For the past 36 years, Kitchener has been home to an exciting demonstration of the ability to change people’s lives by an ambitious model in community development. The Working Centre is a cherished gem in the Waterloo Region. One measure of their success was awarding of the Order of Canada to the founders of the Centre, Stephanie and Joe Mancini, in 2016. Interviewed by the local paper at the time, Stephanie explained: “We weave people together — people who wouldn’t usually be together. We create the community we want to live in.” Joe added, “We are a social infrastructure that builds community. We are a big, beautiful community.”
“We weave people together — people who wouldn’t usually be together. We create the community we want to live in.”
— Stephanie Mancini
So what does this model look/feel like? I had the privilege of spending three days being immersed in it last July at their summer symposium. It’s a vast network of social enterprise and services, the likes of which I have never seen. Opened in 1982 with little more than a $6,000 government grant, it was an experiment in social change that aimed to tackle the unemployment and poverty rampant in downtown Kitchener. On any given day, 1,500 people walk through The Working Centre’s various projects and eleven buildings. Those projects include:
- A Job Search Resource Centre offering a wide range of support for both job seekers and employers, helping over 3,500 people a year.
- St. John’s Kitchen which has been serving free community meals since 1985 (currently 300 people at lunch). With few paid staff, it operates through the work of roughly 100 volunteers, 80 per cent of whom are also customers. The same building houses a community outreach program and a psychiatric outreach project. When I was there last summer, they were just rolling out a new full service, free dental clinic (which has some state-of-the-art equipment).
- Community Tools: Putting affordable services and commodities into people’s hands in order to strengthen self-sufficiency and social co-operation. These tools include a bicycle repair and recycling shop (5,000 bikes annually), reconditioned furniture and housewares (with weekly sales of 3,000 items), a community garden, café (how I still crave the vegan brownie and I’m not a vegan!), and clothing boutique.
- Access to Technology: Accessible filmmaking services, equipment and technology including computer recycling, refurbishing, community computers and voicemail.
- Access to Housing: Integrated supportive housing including a facility for those with significant medical issues.
- A program of educational initiatives in partnership with Laurier and Waterloo Universities.
Adhering to the social theory espoused by such luminaries as Jane Jacobs, the Centre is a model of a welcoming community in which people feel a sense of ownership and mutual responsibility toward it. In the book, Transition to Common Work, which they co-authored, the Mancinis write:
“Building community means providing formal and informal support in a complex web. It includes teaching the skills of looking beyond oneself and into the other person, acting with kindness. It means learning to be thoroughly helpful and inviting others to do the same. Common spaces should not be managed, they are better off thought as forests, places of surprise and complexity where openness to others is practised.”
* Carol Winter, who devoted her life to helping the poor, the homeless and the marginalized in Peterborough, had a vision of a community hub that provided work opportunities. She referred to it as a Working Place.
Part 2: More Building Blocks for a Community-based Working Place
Watch for part 3: Producerism over Consumerism, Work as Gift, Concluding Thoughts and Your Invitation