Image: a word cloud capturing Bowen Island culture from the 2017 Cultural Master Plan
About 15 years ago I met Lyman Orton, who is a small town entrepreneur who created a very successful mail order business from his family’s General Store in a small town in Vermont. He tells the story of how he got involved in town planning and ended up creating a community plan that was top-down, based on a template and not engaged with the community. When a developer with an idea for a carnival park and zoo came along, the community got quickly divided and Lyman realized that if the community had been more involved in the plan, perhaps the conflicts that lasted for years could have been averted.
That was the beginning of the Community Heart and Soul Initiative that Lyman started through his Orton Family Foundation, and that is how I met him, at a gathering of Community Heart and Soul planners in Denver in 2005. I ran an Open Space session for a ful day of that conference in which planners could share stories and tools and ask questions of each other as they wrestled with how you plan from the heart and soul of a community.
The process of heart and soul planning begins and ends with stories. It’s about the collection of stories about what matters in a place and the engagement of people to make sense of those stories. In my years on the Community Economic Development Committee on Bowen Island, Edward Wachtman and I ran a series of anecdote and sense-making circles in our community working with a storytelling research method that Edward and his life and business partner Sheree Johnson created. The data we gathered and the processes we ran resulted in an incredible set of studies that Ed and Sheree created on visitor, business and resident experiences of our island, and we used this information to produce reports and to hold an annual business summit at which businesses discussed how they could tap into a support the story of Bowen. This work also fed into our branding process. Over the years it became clear to me that the businesses that understood our story and embraced it became sustainable on Bowen and those that didn’t often failed. When the pandemic struck, the community rallied around the businesses that really meant the most to the Island and I think most of the storefronts on Bowen survived with government support and community devotion.
You can find all that research and community engagement work on the CEDC webpage in the expandable tabs.
Over the years through the story gathering and engagement work we did, Sheree was able to bring her immense talents to discerning a core story about the heart and soul of Bowen Island. And here it is:
Just off the coast of Vancouver is a place where everything’s…well…a little different. When you take the 20min ferry ride over, it feels as though you’ve crossed over to another world, a special place where life is a little simpler, a little less stressful.
The sights, the smells, the sounds, the people – all fill you with a calmness and an
awareness; making you feel a little different. There’s no hustle, no bustle, and certainly no
rat race. The sense of community is so strong you can almost feel the hugs. In a modern
world where everything’s always moving faster and faster, it feels really, really good to hit
pause. To reflect. To exhale. To take stock. To stop and smell the ocean. To connect with
what really matters.
Bowen Islanders are fiercely proud of their island, and more than a little protective.
Sometimes they’re tempted to keep it to themselves. But if you’re looking for a way to
redefine play, work or life, this might be your place, too. You’ll leave your ordinary self at the dock along with all your mainland baggage. Bowen will change you… for the better
We found that there were five pillars that I guess pointed to the soul of our community, and these seemed to have stood the tests of time, certainly over the 20 years that I have lived here, and in my experience many who have lived here much longer than me confirm these:
- Community. We know each other, we help each other out, we can easily connect and create things we need here.Even strangers on Bowen are closer than neighbours on the mainland. We have a shared experience of the place.
- Nature. We live in a forest, in an fjord, in the sea, We are contained in some pretty impressive natural landscapes and we treasure them. We value quiet, the silence, the fresh air and the access we have to the natural enviroment. Almost every Bowen Island owns a piece of Bowen Island art of some kind that points to this aspect of our heart and soul and the community mural by the ferry dock is all about this story.
- Crossing over. You can only get here by crossing over the waters of Átl’ka7tsem,usually by boat. The journey from there to here is archetypal and we use it to decompress, to slow down, to change our identity from mainlander to islander. And visitors feel this as well. There are few journey’s more meaningful to the human soul than crossing over a wild body of water and arriving safe in a snug harbour.
- You’ll be better for being here. Many of us moved here to raise our children, or came to find community. So many people I know became artists once they moved here, having never created anything before in their lives. This is a place to heal and rest, and we have retreat and recovery centres that are devoted to just this aspect of who we are. People talk about Bowen Island as having a healing character. And truthfully, even though we are often in conflict with one another, you HAVE to learn to live with each other because that person you are arguing with online today may be the one who helps you out of a ditch tomorrow. We have the chance to learn how to live with difference here.
- Connected with what matters most. That is to say those things you advise others not to take for granted while you are resting on your death bed: friends, kindness, fun, adventure, spirit, generosity, community. Bowen is a platform for the practice of what matters most.
Around the same time, Dave Pollard led us through the creation of a cultural master plan for Bowen Island which is a brilliant piece of work that used stories and sense-making to more deeply understand our community culture and find ways to use arts and allied organizations to support that culture. I think the Cultural Master Plan is one of most important documents outlining the heart and soul of our place, and one that was massively underappreciated outside of the arts community. Here is an example, an introduction paragraph to the section on trying to define what Bowen’s culture is:
This section of the Culture Plan was written in one of Bowen Island’s renowned cafés—a meeting place where Bowen’s culture is almost flagrantly on display. Bleary-eyed commuters stagger in well before dawn for enough caffeine to get them onto the ferry. Telecommuters work at their laptops, interrupted constantly by friends who pull up chairs and share the latest local news. Several breakfast business meetings are taking place. The walls are covered with local art. Tradespeople get the day’s instructions by
cellphone. A young couple studies a map of Bowen’s hiking trails. A small crowd of dogs waits anxiously by the door for their people, checking out the other dogs much as the people check each other out.
Most of the people filing in wave and chat with others they know, while the few people visiting for the first time look somewhat bewildered, as if this place has a language they don’t know. Suddenly, a flash mob choir bursts into song, and then hurries off to brief applause. Then someone announces “The ferry is here…” and a mass exodus ensues. The café empties, but then as the ferry deposits its load of visitors and returning residents, it quickly fills up again.
Now these documents and values were what we said back in 2014-17 and it has been only six years or so since then but a LIFETIME has passed. We have had a turnover of well over half of our residents since then and many of those who left or died are our Elders and long time community builders who made the businesses and places and organizations that have sustained community life here. The pandemic sent us into our homes and created a double whammy of isolation from one another and a large influx of new people who arrived without having access to any of the institutions, rhythms and practices of community life that I had when I moved here. Things have changed, that’s for sure. But it’s hard to say exactly what’s different.
This has always been a place that welcomes newcomers, and the best stay on and help create new things. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the important things we do and have are created by people that started things like the fastpitch league, our festivals and community events like Bowfest, Dog Days, The Dock Dance, the Craft Fair, Hallowe’en, Remembrance Day and Light up the Cove. We have a vibrant performing arts community of actors and musicians who worked for decades to build a community performance space. We have dozens of published writers, painters and sculptors, some of whom are internationally known. We have gardening clubs and a little farmers’ market and the shared frustrations of the ferry and fall storms and the overwhelm of tourist season. We have business owners and their teams that care for us like Pat Buchanan at the Building Centre and Glen Cormier at the Pub and the Dike family at the Union Steamship Company. We have teams that have built our arts centre, the library, a state of the art soccer field, a new Health Centre, and a community performance space, We have developers that are actually from here like Wolfgang Duntz and John Reid and although not everyone is always happy with what they do, they are us, and they have made parks and buildings and spaces that we cherish, All these things together make a soul. A turbulent, churning, generative soul.
The five pillars that we defined back in 2016 and the work Dave led in 2017 are so right feeling to me that when I see things that run counter to them, it gets my dander up. Sometimes people have great ideas that will build community but they are opposed on the grounds of property values decreasing. We’ve had lawsuits over docks and temporary use permits and although I understand why people want these things or want to oppose them, I can’t always find pillar number five reflected in those discussions.
The pandemic has restricted our ability to both create and maintain the heart and soul of Bowen Island (and crucially introduce it to newcomers) AND it has robbed us of the chance to have conversations about what is REALLY meaningful to Bowen Islanders. We’re not quite a zombie Island, but we are a bit like a new cake recipe slid into the oven for the first time and about half way through cooking. Tasty looking on the outside, a bit raw in the middle.
in the next few years we are simply going to have to re-do our Community Plan. It no longer serves us. It doesn’t capture the heart and soul of Bowen Island. When we find ourselves saying “no” to almost every new and interesting idea here, it says to me that our plan has not adequately captured a sense of who we are and what we want. And at the moment, I don’t actually think we collectively know who we are and what we want. I think as individuals we know that, but we have not been actively creating that collective sense for a few years now and so the conversations about what matters are rooted in both individual concerns and projections onto the whole. “This is what I think Bowen is, therefore this idea is in line with (or opposed) to that.” History and new perspectives are swirling together and we haven’t had a chance to see them all play out in the social spaces of community creation.
You might think it’s easy to know what Bowen Island is or wants. After all we are only 4200 people on a small-ish island. But back in 2014-16 it took us years of research to really look and see what we could find. And even then of course, we can’t capture it all. Folks who live in Hood Point have a different experience than those who live on Cates Hill or out in Bluewater or down by the golf course. The environment, neighbourhood and histories of our little areas give a flavour and spin to our collective story. But I do believe that before we take a serious and comprehensive look at our community plan we need to do three things:
- Participate in community much more than we are now. We need to REMAKE the soul of the place again. Being at some Fastpitch League games this summer reminded me of some of the best of what we continue to be. Singing in choirs, volunteering at the recycling depot, playing soccer, hanging out at the Pier and just watching people come and go all helps me to add a little and be fed a little by the soul of Bowen. What I don’t think is helping me much is having my attention distorted by the conversations on social media. What I am missing is meeting the new folks to the Island. Mostly I get to do that by playing soccer, because our Football Club is a great place for new folks to get started.
- Change the conversations we are having. Or at the very least start talking about the stuff that matters deeply. Yes we are worried about the impact of a park on traffic and water or how the community centre and muni hall isn’t the performance space we really wanted. But we aren’t talking about what matters and we aren’t exploring that with curiosity and interest like we did when we were gathering stories from businesses and residents and visitors. Without diminishing the anxiety and pain people feel at the changes that are happening here, we need to get underneath these discussion and find out what what the soul of the place really looks like these days. And we need to hear from the people we never hear from online too, in a way that works for them. Entering the public square right now is not for everyone, because the online space can be withering and the face-to-face space needs to be reinvented to be invitational and deliberative rather than reactionary and exclusive. All of that prevents us from learning from the diversity of opinion and viewpoints here.
- Make a very different plan. I don’t have an answer this one. But I know that we need a simpler plan that captures what we want to work together to build and let’s people come with creative ideas to help make that happen. Our community plan needs to be about 180 pages shorter than it currently is.
We have a local election coming up. I’m interested in who is running and what they think about this. As always I’m happy to help (I’m not running) and I CAN do stuff to help these three need-to-dos above. If you are a Bowen Islander perhaps you have ideas too. Share them here.
Ever since I met you playing your penny whistle in the Horseshoe Bay ferry lineup all those decades ago, I have been deeply impressed by your perspective on public spaces and their best uses, not to mention how to engage a lot of people in conversation about that very topic. Your wise, calm, compassionate voice is one of the things I will miss about living on Bowen. I wish you and this sweet lovely fractious community all the best in sorting out the thorny issues that are facing every small tourist town in these turbulent times. It’s been a great honour and delight to know you.
You know? I feel like we have lost our rhythm. That moment in TaKeTiNa when the rhythm springs you into chaos and the patterns all shift and you find yourself falling. And I want to remember to laugh in the delight of being tipped over and the trust that there is a beat to come back to. Thank you for keeping our deeper rhythm for all these years.
Chris, thanks so much for the nod on our Cultural Plan work.
I think we have arrived at a place and time where we have a multiplicity of stories that co-exist, some well, some poorly, in the same physical spaces. Many of us are oblivious to most of these stories, and if we’re honest we have to admit that we ‘hear’ and respond only to the ones to which we can personally relate. It takes far more time and energy than most people have to really listen to the whole spectrum of stories, and to appreciate that it’s impossible to ‘make sense’ of them as all being part of some coherent whole. In our astonishingly mobile and transient world, almost all local cultures, and their stories, are now incoherent.
This is far more evident here where I live now, in Coquitlam, where there is a pandemonium of radically different stories, strongly shaped by the enormous ethnic and cultural diversity of its people, the majority of whose families migrated here from Asian, not European nations, and mostly relatively recently. As a New Yorker article this month (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/22/my-dad-and-kurt-cobain) explained about the Taiwanese-American ‘culture’, even that cultural microcosm is an amalgam, not a melting pot, of vastly different stories, most of them divergent, unfamiliar and unappreciated even among members of that micro-culture.
So how do we now collect, Dave Snowden style, enough stories to be able to do anything more than oversimplify, generalize and reflect our own cognitive and cultural biases in what stories we really ‘hear’ and how we understand them? Is there a danger that in our eagerness to find patterns and meaning in our dizzying array of stories that we will see patterns that don’t really exist, see patterns because we WANT to see them or believe them to be real when they are actually not? That we will tell people, including ourselves, what we and they want to believe is true rather than what is really true?
That in our determination to paint a portrait of the forest we will overlook most of the essential nuances of each individual tree?
Perhaps today’s community doesn’t have ‘a soul’ but rather a multiplicity of souls with more gaps and inexplicable inconsistencies between them than synergies and overlaps. Perhaps our real goal, then, is not to arrive at coherence about all these stories, but just to become better at listening to them, and appreciating their incoherence?
Yes…both and…both a sense of and a feeling for coherence and an an appreciation that at a finer level of granularity, i have multiple experiences that take me in and out of coherence with things. LIke above, as I reference the TaKaTiNa exercises we did with Brian and Shasta. There are moments of being in rhythm and moments of free falling out of it and all of it held in multiple layers of meaning, which themselves are shifting. And it’s no mystery why we are all feeling a little ungrounded and perhaps out of step with things. Dancing with a river is no easy feat.
There is a constant danger of seeing things that aren’t there, but then that is alos a key capacity if we are to imagine our way into a different place. I have no answers about how to stop one’s cognitive biases and pattern entrainment from becoming to sole lense through which the world is viewed, but I do know that encounter with different points of view creates the turbulence in which new things emerge. And I know for certain that public policy conversations should not be the primary area in which people practice this diversity, hence my calls for more participation in community before entering the public square.
I’ll help with a new plan! Sign me up. I agree whole heartedly that a community is what we put into it. Feels like sometimes we expect a lot more than we are willing to give. I love our community gatherings, I experienced them as a child and have now returned to delight in them with my own family. What a gift that we get to re-emerge and also rebuild.
I truly appreciate your article and bringing awareness to the soul of a community. It’s refreshing to read of this approach, as it allows for new creative possibilities to unfold.
At this time, Bowen is not alone as it navigates change. With a glance globally, it appears that every country and community is undergoing change – be it good or bad!
Perhaps the only constant on the earth plain is change and I wonder if embracing change with openness, is really the only way to proceed. Just like in nature, we relax into the beauty of a summer sunset, a leaf falls, we move into Fall, some rainfall and we know that the darkness of winter (has it’s own beauty) is on it’s way and with a breath of relief, Spring appears! Perhaps the lesson within this, is to be in alignment with nature and to slow down a little versus speeding to keep up!
If a community has a soul mission, this gives a most valuable and rich baseline to elevate from. If the soul is tended to and cared for all the other important decisions can launch from the depth of the soul.
It would seem that a key heartbeat exists within pillar no 2 – Nature! If Nature which includes every human, every leaf, every tree, every animal, every element of our very existence is not ‘sacredly held’ and has a place within every discussion, then we will over time erode what is an artery and vein to the heart of this and every community!
I love your invitation for inclusion as this allows for everyone to play a part, contribute and this enhances a sense of belonging. The invitation for more creative opportunities to allow for face to face interaction is also most welcome.
It would appear that if the soul is identified, nurtured and tended to, a community can enhance the unique and individual life of each person whilst the Collective can feel the unseen embrace of the larger cloak which is constantly in existence.
In gratitude to everyone mentioned for their work on the Community Plan and other plans! Thanks to Lyman Orton for the share of the valuable lesson. It’s all a soul mission! ?
I so appreciate your generosity of spirit. I resonate strongly with much of your text, particularly how the pandemic has interrupted our ways of doing and being with each other. So much change! So many people I used to commute with are no longer here, or have shifted in how they work, so the way I would socialize and have community has changed. So many new people that I haven’t met or engaged with have moved here. The call to community: To make the time to engage, and to hold the space to appreciate each other, listen. It does take time and a deliberate commitment to that and seems harder to do these days. Something to examine and explore. I’m looking forward to the fall and the chance to create more connections… and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Thank you for your articulateness and the call to bringing us to remake our community plan. I would be willing to be part of those conversations if they aren’t on social media.
Just sending love and appreciation for this articulation, which arrived at a moment when my soul was in need of the nourishment provided by kinship words. Your community is so fortunate to have you there! I hope they appreciate ya. I miss visiting.
100% agree on changing the conversations we are having. During this election cycle folks have specifically said they are not running because of one particular online page. These are people respected in the community, who are intelligent and compassionate and would be excellent candidates for council. I don’t believe we even know how far-reaching the impacts of a toxic community forum are, or how the threat of being discussed on the page impacts our community. As someone who moved to Bowen in the beginning of the pandemic, the online space was one of the only ways I had to gauge this new community that I was now a part of. It was daunting to say the least, but through a wonderful job that connected me with the community I was thankfully able to leave that perception of Bowen behind.
I don’t know what the answer is exactly, but I’d say it has to do with more options and opportunities for connection so that one singular page is not the only barometer. I’d like to see the creation of spaces that are open to all but with overarching values of respect, openness, and community building. To be clear, I’m not advocating for the dissolution of the current page; if people want to participate in that, which they clearly do, then have at ‘er. What I am doing is throwing my support behind the creation of other opportunities for community-led connection and growth that are held to a higher standard of discourse and lessen the impact of the currently predominant online space.
The funny things is… in order to build a new group you’d probably have to post it on that very page to reach the most people… oh well.
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