do it exactly the way we want to do it. And then how are we going to pay for it? So we worked with them to set up our community investment fund. So the community actually put their money directly into it. That involved going out into the community and winning over their trust. Trust us, it's not going to be like that other one that fell apart, this one is going to work. And so they went out there and they raised the money necessary to do it.

How much?

The whole thing cost about half a million bucks.
 

And how many people did they get money from?

They got money from about 50 individuals.

Really? So that's pretty broad based.

Not just farmers, you know, but people who were looking it as an investment. Some people that were looking at it as well, our community really needs this, so therefore I'm going to put my money in. They raised the money, built the structure and their management community, their group of farmers, they incorporated as a corporation and they're running it, it's pretty successful. We got a call the other day from someone saying, how come I don't have my project done and all that government money went into building that? And I said, guess what, it didn't! The community owns that, and they couldn't believe it, they just couldn't believe it because that was a real shift. That's a good example of this exponential growth. There is a success list and all the individuals that were involved with that can now go and say this is how we did it, let me help you because we've been through it now, we can show you how it's done. People all around this community look and say, gee, that was a success, I remember 2 years ago, all these protests and now look at what they've done! So, having tangible success stories and having lots of them that are physical success stories that people can touch and,

Drive by,

Drive by and see that this grain center is coming and there are trucks coming in and out of there and there's tractors and all this hub of activity, point to it and say, wow, well you know, we did that, maybe we could do something else. So there's role models out there and people have a much better sense that yah, we can do it.

How much money have you managed through this?

That's a good question. Our annual operating budget, our core operating budget is 300,000 a year, but we do all kinds of other projects.

So, approaching 20 staff maybe more, approaching 3 or 4 million dollars,

Yah, not very grassroots sounding, is it?

Well, I'm wondering about what that does to your day? I mean how much of your time is turning a lump of clay into a beautiful sculpture and how much of it is mining clay?

Hmm. Well, I'm not exactly sure what the answer is to that question because what I see when I look around me is I see a group of 20 people who are very self directed and so really I'm just sort of the shepherd and everybody is going out and doing stuff and making it happen. And when there is a decision that needs to be made, they just know we all get together and consult

Personally, do you feel like you're still a community change agent and not just a manager of resources and people and money and organizations?

I feel like I'm in the most exciting community change position that I can imagine. I can't imagine a more exciting place to be because I'm in a position, you know, peering back to all the volunteer boards that I sat on that were entirely volunteer run, so much energy and struggle went into just keeping things afloat, making ends meet. There was just so much struggle. We have some advantage here in that we have access to resources so that we have a starting point, we have a base, and we don't actually have to spend the majority of our time pulling our hair out about raising thirty dollars to do this. We can focus our energy on the really fun stuff, the really exciting stuff. I feel like I'm in the most exciting job in the world because I'm in a position where I can surround myself with people who have ideas, we can work together to make those ideas 20 times or 40 times more than what I could personally envision and we can mobilize to make those things happen.

I am interested in this question about the balance between being a manager and being an organizer. It's one of those questions of scale, is there a point of diminishing returns, after which youíve created an organization so big that no one can have any fun anymore or be creative or you can't really respond to community need? You're saying you haven't found that.

Not yet. Youíre just kind of drawn to people. Actually, most of the staff works on contract, so we get a project and work towards it together. We're a community of creative people. Wow, great energy, people are really inspired by each other and there for motivation. The more excited we get the more we do.
 

So you see this as a continuity with your peace work and justice work on a national level?

Very much so, it certainly has been developed through social organizing and itís not just about money at all,

More money is good,

Money, you need to pay, it's very important, but having the support of a community and of a group.

I was going to ask you about the board, what's the profile of the board?

Seven members on the board are appointed directors by the town councils.

And are they generally councilors?

Not always, no. A lot of times it's not counselors simply because councilors donít have time.

Sign up for this, yah.

Exactly. Seven are appointed by councils and 7 are community-at-large, and others are appointed by all four sectors of interest. There are also committees, which are not the same people as the 7 people or the 7 at large, but come from within the 7 towns. This year we had, I think we had 5 extra maybe. So those were a mix of community leaders from really from all the sectors. Yah, the majority of the board members are older. There is a lady on our board who is 42 or 46 approximately.

How do you stay connected to the broader community? You said you just did a series of consultations out of that one technology project.

What we did was, we held a series of public meetings and we advertised them and said okay, we divided people up into small groups. What do you like about your community? The objective there was to get people thinking about what they really wanted. All we wanted to know was what was important to them, what did the community look like to them. The next question that we were asking was, if we could dream a dream, if you were God, if you were in control or whatever, what would you do? So through those simple questions we got a whole lot of ideas. We divided them up into their groups and had everyone work through the ideas. We wouldn't have those, so people considered costs, benefits, and impact. It was a lot of fun. A great process. We had the same people come back and set up all of their ideas,

So essentially, 28 meetings, 14 twice.

That's right, so we put everything back up on the wall and say, okay, now we want you to tell us what to color, what is the most important. We color coded the most important. Who do you think needs to do it? We worked on the concepts as a group. At the same time we were also doing a municipal process, and we had some special meetings with interest groups.

I want to make sure I get that website so I can see it.

Yah, sure. We're really interested in the website as a tool. We processed what are the universal things, what are the things that are just individual, what is the overall view, and so we put this together, this is the document that came out of that process. What we find is that we go into communities and people know that they made a difference.

So, how many people were involved in this, you kind of said 14 meetings.

Over 500 people that took part,

Gigantic percentage of the community.

Yah. It works out to be about 600 in total and about 100 that responded on the website.

In terms of the project that we're doing across Canada, what sustains people in their work? What keeps you getting up in the morning and coming in and what gets you through the hard times and what gets you through the overloaded good times?

Results. You know I think what really gets me going is real results. I can see when I don't..

Who is the Ďusí in your work, what's the community of colleagues, who do you link with, who do you connect with?

Linking is kind of what we do, and you know it's funny because I think that need has been around for years. So who are our colleagues, we've been described as being sort of like a spider web, or as the spider in the center of the spider web. We basically work with every organization that's out there in government, anybody who is out there in the community who is organized or wants to be organized. We also work with the business community, in a different kind of a way because generally the business community doesn't see their role, or take the time. Itís less obvious, less apparent.

That's programmatic, I'm interested in also what are your own personal connections and links, what's your web, who are your colleagues,

Oh, okay, my circle of friends.

Folks practicing here, other artists, friends?

Yah.

And so that's part of what sustains you, clearly.

Yah, yah. Those people are invaluable.

One of the things that's interesting to me, talking about folks who are connected to government, one of the questions for me in Canada in general is, when the government pays the bills, do you lose the edge of social justice, the thinking outside the possibilities? What do you think?

This question is certainly one that we think about a lot because there are lots of instances where we walk on both sides of the line there. We do purposely try to. We probably burn some bridges there. I think how we do that is that we comply with our folks, with the community. In general, if the community says we feel strongly about this issue and we understand, we will take up that side. That's our whole direction is from the community.

And what keeps the edge sharp? What's the accountability in the sense that, what keeps you from finding people who say you are doing a good job even though you know youíre not? I don't mean this in a negative way, I think you have that, and I want to know what it is.

I think that 99% of the time we generally know that we're right and that we're on the side of righteousness. It's true and if you know that you're right then you can hang in.

And then the other part of this is what keeps you in touch with the most traditionally marginalized communities? And you mentioned Aboriginal and Acadian women, African Nova Scotians, how do you stay true to that though they are the toughest issues to deal with

I think that we are very aware of that. I don't feel like we're very good yet, I feel like that's our challenge to ourselves.

In other organizations in those communities that you can reach out to, or?

Yah, and we do, we do, we certainly do, through all those organizations, but that's not always enough,

Yah, you've got to find a way.

Yah, yah. One of the tools is that we've used is the technology grant. We thought, it would be interesting, what would happen if we did computers in all the community centers and libraries. So we've been working very closely with that program. So we've got twenty million. Itís a big deal. What we found is that the technology, the sites could be a mobilizing focus in communities. Certainly there's a job to do there, and I have to organize around doing that job. We've also got this tool to use, meanwhile there's all this stuff. Weíve worked with this grant to get all these sorts of computers set up and what we found is that itís a really good tool for engaging. So for example, in Bridgetown, the seniors actually set up the Community Access Site at their Center.

Now you have something you're invited to,

Invited to, that's right. I think it's something to do while they're there, they are going to meet all kinds of other people. So what we found is that all kinds of really neat synergies are taking place. Well, what I wanted to add to the question was how do you reach the branches of the communities, to the marginalized within the community, the people that are sort of oblivious to projects in community economic development. One of the projects we mentioned earlier was the individual development accounts. That is a fabulous tool, an opportunity for us to provide something really substantial to people in our community that don't have much money, and there's a lot of them.

So you'll match the money they save with the money from the program. That is the sort of individual benefit that's like that grain elevator where you can say, this person was helped, it's not just we have a general concern. First of all I always ask are there any questions that I forgot to ask you? And the other question is that this is a conversation between organizers and activists and I'm just sort of the guy with the tape recorder, what questions do you have, or observations, what have you learned, or what do you wonder about. What is the thing that you would like to put on the table for the conversation?

Hmm. Well, I think that as organizers we need to know who is not here who should be here? Are we really addressing all our community. If people are not here, why are they not here and how do we go about inviting them to be organizers?  I see that as being our biggest question that we continually have to ask ourselves all the time. It would be really easy in lots of ways to just run around and try to conquer the world. But if we don't continually ask ourselves this question then we're not going to grow as an organization, and if we're not growing as individuals then we die. So that's the challenge I think for every organization I think is how do you continue to grow and to challenge yourself to go places that you see as good.