Trying to answer a question of changes in a community

**This is a guest post by Emily Brown, who works with 4H on PEI!

I read an article in Maclean’s yesterday that debated the merits of the local food movement. It asked, “. . .if things were so great in our great-grandmothers’ time, why did things change so much since then?” (McMohon).

That question, I think, illustrates the first thing I think about when I hear the word “demographic”, a topic I was asked to write this blog about. When I think about demographics, it’s almost always because I’m trying to answer a question of changes in a community.

 I work for the 4-H organization on PEI, considered for a long time to be a predominantly rural, agricultural organization. Err, who am I kidding; after 100 years in Canada, it’s still considered largely agricultural, despite the organizations best efforts to modify the brand.

 Because of declining enrolment, efforts to re-brand have been assertive for the last 20 years. With a declining traditional market – less farming families, smaller families in rural communities, and a general rural-urban exodus – there has been a need to expand the brand. These efforts have had few long term results.

 At this point I must be a little bold; while the 4-H program struggles to re-brand for different markets, the program is already relevant for anyone, youth or volunteers alike. Proof of this can be seen with our neighbours to the south; the USA, where the program was founded, struggled with these same challenges about a decade ago. With sufficient funding and a clear mandate, however, they have turned themselves around to become the biggest youth organization in America with 6.5 million members, and they have managed to bridge that membership over varying demographics. While the vast majority of Canadian 4-H members would consider themselves rural, 50% of American 4-H members are rural, 20% are suburban, and 30% are urban. But I digress . . .

 On PEI, the organization is in the middle of an internal review of our governance and structure due to [at least] two demographic shifts over the past 20 years. One is measurable, and the other is an observation on cultural changes that take place, in part because of demographic shifts.

 Rural – Urban Exodus

Besides an aging population, this seems to be the one that thing we think about when we talk about demographic shifts, especially in Atlantic Canada. PEI is no different; despite being comparatively densely populated, there has still been such a shift to Charlottetown that sees over 40% of the population living in the Charlottetown corridor, and many more travelling to work in it.

 To no one’s surprise, this movement towards Charlottetown has meant that one time strong, vibrant villages and communities are struggling. Simply speaking, less people means less services, less neighbours, less workers, less to stay for.

 What I would argue is, that the benefactors of the people – the communities in the Charlottetown corridor – are not necessarily more vibrant for their influx of citizens. Many of the new communities on the outskirts are little more than bedroom communities, where people go home and tune into their favourite television shows, take care of personal hygiene and sleep, but live the rest of their lives in Charlottetown.

 Sense of Community

The increase of sleeper communities has had, in my opinion, and interesting effect on us and our culture. Because of the ease of transportation and the revolutionary increase in communication of all forms, it is no longer necessary for people to participate in their geographical community to be connected. Instead, we have become more connected with special interest communities; there’s the hockey or soccer community, the arts community, the political and business communities. . . these have become the communities that we spend our time and make our friends.

 I don’t want to say that this is wholly bad; this has been positive in many ways, especially for people who may have in the past been on the fringe. I may be looking too deeply into it; perhaps I can’t see the forest through the trees, but I think that this shifting in community can partially be to blame for increasing apathy.

 When we had strong, vibrant geographical communities, we had to learn to communicate and understand our neighbours – and lots of the time, we didn’t agree on things.  Judgement of one another was high – still is in many small communities. At the risk of romanticizing something that I don’t totally think myself, I think that despite some of the negative relationships that are formed with duelling and judgemental neighbours, at least there were relationships. Nonetheless, we learned about our neighbours and their situations, and even when we didn’t agree – we knew of them. This meant that when issues came up in the community, we were perhaps more engaged, even when it necessarily affect us, but it did our neighbours. It meant that we knew of and supported the business of our neighbours, and thus facilitated stronger local economies.

 I’m losing myself a little here, because I cannot actually say any of this with authority, it’s just something I’ve come to think about. Special interest is great and is not going anywhere – nor would I want it to. It has, however, caused us to be a more fragmented society. I advocate for myself and my causes, and I am generally apathetic to the interests of my neighbour. When we aren’t a little bit forced into relationships with people we aren’t necessarily predispositioned to like based on interest, we lose a bit of a challenge; avoidance is easier.

 The challenge with this line of thought is that it is most certainly a generalization, but when you talk of demographics that is what you’re doing – you’re taking a sweeping trend, and (in the case of my analysis above) using it to explain other things. Sometimes this can help us solve problems, sometimes it can send us on a wild goose chase.

 References: McMohon, Tamson. The 100-Mile Mess. (July 16, 2012). MacLean’s, 49.

**Emily works with 4H on PEI, and their website can be found here. Check out their upcoming events, project information, and amazing resources!

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