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 repeatedly highlighted the fact that many people working on complex social problems often do so in isolation. This can mean that we reinvent the wheel at times, or drain precious resources sourcing something that could have been shared. We are creative in finding “work arounds” by burying the wire when the system fails us, but we do not have the time to facilitate lasting systems change. We persist with limited or no resources because emergent work is difficult territory for funders to navigate because we know that the work is important. 

For these reasons, I accepted an invitation this fall to work with Social Innovation Canada on the co-creation of a national network of systems change workers. Assuming the role of “Weaver,” I’ve joined a team of people who are working to strengthen connections between practitioners across the Atlantic provinces and also to connect our regional networks to a larger national effort. The goal is to find a way to stitch real systems change efforts together to move to impact more quickly. 

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 will spend the next six months capturing stories of impact across this region from some of those same communities. These stories will inform the next steps for the work of SI Canada in the Atlantic region over the next 3-5 years. 

I will share the stories of the people and projects I meet on this journey in this blog, the same way that my grandfather brought his experience to the airwaves. I invite you to follow this journey, to contribute your own stories of systems change work in your area, and to use the data collected and shared to navigate your own work in the field. I look forward to traveling and learning with you.

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