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City View: Dwelling in possibility

JANE ALLISON was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital (she is even on the Baby Wall there) and raised in Burlington. She finally moved to Hamilton in 2018 after years of working in the city, including roles as manager of community partnerships at The Hamilton Spectator and public relations officer at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. She’s an award-winning community advocate, a podcaster, speaker and moderator and established Dovetail Community in 2017. 

What is Dovetail Community Hamilton all about?

At Dovetail Community, we create community engagement and communications strategies based on audience research and executable ideas. We get to the heart of human behaviours and tailor plans to build on those to achieve organizational goals. Dovetail also offers specialties in media training, facilitation services and champion/ambassador development.

What is your primary motivation in choosing clients to work with or projects to work on?

It comes down to an alignment of values. In both corporate and not-for-profit clients, there has to be that fit. I’ve learned the hard way that when you don’t fundamentally have the values in sync, it is very hard sledding. I’ve had to step away from a couple of situations that were keeping me up at night. Now I try to assess that fit from our first chat.

What is the greatest satisfaction in the work you do?

When organizations become better versions of themselves, because of our collaboration. Identifying and then achieving goals through Dovetail’s work is so meaningful. That feeling of having an impact and building community is like few others.

What is the greatest change you've seen in Hamilton in your time here?

The shift from its industrial heritage to its current status as an education and healthcare hub. The mindset that has had to take place – that is still taking place – with that shift will be felt for a few generations. Along with that is the surge in Hamilton’s reputation on the world stage. Be it McMaster University or Mohawk College research and results, the Offord Centre for Child Studies, contributions to world-class health care with Hamilton Health Sciences or St. Joseph’s Healthcare, or our emerging film and tech industries, Hamilton has got a lot going on. One example: I’m thrilled to work with the great folks at the Women’s Health Concerns Clinic at St. Joe’s on a really cool initiative, the Opening Up forum. This centre is one of the first of its kind in the world, supporting hormonal mental health care for women and its research, and it’s right here on West 5th. Amazing.

Is there one concert or other artistic experience of your life that stands out for you?

Bruce Springsteen in my own city. I’m completely besotted by him to start with; all goofiness aside, I have learned a lot about building community from him. Seeing him play in our own backyard was a major life highlight. When we were standing in the pit of then-Copps Coliseum and he played Thunder Road, I cried with all the joy my Bruce-loving heart could squeeze out.

A few years ago, I had the honour to work with Tom Wilson on his solo exhibition at the Burlington Art Gallery. This was a fully immersive experience that, knowing the story he was sharing about his life and his identity, made it resonate for me in a profound way. I still think about that experience a lot.

You've been involved in many community events and organizations. Is there one that is particularly close to your heart?

Usually the one I’m currently doing! One example is an amazing project by St. Matthew’s House, which will build low-cost housing for homeless and near-homeless seniors at 412 Barton. So meaningful. Anything to do with mental health and poverty reduction has been a through-thread for me. These are such determinants in the quality of life for a community. I was on the board of directors for BGC Hamilton-Halton (formerly the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hamilton) for many years and I loved it. What an amazing organization that has an impact throughout the city.

When I was at The Hamilton Spectator, it was such a gift to see real results from our work. Being able to support the Code Red series and be part of the launch of organizations like An Instrument for Every Child and Food4Kids was incredible. Support of the arts was something I tried to champion because arts education is so vital to the healthy development of children. The Framing History Photography Exhibit we did with the Art Gallery of Hamilton was such a dream – I’m a photography geek to begin with and celebrating the journey of photojournalism throughout the decades was a real milestone.

Who inspires you?

Someone who is working hard to live a good life. Someone who takes pride in their work, whatever it is; their home; tries to be a good parent; a good partner; a good citizen. The many people I see working in social service fields through my clients inspire me all the time. For an organization, just about everything that the Hamilton Community Foundation does inspires me.  Really, I try and learn something from everyone I see. I love learning people’s stories.

Michelle Obama. Just class, grace, intellect, fun and loving personified. Her essence is something I summon when I’m stuck – kind of a What Would Michelle Do? litmus test. Finally, my Mom. Anne Carruthers Allison died in August of 2022 and I find that the grieving process has opened me up to many things about her character. She is teaching me still, even as I miss her every day.

What has been the greatest gift in your life?

The people in my life. I have great parents and blood family, and have been blessed with many friends, some from grade 2. These people are a family of choice and make my life so happy.

Coming into the world in southern Ontario at the time I was, to the parents I was, is likely the biggest gift of fate. Having a house filled with laughter, music, examples of friendship and community service was such a gift. Being born healthy, strong, with some intelligence – I’m talking genes here, nothing I’ve done. This meant I had all the opportunities, the social safety nets and the assumptions of a good life just by being born where and when I was. Of course, there are always the challenges of a female life but really – a lot of the battles had already been fought, so to speak.

What’s your ideal way to spend a lazy day in Hamilton?

Starts out with coffee and reading in bed. Then I can putter around with one of the many crafty pursuits I love. During the pandemic, I jumped into crocheting in a huge way and I’m still obsessed. I think it calms my chaotic mind. In that vein, a trip to the craft store for this crafting fool would be on the schedule. Then a drive with the roof open and great music on, which I sing along to with great gusto. Or if a pool could be found, loads of time just floating and chatting. Time sitting outside, more reading/crafting while visiting with friends. The day would wind down with a dinner that I’ve put together – I love to cook – and lots of great conversation with people I love. Since we are having an ideal day, that meal would end with homemade key lime pie. I’ve just about got my recipe perfected. Wink.

What is your favourite activity or event in the fall?

The season itself. It really is the psychological new year – I’m sure based on years of the start of school. I always feel as if I should buy a new pair of shoes and a pencil case. Everything feels cozy and as if we are all gathering together again.

What’s the best meal you’ve eaten in the city?

This is like asking which friend is your favourite! We are so lucky here in Hamilton with our food and hospitality community. I have had so many memorable meals here, so I will just say I have fondness for the local. I love being at The Aberdeen Tavern, Rapscallion and Radius. La Piazza Allegra, Sasso and Valentino’s for amazing Italian. The Capital Bar is terrific, and I love what is happening along Concession Street. And you cannot go wrong with a foot long hot dog and a root beer from Easterbrook’s. Yum city.

What is Hamilton’s best-kept secret?

Its beauty. The green spaces, the architecture, the escarpment. The industrial core has its own beauty. When I was a little person, I remember my Dad taking me to Spencer Smith Park in Burlington and sharing the idea that the steel mills we could see across the bay were beautiful because they meant prosperity.

Its location. We have our own dynamic community that is so perfectly located; it is under one hour (-ish) from three international airports. We have our home and access to anywhere in the world, at the same time. Plus, wine country next door. Need I say more?

Hamilton needs more of...?

A sense of self-esteem. We need to be proud of where we live and showcase its glory whenever we can. It has been very tough since the pandemic for sure – some of the challenges will be with us for decades. We need to believe in Hamilton and what is possible here. Let’s dwell in possibility.

Hamilton needs less of...?

Cynicism. Not to be a Pollyanna … rather, I think a shift to solution-based thinking. And that is hard, I get it. When you drive in along York Boulevard and right after the beauty of Dundurn Castle lie tent encampments. There are solutions and we need to help politicians and citizens see that collective problem solving is better than moaning and NIMBY-ism.

Jane Allison has been named a Canadian Public Relations Society Diamond Jubilee Mentor of the Year. In 2021, Dovetail Community was named the Diamond Level PR Firm by The Hamilton Spectator Readers’ Choice Awards. She has been designated a Fellow by the Canadian Public Relations Society of Canada. Community projects have included the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hamilton and Wayside House Treatment Centre; being a National Awards Judge for the Canadian Public Relations Society; and roles as a Judge and Nominee for the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards.