The story of the Imagine Abbotsford Dialogues was well documented in the three years that this city visioning process unfolded (by the local community paper publishing nine special sections for each of the dialogues).
This story could be told through any of the 4 voices. Civil Society partners sponsored the project (Abbotsford Community Foundation, Community Futures, United Way of the Fraser Valley). Businesses financed gatherings and supplies (Envision Credit Union, Complete Eye Care). Civic Managers offered meeting space (The Reach Art Gallery and Museum; Library). But it was Citizens who offered volunteer time to serve on the core committee, come forward as Thought Leaders, facilitate at Public Meetings and make sure that Policy Makers found the time to attend dialogue circles. It was estimated that volunteers worked a remarkable total of 3000 hours over 3 years – providing a value of approximately $300,000 to $450,000 to what became the City Sustainability Master Plan.
The importance of the role of the Citizen Voice in Imagine Abbotsford became evident from Year 1 to Year 3, when 33,000 households in the city received nine reports written by volunteer researchers, analysts and editors and published by the community newspaper. The vision that gradually emerged through these stories was amplified by the massive feedback loop of the newspaper distribution that constantly invited other citizens to join the dialogues.
In Year 1 we explored the themes of Economy/Environment.
In Year 2 we explored the themes of Culture/Learning.
In Year 3 we explored the Health/Community
In all years, citizens could participate as Thought Leaders, Public and/or Policy Makers. This insured a wide diversity of perspectives and a constantly widening embrace of participants.
The polish and passion of the storytellers, in the first year, provoked local activists to accuse the volunteer committee of being a new political party! Citizen know-how and compassion were further tested when several activists tried to crash the first Policy Maker Dialogue Circle. To participate in any city-building process, Citizens (whether they be Thought Leaders, Policy Makers or the Public) first need to know that protocols for engagement would mean that it was safe to speak, without threat or attack. Agreement was not necessary, but mutual trust and respect was a pre-requisite of conversing together.
In fact, Imagine Abbotsford volunteer committee set as a secondary objective, the modeling and teaching of Successful Dialogue to as many Abbotsford voices as possible. At every meeting their agendas included the principles and every attendee received a business-size card with the principles to use and share in other gatherings.
Thus, not surprisingly, the volunteers maintained the safety of the circle by re-booking the event and inviting the activists to bring their voices to the next year’s Thought Leader dialogues. In this way the Citizens ensured that different voices were included and conflict became generative and not divisive.
As volunteers, the Citizens were also members of the other Voices of the city – some serving on Civil Society staffs and boards; others as Business employees; and several had links to Civic Manager organizations (like the University, Health Authority, Ministries of Health and Environment). Thus they reported in many directions, on activities both formally and informally, influencing the all four Voices of the city.
After the ninth and last dialogue of Imagine Abbotsford, in Year 3, the volunteer committee’s report summarized a vision that identified a clear picture of strategies that would contribute to healthy Place Making and Place Caring for the next 30 years. The Imagine Abbotsford core committee then formally brought this message to City Hall – first through three committees, composed largely of Citizen Voices who advised City Hall staff and elected officials: the Economic Development Committee; Environment/Sustainability Committee; and the Social Services Committee. Only after different Citizen volunteer presenters gained the endorsement of all of these committees, did the Imagine Abbotsford Core Committee formally present to a meeting of City Councilors.
What happened next was at first unsettling: the report was accepted and not much was heard for over a year. Then the city activated a process to develop the Sustainable City Master Plan – and its first step was to accept the 30-year Vision of the city that had emerged from the Imagine Abbotsford process.
The skills, bonds and relationships of the Imagine Abbotsford core team, have since become woven into the fabric of the City’s wellbeing in many ways – from the Welcoming and Inclusive Community Project that changed a headline from “Abbotsford is Murder Capital of Canada” to “Abbotsford Receives Student Character Award”; to defeating an unpopular Water Referendum; to ongoing citizen participation in city wellbeing.
Thus this story of the Citizen Voice is that it can be an effective fulcrum that liberates differences that make a difference (both short term and long term), citizen responsibility and citizen engagement in the wellbeing of their city.
Ultimately the Citizen Voice is necessary to release the power of the Master Code. Because it lies at the heart of being able to take care of ourselves … so that we can take care of others, and together we can take care of our place and our planet.