Building vibrant communities: Sean Meagher leads from behind

In every community there is untapped potential: People with ideas, skills and talents, looking for ways to contribute – often not knowing where or how to begin. Vibrant and healthy communities find ways to reach out and engage people, creating space for those ideas, skills and talents to flourish. Sean Meagher, President of Public Interest, excels at doing just this.

Recognized most prominently for his groundbreaking community engagement work in the redevelopment of Toronto’s Regent Park, Sean’s career has been an evolution in empowering others.

In 2002 Sean walked away from years of working in politics with progressive city councillors and as a senior aide to a provincial Cabinet Minister.  His desire was to work more directly with the many people in our communities that don’t see themselves as part of public life. He wanted to do work that enabled people to take control of their environment and break down barriers for those whose voices normally aren’t heard, helping to level the distribution of power.

Ten years after starting Public Interest, Sean has already left a legacy of doing just that.

Through the simple act of conversation with people in the community who don’t normally have a say in official decisions, Sean and his team build the foundation for truly effective transformation. Their Animators program identifies and trains local talent to facilitate conversations of neighbours – giving voice to concerns, needs and creative solutions otherwise left silent.

Bringing community development to the doorstep through friendly local faces, leads to better solutions. For the people engaged, it leads to a greater sense of efficacy over the world around them with untold ripple effects on their ongoing lives.

The successful outcomes of Public Interest’s work has resulted in this responsive, peer driven engagement in public policy making, being established as a best practice in the community development sector. An accomplishment Sean is rightly proud of.

“At the heart of Public Interest’s work is an ability to be attentive,” says Sean. “We go into any project with ideas based on our experience and research, but every plan is provisional – we stay nimble and are able to make substantial decisions quickly.”

He admits that this can be a frustrating environment for some to work in, but Public Interest’s staff tend to be flexible, opportunity thinkers.

“In community development you often work with people who’ve been through horrible things,” he says. “It’s important that they know I’ve got their back. Our work is about what’s good for them and their community. It means we have to be open to considering things we don’t want to hear.”

As Public Interest moves into its second decade, Sean is determined to create better conditions for city building out of a collective vision for a vibrant Toronto. He points out there are official places where these conversations have begun, but they don’t work well for the critical smaller conversations with people who don’t see themselves as having a place at those formal tables.

To illustrate, he notes that if you hold a meeting to provide youth with job skills, you teach no job skills. On the other hand, if you organize a pick-up basketball game and then offer up job skill training after it’s over, you’ll teach lots of job skills. As adults we’re no different – the demands of life are such that calling a meeting doesn’t generate the needed engagement.

To tap into the riches of ideas, skills and talents that build great cities we need to connect with people through things that enrich our lives – food, play and neighbourliness. Sean’s focused on creating public policy that supports this.

Through bringing a platform to others and helping them amplify their voice, Sean is leading the way to a stronger and more vibrant Toronto.







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