With stands of trees lining the provincial highway, beautiful clear lakes for swimming and fishing, and an area known as “Sunset Country,” it’s home.

1,200 people.

One grocery store. One bank. A library.
One elementary school. Five churches. One arena and a curling rink.

Lots of trucks, more boats. A winding river that divides Canada from the United States. A 30 minute drive to the nearest movie theatre (in Minnesota).

Small town, Northwestern Ontario.

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Clearwater Lake

“Home” for me has always been two places — where I’m currently living and the small town where I grew up. And although I haven’t lived at ‘home’ since I was eighteen years old, it’s still very much a part of who I am.

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized just how much growing up in a small town has affected how I interact with people and the work that I do.

When I decided to live in a city of 2.6 million people, I thought it was normal to ask colleagues about their families, kids names, what they like to do outside of work, or their plans for the weekend. But to some, this was seen as something unique or special. A skill set called “community building” in the world of learning and training. But to me, it was just being myself.

It wasn’t strategic on my part. I wasn’t hoping to achieve some ulterior motive. It’s just what you do in a small town — you ask questions about people’s lives.

I grew up in a place where people don’t talk about work.

They talk about people.

They share what they’ve been up to — what they’ve recently built in their workshop, planted in their garden, or read. I live a 20 hour drive away from home and I know who’s renovating their kitchen, who’s expecting a new grandchild, and who recently had to make the difficult decision to have their husband move into a care facility because he has Alzheimer’s.

There’s something about living in a small town that is different.

People make time to visit with each other. I miss this. The unexpected visits when you suddenly hear a door slam outside your house or the crunching of gravel in your driveway. My Dad is good at this — dropping in to visit friends.

So it makes sense why I look for opportunities to socialize with colleagues at work. I like getting a group together to go out for lunch or for drinks after work. I help plan ugly sweater days, coordinate group tickets to Argo games, and encourage colleagues to dress up for Halloween. It’s just what I do. Some may feel that personal lives and work should not meet, and I respect that. For me, I just can’t imagine working somewhere, where I can’t be myself.

In my work as an instructional designer, I’ve realized that it’s my small town upbringing that has drawn me to practices like user testing, design thinking, and human-centred design. When I’m designing or facilitating online courses, or creating professional learning resources for a specific group of people, this is when my “community building” comes through. I like to know whom I’m designing for — what they do, what they are challenged by, what they hope to achieve. Their interests, where they live, their family lives…

You might wonder what a person’s family life has anything to do with designing or facilitating learning for others. For me, it’s where I start. If you’re a single Dad with two young kids, is it likely that you’re going to sit and watch an hour long video to learn something new? Or would you prefer short video clips you could watch on your phone during your kid’s swimming lesson? Having a sense of users needs, interests, and goals helps me create something ‘just for them, just in time, and just enough.’

Time in itself would make for an interesting study. How we use it and where we place value. We have work commitments, errands to run, events to attend, our children’s activities.…there always seems to be a reason why we can’t get together with others. We start looking at each other’s photos on Instagram or Facebook as an acceptable way to keep in touch. But I think we’re missing out.

It matters to connect with people. By taking the initiative to make plans with others, it shows that we’re thinking of them and that we enjoy their company. When time seems like an invaluable commodity where there’s never enough of it, it says a lot when you give it freely to others.

I’m thankful for growing up in a small town. It, along with my parents, taught me to care about people.