By Dan McRoberts – Banff

Attendees and organizers were giving a groundbreaking conference rave reviews last week.

Innovations 2007 – a gathering organized by the nascent Bow Valley Young Adult Coalition in Banff on Thursday and Friday (June 28 and 29), brought together community organizations working with young people across Alberta and around the country.

“The young adult coalition started in January, so it’s been a very quick progression to get here,” said Cheryl Borecky, the executive director of BanffLIFE, which, along with the towns of Canmore and Banff, AADAC, AIDS Bow Valley, the Rocky Mountain YWCA and the Calgary Health Region, is a member of the coalition.

“Its never been done, so we had no idea of what to expect,” Borecky said of the conference. “It’s just amazing to see the energy that was at the Bow Valley level expand across the province and around the country.”

The two-day event featured a keynote address from Jeff Linkenbach, an academic at Montana State University and the director of Montana’s Social Norms Project. Linkenbach shared theory and practical application about social norm campaigns which attempt to correct perceptions, raise awareness and ultimately change the behaviour of young people.

“You look for the sustaining elements in the community – put a big circle around them and call it ‘who we are’,” he said. “That’s a normative message. Welcome, and here’s what you need to do to be part of it.”

Linkenbach told the 130 delegates to expect the process to take some time, and encouraged active engagement with the community that was being targeted with the campaigns – which can be designed to alter sexual behaviour, overconsumption of alcohol and drugs or other social issues raised by having a young, transient population.

“You want to measure a change in awareness, then, in six months, you’ll be able to see a shift in perception. Then, after some more time, you’ll find there’s a shift in behaviour,” Linkenbach said.

“It’s like making soup. You put all the ingredients in at the beginning, but it’s not soup yet, you boil it and boil it and then it becomes soup.”

Linkenbach also focused on the need for social norms work to be backed up by research, something Borecky feels will help correct some misconceptions about Banff and the Bow Valley.

“Young people are not all coming here to party – we know that 75 per cent come for the outdoors experience, and we need to be getting those perceptions out there,” she said. “How many times do we hear about Banff being the HIV capital or the party capital? Those are misconceptions and with research we can back that up.”

Hard data can also help an organization like BanffLIFE establish the effectiveness of the work it does, Borecky said.

“We can take it to council to show the effectiveness of what we’re doing. It’s hard for a lot of organizations to say our programs are effective, because they don’t have the resources for research.”

The conference also included panel discussions where the audience put questions to leaders from provincial organizations and communities in Alberta and B.C.

“We’re all here to learn about how we can work together and be stronger,” said Jacqui Coward from the Town of Canmore’s FCSS office. “It’s been great to see the energy here. So many communities had so many things they wanted to share, and we think that’s awesome.”

Delegates were also pretty positive about their time in Banff.

“I’ve already created all sorts of ads in my head,” said Kiran Pal-Pross from the Resort Municipality of Whistler. “I think it’s a good idea to put my notes up in my office as soon as I get back so I’ll be reminded of what happened here.”

Andrea Watson, from HIV West Yellowhead in Jasper, was already looking forward to next year.
“I would personally really love to see this conference happen annually, and even take it to another community,” she said. “I could see it expanding.”