My roots, my journey

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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.