What makes healthy communities?

29 – 30 May 2017

We dose, diet, meditate and purge to be healthy. That's fine, can't hurt, but it's not going to do that much to your lifespan. Most of the things that affect our health don't originate in our own bodies and aren't under our immediate control.

What helps your health more is to be a citizen of a nation that has working rules against poisoning the water or the air, where inequalities are smoothed out by wealth redistribution, where guns are kept under control, and where you can get access to health care without having to sell a child or a kidney. Politics matter.

Civil society matters even more. Community groups are the immune system of Australian society, breaking down the toxins and preserving the health of the polity. The research shows that active community groups build trust between citizens - trust that supports public health, eases the path of commerce, lowers the crime rate, and makes traditional politics possible.

Trust builds health, anger diminishes it. Inequality corrodes trust, equality supports it. Participation promotes equality, cynicism and apathy undercut it. Everyday community groups give a heart and a hand and a face to a society that would otherwise have no connection to the trials and triumphs of our everyday lives.

Australian society is showing the strain as the community sector battles for attention, funds and support. The individuals and communities not-for-profits support are under stress from buffeting and corrosive multilateral forces - globalisation, rapid technological advancement, climate change, cultural shifts. As everything that is solid melts into air, as old meanings shift and flow, as demagogues stir up waves of grievance, we're thrown back to the basics:

  • Work together.
  • Help people.
  • Have fun.
  • Do something useful, and do it with all your might.

Come to Communities in Control and remind yourself how it's done.

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Conference Wrap-up

If there was one underlying message to the thousand-strong throng at this year's two-day Communities in Control conference, it's that community leaders should raise their expectations about what's possible, because there's no rule that says you have to accept the way things are.

Speakers took aim at euthanasia laws, gender bias, marriage inequality, workers' rights, expectations about disability and Aboriginal kids, politics and government at every level, climate change, health issues, the economy, refugee policy and budget cuts. In every case, activists and thinkers of all persuasions challenged received wisdom, and offered a way to break the mould.

Challenging delegates to consider the question "What makes a healthy community?", the two-day event was crammed with lessons from the clever and insightful, plenty of laughs, and more than a few tears.

There were numerous highlights, but perhaps the most powerful was the emotion-charged plea for action on assisted dying by prominent media creator turned activist Andrew Denton, whose Joan Kirner Social Oration has already spurred many listeners into action.

Activists were thick on the ground and were keen to learn the lessons of the "Power to the People" session. This explored the need for personal stories to anchor your cause, and what it takes to encourage supporters to take the leap from sympathy to action.

Time after time at Communities in Control, delegates were offered opportunities to transform their thinking and their actions. Some were back for more after being inspired at the 2016 event. Take Jo Dodds, for example.

"I'd never heard of Communities in Control before… but I latched on through Facebook.

"I was interested in making a difference in my community and decided to make the seven-hour drive [from Bega, NSW] to Melbourne."

"After two days of the [2016] conference I was absolutely buzzing with ideas, inspiration and people I'd networked with."

A few months later, "charged up", Jo successfully ran for election to the Bega Valley Shire Council, where she is now serving her first term as an independent councillor.

So what should delegates expect at future Communities in Control conferences?

"Your preconceived ideas will be challenged. You will have your mind opened up to stuff you didn't know ... and then have the opportunity to tease that out with a diverse group of people."

Nicely put, Jo.

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