Why I bothered to organize Spark! (and why you, humble quiet organizer who does not love the word social innovation, should be there with me)
I am part of a core team organizing Spark — the Canadian Social Innovation Exchange — for six reasons:
- Making change is an essential competency for humans to survive in the long-term, and steward the planet well. Without it, we are subject to unnecessary violence, chaos and catastrophe.
- Making change is not a solo enterprise — we’re in this together.
- We can get better at it — it’s complex, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at shifting our systems towards more positive patterns.
- We need time and space to learn this craft together. It takes time to get good at systems change. Making change in our systems isn’t always the same as other kinds of doing good. And while both matter a lot, we don’t have much emphasis on the making change part in our current education, business, governance, health and other systems.
- The network is smarter than any one of us — so many people have gifts of perspective and experience in making change, and we all win when these gifts are shared. Spark! is a way to bring more people, different people, together to ignite a broader movement for social change.
- In Canada we have, this year, a unique opportunity to bolster a movement for social innovation (for making change, better). Read more here.
Ever felt like an outsider?
Making change can be tricksy, and it can be hard, and the words we use to talk about doing it can be fuzzy. Ever felt like an outsider when someone uses a word like…
Agent of change
Social impact investor
Well, me too. And really, most people. For me, as a humble practitioner [someone with their hands dirty trying to make change everyday], as someone who has put a lot of blood sweat and yes, a few tears into organizing this mad venture, Spark! is not about those words. Those words are just one part of the project of trying to figure something out together — how we can make positive change, together.
My communities on the ground making change include: very, very brave lawyers and social workers across the Middle East, organizing to give voices and means to people wanting to improve their local communities even in the face of major international politics buffeting them (the International Community Action Network continues this heavy work); heroic agency executives, unpaid community organizers, and super volunteers who together steward the nonprofit sector as a way to change policy (shout outs to Ontario Nonprofit Network and Volunteer Alberta, among many others); and a few mad bureaucrats rejecting a very safe life to be part of creating a new form of government (here’s looking at you, #gcdigital community and #civicpunks everywhere). Each one of us involved in making change has our own practical, grounded communities that use their own languages for the work they do. So let’s acknowledge the goodness in that diversity, and embrace the fuzziness of the words for a moment. The movement is bigger than any one of our terms.
The humble call
I know I do not have all the answers to rooting peace in the Middle East, putting public benefit back at the core of our corporate mandates, or creating government that is responsive to the people whose lives it shapes. For me, Spark! is a humble gathering. It is funded (which is super helpful!) but even with the support of some brave institutions, really in the end it is a single call, from one voice to the next:
“Helloooooo, are you out there? Are you also trying to make the world a better place, systematically? Do you have any ideas for me as I try to do that too? Can I help you out as you walk your path? Can we get further together? Can we discover some better paths together?”
So Spark! is a call from individual people out there who are working hard to change their communities for the better, to other people who are working hard to change THEIR communities. How can we make the world better, together? That is a question each one can try to answer alone, but ultimately it is something that we need to learn about together. Something we get better at together. And Spark! is needed for that, because of this:
System stewardship is needed, but it is not the same as system CHANGE. And we need to understand and invest in system change!
Some people are what I call Awesome Stewards. They steward our systems — they renew our passports, they run our local faith groups and soccer clubs, they mentor kids, they do art and run community cafes and sing opera and garden healthy food and inspect our restaurants and grocery stores for health standards, and all kinds of other wonderful things. And that work should not stop. It is awesome. We really need it, or all the good we have created would not continue. Kids would not have amazing teachers encouraging them to read in school, and learn things about themselves. Adults would not have second chances to rebuild their lives. Sick people would not get care. This work, maintaining systems and humanizing them, is probably about 90% (loosely!) of the work we all do as socially-minded humans. Let us honour it, and let us keep doing it.
That said, sometimes, stewardship work becomes a part of changing the world, but not always. Stewardship is not inherently about changing the world. It is about maintaining it. Stewardship work could happen for a whole lifetime without a culture or community looking substantially different. Sometimes this stewardship is exactly what is needed, but sometimes, it is insufficient or even damaging to the health of a culture, community or environment.
Fortunately, there is a crazy, small slice of the population that is all about changing the world, despite all the odds. These are people who see parts of the system that should not be stewarded — kids who are getting left behind because of a silly rule that could be different, or rain forests that are destroyed because of a mindset that was once helpful, but no longer is. They are people who perhaps fought to be free to live in a peaceful way, and want that way to be an option for others — who they marry, which bathrooms they use, where they can work, what they can learn, the chance not to be enslaved, and so on. Whatever their reason and goal, all of these people — these ‘change makers’ — step out of their stewardship work to see if they can not only save one kid, or one tree, or keep the system from collapsing, but go further. They ask, can I make the system better for the next kids, and the whole forest, and the people whose lives maybe don’t fit well in the current system? This work also really, really matters: the work of making change. And proportionally, right now, in this time on our planet, we need more of it in the world.
The work of making change is a kind of work that we haven’t honoured, and named, and supported in our current mainstream systems [writing from Canada and a fraught global internet culture, 2017]. There are not a lot of places to go where the mission of Changing the World is accepted as a norm, or even as a positive deviance. (Think: most major corporations, public schools, governments, social clubs, and even many nonprofits and social groups who focus on amazing stewardship work but don’t necessarily support change). Sometimes, community organizing, advocacy and other ‘change making’ activity is marginalized or suppressed, labelled dissent, advocacy, revolution, counterculture, unpatriotic activity, rebellion, and much more. Here and now, in recent decades, it is being rediscovered and named as “social innovation” and other such terms. Spark! is to bring together those who are starting to invest their time and resources in ways that humans can collectively get better at making change.
Making change is an essential survival skill.
This is work is not a luxury or a leisure activity, it is an imperative. If humans do not collectively get better at making change, we run a great risk: the risk of suffering all the changes that will come upon us anyway, and the additional risk of being totally unprepared to respond well. We will in stupefaction continue to suffer the changes that blindsides us: the black swans, the violent disruptions of chaotic revolution, the catastrophic collapse fragile systems pushed beyond their breaking points when stewardship, gone awry, has become a means of avoiding and suppressing healthy difference and necessary change.
Spark! is part of a bigger fire, a broader movement
Spark! is the first time that people who care about making change have come together from all across Canada, in a big open exchange, to see how we can get better at doing that together.
It is not perfect — it is a prototype, an experiment, a chance to build on what has passed and improve it, a chance to have honest, difficult, joyful conversations about what is REALLY working and what might NOT be working for people who are trying to make change. I already have dreams of the next exchange and what I hope it can be, even knowing that this first step caught just some of the rays of light we envisioned. I know that more honesty will be required, that it will take more time than the humble organizers have this year to reach the edges of our networks and beyond, that some questionable assumptions are likely baked in despite our best efforts to be clear eyed, that we shot for the moon, the sun, and perhaps hit at first the stars. That is to an extent, intentional: that is what happens when you invite people in at the first moment to make something together. And it gladdens my heart, I embrace the imperfection, because it means that the project is bigger than a year, or a month, can make it. This is a lifetime effort (a forever effort), not just one event.
And I think, even knowing this is a single step, I can feel the heart of this work is alive, beating strongly. A set of brave partners is making space, through Spark!, to honestly consider some of the things that we call supports for making change, might actually be making it harder. There is room to consider that other things that are currently unnamed and under-supported, might matter much more than we think. Some lessons from one domain area — health, environment, arts, sports, social justice — might be just what another movement or organization needs to take their work to the next level. Some types of making change — through media, evaluation, facilitation, design, community organizing, faith — might get better when they collide. Things might just look different after Spark!
For me, I take a deep breath and look ahead to next year. I hope that each person who comes to Spark! in 2017 is, well, Sparked! (pun-groan, but also serious). I hope each of us makes some connections, receives some fire and light and energy, some ideas, and some steps we can weave into their work for the coming year. That each one who makes Spark! with us sees their work in a bigger frame, a bigger movement others are also working within. I hope that working together as peers gives us some new insights about what is needed to continue this practice — of getting better at making change, together. We can only do it if those who are positive and hopeful, and also black hats, the skeptics, those toiling in the dark and in the toughest times, come together to help each other out, not just in spite of their questions and uncertainties and humilities and trials, but exactly because those are the hunches out of which we will indeed get better. If we throw ourselves into a confident, humble learning time and apply those lessons in the world and step to reflect again and keep going, we will indeed get better together.
You, crazy beautiful one, you are humbly invited
So to all the incredible, beautiful people who want the world to be better for everyone, and want to understand how to define and test what “better” means, what it can look like, and how we can get there together — this Spark!’s for you. Please join us to make this a productive, concrete, action-oriented, insightful couple of days, a spark for something more, the start of more ways and means to move the bar on making positive, systemic change.
Thanks for reading. I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and a new era of making intentional, positive change in Canada and beyond.
Also, thanks to Cathy Taylor especially for the long passionate chats about Spark! that led to this blog, and to my fellow Spark! planning team members, the Wasaners, the Suncor Gatherers, and everyone who has taken the time to hear me rant about making the world a better place in the last year in particular. And everyone who has pushed me to get better at making change. I credit all of you the best of this little piece. All errors, omissions and misrepresentations are my own.