Practicing Social Activism


Working for citizens of Elm Hill

Elm Hill was established in about 1806 by Blacks freed by Loyalists who migrated to New Brunswick from New York. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was a thriving farming community. Located on the St. John River between Saint John and Fredericton, Elm Hill functioned well while the steamers plied the river, stopping there to transport people and products. Once the railroad replaced the river as their highway, however, the community was isolated and many residents left Elm Hill to find work elsewhere. Those remaining were not able to keep up the farms, and decline set in. Welfare became a way of life for many, and the community was marginalized both economically and socially. Despite various attempts by different government departments to resolve central problems like housing and child protection, any unified progress in the community had been elusive.

As a government outreach worker for New Brunswick Housing, Sue Rickards arrived in Elm Hill in 1991 with authority to liaise with relevant government departments to help Elm Hill citizens create better housing and a brighter future. She realized at once the need to listen to the community in order to build trust:

In Elm Hill I spent a lot of time just listening. The downside to that is that you go in and think you are just being an observer, but any time a new person arrives on the scene, it changes the dynamics. You can't help it. You're never going to get an a hundred percent accurate picture as an outsider.

Because Sue and her colleague brought Social Work students with them, they had ongoing challenges teaching to do:

Before they ever saw the place, the students knew what the problems and solutions were. That was how they had been educated at university. And we said, "No, you go listen to them; they have solutions and they won't be the same as yours." Ultimately, housing problems were solved by the community pulling together—and this accomplishment built pride and hope, as well as homes.

Although the Elm Hill focus started on housing, three years down the road it had broadened to include community development as a whole, a very different agenda that emerged from listening to residents and shifting priorities accordingly.

The Bath project

Everything you do should be about helping people to take responsibility.

Sue spent five years in the late 1990s working with citizens in the village of Bath on the Saint John River in Carleton Country, New Brunswick. The issue was that those who lived in subsidized housing in the centre of town were facing discrimination from their neighbours, who saw them in stereotypical terms as "lazy welfare bums." After spending several months listening to residents on both sides of the issue, Sue realized that the solution would depend on those who lived in subsidized housing finding steady work—they wanted to work but there were just no jobs in the area. The group's decision was to start a business where they could earn reasonable wages, and Born Again J.E.A.N.S. was established, a business that collected old clothes, mainly jeans, and refashioned them into jackets, bags, and quilts.

As she had while working in Elm Hill, Sue now had to deal with government departments that worked independently of each other, silo-fashion:

The New Brunswick Department of Housing says, "No, Sue, business development is not our mandate, you have to be hired by some other department." So I go to Economic Development and tell them we want to start a social enterprise and they say, "That's social work." Then I go to Social Services, who say, "That's Business, that's Economic Development." That's where I learned a lot of hard lessons about government silos. In the end, my mother funded most of the Bath project.

Once the business was organized, the townspeople began to respect the other residents as entrepreneurs—having a job was the common ground for changing attitudes.

1999 Pan Canadian Homelessness tour with Claudette Bradshaw

When Claudette Bradshaw, Member of Parliament from Moncton, was named Minister responsible for a federal homelessness initiative in 1999, Sue joined her as an observer and writer on a cross-country tour. Their report on emergency shelters and the need for a range of grassroots housing options led to adoption of the Strategic Communities Partnership Initiative, the most ambitious community-based federal social program in Canada's history.

The national tour enhanced Sue's appreciation of varying perspectives. In Calgary, they convened in a medical centre downtown where the clientele were street people, and a doctor asked the delegation what they imagined was the number one priority for health care in that centre. Sue guessed pneumonia, colds, and bronchitis, but it turned out to be foot care. When you're on the street without properly fitting shoes and exposed to extremes of temperature, feet take a beating. It was another episode in Sue's education on attending to the perspectives of the grassroots where they lived.

Neighbors' Alliance of North York (NANY), New Brunswick

Founded in 1996 by a group of concerned citizens that included Sue and a colleague of hers at New Brunswick Housing, the Neighbors' Alliance of North York (NANY) is an umbrella coalition serving the York North, an electoral district covering a large rural area of central New Brunswick. Their purpose was to form a multifaceted community association, and over the next ten years, Sue and her group helped attract investments of approximately $500,000 into the local economy without the aid of staff, infrastructure, or building. Operating by email and supplemented with some face-to-face meetings, community members approach the NANY Board with ideas for community projects and the Board applies for grant monies from different government departments and foundations, which are funneled through the community group:

We just flow the money through—we don't even manage it. But it's a very good model that enables people to work together. We're into all kinds of stuff: environmental, heritage, employment, early childhood.

In 2001, NANY sent Sue to work as a behavior intervention worker for a year at Nackawic High School, where she spent her days with youth who were trying to get kicked out of school. She learned a great deal about the school system and the capabilities of students who were getting nothing from the system and merely putting in time. Ever since this experience, her focal point has been to establish sustainable communities with employment opportunities for young people.

Anti-poverty activism

Sue's major achievements in the area of anti-poverty activism began in 2006 when she co-authored "Blueprint for Change," the report of the provincial Community Non-profit Task Force chaired by Claudette Bradshaw. She was subsequently involved in the two-year process of developing and co-authoring the New Brunswick poverty reduction plan with its emphasis on socioeconomic inclusion; and promoting the plan through writing and various speaking engagements. Her work for sustainable communities continues from the Community Inclusion Network that flowed out of the Poverty Reduction Plan.

Ongoing concerns

It's easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of behaving.


An issue of abiding concern for Sue is to champion the local economy over the global economy to create lifestyles that depend on local agriculture and resources such as water and wood. Sue is determined to figure out how to produce locally, while the province has a competing agenda from the McKenna era when it was dubbed as an energy hub in the context of an "industrialized third world." A growing number of people are questioning this definition of self-sufficiency, but without local governments in many rural areas, development tends to be "hit and miss." Sue believes that self-sufficiency can only be achieved if local communities can control their own agendas at the micro-level and determine how to position themselves as self-sustaining rather than letting multinationals run the show.

Breaking down silos

Sue believes that if substantive changes in citizen responsibility are to occur, bureaucratic mindsets and entrenched ways of operating must be overcome:

They are not able to grasp change at this level. It's like saying to the Russian Soviets, "Okay, you are democracies now"—it just isn't going to work. It's only going to work the way everything works best, organically and from the bottom up.

Collaboration, rather than competition, needs to be the basis for action at the community level. At the moment, communities compete against one another for scarce funding. Government bureaucrats operate each in their own ‘silos' of functions, protecting their own ‘turf' and lacking effective and multiple operational links to related agencies. Thinking competitively therefore triumphs over thinking collaboratively. But Sue believes strongly that the collaborative model will eventually emerge as the more effective approach for social change because it is well established at the grassroots globally, where non-profit organizations, rather than government, are driving change.

Collaboration is the guiding principle for constructing the NB Economic and Social Inclusion Plan. It promotes community-based collaboration between and among organizations and sectors to identify regional priorities for poverty reduction. Such collaboration also will develop the networks and projects to address them. The whole idea is to eliminate the silos and work cooperatively by identifying and advancing common goals.

Outcomes & Legacy

When you do have success as an activist, it's partly because you haven't made a lot of enemies—and you've balanced your passion with reason.

A key factor in community-based activism is to find common ground among disparate groups and individuals. Sue has learned that people can have very different ideas of what others are thinking, and so she works toward finding the common thread by which to pull them together. Taking time is of the essence in this process because careful listening to all opinions and learning about the whole context will get the best results, as opposed to "hearings" and an action plan.

Sue's greatest satisfaction is helping others grow, witnessing those light bulb moments where others say, "Yeah, I can do that!" An example is her work with high school students who were disillusioned with the education system and their future prospects; Sue provided support while they turned themselves around. Sue's principles of respect, trust, and responsibility are fundamental: "If you give them that and you let them work with it, they're going to come out all right in the end."

Bold in scope and impact, Sue would like her legacy to be a transformation from the functional silo structure of government to a regionally-based system that would integrate activities and forge organic links to local communities.

Sue would also like to see the current welfare system re-designed completely to create opportunities for people to grow, learn and work, to feel self-responsible and equipped to run their own lives.

While she imagines that the scope of such change may not happen in her lifetime, Sue can see markers along the road, especially with the NB Economic and Social Inclusion Plan—"a huge leap forward."

The point I've always made in any policy discussions is that we do it all backwards. Instead of taking control of people, we really should give them the tools to control themselves and let them take responsibility. That's what makes people grow: responsibility.