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A really great local coffee shop is a place where you can find out what’s happening around town over your cup of coffee.

But in Edmonton, Alberta, Edmontonians can now get a flavor of their hometown on their cup of coffee: local coffee shops are dispensing coffee sleeves with very short stories by six local authors. Edmonton Public Library Writer in Residence Jason Norman organized the effort and paid for the sleeves himself. This is not the first of Norman’s local projects—among his others is an edited volume titled, 40 Below: Edmonton’s Winter Anthology.

“We could have sleeves with our branding on it but instead we have stories with cool stories by people who live here,” said Corey Polo, who works at Garneau Cafe, one of the coffee shops participating in the project. As a native Albertan, I can say with certainty that a cup of hot coffee is the perfect venue to get people’s attention as winter arrives in those northern climes.

This is an example of the kind of local philanthropy that helps stave off what can seem to be an inexorable trend to globalization, “networks” that replace communities, and the replacement of local narratives with national or international media.

Philanthropy, like so many other parts of the economy, has become more institutionalized and globalized. Large foundations dominate much of the charitable landscape; giving to international affairs has risen in recent years; and charity experts advise small donors to “follow the leaders” by giving to charities supported by the biggest foundations rather than to charities in their own communities. 

Yet, local initiatives and philanthropy have such a powerful impact exactly because they respond to local needs, with an understanding of local resources and sensibilities.

Local initiatives depend upon people having a sense of where “here” is, what “our neighborhood” and “our community” is like, who “we local folk” are. As University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay noted in Why Place Matters:

We must recover a more durable and vibrant sense of place if we are to preserve the healthy dynamism of our society as it now exists, and promote the highest measure of human happiness and flourishing. . . . A firmer sense of “place” . . . may be an essential basis of our freedom, and the necessary grounding for a great many other human goods.

Jason Norman’s charming initiative to publish local authors’ stories on coffee sleeves and to pay for it himself is philanthropy that fosters a sense of place. And who knows what other goods will come from that richer sense of place?


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