Author touts new approach to build strong communities

 

Doug Griffiths is making waves across the pea fields and corn stalks of rural Canada. A longtime rancher, former Alberta MLA and author of the book, 13 Ways to Kill Your Community, Griffiths has a reputation for tough talk about how community leaders contribute to the demise of their own rural municipalities.

But Griffiths’ message doesn’t stop where the paved streets end and the fields begin. “I didn’t call the book, ‘13 Ways to Kill Your Town.’ I used the word ‘community’ because people don’t live in towns or cities, they live in communities. And those communities could be just as easily defined as neighbourhoods, volunteer organizations or commodity groups.”

Griffiths disbursed his cattle herd in 2010, the same year the book was published. Five years later, he left politics. Now, between his consultancy practice and work as an instructor with the Executive Education program at the University of Alberta School of Business, Griffiths spends his days thinking, talking and travelling.

His fans call him a “community therapist.” Griffiths didn’t choose the moniker, but he likes that it doesn’t reference strategic plans or economic development. While an economic development guru might leave clients with a hefty report about what they need to do to attract people and business to their communities, Griffiths takes a remarkably different approach: he challenges listeners to be honest about how their attitudes and biases prevent them from accomplishing what they say they want to do.

A MESSAGE TO YOUTH

A failure to positively engage youth is the first item Griffiths notes when asked how his “13 ways” (see inset box) is relevant to the farm community. Griffiths doesn’t regret his experience teaching or his time in the Alberta Legislature. But the farm kid in him does wonder if his life choices would have been different if he’d received more positive messages about the future of agriculture.

“Farming is one of the most complex and important businesses that our society is going to depend on moving forward. We’ve got to stop dumbing it down and saying that the ‘smart’ kids have to go off and do something else. We need smart people in agriculture. We need to start talking about this business as if it’s valuable,” insists Griffiths.

History shows that youth bring enthusiasm and new ideas to the farm and those new ideas have been good for farmers and the farm community, says Griffiths. “There are new products to grow. There are new ways to use the land. There are new ways to do agriculture.”

HONESTY AND THE ATTITUDE CHECK

Several other items on Griffiths’ list of 13 ways harken directly to issues with attitude and honesty. “Live in the past”, “become complacent” and “don’t take responsibility”, for example, are attitudedriven problems rooted in negative, often dishonest, messages, says Griffiths.

He believes people — and the communities they inhabit — are held back by the human tendency to speak negatively about what we do or where we are. “There’s this notion that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” says Griffiths. “But I can tell you, after being in politics, living in the city, doing this consulting work and being a business owner, the grass is green where you water it.”

He warns that a negative point of view can be contagious. “You can write all the reports you want but if people don’t believe that what they’re doing is valuable, then there’s no point,” he says. “When a group of people decides to fail, then it can’t be successful.”

In the agricultural community, this manifests in a tendency to stick with the status quo. One of the complaints Griffiths has heard from the cattle industry over the last few years concerns how A&W ads focus how the beef and chicken used in its products is produced.

He thinks those insulted by the message missed the point. “(The ads) opened a conversation with consumers — and consumers liked it,” says Griffiths. A lot, apparently. Information released by the fast-food chain links the ads to increased in-store sales and an uptake in new store openings.

“We don’t need to jump on every bandwagon, but we do need to consider how our businesses are going to change,” notes Griffiths. He cites Sobeys as an example of a family business forging new ground. The country’s second-largest food retailer is headquartered in Stellarton, NS, a community of 4,208 people, and not (as some might assume) in a major urban centre.

MOMENTUM GOES BOTH WAYS

Self-deception and living in the past perpetuate the negative consequences of complacency and a failure to take responsibility for what needs to be done. “At the core is changing the lies we tell ourselves,” says Griffiths. “When we say it’s too late to do anything now, no young people want to live here, we can’t do anything to help our seniors, no one wants to shop here, there’s no future in agriculture, we create and recreate those realities.”

Although the example is not ag-related, Griffiths thinks Lancaster, Pennsylvania exemplifies what’s possible when a community turns a potential problem into an advantage. Lancaster, with less than 60,000 people, now tops the lists of places seniors want to live in the U.S. While Lancaster’s leaders could have identified an aging demographic as a precursor to urban decline, they turned the equation around.

There, municipal and business leaders created a plan to serve and grow the community’s senior population. “The biggest economic boom right now is from young families moving there to serve retired seniors,” says Griffiths.

Griffiths wants to see the ag community identify some of the particular challenges in their community, then use that information to shine light on new ideas. He says doing so can open the door to opportunities in value-added production, encourage young people to bring post-secondary education back to their farms and spark cooperative ventures between farmers and consumers.

To get that started, he urges farmers and commodity groups to get together and talk honestly about their communities. It’s as easy as asking people what’s wrong and then challenging them to see what’s right. As Griffiths says: “What really holds us back is the idea that we are alone, and the reality is that we share these challenges with others.”