Thriving in times of disruption
The town of Lockeport is rallying to address the impact of rising sea levels.

The town of Lockeport is rallying to address the impact of rising sea levels.

by Susan Szpakowski

It’s getting harder to walk the line between being positive and being real. Do we have to choose? Is it possible to thrive in the midst of climate and ecological crises? What does thriving even mean in these times?

Images of climate strikes, clogged oceans, lost species, and mass human migrations are all over the news, seeping into our collective consciousness. Few of us dare to look at where it all might be heading.

How can anyone stay sane in these times, let alone thrive? Our tagline—”Let’s come together to create a future that works for all”—is beginning to sound like wishful thinking, even denial. Even in the past year something has shifted, and it’s getting harder to see how our very local, very practical efforts will make a difference, given all the global crises we can’t control.

Or is it?

If you listened in to recent planning conversations, you would overhear comments like these.

  • “We don’t need false hope, but we do need to keep our spirits up. Coming together and staying connected is so important.”

  • “In our communities, it will become even more critical to have places to gather and connect, open our homes to neighbours, break bread and share culture, create networks of care and inclusion. As a region, we already know how do this, as a way of life. It’s in our recent memory, our DNA. We need to tell these stories, bring this knowledge forward.”

  • “More than ever, communities need to be resilient and innovative. As people at the grassroots level take initiative, build trust, and forge new partnerships to address current challenges, they are building their capacity to tackle even bigger challenges in the future. Thrive can collect resources and offer skill-building to support these trends.”

  • “Disruption exposes the underbelly… all the things that have been hidden below the surface—like systemic racism and the impact of our colonial history. Healing our relationships makes us all stronger and lays the ground for co-creating more human-centred and robust systems. Healing begins with acknowledging what’s there, being present to each other. We can do this when we take the time to find our way through.”

  • “We need to get real about our vulnerabilities—food security, energy independence, healthcare, mental health, transportation, affordable housing, the integrity of our land and water. What can we learn from First Nations? What can citizens do? What must governments do? What is the role of a socially and environmentally responsible economy? Let’s make space at Thrive for people working on these issues to find each other and learn together.”

  • “The question isn’t just, how can we thrive in the future? It’s also, how can we thrive right now—in the way we go about our lives and our work? In the way we gather? How can Thrive be enlivening and nourishing, while also engaging difficult questions and challenges like these?”

These are among the conversations that will continue at Thrive. You can take a look at the streams through this lens and share your ideas about the topics and on-the-ground stories you would like to engage with in the break-outs.

In the meantime, we’re still wondering whether we need a new tagline and, if so, what it should be. Suggestions welcome!

Susan SzpakowskiComment
How Gaels Jam

by Melissa McMaster

A group of Nova Scotia’s Gaels take time to dive into questions that matter, see new possibilities, and forge a root system of ongoing relationships.

At first I was hesitant to commit to an event that asked me to leave my daily routine for six consecutive days. With Gaelic-centred events in general, we often have to leave our daily lives to connect with our people because our community is so scattered across the region, and that is always a challenge. The organizers encouraged me to fill out an application form anyway, to see if the Jam was going to be the right place to give my energy to.

The application turned out to be very inspiring! The questions got me thinking on a bigger scale in regards to the Gaelic community in Nova Scotia and got me dreaming up possibilities—questions like…

  • What does it mean to you to be a Gael?

  • What inspires you to make a positive difference in the world and/or Gaelic community? What are you most excited about in the Gaelic community right now?

  • What are your top three questions that you’re sitting with about the Gaelic community?

  • In your opinion, what does the Nova Scotian Gaelic community need to do to create more speakers and a stronger culture? What’s missing?

I became so excited that I was ready to give the time necessary to gather and delve deeper into these topics.

The thing I appreciated most about the Jam was its slow-moving pace. We had time to actively experiment with “what's alive in our community” and “what we can make together.” We spent a lot of our time talking about the bridge between tradition/culture and modern times and understanding what is asked of us now as Gaels in this region.

To be able to slow down with a group of 20 people felt outside the norm of the usual fast-pace of the mainstream. This slower pace was held with great care by the facilitators in the way they spoke, the way the day was scheduled with time for rest or connection in other ways, and with the deep welcome for all perspectives or challenges in the circle. I found the whole model to be very supportive and kept me stitched into the experience the whole time.

What surprised me was that the Jam has its own culture, which isn’t necessarily rooted in Gaelic traditions. This Jam culture included ideas and assumptions about being a human and what is needed in our world. For instance there was an emphasis on the belief in hope and the idea of self-development as a tool to be in service to the world at large. These seemed to be a foundational worldview for the Jam design. Having the awareness of these basic skills certainly does help with understanding our accountability, consequences of our actions, and responsibility to our communities.

The Jam also welcomes diverse contributions. Morgan, a young Mi'kmaq man, offered a smudging ceremony and talking circle on the first morning. I found the talking circle to be very effective in a different way because he chose a “talking topic”— in this case courage. We all spoke of what courage means to us and how we show up courageously in our communities. The hybrid facilitation-ritual activities we did certainly brought the group to a deeper level of realization and sharing of the grief and hardships we all carry, especially in the Gaelic and Indigenous communities. The design of the Jam allowed us to move from these important conversations about deep heartaches and grief into laughter and delight and joy for being alive together. This showed up in our music making, dancing, creativity and in our very funny skits throughout the week!


Softening my idealism allowed me to recognize that, of the things available and ways to proceed in the Nova Scotian Gaelic community, the Jam is one of the best options for trying to tend to what is needed and experimenting with other ways of gathering. I do feel that I now have a community of 20 people I can call on to wonder more or dive deeper into certain topics or propose ideas with. This is a rich and bolstering thing!

I am left wondering how to track the impact of our Jam and how to share what we’ve learned with others who are also looking for ways to structure gatherings with groups of people holding different world-views. The Jam design helps frame questions and activities in a profound enough way, so that the work can be productive AND collective. After the Jam it appears that “the way forward” is a lot more simple; really focusing on community-building right where we live in our own neighbourhoods and shrinking down any grand efforts to span the province and connect with folks living far-away. Simplifying our focus to the people, place and land where we spend our day-to-day allows us to have greater and deeper impact in a sustainable way.

Read more about the 2019 Nova Scotia Gaels Jam. Learn about the origin of Jams.

Susan SzpakowskiComment
Re-imagining aging

Conversation with Jocelyn Yerxa, by Jennifer DeCoste

As co-lead of NS GovLab within the Nova Scotia Department of Seniors, Jocelyn reflects on how a social innovation lab can help address issues related to our aging population.

Jennifer : The topic certainly sounds relevant. What are you trying to accomplish in this case, and why a lab?

Jocelyn: My colleague Aubrie McGibbon and I support lab participants from all across the province. Together we are reimagining an older population and trying to figure out what needs to change in terms of policies, programs and services. We are also running prototypes that help us understand how to address complex problems such as social isolation.

We are looking at some pretty large questions:

  • How might we create a province where people can age at home and stay connected to their community? 

  • How might we foster connections across generations and cultures to create resilient communities in Nova Scotia that can adapt to their changing demographics?

For those who are unfamiliar with social labs, can you tell us a bit more about how a lab is set up? How are participants chosen?

We structure participation as a fellowship opportunity and we accept applications two times a year. Our fellows are from all sectors, all ages, many areas of the province, and diverse  backgrounds. They commit to the fellowship for a year. The first part of the year is an immersive learning experience about social innovation lab theories and methods. The second phase is an opportunity for fellows to integrate those learnings into their work and lives. We are also building a community of practice with our fellows as they complete the second phase. We anticipate that involvement will continue well beyond the lab itself. 

Our lab has foundational principles as well, which you can read more about in my blog post, “The Octopus Beak: How the Octopus Inspired the 7 principles of NS GovLab.”  You can find out more and stay up-to-date on what we are up to following us on Twitter too.


When we worked together in government there were all kinds of different approaches to complex problems, why did you land on a lab for this work?

We chose to use a lab approach because it is versatile. Labs allow us to focus on diversity and learning through experimentation with partners in the field. We work together to test, see what works and doesn’t, pivot, and try again.

One thing I’ve learned though is that a lab is not well suited for all situations. Early on I wrote the blog post “What is NS GovLab? Social Innovation 101” about this. A lab is not a “better” approach, but rather a different approach that works well for complex problems like aging. It connects people who have a stake in the outcome with building and testing solutions. This was important for us especially because we believe a social innovation lab will help us learn, explore and ultimate create positive change for the future.

It sounds like an amazing learning opportunity for everyone. What has been your main learning?

I have learned so much…where to begin! I think Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  We’ve had two cohorts of fellows so far. That’s forty-three thoughtful, committed individuals. They have been incredibly inspiring in their open-mindedness and willingness to suspend their own perspectives to learn from others. 

I’ve learned so much from our small leadership team too. We had a group of public servants and private sector contributors: Beth Fox, Mo Drescher, Rayna Preston, Aubrie McGibbon and myself.  Beth and Rayna were given some of their work time from other positions in government to support the development of NS GovLab. They have also volunteered many hours. We were lucky enough to be able to contract Brave Space to allow Mo to dedicate time to each of the first phase with cohort 1 and 2. Co-creating NS GovLab with this team in real time is challenging and rewarding. It takes a lot of trust and humility to learn together every day. I feel very privileged to have had that with this amazing group of humans. 

Do you think there is space for more social labs in Atlantic Canada?

I think social innovation labs provide a great opportunity for learning and insights as well as unusual and unexpected connections. However, like I said earlier, labs are not for every problem and every problem doesn’t need a lab. My vision would be that we work together in Atlantic Canada to get clarity on what the lab process it and where/when we use it. I’d also like to see people sharing what they are learning so that we can have stronger labs in this region. It is still a relatively new approach and very contextually dependent, so an opportunity to learn and grow the field together in Atlantic Canada would be a great opportunity.

Follow NS GovLab on Medium. Find out more about the activities of the NS Department of Seniors. Learn more about social innovation labs here and here. At the 2019 THRIVE gathering, the Design Thinking stream will apply complexity tools to the issue of aging and ageism. One of the Glimpses of Thriving sessions will focus on “Becoming elders” and another will bring together learning and examples from social innovation labs in the region.

Beyond the rails

by Susan Szpakowski

At THRIVE we’ve been grappling with the same challenges we seek to address. How to keep moving forward while building trusting relationships and deconstructing colonial patterns? What is a distraction and what is the “real work”?

“It sounds like THRIVE has gone off the rails.” I overheard this comment recently, referring to what’s been going on in the design team. In December a group of us came together to plan the plenary events and instead took a deep dive into the foundations of THRIVE. Myself and a co-facilitator had come with a tight agenda, labelled flip chart sheets, and background handouts. But we never got past the check-in. For three hours we sat in a circle hearing about the discomfort some folks had felt at THRIVE, why their community didn’t show up, and questioning the leadership model, culture and founding assumptions. As the key driver behind the founding of THRIVE, I squirmed in my seat and found it difficult not to take it all personally.

And of course it is personal. When you invest your passion, time and good intentions in a project, it can be devastating to be challenged at such a deep level. I had to erase a milestone or two, along with a chunk of pride, and mostly just listen for three excruciating hours.

These are the times we are in. The push to “accelerate” or “amplify” or “scale” change can be tinged with colonial mindsets. As self-identified (usually white) change-makers, we often think we know what others need, and we assume we know the best way to get there. We just need to move faster, smarter, with better tools and more agility. And then we need to “include” those at the “margins.” I actually felt some relief watching all of that momentum start to unravel.

I also started to think differently about success. I left that meeting reassuring a colleague that it had been a “win” for THRIVE. For one thing, those who would usually quietly slip away were willing to show up for this. How generous is that? AND everyone offered to come back in the new year to continue the process. In the closing circle some asked, “Where else is this conversation really happening?” “If not us, then who? If not now, when?” Someone said, “This is the work. This is how we thrive.”

So when I heard the rumour that the design team had taken THRIVE “off the rails,” I thought, YES! Those rails are headed to a known destination, built by others in a past we don’t necessarily want to replicate. We are trying to find our way to a different destination, one that doesn’t yet exist. The way forward is uncertain and messy. It seems our only reliable compass is our humanity—what feels authentic and true, what nourishes and sustains, what creates positive change with rather than for others.

So now there is a slower rhythm of reweaving THRIVE’s foundation and relationships, which is moving at the speed of trust. In parallel is the more linear, time-bound process of planning and hosting an event that will take place in June. It’s uncomfortable to hold both, and some have suggested we postpone the June event.

At the same time, holding this dilemma seems to be part of the work. The urgency to address issues like poverty, health, food security, failing economies and environmental degradation is real. Climate change and global instability are on everyone’s minds. We do need to connect, illuminate, and amplify positive examples in our region. In parallel, how can we also take the time to deconstruct colonial mindsets and create a different ground for our work? How can we build the kind of relationships that will sustain us and create the foundation for something new that works for everyone.

I think these are exactly the kind of questions we need to bring into THRIVE. Our commitment at this point is that the June gathering will indeed happen, as a space where the difficult questions and the “real work” are welcome—in all their messiness, vulnerability, joy, uncertainty and wisdom. I hope to see you there.

Susan SzpakowskiComment
Home by another name

by Susan Szpakowski

Waking up to where we are and how we got here can be unsettling.

I arrived in Nova Scotia in 1986, and like many immigrants before me, came with visions of a good life. Over time, Nova Scotia, as a place and a name, became associated with home and all the special places and memories of a family growing and sinking its roots into the soil.

Something is changing for me and many of us now, as we go through the motions of recognizing that this place has been, and continues to be, Mi’kmaw territory. Through that lens, Nova Scotia, “New Scotland,” is a recent construct, a colonial flag planted in the ground, replacing the earlier flag of New France. South of us is New England. To the north, Newfoundland. Were these places ever “new”? Was Newfoundland ever lost?

Suddenly we have glimpses of this place through the eyes of people who have always been here, wake up to what associations these names must hold for them. Names transplanted from another place, something laid on top of the land and its first people. Looking into the future, just imagine this same land renamed as New (fill in the blank… China, Africa, India). Imagine our languages forbidden, our children assimilated, no longer able to speak the language of their parents.

Underneath, the same land. What name would the land speak for itself through human lives and voices living in its forests and coastlines for millennia? Ah yes, that would be Mi’kma’ki. To understand this new home better, I now listen more closely to these people, their language, and realize for the first time that they have been hosting me, my family and community, all along. We’lalin I say.

I still experience the awkwardness of acknowledging this place as unceded Mi’kmaw territory. It is unsettling, and yet that is the point. It is time to unsettle these constructs, find our way back to the actual place, our actual history. Find our way back to real ground. Elder Albert Marshall says that anytime Indigenous and non-Indigenous people meet, we have a chance to reset our relationship. Thank goodness. And thank the generosity and wisdom of those first people who have been patiently waiting for so long for us settlers to notice where we have landed, who is already here, and what the land might have to say.

This waking up feels exciting, wholesome, edgy. How else could we begin to shed the burden and privilege that has oppressed others and parts of ourselves? How else could we begin to find each other and move through, to a new story that will guide us in times ahead?

Susan Szpakowski is settler who, as a young child, emigrated with her parents from London, England, to Victoria, B.C. Named after the monarch who oversaw the expansion of Britain’s colonial empire, Victoria is on the traditional land of the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ people.

See also The Language of this Land, Mi’kma’ki by Trudy Sable and Bernie Francis.

My roots, my journey

by Jennifer DeCoste

Jenn uncovers the roots of her passion for grassroots learning and introduces her new role with Social Innovation Canada.

After recently learning more about my grandfather’s storied life, I came to realize that there’s a reason I’m driven to tackling complex problems. It’s in my blood. My grandfather, J. Clyde Nunn, came of age after the First World War. He was an educated man, attending St. Francis Xavier University and then Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, where many of his peers went on to become priests and professors. This peer group, actively associated with the inspired Antigonish Movement, supported Clyde in his pitch to use “new technology” to broaden the reach of advanced education—taking information from the university out to farmers, truck and train drivers, and coal miners. He wanted to use radio. 

In a meeting held in Antigonish in 1940, Father Leo Sears, Father Michael Gillis and the legendary pioneer Father Jimmy Tompkins rallied around Clyde’s idea to build a radio station in Antigonish, despite the fact that they were in the midst of a World War where materials and funds were in short supply. It was likely the fact that the goal was near impossible to achieve that catalyzed this group into action. 

One story describes the arrival of a long-awaited order of copper wire needed to connect the transmitter tower to the newly constructed station. Later that same day a telegram from Ottawa arrived stating that the wire was being recalled for the war effort. Clyde and a number of hands from the newly emerging Coady program dug a shallow hole, where they then put the unopened wire. They sent a telegram back to Ottawa saying, “Cannot return wire… already in ground.”

By 1942, Clyde was touring radio stations and universities across the United States, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. On this tour he spread his message about the need for greater partnership between universities and the communities they reside in. He spoke of StFX as having a responsibility to form a “whole new department that might be called an “Extension Department,” arguing that “a university must give democratic leadership and not just turn out young lawyers, doctors, and clergymen who have no appreciation of the problems of the community.” He saw radio as a means to “convince (the people) to break down the defeatist attitude that has been referred to so often in the Maritimes… following that logically will be a program of how to do it.” On March 25, 1943, their station went on the air.

More than 70 years later, I find myself channelling the energy of my ancestors, engaging in social projects that will support collective advancement, even if this means taking action with next to no resources and relying on an unusual (to NS) approach. I am the founder of Life.School.House, a cooperative not-for-profit that has created a network of adult Folk Schools, bringing education to small group learning environments entirely on a barter basis—removing the financial barrier to accessing education. This intensive micro work at the grassroots as a volunteer in my community has given me an opportunity to work ‘hands on’ - addressing some really complex social problems like isolation, creating space for people to work across differences like culture and socio-economics. This works makes no money but offers rewards to me, my family and my community in ways that need to be measured different. We are creative in finding “work arounds” by burying the wire when the system fails us. We persist with limited or no resources because emergent work is difficult territory for funders to navigate and because we know that the work is important and recently the movement has started to grow with eleven other homes opened up for Folk School classes in NS and more coming every month! 

In this work I will follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. Using radio, he captured and shared the stories of his region with members in community who could turn that knowledge into action in their towns, villages, and families. Seventy-five years later, I host space for people to share their stories with each other and I invite you to follow this journey at, to contribute your own stories of systems change work in your area to the Thrive blog to inspire those of us working in this field! I look forward to traveling and learning with you.

Jennifer DeCoste leads LifeSchoolHouse on a volunteer basis but also works as a Weaver for Social Innovation Canada and fulltime with Inspiring Communities providing support for a regional ecosystem of social innovators in Atlantic Canada Read more about Social Innovation Canada and Life.School.House.

Relationships as the medium for creating change

by Ian Prinsloo

As a former theatre director, Ian sees systems change as an art and a craft. In this case, the creative medium is neither paint nor scripts, but relationships.

A main focus in the work of creating multi-stakeholder systems change is the quality of our relationships. Without productive, high-trust connections, people and groups can’t make progress on their shared goals.

If we look at the change process through the lens of the arts, we can consider relationships as the medium for creating change, in that relationships both drive and are created through the shared work that change requires. And if we skillfully shape the bonds between people and teams, we go a long way toward ensuring the success of the change effort.

The shift that occurs within the system is fundamentally a shift in the relationships of the diverse people and organizations who have come together to meet a particular challenge. So, what if – as system change artists – we took a step back to consider relationship not as the product of our work but the means by which our work is expressed? What impact would that have on our work? What would it mean for the impact of this work in the world?

To begin with, we’d need to be clear about the types of relationship required at each point in our work, the challenges they are best suited to meet, the conditions in which these relationships flourish, and the practices/structures which bring that relationship forward (and support its development over time). In any project, we can act in a flat, co-creative relationship, a structured, task focused one, or an intimate, sharing one—to name but a few. The question is whether we are clear about when each one is needed, the capacity we have in each, and whether we can fluidly move between them.

I believe that when we build our understanding and practice of relationship as the medium for change, we increase the impact of the work.

Adapted from an article on the Reos Partners website. Read the full article here. Ian will return to THRIVE in June 2019 to lead a stream on how to create systems change by cultivating the type and quality of relationships we need at every stage.

StreamsSusan Szpakowski