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Last Tuesday I sat down with Joe Gnemmi in HeartWood’s office to chat about urban planning, what millennials want, learning to re-imagine failure, how Heartwood’s Framework for Community Youth Development supports positive change, and why you should become a Dungeon Master.

This is part one of HeartWood’s #PassionProject, an interview series which aims to highlight youth voices and youth-serving organizations while providing exposure to opportunities for youth and adults alike to become positive participants and contributors in our communities.


HeartWood:

Tell us about yourself, what do you do?

Joe:

My name is Joe Gnemmi, and I’m currently studying a Masters in Planning degree at Dalhousie University and I always get asked “Planning? You mean like parties and stuff?” Uh, no, city planning. But the terminology is a little difficult in Canada, we usually call it Community Planning because communities can come in all sizes.



HeartWood:

How do you define ‘community’?

Joe:

That’s a very difficult definition because I think our definition of community is being so radically altered by the internet. Community used to be a bunch of people living in one place, they probably enjoy the same food, they probably worship the same God, they probably look similar- but this is Canada, it’s the 21st century, and none of that stuff really applies to that definition anymore. I think we get a little bit of liberty to redefine it.



HeartWood:

How do you see Halifax as a place for young people?

Joe:

I think Halifax has a lot of potential. I think it’s already a great youth city, but the part that worries me is the financial sustainability. I think youths are creating their own communities. I think it’s great to see people my age (Joe is actually only 26) getting involved in business, but we have a very serious problem and it’s that young people are struggling to acquire money. To buy things that are generally needed, like homes. I think we’ve got a population that is more diverse than ever before, a population that is more educated than ever before, but we’re dealing with a terrible job market. The jobs that do exist don’t pay as much as they used to. So when you add that to inflation, our purchasing power is very low and I don’t think the markets have responded to that yet, and I don’t know when and even if they’re going to be able to. We have a lot of difficulties. Sometimes I don’t think those difficulties get acknowledged.



HeartWood:

What do you think Halifax needs the most?

Joe:

Big question! I don’t want to be too controversial either, but maybe I have to get controversial. There are two things: housing. Halifax needs dense, sustainable, and affordable housing. In 2011 the National Household Survey reported that there were some 17 000 people in core housing need that means that their houses are falling apart, or they are living in a unit that they can’t afford, or the number of bedrooms don’t equate to the number of people. Those are the three benchmarks for core housing need, and there are 17 000 people in the HRM who are living like that.

I did some of the math based on Canada Mortgage Housing data, and found that we don’t actually have enough units in Halifax. These are numbers from last year. So we have a lot of people who need better and more affordable homes and we don’t currently have those. So that’s a big thing. Number two is food access. Last night I was going around and I was wondering, “I wonder where the supermarkets are and what their accessibility is like?”. What I found was actually a pretty dreary picture. There are huge parts of the peninsula and Dartmouth inside the circ where you just can’t walk to get groceries.



HeartWood:

What does sustainable and affordable housing look like to you?

Joe:

There tends to be three qualities of sustainability. There’s obviously environmental sustainability so whether it’s working with the environment, and there’s a lot of science and technological work that has been done that hasn’t quite made it into standard building practice. Leed and BOMA are doing some pretty good work, but for me that push isn’t fast enough for something that we know needs to happen. As with everything in our society, financial sustainability is important and that’s a whole huge discussion that I’m not necessarily qualified to talk about. And the third one is social sustainability. So this is a little more nit-picky because what is the social? We’ve already struggled to deal with what community is, but I think that social is just how you interact with people. In Nova Scotia we have large areas where there is very little interaction. For a species that’s as social as human beings are, who have this thing called civilization which is predicated on being able to talk to each other and work with strangers, we have some serious social sustainability issues in this province.



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HeartWood:

So with your degree [a Masters in Planning] you want to change that system?

I think we all do. I think we all recognize that something isn’t right, otherwise there’s very little to explain the massive liberal government win, very little to explain Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s popularity. I think we realize that something needs to change. And I do feel that we are at a pivotal moment in history where we can decide what the future is going to look like. I want to be part of shaping that, and I know that all young people do.



HeartWood:

How do you plan on shaping it?

Joe:

I would like to start a company. We would do development, we would take it from beginning to end, find the site, acquire the site, do the drawings, the architecture, we would plan it out, figure out what’s right, what’s the right size, scale, use, in this area- and then we’d bring this project to completion. So we’d do the whole thing in house. But the kicker is that our workforce would be people who have been in precarious work situations, people who have been unemployed for a long time. What we would like to do is to train them- “this is how you plan, this is how you design a building, this is how you site things” and whether that model is in house or “here is some money, go to NSCC in Lawrencetown, or go to Dalhousie”, it doesn’t matter. What I think is important now is that businesses start contributing to societies again. I don’t just mean a little charity there, a little charity there, I think business has the power to change lives and be a force for social good.



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HeartWood:

Going back to HeartWood’s Framework for Community Youth Development, what I see in what you’re saying is that you want to promote an empowering culture, talking about people and reintegration processes, that’s adventuresome learning, teaching them the skills and providing opportunities that are so often denied to them.

Joe:

What I like about the HeartWood framework is that there is this huge emphasis on support and empowerment and I think that’s really what young people are looking for in our daily lives. I know so many people who have been beaten down because they’ve been told “no” so many times. There is a difference between flat out rejection and constructive criticism. What young people need isn’t “no”, what young people need is “well not really, and this is why, and this is what could be done”. I think a lot of us, myself included are looking almost for permission to go out and be amazing, and use the massive education that we have. We are the most educated generation in history, and we want to use it. I think we’re just looking for permission to use it.



HeartWood:

So what did you do before a Masters in Planning?

Joe:

Before that, I spent a year being unemployed, which was awful. I was able to find some part-time things, some short-term things, some things to keep me out of debt, but I ended up being the stereotypical millennial who has to move back with his parents after college.



HeartWood:

I don’t think there’s any shame in that, there’s a lot of stigma [against moving back in with your parents].

Joe:

There shouldn’t be. A lot of the shame was actually my own. It had been so ingrained in me that there’s this linear path to adulthood, that failure to meet that expectation which is these days quite unreasonable, what was considered normal for our parents has become almost unattainable for youths. So that was a horrible experience, and I was only that way for a year, I had a loving family who was not in any financial situation that I could fall back on, so am an incredible fortunate person. I don’t think that our society has really done much in the past few years to really be able to deal with the realities of unemployment, poverty, and these difficult situations.



HeartWood:

So what would you have told yourself had you known what you know now- that there’s no straight shot to success, no absolute path that everybody has to follow to attain the idea of success?

Joe:

I probably would’ve told myself that! And that failure is okay. After that all went down I decided that I would read some philosophy, so I went back to people like Marcus Aurelius who wrote the Meditations, which I highly recommend, or Epicurus is the founder of the Epicurean School. Really going back to those classical philosophers was very helpful in being able to manage my own expectations of myself, my expectations of the world around me and really helped me figure out what I really wanted from life.



HeartWood:

Could you tell us a little more about learning to let yourself fail?

Joe:

For me, learning that failure was okay kind of started in high school, because high school was really the first time where I had really and truly failed, I think I had a 64% in Math 11, and that was the point at which I considered “Yep, I am a failure, I didn’t do particularly well in this one course, that’s it.” But then I actually had an adult who was able and willing to take me through and explain all of the good takeaways. I didn’t come away with a terribly good number, but there were other lessons that I had learned. Other things that I had to be able to value and so that’s where it really started. As I went through my Bachelor’s degree I started to pick up bits of philosophy here an there, I was very interested in the history of ideas, and one of them was this Dutch philosopher called Erasmus, and he wrote about this boy who couldn’t do anything right, but all the time he was learning, and all the time he was picking things up. At the end of the story he succeeds once because of all the things that he had learned from failure. Life has to be about learning I think and when you stop learning, you’re stuck.

Instead of focussing on just that one goal, that there are other things to be gained or to be lost that you might not have thought about originally, that once you have the benefit of hindsight and maybe it takes a few years for you to go back and understand “Oh, that happened, and now I know this” that process is very difficult but it’s important that we learn that, and the way we make it through that process is when the people around us care about us and they tell us that we matter, even if we don’t reach that goal, we still met these other goals.



HeartWood:

What are your other passions?

Joe:

I like to read. I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cites. Jane Jacobs is sort of the originator of modern planning theory.

I’m also a Dungeon Master. I run two Dungeons and Dragons groups. I run one through the school, and I run one with some friends that I’ve met through the years. I highly recommend Dungeons & Dragons; if you know anyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons, ask them what it’s about, it’s probably the most empowering and positive hobby I’ve ever had.



HeartWood:

And why is that? What makes it different?

Joe:

It puts the players in control and it allows them to explore a world in which they matter, in which their decisions have consequences. And we all want to slay dragons, and you can do that.  I get a lot of positive feedback from it “Oh man this adventure was great!” But I also get a lot of constructive ideas as well “Oh hey I think it would be really cool if my character could do this, or I think it would be really fun if we were put into a situation where we had to solve some pretty serious puzzles.” And then I get to go away and think about it for awhile, “Okay, puzzles, I am awful at puzzles, what kind of puzzles can I create to try and make my players think some?” Sometimes the best puzzles I come up with have just been doodled during the session on the back of a napkin.



HeartWood:

So inspiration can come from anywhere.

Joe:

Yeah, and you just have to be open to it.







Want to get in touch with Joe to collaborate on bringing his dream of sustainable and affordable Haligonian housing to life, or learn how to join forces to slay dragons? You can send him an email at joegnemmi@dal.ca, or find him on Twitter @joegnemmi.



Do you have a #PassionProject you’d like to share? Contact us at lauren@heartwood.ns.ca!