Award-winning alum drilled into communities’ souls to find sources of leadership

First in a series of stories featuring Brock University’s 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients.

With a “get it done” attitude and a firm belief that successful communities result from strong leadership, Brock University alumna Brenda Herchmer (BRLS ‘86) has made a career out of tapping into local knowledge and expertise.

“I understood from a young age that recreation and sport can enhance quality of life and build a sense of community,” said Herchmer. “That is what attracted me to the field of recreation and leisure in the first place.”

Herchmer recently returned to Niagara after eight years in Alberta. She and her family moved west in 2007 when she took a job with the Alberta Parks and Recreation Association as Director for Active, Creative, Engaged (ACE) Communities. She was tasked with leading an initiative that would improve the quality of life for people living in rural Alberta.

With a million dollars from the Alberta government and a mandate to connect with more than 60 communities across the province (excluding the metropolitan centres of Calgary and Edmonton), one big question needed a solution: How can entire communities be mobilized to work together in the right direction?

Herchmer’s team started by tapping into grassroots wisdom to see if the solutions they sought might already exist in some places.

“In the first year, we collected stories and information about local initiatives. We learned the only common denominator among communities that were successful in improving quality of life was strong leadership.”

The more effective individuals weren’t necessarily traditional “top-down” leaders from municipalities, or recreation staff with specialized expertise. Instead, what emerged were community leaders who didn’t have formal titles at all. They included youth, artists, seniors and elders, staff and volunteers from community organizations and businesses, and those who simply described themselves as caring citizens.

“We often embrace the idea that staff are ‘experts’,” she said, “but we also need to view the community as experts. There is a need to stop viewing the public as consumers or clients, and see them as they are: citizens with assets and strengths.”

As they collected stories and strategies intended to improve quality of life, it became clear the team needed funding to develop tools to enhance the skills of community leaders. A further $6-million, and a five-year extension to do more research in rural Alberta, reinforced for Herchmer that holistic planning and a good process that empowers the community are key to readying people to deal with more complex issues.

“Recreation provides a really important place to start. Bringing people together to figure out a small, local project that everyone agrees is important, such as building a playground, trail or park, can help to build the foundation of trusted relationships that are essential for change.”

Herchmer’s critical role in this landmark Canadian initiative was part of the reason she was selected for the 2016 Brock University Distinguished Alumni Award for the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences. This is one of several awards she has received for innovative approaches to community development, including the YWCA Woman of Distinction in Training and Education.

As funding for ACE Communities came to an end, Herchmer’s focus shifted to sustainability planning, and she founded Campus for Communities of the Future, a social enterprise that strives to simplify complex change for community leaders by providing practical learning, resources and coaching.

“I really see my work as being about the guide on the side. In every community there is amazing work being done by citizens,” said Herchmer. “We need to legitimize that community building by encouraging more grassroots-driven community planning and prioritizing. Ultimately, that is what leads to citizens owning and being part of the solutions and change.”

Read more stories in: Alumni, Applied Health Sciences, News, People
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