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PechaKucha 20×20

PechaKucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images. This is my PechaKucha 20×20 from the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network conference. We were asked to address how we got into environmental grantmaking, where our passion lies, and what the future looks like in a fun and engaging way. My colleague Satsuko just did one on elder care and put it up on her blog. I thought that was a fabulous idea. Here’s mine:

We were asked to address how we got into environmental grantmaking, where our passion lies, and what the future looks like. Question #1: How did I get into grantmaking? Well this is my family. My dad said don’t be a teacher. My mom said don’t be a missionary. My sister said don’t go into business. My brother thought the government sucked. The only thing that was left was to work for a foundation.



As for where my passion lies I think it’s really in eating. This is my vegan food blog called v:gourmet. You can find it at http://vgourmet.ca. I pretend it’s about eating healthily and providing me with a creative outlet, but it’s really just an excuse to cook good food, eat it, and wash it down with a lot of wine.



So I got into environmental grantmaking by default and my passion lies with food. Now for the final question: What does the future look like? Well, it’s either rosy or apocalyptic depending on your perspective. I tend to fall on the side of rosy these days. If it’s apocalyptic then it’s pretty hard to get up in the morning. So, instead, I cast my lot with those who, age after age, find hope and look toward a bright future.  



So that’s it. Thank you. …. But no really, why do I get up in the morning? What do I do each day? Why do I do it? What do I hope for? I think these are all the same questions so instead of answering each question literally, instead I would like to offer you the 15 reasons why I get out of bed every day and commit myself to doing the work I do.



The 1st reason I get up in the morning is that the future is good. This is Ben. Ben’s from Hamilton. He’s 13, he’s a philanthropist, he volunteers. For his barmitvah, instead of presents, he got his family to support the Hamilton Fruit Tree project through Small Change Fund. We hear about obesity, drug abuse, kids stuck to their ipods and other electronic gidgits. But with Ben coming up through the ranks we can believe in hope.



The 2nd reason I get up in the morning is to celebrate diversity. There are people like Ben all over the world who are doing incredible things. Many of you will have read this book by Paul Hawken in which he writes about the amazing number of people and organizations working on environment and social justice issues all over the planet – the largest movement we’ve ever seen. We need to celebrate the breadth and depth of a movement for good.



But a lot of these groups don’t get support. So the 3rd reason I get up in the morning is to be a gateway, an enabler. This is why I started Small Change Fund. This photo is of the Gulf oil spill. We can’t count on governments to prevent them, to clean them up, to mitigate the disaster. We can’t count on companies. The only thing we can count on is people at the local level, community leaders. I get up to support them.



But support comes in many packages, it has a number of different faces. While we like to think – as grantmakers – that all of our support enables, facilitates, and helps, we all know that sometimes it doesn’t. The support I have come to value most is the support that amplifies voices. The 4th reason I get up in the morning is to facilitate funding that raises the voice of communities and people closest to the ground.  



The 5th reason I get up in the morning is to grow things. I’m a mad farmer. My husband and I have a little farm outside of Toronto where I grow garlic and medicinal plants. But I also grow organizations like the CEGN, Small Change Fund, and the Prince Edward County Community Foundation. The reason is because we need new mechanisms to get money where it’s needed and help germinate a much more profound ecosystem of funding.



The 6th reason I get up in the morning is to see what the day will bring. The previous photo was me at 43; this is me at 4. How did I get from here to there? I have absolutely no clue. At 4 I certainly didn’t say “Mommy, I want to be a grantmaker.” Nor at 18. Nor at 24. Things are beyond our control and we have to embrace the chaos, the unexpected, the unpredictable. Accidents happen.



Speaking of accidents, these are my 2 sons at our farm running through the snow in their pajamas about to launch a war. Provocation and retaliation. I remind them almost daily that energy follows energy. In this case bad energy follows bad energy. But good energy follows good energy. The 7th reason I get out of bed in the morning is to follow good energy. Ideas are energy. Money is energy. Change is energy. 



The 8th reason I get up in the morning is that everything is connected. Donella Meadows – one of my heroines – said “It’s not possible for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich to succeed if the poor fail, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.” It’s not possible.


Number 9 is to expose my mental models to the open air. Another inspiration to me is Lucy Bernholz who completely reconfigured an old paradigm for me. We were talking about taking things to scale. She said “Ruth, think about it, scale no longer means big. Scale means networked.” She helped me discover that a lot of us are already at scale working locally, nationally, and globally with the help of social media and new technologies. 



Part of exposing our mental models to open air is to learn, which is the 10th reason I get out of bed in the morning. There is so much we don’t know. “Stay the course” is only a good idea if you’re sure you’re on course.  What’s more appropriate when you’re learning is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where it’s leading.


The previous photo was of my daughter, Rebekah, which leads me to the 11th reason I get up in the morning. To fight for equality. It was heartbreaking when my 4-year old tugged on my pant leg, and asked me why there were no lego women. Archeologists, deep sea divers, chiefs – not a woman in the bunch. After hours of searching we did find one – a witch. Unfortunately too many of our institutions, boards, organizations still look like this and don’t reflect the values we hold.


The 12th reason I get out of bed is to honour my parents’ and grandparents’ quiet and faithful activism. We, in the environmental movement, live and work in an activist culture but not all activist are cut from the same cloth. This is my mom, a rebel in her own quiet and faithful way, following in her father’s steps before her. She never held a placard, joined a march, or wrote a letter to parliament, but she has moved mountains.



One thing my mom taught me is that there is nothing so constant as change. So the 13th reason I do what I do is because victory and progress are impermanent, always in flux, always dynamic. These are the people of Fish Lake. They got a gold mine stopped with the help of Small Change Fund and many others. Well, the company’s back. They are putting in another application.  The victory is possibly short-lived. Our work is never done.


This is why we have to continue to work hard. Number 14. I get up to work my butt off. This is my grandad, a very successful farmer in southern Ontario – he woke up every morning his whole life at 4:00 AM to shovel s***, feed animals, plant corn, fix heavy machinery, milk cows, keep abreast of a rapidly changing industry through the sweat of his brow and a lot of early mornings.


Which brings me to my final point – number 15 – the future is good and we can live in hope, which, if you were paying attention, was my first point. This is the gym in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. Youth and elders got together to reimagine their future with the help of a few renovations and a mural artist from Iqaluit. With $6,000 we transformed a community. It brought healing tears to their eyes and it brings tears to mine each time I tell the story.


If you’re lucky you’ll see a lot of other PechaKuchas but there are many you won’t see. There are so many ideas, diversity, talent, and passion out there, not to mention personal stories which are powerful. Your own story being the most powerful. So ask yourself the question – why do you get up in the morning? Do your own PechaKucha even if you only show it to your kids or parents or dog. What’s your story? There’s power in the answer.


Strategic Planning with a Systems Thinker

Anyone who has read stuff that I have written, or has talked to me about who inspires my work, knows that I’m a big fan of the late Donella Meadows – environmentalist, journalist, farmer, systems thinker, both a Pew Scholar in Conservation and Environment and a MacArthur Fellow. She wrote a brilliant piece called Dancing With Systems that I have returned to time and again. I’m not sure what Ms. Meadows would think of my imposing a strategic-planning-framework onto her dancing-with-systems-framework but I think she’d like it, or at least be amused by it. 

The reason I wanted to try to bring the two together is that strategic planning is still so dominated by a command and control approach. But, as  Dana O’Donovan & Noah Rimland Flower argue in The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategic Planning, “It is important to remember that strategy’s roots are military. Military strategy focuses on setting objectives, collecting intelligence, and then using that intelligence to make informed decisions about how to achieve your objectives—take that hill, cut this supply line…This approach to strategic planning was a reasonably good fit for much of the business world from the fifties through the eighties…the trusted, traditional approach to strategic planning is based on assumptions that no longer hold. The static strategic plan is dead.”

So, it might be that the strategic plan is dead. But planning is not. Planning is of utmost importance in a changing, complex, turbulent world. I believe Donella Meadows’ Dancing With Systems 14-steps to designing and redesigning systems, whatever systems they are – political, organizational, social, economic – hold deep relevancy for planning. As you and your organizations think about strategic planning, consider how you might dance your way through the process: 

1. Get the beat. Before your organization embarks on a strategic planning exercise, “watch how it behaves … learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. Pay attention to the value of what’s already there.” Too often our strategic planning starts from zero and turns a blind eye to where the organization has come from. But to know where you are going you have to know from whence you came. Always start any planning or visioning with a careful ear to the beat of your organization and what makes – has made – it hum over the years. 

2. Listen to the wisdom of the system. Too often organizations look to facilitators and professional consultants to shape their planning exercise, and for good reason as proper facilitation can help the process enormously. But, it’s often at the expense of those within the organization who hold the history, the values, the knowledge – the wisdom – of the system. “Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself.” Pull in your employees, your board members, your volunteers, your donors, your champions on the sidelines, and include them in the process of shaping your future. They are what makes your system run. It’s strategic planning with them, not for them. 

3. Expose your mental models to the open air. “Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.” This is rarely done in strategic planning, or rarely done well. But when added to an organization’s approach to future directions, it can be immensely enriching. Invite people to poke holes in your plan. Share drafts. Get other like-minded organizations to comment. Ask others to find your blind spots and challenge your thinking. This will make your planning more robust, better rationalized, stronger, and more relevant.

4. Stay humble. Stay a learner. Here’s one of the kickers. Too many organizations see the Strategic Plan as a static document against which they monitor progress. And monitoring is important – critical in fact – but not against rigid indicators that don’t adapt to changing conditions and externalities. Changing internalities as well. “In a world of complex systems, it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. ‘Stay the course’ is only a good idea if you’re sure you’re on course…What’s appropriate…is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where it’s leading.” This is hard in a world where we want solid answers and firm metrics, otherwise it’s messy and more nebulous. But Donella was onto something here that can’t be ignored. It’s a whole new way of thinking and can be quite liberating when embraced. 

5. Honor and protect information. This one’s not so hard. “I would guess that 99% of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of faulty or missing information. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.” In planning, bring information to the table. What’s worked? What hasn’t? Why? How do you know? Only then can an organization make smart decisions about future directions. Do your homework and inform the system. It will pay dividends.

6. Locate responsibility in the system. I often hear people say “a plan is only worth the paper it’s written on.” Unless an organization locates responsibility in the system for the implementation of the plan then that maxim is entirely true. “‘Intrinsic responsibility’ means that the system is designed to send feedback about the consequences of decision-making directly and quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.” Once your organization has done its planning and has its directions mapped out, ask yourselves Who’s responsible for what? Over what time period? How will it be reported back? By when? 

7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems. This one’s a little harder to superimpose on strategic planning but what Meadows was arguing was that we should be coming up with “policies that design learning into the management process.” So, in the context of strategic planning, maybe it’s to make feedback processes for feedback systems. What does that mean? This takes me to monitoring and evaluation. How do you create feedback loops as you implement your plan that allow your organization to constantly check in with how the plan is working, and – where it’s not – to do a mid-course correction, and make learning a central aspect of the whole process. 

8. Pay Attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable. It’s so easy to count numbers. How many people did you reach? How many acres were saved? How many youth attended the concert? How many facebook followers do you have? Tweets retweeted? “Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around you and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.”  Make sure your planning metrics pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable. Some things just can’t be measured in inches and feet, like staff morale, the impact on human lives and potential, the quality of relationships with collaborators, and the list goes on. 

9. Go for the good of the whole. “As you think about a system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system, not just the problem that may have drawn you to focus on the system to begin with.” I just read a fabulous case study on the RE-AMP Energy Network done by the Monitor Institute, in which they argue quite eloquently about the need to go for the good of the whole – to see the whole system and understand one’s place in it. Organizations only work within contexts – political, social, environmental – not apart from them. By placing your organizational planning squarely within the context in which your organization operates, you amplify your planning efforts by pointing your ship in a direction that makes sense. As one of the consultants to the RE-AMP network noted, “The interconnectedness of the issues, and the danger of potentially working against other advocates, was really the biggest ‘aha’ of it all.”

10. Expand time horizons. I love this one because despite what it suggests, it’s not about looking further into the future. It’s about expanding our understanding of short- and long-term phenomena and how they are nested one within the other. In good strategic planning, it’s not just about casting forward 10 years from now but understanding how actions taken now will have immediate impacts, and how some will resonate out decades from now; and, likewise, how actions taken 5 years ago still influence our organizations today. “When you’re walking along a tricky, curving, unknown, surprising, obstacle-strewn path, you’d be a food to keep your head down and look just at the next step in front of you. You’d be equally a fool just to peer far ahead and never notice what’s immediately under your feet. You need to be watching both the short and the long term – the whole system.”

11. Expand thought horizons. “Defy the disciplines. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from–while not being limited by–economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians.” Strategic planning can be very inward-focused, which isn’t a bad thing. But that can often mean that we are limited by the input of those formally connected to the organization. Like exposing our models to the open air, we should be exposing our planning to those that work across disciplines, across ethnicity, across gender, across age groups, across the close circles we start to move in. This is particularly true of organizations that serve a diversity of people, places, and projects. Include those voices in your planning process, or at the very least, groundtruth your plans with them. 

12. Expand the boundary of caring. This is the “do no harm” clause. We often think of organizations in their four walls, doing their thing, ‘sticking to their knitting” so to speak. But they are not separate. Everything you do – everything your organization does – is linked to all else. So while we need to plan for our distinct entities – be they foundations, NGOs, social purpose enterprises  – those plans are ipso facto felt by others. Do no harm and recognize that your plans are not externally neutral. “The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from the human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.”

13. Celebrate complexity. This is what allows me to sleep at night. We so want to get the answer right. To have a set course, and stick to it, and have it work out effectively. But we all know that doesn’t happen. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley” or as Steinbech paraphrased, “The best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” And that’s natural. Perhaps even good. “Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends time in transient behaviour on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equillibrium. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes this world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” The same is true of the universe that is our organizations. The less we fight it, the more we learn to adapt, the stronger, more creative, more resilient our organizations will be.  

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness. I might amend this one a little from Donella’s original list, not because I don’t respect and appreciate, and agree with, where she’s coming from but because it reminds me of the words of another wise sage of the modern age. Parker Palmer, Founder and Senior Partner of the Centre for Courage & Renewal, talks about the tragic gap, by which he means “the distance between what is and what we know to be possible; the tension between the reality of the moment and the possibility that something better might emerge.” So I agree with Donella, that we must hold fast to the goal of goodness. She rightly argues that “The public discourse is full of cynicism. Public leaders are visibly, unrepentantly, amoral or immoral and are not held to account. Idealism is ridiculed. Statements of moral belief are suspect. Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. And keep standards absolute.” I work in the world of social change which is by and large about goodness, a better world, more creative solutions to intractable problems. One of the big challenges for the organizations that I work with is using the planning process to hold fast to goodness while sitting in the tragic gap. Squarely in it. So that our plans are aspirational but realistic and truly serve to help us strive for what’s possible to meet the world’s need.


People For Education Communications Director Call For Applications

People For Education an independent organization working to support public education in Ontario’s English, French, and Catholic schools. For the past 17 years, the organization has been a powerful voice for public education in the province. We conduct vital research, answer parents’ questions, make policy recommendations and manage an extensive communications strategy to ensure there is a broad and ongoing dialogue about education issues in the media, online, and in a wide range of forums. Our goal is to ensure that every student has access to an enriched, broadly based education and that every student has an equitable chance for success. Together we make Ontario’s schools great.

People For Education is seeking a Communications Director, a new position within the organization, responsible for spearheading strategic direction initiatives and planning, coordination, and management of People For Education’s marketing, public relations, and strategic communications program.

We are a small, cohesive/team-organized organization with a commitment to using communications and research to have policy impact. Currently the People For Education website receives approximately 200,000 unique visits per year, the online community has 1,250 members and our staff has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter. We also have a presence on Facebook and 13,000 subscribers to our listserv.

Working collaboratively with the Executive Director, staff, board, and partners, the new Communications Director will build on People For Education’s current programs and initiatives, working toward greater impact, and broader engagement in a range of education issues.

As a core contributor to the organization’s team, the Communications Director will have a broad portfolio of responsibilities, including: maximizing People For Education’s on- and off-line presence; building public awareness of the organization’s work, services and products; increasing its reach into under-served communities; leveraging its relationship with partner organizations to maximize the spread of People For Education materials and information; and building capacity within the staff.  This is a unique and exciting opportunity to contribute to one of the most important issues the province faces today at a time when education is at the top of the public’s awareness and holds a significant position on the Government’s agenda. In this role, the Communications Director will have high potential to make a significant contribution to educational outcomes in Ontario.

The Communications Director will be responsible for spearheading strategic direction initiatives and planning, coordination, and management of the organization’s marketing, public relations, and strategic communications program. The Communications Director will work with both external and internal constituencies to create and communicate the organization’s messages and ensure overall continuity of institutional brand consistency and image.  As well, the Communication’s Director will support the organization’s staff and board in developing and maintaining strategic partnerships with external organizations and funders. The Communications Director will ensure that People For Education is viewed as the primary source, disseminator, and conduit of information within this diverse network and constituent base. In particular, the Communications Director will be responsible for:

Communications Strategy Design and Implementation

  • Together with the Executive Director, board, and staff, develop and execute a strategy using communications, marketing and public engagement standards and practices that reflect the organization’s mission and values including a business plan and maintenance strategy to sustain relationships with other community agencies, government bodies, educational institutions, and other non-profits and businesses
  • Identify emerging issues and trends and potential strategic responses and/or new and innovative approaches that could enhance the impact and reach of People For Education

Brand Development and Reinforcement

  • Develop a value proposition and key messages to communicate our core brand identity
  • Work closely with People For Education team to ensure messaging is consistent with overall communications, marketing and public engagement objectives

Marketing and Communications

  • Oversee and contribute to the organization’s on- and off-line presence
  • Manage the development, distribution, and maintenance of all print and electronic collateral including, but not limited to, newsletters, brochures, and People For Education’s website and online community (NING) to engage audience segments and lead to measurable action
  • Foster broad awareness of the organization and its campaigns on-the-ground and among funders, partners, government, non-profits, academics, parents, students, and advocates
  • Develop and oversee communications around research and policy initiatives

Media Relations

  • Manage media relations, research editorial opportunities, and build relationships with key industry media
  • Manage all media contacts

Partnership Development

  • Nurture and develop relationships with a wide range of organizations and individuals to advance the organization’s mission and programmatic goals
  • Leverage social networks to build affinities with potential partners, sponsors or issue positions

Capacity Building

  • Develop and execute the training for communications management and content creation that will allow staff to manage their respective communications’ roles
  • Provide communications strategy, content oversight, and creative management to the People For Education team, including working with consulting writers, designers, and programmers
  • Collaborate with board, Executive Director, and staff to realize the organization’s broader vision and mission and help build, and contribute to, the organization’s culture and values of innovation, commitment to public education, “humanness” and openness to new ideas and multiple points of view

Tracking Administration and reporting

  • Plan and administer budgets for communications/marketing for the organization
  • Provide monthly reporting to the team
  • Put communications vehicles in place to create momentum and awareness as well as to test the effectiveness and relevancy of communications activities

The ideal candidate will be open-minded, collaborative, have a sense of humour, and be a leader capable of working with a group of leaders. He or she will have the expertise necessary to effectively deliver on the organization’s mandate. In particular the Communications Director will have:

  • A degree in a relevant field, including public relations, journalism, communication, or marketing
  • A minimum of five years professional experience, ideally with some experience working in non-profit advocacy
  • Experience developing and implementing communications strategies
  • Demonstrated interest in the public sector and educational issues
  • A passion for public education
  • Excellent writing/editing and verbal communication skills
  • Comprehensive knowledge of media operations and expertise in the field of public relations and release of information for publication
  • Proven ability to develop communication strategies related to organizational policies in collaboration with a diverse team
  • Knowledge of the latest advances in effective use of digital and social media for effective communication, including (ideally) online communities, search engine optimization and other digital marketing tools
  • Ability to handle multiple projects under time and resource pressure
  • A high level of energy and passion, and a willingness to be a strong advocate for the organization’s mission and programs and its role on the education landscape
  • The ability to take initiative, think strategically, and work creatively
  • Proficiency in basic financial management
  • High energy, maturity, and leadership with the ability to serve as a unifying force and to position communications discussions at both the strategic and tactical levels
  • A flexible and enthusiastic approach to work and a proven capacity to be an effective team player with others in a collaborative workplace
  • Computer proficiency and experience with web management and WordPress
  • Be known as a relationship-builder and collaborator
  • Be detail- and results-oriented
  • A facility with other languages – French in particular – would be an asset

Compensation is commensurate with experience. The position is based in Toronto, Ontario and the ability to travel is considered an asset.

To apply or recommend candidates for the position please contact Ruth Richardson of Open Blue Consulting, in confidence, at ruth@openblue.ca. Interested candidates should send a cover letter and resumé in one singular document in .pdf format to ruth@openblue.ca by Friday 21 June 2013 at 5:00 PM EST. Please also include 3 writing samples.



Aboriginal Education and Youth Leadership

On December 13 + 14 in Ottawa The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada launched its Collaborative Circle on Education and Youth Leadership. 90 people attended – teachers, community leaders, youth,  philanthropists, government representatives, students, advocates –  to cultivate the dialogue in the country around Aboriginal education, explore future collective engagement on Aboriginal education, and foster and strengthen connections between diverse parties toward improvement of educational opportunities for Aboriginal children and youth. Through presentations, interactive sessions, and a number of “world cafes,” 5 key themes emerged:

1. There is an urgency and magnitude to the challenge.

While the Circle is deliberately forward-looking, with an eye to positive future possibilities and potential, it was impossible to discuss Aboriginal education in the absence of recognizing the non-system that is Aboriginal education. When compared to mainstream schools, First Nations schools receive minimal support, teachers in Aboriginal schools are typically paid 30% less than in the non-Aboriginal system, and the discrepancies go on and on. “Communities are given an impossible choice. Parents have to ask ‘do we want our children to go to a First Nations school with no equipment, books, computers, resources or supports, or enter the provincial system and endure systemic racism where they don’t learn our culture?’ This is a decision any parent would be horrified to have to make.”

2. Aboriginal education is a national issue not an Aboriginal issue.

There is a history in Canada of relegating Aboriginal issues to the fringe. Poor living conditions, lack of clean drinking water, education devoid of a cultural narrative or context – these are all issues that are easily deemed “Aboriginal issues” with little or no connection to the rest of the country and its non-Aboriginal populations. There was strong consensus at the launch of the Collaborative Circle on Education and Youth Leadership that the problems inherent in Aboriginal education are not just about Aboriginal peoples but about Canada and who and what we are as a nation. Whether from a moral, economic, social, or environmental point of view, any issues affecting Aboriginal peoples in Canada affect the whole country.

“This is a national priority akin to violence against women. It’s not an Aboriginal issue but a Canadian issue. All young people have the same potential to contribute to our lives and to this country.”

3. Strong leadership and youth voices are vital.

One of the strongest themes coming out of the two days in Ottawa was the importance of leadership from chiefs, principals, and teachers, to – most importantly – youth who have significant power to affect and shape their futures. “I hope young people participate in the process because they have huge power. There are a lot of young people in the system and they have strong opinions on what they want. There is no question there is enormous power there.” Youth are ready and engaged and simply need ways to insert their voices into the halls of power and systems of governance in a real way with helpful guidance.

4. Aboriginal education needs to be culturally appropriate.

Aboriginal education has far more success when it’s delivered in the context of language and culture. “Where there are First Nations secondary and tertiary supports, the results seem to follow. The more we can build First Nations structures, the better students and schools will do.” There is a legacy of disconnect that is starting to wane as evidenced in certain jurisdictions, for example at Yukon College where culturally-based education is a key component of their strategy with a very strong teacher training program focused on hiring First Nations teachers and incorporating language, traditional intelligence, and traditional knowledge.

“The kids want to know aspects of their culture and their language. We thought they wanted to talk about jobs but it was who they are – their language and identify –  that they are really concerned about. When you see young people get the education they need, you see it impacts them in a profound way.” 

5. It’s time to move forward and strengthen action and impact.

A question posed to the participants was “What ways have we experienced disruptive influences and what are the creative ways to build community again?” In other words, how to we move forward and strengthen action and impact? First, collaborate. Participants agreed that collaboration is a critical ingredient to any action to advance Aboriginal education across the country.

Second, co-create. Consultation often only happens in the very final stages, or at the lowest level, of a process. Aboriginal groups tend to be consulted almost as an afterthought, not at all levels of decision-making processes. The National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education’s report put forward the idea of co-creation – quite distinct from consultation – in developing new education-focused legislation. “We did recommend legislation, structures, tracking success, and adequate funding based on needs. But most importantly, we recommended that it all be co-created which is  a new idea for legislation development. It would push both parties beyond their current thinking. Legislation in Canada has never been created by more than one party. It’s difficult but not impossible. Consultation is not co-creation – both parties need to sit down together and create legislation that makes sense for everyone.”

Third, be accountable. “Notice in the materials the government has circulated regarding the legislation process. It talks about accountability for money received, but financial accountability is only one part of it. What about sustainable, predictable, adequate funding? What about accountability for teachers to be respectful of culture and traditions?” We need to engender better mutual accountability with and amongst each part of the system, and especially to Aboriginal students, across a multiplicity of accountability measures. 

Finally , innovate. We can’t keep throwing the same solutions at old problems. If they haven’t worked before, it’s unlikely they’ll work in the future without a new approach or different mechanisms of design and implementation. For example, shift money from social services to economic development, look at including skills development training for parents when they drop their kids off at school, integrate services within one building like schools and health complexes, recreational facilities and others, promote and support social entrepreneurship in the youth sector, and explore new models of capitalization and funding for schools now. This is just the beginning.

“We need to experiment, learn from failure, and stand up next time and do it better.”

For the full report, click here


Social Innovation and the Social Innovator

I’m reading an article by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive at the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, entitled The Process of Social Innovation. It’s a great read for many reasons, one of which is his ability to draw the connections between social innovation and the social innovator.

He states that In charities and social enterprises, the founders who were just right for the organization during its early years are unlikely to have the right mix of skills and attitudes for a period of growth and consolidation. Often founders cling on too long, and trustees, funders and stakeholders do not impose necessary changes … Indeed, growth in all sectors nearly always involves outgrowing founders. Wise founders therefore put in place robust succession plans, and very few successfully remain in executive roles.”

I wonder how this is linked to his earlier comment in the paper about the individual vs. the collective. He encourages the reader to understand the question of who drives social innovation: “Individuals are the carriers of ideas rather than originators. If we ask which innovations had the most impact over the past half century, the role of individuals quickly fades into the background. The far-reaching movements of change, such as feminism or environmentalism, have involved millions of people and dozens of intellectual and organizational leaders, many of whom have had the humility to realize that they were often as much following as directing changes in public consciousness.”

Mulgan’s thinking bodes well for those questioning The Problem with Creative Genius like Christina Bagatavicius of CultureSpotting. She wonders why the lone genius myth has been so hard to shake, arguing that “Given that we live in a complex and information rich world, its time to step away from the megalomaniac paradigms and leap into the arms of collective genius.” She, like Mulgan, sees bright spots – “In fields such as science, business, and design – this is an emerging trend that continues to gain traction. The folks at NASA have gone out on a limb and pointed out that the future of space exploration depends on bringing together an interdisciplinary swat team. Within the field of innovation strategy, one need only look at design firms like IDEO to recognize that a think tank approach to problem solving is part of the new world order. And god bless Malcolm Gladwell for finally debunking the whole, ‘you’re just born with’ schtick.”

S0, maybe we are starting to shake it. Here in Canada we can point to initiatives like SiG, Evergreen, and Waterlution that “offer passionate people the space, process and inspiration to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogue” where the collective genius wins out over the lone genius every time … creatively, strategically, and effectively. Of course with every 1 example of collaborative problem-solving there are 10 examples of the opposite – the master of the universe with all the right answers up his sleeve.

But with the likes of Mulgan, Bagatavicius, Gladwell, NASA and others really listening to the people and problems around them – paying attention to systems – there is a new zeitgeist starting to take shape with its roots deep in the wisdom of systems-thinking which has always recognized that everything we know, everything everyone knows, is only a model and must be exposed to the open air where others can poke holes in it, add to it, subtract from it and then, together, can come up with truly innovative, responsive, grounded, and flexible solutions.

For a deeply intelligent, poetic, and wise take on this question, have a read through Parker Palmer’s Autumn where he talks about a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox. The universe is messy and our navigational systems will only be as effective as our ability to wade through that mess and learn to hold opposites – perspectives, ideas, contradictions – together. And no one can do that alone. This perspective requires collective thinking and the melding of different, sometimes seemingly contradictory, viewpoints. As Palmer eloquently states “opposites do not negate each other – they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out.”

I’m not sure how I got from Geoff Mulgan @ NESTA to Parker Palmer @ The Centre for Courage and Renewal but it was an interesting journey for me. Hopefully it will help spark your own thinking about the role of the innovator in social innovation and the implications for far-reaching movements of change. 

P.S. After writing this Michael Lewkowitz of Igniter sent me an article called Silicon Valley is Stupid with an interesting point that further delves into this fascinating topic on the role of the innovator in social innovation: “Let’s start with the startups. You might think that most successful startups begin with some genius’s brilliant idea. The genius shares this idea with a trusted investor who provides money to hire a team. They work really hard, have a big launch and become a success. But this is not how big companies begin … Successful startups often begin with no idea at all. They start with some friends who simply enjoy building things together, without any specific idea of what they are going to build or how they are going to make money at it. It sounds silly, but that’s exactly how Hewlett-Packard began. Two nerds in a garage … Flickr began by working on something else altogether. Twitter came out of the train wreck of a podcasting startup.” Bottom line? ” The intelligence is distributed, and it works.”


Jane and Goliath

I recently reread an article by Roberta Brandes Gratz, an award-winning journalist and urban critic, entitled Jane Jacobs and the Power of Women Planners. It’s a poignant article with Jane Jacobs at its epicenter exploring the implications of women’s voices being far from the epicenter of planning discussions and decisions.

This is a topic that interests me as I’m an advocate of amplifying women’s voices in planning, or anywhere for that matter. But what struck me in the article was, in fact, a question Gratz poses through a story about Jacobs “whether cities should be developed with big plans and inspiring visions or modest steps and incremental change?”

I can’t tell you the number of articles I’ve read lately that suggest we need new leaders with bolder visions to effect massive change. Or the number of conference speakers. Or the number of foundation websites. Or the number of newspaper articles. We are bombarded with this idea that you need to go big or go home. But for Jacobs “big plans lead to big mistakes and stifle imagination and alternatives … big plans (are) routinizers, formulas, smootherers.”

I’m a fan of big ideas but I think Jacobs unearths a powerful truth that is slowly starting to take root in the social consciousness of the day.

Take Jane Wolff. She’s a professor at University of Toronto and the creative brain behind GUTTER to GULF, a website designed to extend and support efforts by grassroots organizations to develop resilient water management strategies for New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina there were lots of big plans and bold visions. Wolf asked instead “what’s the smallest thing we can do?”

Or Malcolm Gladwell who, in commenting on the Occupy Movement, recognized the role of revolutionary thought and action but argued that, more importantly, “the tweaker is one of the noblest and most important of all roles in innovation.”

And then there’s Ian Brown who wrote in the Globe and Mail about What the Gateway Commission Could Learn from an Oil Sands Pioneer. He paints a brief picture of the life of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, the Canadian geologist/paleontologist/explorer/, particularly his interaction with Ahyout, an Inuit chief who saved Tyrrell’s life by drawing a map to show him how to reach Hudson’s Bay and thereby escape winter, dysentery, and dead-end river routes.

“It’s hard to fathom how they worked it out. Yet somehow, together, surrounded by their mutual need and the terrain they were trying to map, by translating the specific physical experiences of the route ahead into marks on a piece of paper, the strangers fashioned a mutual understanding.”

Brown goes on to say that “Right away, I could see it showed what kind of a country we once were, back when we were still modest enough to assume there was always more than one answer to a question.”

Apply this to perhaps the most striking example of big idea planning Canada has seen – the Alberta Tar Sands – as Brown does, and it makes me wonder. What if we applied Jacobs’ modest steps and incremental change? What if we asked of the pipeline developers and engineers what’s the smallest thing we can do? What if we assumed there was more than one answer to the question?

Of course we would be criticized by many for being unrealistic, or worse. But we could use more voices – women’s, children’s, men’s, elder’s– asking smaller questions. Asking, as Jacobs always did, “about things close to home – street, neighborhood and community.”