Dartmouth · Democracy · Virtual Activism

Branding a Community… Redux

The power of Branding is a mighty thing, especially where neighborhoods and communities are involved.  One slight misstep with it can isolate and marginalize whole groups of people, and have significant, real-world, economic impacts on things like real estate and tourism.

Since the 1980’s or so, there has been a growing body of academic research that focuses on the importance of neighborhood identity; its relation to active citizenship and its positive effects of people’s mental health.  From the sociological perspective, it seems like a no-brainer really: “strong feelings of connectedness to place on a smaller scale has a strong relationship to how secure individuals feel about their place in the world. (CityLab)” In fact, from any perspective, I think most people can agree that feeling connected to, and having pride in the neighborhoods they live in is a great thing.

So it truly perplexes me how our own little real-world case study on neighborhood identity and pride has become such a contentious issue for some people.  I really don’t understand the “get over it” attitude.  Would they say the same thing if the neighborhood in question was not Dartmouth?  Would they say the same thing if the issue wasn’t branding at all, but another issue like, say, a tax credit or a worker’s strike, or something else that affected only a small group of citizens in relation to the whole?

Perhaps it is because some people feel that neighborhood identity and pride is something more than the name on a sign.  That’s fine, it is pretty much how I, personally, feel about the topic.  I don’t need to have that visual symbol for me to feel connected to Dartmouth.  I, personally, do not feel threatened by having the “Halifax” logo displayed on Dartmouth signs… but that is just me.  And last May, it became pretty clear that there were a lot of residents of Dartmouth who did feel threatened by it.  So much so that it gained quite a bit of ground in the media, and has persisted through to today, almost a year later.

The reasons why they felt threatened by it is not for me to judge.  I am not about to tell anyone that they have no right to feel what they feel.  That they are silly, or misguided in needing a sign to reflect the neighborhood they live in simply because I don’t feel the same way.  These are subjective feelings we are talking about here; there is no objective measure of what “real” neighborhood identity or pride is.  If people want the signs in their neighborhood to look a certain way, or have words on or off them, they are well within their rights to let that be known.

And the Dartmouth First, We Love Dartmouth, Keep the Dartmouth in Dartmouth, Coalition to Promote Harbour East, and other groups, did just that.

The group of citizens who rallied around this common belief, independently organized themselves into a full-out lobby group, with one common goal that they were all working towards; to have the newly adopted Halifax logo minimized or eliminated from their neighborhood.  They felt that the new branding plan was non-inclusive, imposed in an undemocratic way, and based on the manipulated results of a marketing agency’s attempt at community consultation.  This was really where my values and beliefs aligned with the group.   I read the report, the methodology, and looked at the raw data in the appendix tables produced from the consultation, and was not satisfied, on any level, with the results that came from them.

I remember the day it was released, well before the whole Dartmouth sign debacle began, and overall the response from people on social media was negative: the brand was exclusive of the diverse neighborhoods that existed within the city, the logo was bad, the #bebold tagline was ripped off, the cost of changing all our buses, signs, city stationary was going to be enormous. No one felt passionately enough about it to challenge it through protest though… we all kind of threw up our hands and said, well there’s nothing we can do about it.

Many more people didn’t even know anything about the brand changes, until the implementation began.

It didn’t surprise me that Dartmouthians had a fit over the Sullivan’s Duck Pond sign.  I was uneasy about it myself.  Sullivan’s Duck Pond is an iconic location in Dartmouth, connected to so many people’s memories and in many ways, a symbol itself for neighborhood identity and pride.  To erect a sign, beside the Gazebo, that did not identify the location as part of Dartmouth at all, was pretty dumb, especially given that it is pretty common knowledge that there have been many unresolved and bitter feelings about amalgamation left over in Dartmouth.  I understand why some people felt it was a “slap in the face.”

Even though it was a municipal issue, it became a significant one in the provincial by-election in the summer.  Dartmouthians who took up this cause had only one question for candidates, “Will you help us keep Dartmouth in Dartmouth.”

This group of citizens was relatively small, but it was mighty.  They organized themselves using social media, kept a media spotlight on the issue for months and months (which in itself is a grand feat), went to Harbour East Council meetings, used the system itself to advance their discontent and inspired much dialogue about the inherent problems with the branding plan.  This group brought protest to a whole new level… no placards or rallies, no sit-ins at city hall… simply persistence and determination.

Of course they had a friend and champion in government.  I have been pretty critical of Gloria McCluskey in the past, and disagree with her position on things like pawn shops and sex work, but in this case, I was quite proud to have her as my councilor.  She listened to her constituents, she helped them from within the walls of City Hall, and she inspired people to push forward, unrelenting.  Her leadership and honor to uphold the principles of representative democracy in this case were admirable.

So last night, when the group achieved a small victory, using the weapons of the democratic process and grassroots engagement, and after a long fought battle, I was disappointed to see the jokes, ridicule and dismissiveness.  To read things on Twitter and published under the guise of journalism that suggested this victory was either “lip service to Gloria” or “just to shut Dartmouth up” was disheartening, because ultimately, a victory is a victory.

When a group of citizens mobilize, take action and make noise to achieve a collective goal… that, my friends, is not “whining”… it is civic engagement at its finest.

When a government does something they would not have done otherwise because of this group of citizens, even if the only reason they are doing it is to shut that group up… well that, my friends, is not anything to scoff at… it is effective protest and democracy in action.