Q+A with Mark Sparrow

Mark Sparrow (far right), Steven Rolls, and Meghan Farrell at the first organizing meeting for the Cape Breton Vote Mob.

Mark Sparrow is one of those people I met first on the Internet, before meeting in person. (There’s a lot of folks I meet like that these days!)

Online, he’s articulate and friendly. In person, that doesn’t change. Mark’s one of those positive, high-energy people that I’m so excited to know, and so glad that he lives in Cape Breton. In his Q+A here on Dream Big Cape Breton, Mark has lots to say about local food, local music, and local business opportunities.

Read more Q+As on this blog, here.

1. What’s your age?

I’m 31 years old.  Time flies!

2. CB born and raised? Or transplant? (Plus whatever biographical details you feel like giving).

I was born and raised in Glace Bay, but have been living in Sydney for the last few years.  I spent a few years in Halifax studying science at Dal after graduating high school and then I came home and transferred to the business program at Cape Breton University, which was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made.  CBU is an incredible university.

At the time I loved being in Halifax for a lot of reasons (better shows, better skateboarding, better food, new place, lots of freedom, and a lot of friends up there from home in the same boat, etc.)… but I didn’t like going to Dal because it was too big and I think my education suffered because of it.

The first year sets up your expectations for the next couple, and my first year was very much being “just another number”. I was going to classes with like 700 people and it was very hard to meet and get to know any of the profs, and getting to know my profs was one of the biggest things that helped me when I got to CBU.

When I decided to switch to CBU it all changed instantly, even from the registration process. They were much easier to deal with and went further out of their way to help. The class sizes made it easy for lots of discussion with classmates and most importantly with the profs. They were also all very helpful and friendly and made you know you could talk to them.

They also clearly cared about the students. My first year marketing professor was Eileen Lannon Oldford who is the CEO of CBCEDA (the local Regional Development Authority in Sydney). During one of her classes she brought in Rick Beaton, who was the CEO of Enterprise Cape Breton Corporatoin at the time, to talk about what they do in terms of economic development for Cape Breton.

I originally went to CBU because I wanted to eventually open a business and I thought that’d be a good place to learn things, but from this point I got more interested in business development. He offered to give an internship at ECBC to someone from the class so some of us applied and I got the gig working there for a summer and now had Eileen and Rick both as references on my resume.

Doug Lionais was also a very influential professor. He encouraged me and some of my friends who were in my business strategies class to enter a business plan we developed in class into an Atlantic competition in NB. So we all travelled together there with Doug and competed and won 2nd place overall thanks to the help and support from Doug… another thing for the resume, and a new reference.

I got a scholarship from the CB Business Hall of Fame, and at the dinner I wound up being seated at a table with Patricia MacNeil who is the Executive Director of Coastal Business CBDC (who also teaches class at the university). When I was graduating about a month later, CBDC was hiring a youth intern, which I applied for and got hired there for a years internship that had me placed at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design, and also at CBCEDA where I was now working with Eileen Lannon Oldford who originally got me the job at ECBC the summer before!

That summer I was also offered a summer marketing research job from Keith Brown (another marketing professor) but I couldn’t take it because I got the CBDC job.

For me it was all about the high level of concern that the profs have for the students in wanting to help them grow and progress from active in school to active once they graduate.

I also like how CBU is so young and is growing and developing in a lot of ways.

3. “What are you up to these days?” 

I’m a Business Development Officer for the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council. Co-operatives are a business model that most people I run into generally aren’t very well aware of, so I take every chance I get to talk about them because they’re very important to the health and well-being of our economy and our communities, especially in rural areas.

Co-ops are member owned businesses, which exist in all sectors that you can think of for the purpose of meeting a common social and/or economic need that has been identified by a group of people, that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to meet on their own.

This is in contrast to the traditional corporate model of business, which exists primarily to maximize profits for shareholders.  In the corporate world the people with the most cash invested in an enterprise have the most control over it and receive the biggest share of the profits.  In a co-operative everyone has an equal vote in decision making and the profits (when it is a for-profit co-operative) are shared with the member-owners at a rate that is in proportion to their activity with the co-op.

It’s a fundamental difference so it’s important for people to be aware that there is an effective, stable, scalable, and more humanized economic model available that they could choose to use if they are interested in more than profit maximization alone. People are often surprised to learn that some household names that we hear every day are co-operatives. Scotsburn and Farmers Dairy are both co-operatives, all credit unions are co-operatives, Just Us! Coffee, the Cape Breton Farmers Market, Scotian Gold apples, and even Ocean Spray and the Associated Press are all structured as co-operatives.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2012 to be the International Year of Co-operatives due to their global contributions to socio-economic development, particularly their impact on poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.

In addition to the development work I do helping groups form and run co-ops, I’m also the “IYC Coordinator” responsible for organizing the projects, events, and campaigns that the NS Co-op Council is involved with this year related to the IYC.  To be doing this kind of work during this special year, on the island that is the birthplace of Moses Coady, Jimmy Tompkins, and Alex Laidlaw, excites and motivates me greatly.  I’m confident that we can continue to address many of our challenges and opportunities in Cape Breton by taking a closer look at the co-op model and applying it as a solution to a host of issues we are facing.

4. Top three favourite local foods? (Could be a vegetable, a menu item at a local restaurant, however you choose to interpret it!)

You mean I can’t keep talking about co-ops all day?  Ok, fine, food is my next favourite thing to talk about.

1.  The chicken sandwich at The Dancing Goat in North East Margaree.  It doesn’t make any sense at all that anyone can make a chicken sandwich taste that good.  I also have a 6 year-old nephew named Rory from Margaree who swears by “Merv’s Soup”.  If you can get a 6 year old to love soup, you’re doing something very right.

2.  The haddock burger at Flavor 19. This is not your ordinary fish burger, but then again Flavor is not your ordinary restaurant.  It’s very indicative of the untapped potential that this place has to offer that young Cape Bretoners like Scott Morrison and his wife Karry were able to move home from “out west” and start not one, but two successful contemporary restaurants in the Sydney area in the last 5 years.

3.  Lemon garlic potatoes at Fourna Grill.  One of my friends went to Greece and when he came back I asked him how the food was.  He told me nothing he ate there compared to how good the food was at Fourna Grill.  We’ve had a recent wave of great new restaurants in Sydney (sushi, Indian, Italian, Lebanese) but this place was here before them all and I’ve been a big time loyal customer for about the last 8 years.  Although the place is small and is primarily a take-out, there’s always great conversation to be had there with Georgia.

*Special mention:  The monthly international food nights at Allegro Grill & Deli are up there with the best dining experiences I’ve ever had anywhere in my life.  It’s really cool when going out to dinner feels like a community event.  It’s a treat because, while it’s improving, we aren’t exactly swamped with options here for international food.   Chef Jared comes out from the kitchen to give an overview of the theme, the nights’ dishes, how they were inspired, where the ingredients come from, etc.

5. What is a typical “day in the life” for you?

Coffee, work, more coffee, more work, homework (I’m currently enrolled in the first year of a newly launched two year co-op developers training program), dinner with Merrideth, read a ton of blogs (music, art, comedy, science, and secular humanism), hang out with our bunnies Willow & Twiggy, catch up on the news, crash.

About a year ago I set up a Facebook page called “Cape Breton Atheists, Agnostics, and Non-religious”, which is described in the info section as a page for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists, non-religious, and those on the fence in Cape Breton. We don’t have a formal organization yet for people who fall into these categories in Cape Breton, but this has been a very active place in the meantime to find and comment on recent news articles, research, videos, interviews, and debates related to topics such as religion, freedom from religion, pseudoscience, paranormal claims, alternative medicine claims, etc.  We’ve got some great admins and page visitors that contribute to the conversation there on a daily basis.  It’s often viewed as a social taboo to talk about some of these things even among friends and family, so this is a place where nothing is viewed as being too sacred to criticize or discuss.  There’s still a lingering perception out there that some people have that Cape Breton is old school and everyone here is stuck in their ways.  I like to challenge that.

6. Who are your favourite CB musicians or artists?

I’ve been very interested and semi-involved in the local music scene since I was young.  My brother Danny and I grew up playing in various punk bands and in 1997 I became one of the early administrators of the CBLocals  music/skateboarding website created by my friend Harry Doyle.

I’ve since watched some old friends and some new friends go on to create great music, release albums, travel the world touring, and carve out a living for themselves in the music industry, which is no easy task and is very inspirational to see as it happens. I wouldn’t try to tell anyone how to raise their kids, but trust me on this one…let them jam in the garage and they will always remember that you did.

I’d have a hard time making a formal list of favourites but most recently I’ve been listening to new albums by Carmen Townsend(http://youtu.be/h46CwKLjPAM) and Carleton Stone (http://youtu.be/eVW-6xaFK5c) , some great new songs by Steve Fifield (http://youtu.be/R13MWGrAbwU), Victor Tomiczek (http://youtu.be/JNBTl0KCPs4), Alicia Penney(http://youtu.be/EPPR-sz2bDc), Mike LeLievre (http://www.reverbnation.com/mikelelievre) and Jay Smith (http://jaysmith.bandcamp.com/track/partner-in-crime), as well as some little-known, super-awesome, unpolished, sketch/demo songs by a young guy named Blair Lucas.  I’ve never seen him play live but I randomly stumbled on his songs on Youtube last year and he rules. I especially like his song Run Summer Rabbit (http://youtu.be/nTrgaNy8MTw).

You know what’s going to be great?  The new Steven MacDougall(http://youtu.be/yNJpsdeoHZg) solo album, and the new Tom Fun Orchestra(http://youtu.be/G_T-pfPMfMw) album.  It’s going to be a good year for new music on the island.

Mark writes, “Here’s a pic of me giving a CBC tee shirt to a friend I made in Sri Lanka. He knew everything about the CBC and much more about Canadian politics than I do. Very interesting guy, he was so happy to get a CBC tee shirt…he even knew it was the retro logo.”

7. Do you think you’ll stay in CB down the road, or have you thought about moving?

Personally, I don’t think I would have a better quality of life anywhere else than I have in Cape Breton so I have no need or desire to leave. There are all kinds of interesting places out there, and I hope I get to see as many of them as possible through traveling, but there’s no better home base for me than Cape Breton.

Last year I traveled to Sri Lanka for two weeks on an international co-operative development study mission with the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada (http://www.cdfcanada.coop/).  At some point I would like to spend more time in a developing country doing that kind of work or taking an interesting educational opportunity somewhere.  Preferably during our winter though, I struggle with the idea of ever missing a single Cape Breton summer.

8. Swimming – ocean or river?

What?! Ocean!!  What kind of islander prefers a river to the ocean?  I could never live some place that’s not immediately on an ocean.  Instant deal-breaker.  Last summer I beach hopped from West Mabou Beach, to MacLeods Beach in Inverness, to Chimney Corner Beach, to South Harbour Beach near Dingwall in the same afternoon.

Mark and his girlfriend Merrideth hiking the Skyline Trail.

9. What are your favourite things to do, when you go out with friends or for entertainment?

In the summer I spend most of my free time golfing, hiking, snorkeling, and skateboarding.  I’ve done some snowboarding in the past and some surfing every now and then in Cape Breton but I’ve been skating since I was 12 and nothing has ever topped it for me.  It’s like the fountain of youth, except I don’t know why it hasn’t prevented my hairline from receding.

I travel a lot and go to see bands play live a lot, so when those two things come together I’m a very happy camper.  A few years ago I went to Iceland and saw SigurRos, Bjork and Paul Simon, and last year I went to NYC with a group of friends to see The Felice Brothers in Brooklyn on New Years Eve.  I find traveling with friends to see bands is one of the best ways to make new good memories.

10. What excites you about where you live? (This could be community stuff, or it could be stuff you love about the natural world, or whatever!)

What excites me the most about living in Cape Breton is that we have lots of room for growth and a lot of potential for becoming a better place to live. You can get involved easily and you can see the positive changes very visibly as they happen.  There is a new wave of young, active, creative people who are deciding to stay, and who have moved back, to contribute their ideas, skills and enthusiasm to being a part of our own solution.It’s a very interesting time to be a young person living in Cape Breton.

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One Response to Q+A with Mark Sparrow

  1. Candee says:

    Mark Sparrow is a super duper.

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