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Order of Canada honours Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack

For immediate release
May 8, 2015
Order of Canada honours social innovators Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack for dedication to fostering communities of care and belonging across Canada


Announced by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, today British Columbians, Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack will be appointed to the Order of Canada at a ceremony in Ottawa.

Al and Vickie founded the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) in 1989 as a family-led organization to secure a better future for people living with disabilities. Since that time, they have been instrumental in numerous social innovations, both locally and nationally. Perhaps most notable among their achievements is the development of the Registered Disability Savings Plan, which was championed into being by the late Canadian Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. Now an internationally replicated financial instrument, it follows their work with PLAN, working to secure financial independence for people living with a disability well into older age.

“There is perhaps nothing more important than to feel as though our lives matter, that we belong in our community and can contribute to its vitality,” said Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National. “Al and Vickie have made it their life’s work to create that sense of belonging for all Canadians. They have set a national agenda we can all rally behind.”

Etmanski and Cammack’s work on the RDSP was followed by the development of Tyze Personal Networks: an online tool that brings people together around someone receiving care. Tyze was a response to the other question that nagged them as parents – how do we create communities of belonging so that everyone feels they are cared for? Other work includes the Representation Agreement, the Family Support Institute, as well as valuable resources including Safe and Secure and A Good Life.

“Al and Vickie’s thoughtfulness and quiet determination to make this country a nation of inclusion will have ripple effects for generations. We are hugely fortunate to work so closely with them to foster a culture of social innovation in Canada,” said Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

Al Etmanski released a new book in April, Impact: 6 Patterns to Spread your Social Innovation, in which he champions our country’s unique, grassroots methods of achieving social change. Drawing on stories from more than 50 Canadian trailblazers – including Me to We, Greenpeace and Idle No More – Al Etmanski explores essential steps required to change the status quo. Al will be speaking about this new resource in Toronto on the evening of Tuesday, May 12 at the MaRS Discovery District.

The Order of Canada is one of Canada’s highest civilian honours. It recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

For comments or interview opportunities, please contact:


Geraldine Cahill

Manager, Programs and Partnerships

Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National

w: 647.260.7844

m: 416.566.5313

t: @sigeneration


Laurence Miall

Director, Strategic Communications

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

w: 514.288.1221 

m: 438-878-1703

t: @jwmcconnell

ABOUT: SOCIAL INNOVATION GENERATION                                 

SiG is a collaborative partnership founded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the MaRS Discovery District, and the PLAN Institute. Our ultimate goal is to support whole system change through changing the broader economic, cultural and policy context in Canada to allow social innovations to flourish. www.sigeneration.ca


Established in 1937, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation engages Canadians in building a more innovative, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient society. The Foundation’s purpose is to enhance Canada’s ability to address complex social, environmental and economic challenges. We accomplish this by developing, testing, and applying innovative approaches and solutions; by strengthening the community sector; and by collaborating with partners in the community, private, and public sectors. 

Patterns, platforms and time for play

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We’ve all seen the headlines.

The world is rapidly changing. Technology is iterating at great speed, pushing our minds and our bodies in ways we don’t fully comprehend.  The economy, which by definition is equal to the wealth and resources of a country or region, is under serious stress – and will be for some time.

Our natural climate is throwing us huge curve balls, thanks in no small part to the hits we keep sending her way.

And yet we know all is not lost.
c/o socialfinance.ca

c/o socialinnovation.ca

At MaRS, it is believed that entrepreneurship is key to leading the way through all of this change. Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka — and credited with coining ‘social entrepreneurship’ — would agree and add that the skill of pattern recognition is equally imperative.

Understanding how and identifying where particular stresses exist focuses the entrepreneurial mind.

Tonya Surman has been paying attention to patterns for a long time. Most recently, she has been considering what motivates the work of an entrepreneur – more specifically – her work as a social entrepreneur.

Tonya is no stranger to success. She was the founding director of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, whose work catalyzed a new legislative framework to manage chemicals and ban bisphenol A in baby bottles.

She co-founded and chaired the Ontario Nonprofit Network, an organization that serves 55,000 non-profits. She was also a founding trustee of the Toronto Awesome Foundation, an organization that distributes monthly $1,000 grants to fund local projects.

However, it’s Tonya’s work as Founding CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) that has garnered her the most public attention. Not content to seed and grow one thriving co-working space in downtown Toronto, Tonya and her team successfully pioneered the use of Community Bonds – an innovative model for grassroots, sustainable capital campaigns. CSI used this financial product to purchase a second co-working space in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood and have now offered a second bond to purchase a building on Spadina Ave – opposite their inaugural home base.

c/o socialinnovation.ca

c/o socialinnovation.ca

In addition to all of this moving and shaking, CSI has a space in the Daniels Spectrum building at Regent Park and a whole other co-working space in New York City!

With all of this success, she might be content to sit back and smell the roses she’s been growing in her roof-top garden, but Tonya continues to push herself. As an Ashoka Fellow, she would likely agree with Bill Drayton that entrepreneurship is a life-long process. The work is never done. Just like the world of social innovation, once one peak is reached, another mountain reveals itself and one must keep climbing!

Talking through what she has learned on her journey and the secret to her impressive energy, Tonya joins the MaRS Global Leadership Series & SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact for the first time on March 31.

Register for Tonya’s talk here.

A conversation and Q&A with the Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter will follow Tonya’s presentation. Catherine writes about everything from climate change, women’s rights, poverty, mental illness, international development and community activism. She has won two National Newspaper Awards for her work. Their discussion and your questions will be a great way to end an inspiring presentation.

Whet your appetite with this recent video interview below
where Tonya discusses her current motivations:


A cup of sugar

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In a September Globe and Mail article, Doug Saunders compiled “Five schools of thought about where the world may be headed next.” It is a thoughtful and robust analysis that includes scenarios as dire as wholesale climate panic to the beginnings of a new Cold War. The focus is on power — emerging or declining, shifting allegiances, the possibility that we soon will have no world super-power — and seeing ourselves “rudderless,” but as likely as not to continue muddling through the decades to come.

None of Saunders’ possible futures imagine a sustainable global ecosystem led by the young leaders being educated today. Nor are any scenarios informed by the young people we come into contact with at SiG, or the dozens of agencies and organizations in our orbit. It also strikes me that none of Saunders’ scenarios imagined the announcement that came hot on the heels of his speculations.

Root of Empathy â„… kidscanfly.ca

Root of Empathy â„… kidscanfly.ca

In the same month, the heirs to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investments. “John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in a statement published in The Guardian, “We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

This obviously made the news because the Rockefeller fortune was made in oil and yet this increasingly progressive foundation sees no future in its further exploitation. And then, there was this: just last week, multiple news agencies reported that the U.S. and Chinese presidents have laid out ambitious new targets to cut pollution in a deal that negotiators hope will inspire similarly dramatic commitments from other countries.

I like Doug Saunders’ writing very much, but I don’t think it need be naive to suggest a brighter future is at least worthy of consideration.

We see evidence that positive change is occurring and that younger generations are engaged with co-designing plausible alternatives.​ The world needn’t be so bleak and power-led — a tug-of-war between old enemies. 

Of the sectors engaging in positive futures, the philanthropic sector appears very interested in leading the way. Foundations are getting out in front of the curve. Unconstrained by policy or profit margins, they have been re-imagining their role both in our uncertain present and our possible future.

While Rockefeller may be jumping ahead south of the border, in Canada, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation is leading and creating the conditions for the exploration of social innovation acceleration and the amplification we need to get in front of our shared social and environmental challenges.

â„… RECODE (@letsrecode)

â„… RECODE (@letsrecode)

At the 2014 Social Finance Forum, McConnell’s Stephen Huddart launched RECODE, inspiring social innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives led by young people in higher education institutions. This is one of dozens of initiatives being designed to build capacity for the next generation of leaders to see the possibilities, not the barriers in the systems around us.

Recently, I was very fortunate to hear Shawn A-in-chut Atleo speak to a small circle of people about Re-imagining Philanthropy. He described the sea-change coming with the growth in young indigenous populations in Canada and how getting to change will necessarily mean integrating all parts of our national systems with aboriginal teachings and practice.

â„… The Daily Mail

â„… The Daily Mail

Nothing could be more exciting and more overdue. I see a convergence of challenges, certainly, but not hopelessness in our shared future. Atleo described philanthropy as being aboriginal in nature — like the give and the take of a neighbourly cup of sugar, the exchange is one of friendship.

On November 24th, Stephen Huddart will speak at MaRS about Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change. And if I may be so bold, I don’t think he would disagree with me: the times are uncertain, but we have more than just the best of bad choices to make. Informed by history, indigenous practice and contemporary systems approaches, together we can work towards a more resilient, sustainable future.

Register for Philanthropy for Uncertain Times: Social Innovation and Systemic Change — November 24, 2014 at MaRS Discovery District, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM (EST)

Job Opening: Administration and Research Assistant (internship)

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Social Innovation Generation (SiG) is a collaborative partnership originally founded by The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, the MaRS Centre, and the PLAN Institute. SiG believes that complex, persistent, and “wicked” social and ecological problems can be solved. Our focus is enhancing Canada’s resilience by engaging the creativity and resources of all sectors to collaborate on social innovations that have impact, durability, and scale.

SiG National is looking for an Administration and Research Assistant to work closely with the Executive Director, Communications Manager and Communications and Research Associate to help coordinate details related to event planning, travel arrangements, administration, finance and research tasks for the office.

At a time when “the need and desire for change is profound,” this is an exciting opportunity to work in a dynamic professional context to experiment with a different way of telling a story, learning new practices for tipping systems, and helping to create new possibilities for building resilience.


  • Administrative, planning and project strategy follow-up support for the Executive Director, SiG National

  • Manage the calendar and scheduling of the Executive Director, SiG National

  • Tracking of the Executive Director’s expenses and tracking overview systems of SiG budget

  • Complete basic accounting functions such as preparing expenses and/or processing of invoices as requested.

  • Supporting coordination and outcome tracking of the SiG National staff team meetings

  • Event logistical support for initiatives undertaken by SiG National and other SiG nodes using MaRS Discovery District facilities

  • Supporting the social innovation intelligence gathering by scanning, highlighting and synthesizing relevant news and analysis

  • Drive engagement with SiG online platforms – website, Knowledge Hub, social media communities;

  • Support and research for other SiG staff as required

  • Ensure that couriers, vendors, maintenance and service people are dealt with promptly and courteously, and generally monitors the activities, comings and goings for the area

  • Provides front-line support and assistance at selected events as necessary. Tasks may include; preparing nametags, attendee lists and other event materials, registration supports and general trouble-shooting.


The ideal candidate will:

  • Demonstrate understanding of social innovation and its related processes, or a keen willingness to learn quickly the concepts that comprise the foundation of our work

  • Have excellent oral and written communications skills and be able to engage with all actors respectfully

  • Utilize strong organizational skills when faced with multiple time-sensitive priorities; have a willingness to “roll-up your sleeves” and personally handle all aspects of an activity

  • Be detail-oriented and self-motivated

  • Have the ability to work independently

  • Demonstrate proficiency in effectively utilizing social media for professional purposes (blogging, Facebook, twitter, etc.)

  • Have proven experience writing and editing

  • Bachelor’s degree in journalism, political science, peace and justice studies, anthropology or another area of the humanities considered an asset

  • Bookkeeping experience and knowledge of Excel and Powerpoint considered an asset

  • Strong working knowledge of Mac and the Microsoft suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook)

  • Energetic team player with cooperative attitude

  • Solid organizational skills required to handle a variety of tasks

  • Ability to multi-task and manage competing demands

  • Ability to use good judgment in assessing challenging situations

  • Enthusiastic and willing to expand on responsibilities and professional abilities


This is a full-time internship position based in Toronto, paid through the Career Edge system on a monthly basis. You may need to demonstrate you meet Career Edge requirements to apply.

How To Apply

Please register with Career Edge and provide a cover letter articulating your suitability for the position. Then along with your resume, please attach a statement articulating your interest in working to foster an ecosystem of Canadian social innovation (approx. 300-400 words).

Please submit your application by 5:00pm ET, Monday October 6th to the attention of:

Geraldine Cahill, Manager of Communications, SiG National

On seeking, sharing and systems change

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If there’s one sentiment I have expressed a number of times over the past 2 weeks, it is gratitude. SiG and our partners have been metaphorically swimming in inspiring stories told by Canadian indigenous leaders and stories told of social lab interventions that are positively transforming lives in different parts of the world, while building relationships with a host of change-makers that are in equal measure genius and humble. The only hard thing about all this goodness is choosing where to begin to make sense of all of the learning, translate the stories of successful change-making to a Canadian context, and offer some resources to adapt the best pieces of  work.

Thanks to the kickoff event of Social Innovation Canada 2014 featuring Dana Shen, Director of Family by Family from South Australia, I feel confident in offering a place to start. SiG has taken a look at Family by Family before — as early as 2011 — courtesy of the co-designer of the model, Sarah Schulman of InWithForward. Hearing about it again from Dana meant a deeper dive into the model and hearing about its impact and adaptation over time.

Here is a quick summary of what Family by Family does (I’ll leave it to Dana herself to explain it in full on video):

In 2010, The Australia Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) asked the South Australian government what they wanted to focus on in terms of better social service outcomes. The government asked for an intervention to bring down the high numbers of children in the formal protection system. TACSI, working with Sarah Schulman and Chris Vanstone, developed a peer-to-peer solution that looks astonishingly simple on the surface: families who have come through tough times mentor families experiencing tough times. Or in the words of Family by Family, sharing families mentor seeking families.

Watch Dana explain how getting to this solution was a learning experience in collaboration between unusual partners, in trust-building and in adaptation:

Family by Family: Australian social innovation in action – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Following this MaRS Global Leadership presentation, Dana joined SiG and 160+ participants at SIX Vancouver, May 27-29, where we were privileged to hear an opening discussion between Dr. Frances Westley and Tyze Founder, Vickie Cammack. The conversation focused on the effects of culture on our spirits, our organizations and our society. In many ways I feel the key to Family by Family’s success was in taking the time to understand the culture it was entering – that of families experiencing difficult times and why change was so difficult to achieve.

The result of TACSI engaging with community in the design and prototyping of Family by Family was an equally deep impact on the so-called experts charged with delivering the program. Dana spoke to the benefits of Family by Family for the culture inside the public sector in South Australia, those delivering the program at Family by Family and the broader TACSI design team. So profound has been the impact, that TACSI and the government are looking for ways to scale the model.

During Frances and Vickie’s discussion, the conversation turned to a desire to understand resilience and vulnerability more deeply. Being open to exploring our own vulnerability also opens up opportunities to see and understand others. As Frances reflected, if you can’t touch the vulnerability in yourself, you can’t touch it in others either. And the result is that our fear of the “other” increases. We don’t have to look far to see fear guiding many interactions across cultures in the world.

Six Day 1 Musqueam Welcome and Interview with Frances Westley 125

Photo Credit: Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Following the discussion, Dana reflected on our shared journey — on the fact that we are all in this world together; that we all want similar things. As Allyson Hewitt said at the end of Dana’s MaRS presentation, we are always sharing and seeking change. And it’s not a one-way street.

The Family by Family program has seen sharing families — those willing to volunteer time to support those experiencing tough times — become seeking families themselves. These times of vulnerability are to be expected and need not be permanent. As a community acting together and understanding each other more deeply, we can become more resilient. Vickie Cammack may refer to this as a recognition of our interdependence. The Family by Family model is supporting a strengthening in community resilience. As seeking families achieve their goals, they increase their ability to share their experience and learning with others. At scale, the impact is a sea-change — this increased resilience enables the flow of resources, both personal and community, towards systemic change. We all seek support and understanding at different times in our lives. Being awake to this is not to be stuck, but to be open to others. In a second post about Social Innovation Canada 2014, I will explore what it means to know our own fears and desires better, as well as those of others with whom we experience conflict, thanks to the wonderful contribution of David Diamond at SIX Vancouver. The ability to understand others through understanding ourselves is the result of a deepening empathy. SiG is so pleased to be co-presenting a conversation with Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka, on June 19th at MaRS. Bill has turned his extensive experience towards supporting and promoting entrepreneurs fostering empathy in our world. You can see details on that event here.

Building on the best of all cultures

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If you had the opportunity to spend a few days on reserve in northern Ontario, what would you say? Youth organizers in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation asked the question and were amazed at the response. In 2013, 43 Canadians were hosted by the KI community over 5 days to develop a clearer understanding of what living in a remote community in the North is like. In the process of organizing the tour, youth in the KI community built confidence and leadership skills that will help them in future projects.

The success of the KI Tour is just one of the stories celebrated in a new report produced by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights and the Tyee Solutions Society. Leading Together: Indigenous Youth in Community Partnership is a publication written by emerging and established indigenous and non-indigenous journalists, with each article depicting a different partnership in community, a focus on what worked, what didn’t, and lessons learned.

Leading Together

Where the KI First Nation tour was an opportunity for deepening understanding between people from dramatically different backgrounds, other examples include partnerships to make child welfare services culturally relevant, training young indigenous journalists, and creating peer support networks for young indigenous professionals.

As Erin Montour and Stephen Huddart from The J.W.McConnell Family Foundation wrote in a Globe and Mail article published alongside Leading Together, these young indigenous people are “creating trust and a belief in the future where before there was ignorance, fear and despair, and building the foundations for a more innovative and inclusive Canada. This is what reconciliation in Canada should be about – the creation of a partnership society that builds on the best of all cultures.”

This celebration and recognition stands in stark contrast to the spirit of Jeffrey Simpson’s article in the same newspaper where he declares some First Nations as living in a “dream palace” of yesteryear, while others choose to integrate to varying degrees with the majority cultures. While one report builds on a history of partnership and reconciliation, the other falls into predictable and unhelpful blaming and division.

Leading Together encourages us to build on a long-held tradition of partnership building in Canada, dating back to the arrival of Samuel de Champlain at Tadoussac in 1603. It doesn’t ignore the pain and deceit of the past, but it is focused primarily on learning, bridge-building and inspiring more young indigenous people to recognize their leadership potential. As Duncan McCue and Rachel Pulfer write in the second Foreward of the book, “These stories are grounded, real-world stories, that show how to inspire Indigenous youth, teach Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to work together and, perhaps most importantly, offer us all lessons on the importance of giving back.”

These stories should be shared widely and often.

Innovation: The ultimate team sport

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c/o Alison Maxwell

It’s a tall order to make innovation sound compelling these days. Countless companies use the word in their taglines and advertising campaigns. It’s a word thrown up on billboards to sell everything from cars to energy drinks. Yet innovation is more than just something new. As MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht explained at the MaRS Global Leadership event in early October, we keep driving to innovate—to create something new andof value—because our future literally depends on it.

The question of value, including what it means and for whom it is created, is an interesting one. Importantly, there is a growing recognition that there are certain challenges—those that are complex and that cross sector domains and national boundaries—that require the creativity and commitment of all of us to solve. This is perhaps the most important task of innovation: to find solutions to complex challenges that will provide value for many.

As Ilse said: “Solutions require coalitions of problem-solvers who coalesce around a shared vision.”

“It is what we value that will align our aspirations and help us build the future we want and the future our children deserve.”

Innovation is no longer the domain of a few. Given the acceleration of change and global pressures today, progress calls for new partnerships. These partnerships must draw on both deep domain expertise and entrepreneurial drive, and must involve all sectors—government, science, academe, industry and community—collaborating together in new and open ways.

It was this knowledge—this awareness that innovation is not a solo exercise, but a team sport—that helped shape the mission and operations of MaRS. Deliberately designed to bridge the public and private spheres and to match capital to entrepreneurs to business development expertise, MaRS also recognized the necessity of creating social value alongside economic prosperity.

Throughout MaRS’ early years, awareness of social innovation was barely on the public radar. However, MaRS Founder Dr. John Evans and Ilse approached Tim Brodhead, then President of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, with a proposal to embed social innovation in the MaRS system DNA as SiG was forming in 2006.

Now, “social innovation is moving into the mainstream, the evidence is everywhere,” says Ilse. And MaRS finds itself at the leading edge of this innovation space. As an innovation incubator that could compare itself with the likes of Boston’s Kendall Square or the East River Science Park in New York, Ilse opts to speak of MaRS as a change agent.

“Now that we finally realize we can’t solve problems alone—that challenges like healthcare costs will not be solved by new drugs and gadgets or cost-cutting measures—we must do things differently,” said Ilse.

That difference involves building unique, collaborative and productive partnerships, and creating spaces that allow many different people to come together to work on the problems we share as a community, as a country and as global citizens.

There has always been a lot of lab talk at MaRS. With a history of medical discovery within the building’s old walls, it’s understandable. However, as Ilse reminded us, there is a particular burden in that legacy and that is about continuing to search, test, prototype and identify qualities and ideas that are capable of positive change in our society, and then to build the coalitions and to work on the hard stuff of partnerships and policy development that will enable the good ideas to scale and have impact.

Watch Ilse deliver “Innovating Innovation,” a presentation delivered in partnership with MaRS Global Leadership and the SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series. Consider the levers for change. How might you be involved in this work?

Social Enterprise Spotlight: Seeding the Roots of Empathy

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Over the course of the last 12 months I have read a plethora of articles and blog posts on the importance of empathy and the urgent need to nurture it. From Arianna Huffington’s words at the 2012 Skoll World Forum to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Project, from Bill Drayton’s article in Forbes to Paul Bloom’s more challenging piece in The New Yorker. Why the growing call?

We are moving in this world at a heightened pace, images fly at us from multiple media platforms. Tragedies from mass murder, to the drumbeats of war, to teen suicides rise in number and our hearts and minds struggle to makes sense of it all. The absence of empathy underlies the creation of these conditions; without empathy there is insufficient traction for conflict resolution. This is the problem Mary Gordon has been trying to solve since 1996 when she started Roots of Empathy.

Exported ROE

Mary will share her thoughts on empathy’s surprising power at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary next month. I spoke to Mary to get her thoughts on how we can foster this most beneficial and necessary trait in our communities.

With a growing chorus of people calling for the development of empathy, do you believe it is well understood?

Mary Gordon: I believe the value placed on empathy varies from country to country. For example, there are big differences between Canada and the United States. In the U.S., empathy is regarded as a soft, female trait, and is often confused with sympathy. In Canada, it is considered a desirable, non-gendered trait. So you have to begin work in a country knowing how empathy is perceived.

We know that empathy is developed by the attachment relationship between a primary parent and child. Exposing children to the experience of empathy gives them the capacity to build good relationships – it helps them learn and develop skills sets for entering adult life. Good relationships help in every aspect of life. You cannot be in a meaningful relationship with anyone unless you’re able to feel with them. In understanding this, you then realize that fostering empathy is not just the responsibility of the family, but of everyone. For example, in order to break out of the cycle of poverty we need to ensure that impoverished individuals experience empathy. That means those with power to inform policies must also operate with empathy.

What are some of the best ways we can develop empathy in ourselves and others?

Mary Gordon: One of the dreadful things I encountered overseas, was the lack of support for the bonding between child and parent. Many parents know they will lose their job if they stay home with their newborn. They are forced to give their baby to multiple people to take care of and the crucial serve-and-return exchange is undermined. One example of an empathetic Canadian policy is the extension of maternity leave to one full year. In doing that, policy makers supported a healthy attachment relationship between a baby and parent. What we haven’t done is extend it to people who don’t have benefits, which is also necessary.

If society wants to do something at a general level, they need to look at policy decisions that allow parents to spend time with their children and meet their needs. When families are well supported, there are better attachment relationships, and aggressive behavior like bullying is reduced. Empathy is about fairness. Citizens that have empathy make life fair.

Is empathy simply the ability to take the perspective of others?

Mary Gordon: Empathy is not cold cognition. It is the combination of emotional connection, understanding and care. You can be a true sociopath with the ability to take the perspective of the victim without the ability to care for what they’re feeling. For me, it’s very much a combination of the two. A little child’s brain, empathy and cognition are tightly aligned.

Sara Konrath wrote on The Empathy Paradox at the University of Michigan, after finding that there has been a dramatic decline in perspective taking and empathic concern in college students since the 1970s. She didn’t mean to have an impact but people went nuts over it. It’s a sign of the times, not just an American situation.

So we must ask: what is the difference in the landscape for children growing up? What are the policies? What are the points of connection and contagion for good or for bad?

I think you can have an impact if all of those that are trained to work with others – in corporate life, education or government – are aware of the needs of those that are learning or working with them. To be aware of an individual’s needs is to understand that at the very basic level, people desire a feeling of belonging. How do people feel like they belong? When they feel understood. It’s all about empathy.

This is a conversation about humanity.

Exported ROE2

You have been working on Roots of Empathy since 1996, and even longer on understanding how empathy can be fostered. What gives you energy to maintain your focus in this work?

Mary Gordon: I’m not a Pollyanna in terms of optimism, but I do believe in the power of humanity to create an empathic space in which we all can live. I believe we have that capacity. I don’t think we’ll see it delivered in my lifetime and I don’t think it’s up to me. I don’t feel the weight of this on my shoulders, as long as people like you want to talk to me. And as long as people want to train for Seeds of Empathy or Roots of Empathy, they want to understand, to learn, to make things better. I feel very encouraged. I see acts of courage and hear about them every day. And I pass the stories on because they encourage people.

Someone once said to me, “It’s a curse being an innovator.” I don’t agree at all. I am very encouraged by the world I see. For every horror story I hear, I hear a positive story.

The Social Enterprise World Forum is a gathering of 1,200 social impact champions from various sectors and associations around the world. What excites you about attending the event?


Mary Gordon: I think there is a particular surge of energy having so many people together that care about innovation. The fact that many in the audience may not have necessarily thought of empathy as a lever for change. That they’re already cued into social change and that it might help some of their initiatives to put on a lens of empathy. That by talking to all of them, it will open me up to having new relationships. I’ll get a lot of learning after the fact. It’s an electrifying group. I love talking to people that are switched on. I think that’s going to be great fun.

Empathy, an unanticipated consequence of a year well spent

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In 1709, Alexander Pope wrote that a little learning is a dangerous thing. If Pope felt that learning about the world may call us to question how well it is operating, then it may be dangerous indeed. However, as I come to the end of my year in the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation, I think I can put Pope’s fears to rest.

Throughout the diploma’s course work, participants took a deep dive in systems thinking and resilience theory. To tackle increasingly complex social and environmental challenges, change makers best get started by understanding that our systems – social, political, industrial etc, are interconnected and interdependent.

At its best, systems thinking aims to address the root causes of big problems. For example, while food banks effectively manage hunger issues, there are people who use systems thinking to figure out why hunger is still such a challenge, and how it’s connected to other issues, policies, etc. Through identifying the root causes of hunger, systems thinkers are able to search out and support opportunities to decrease or eradicate hunger. Systems thinkers see the whole picture, understand the relationships in the system and can identify opportunities for highly strategic interventions that might make a difference.

c/o Thoughts on Leadership

As a consequence of applying a systems framework to see the world, I am struck by what I can only describe as a deepening empathy in myself. The Graduate Diploma was intentionally designed to be cross-sectoral with participants joining from the private, public and community sectors. Once engaged in the class modules, we were generously showered with insights, analyses and theories that enabled us to see the world from multiple and diverse perspectives.

It is in researching systems that one is exposed to the various perspectives needed to adequately test and posit a possible solution to a complex problem. In reflecting on the key learnings, I feel that in learning how to see our world’s systems and understanding how we may work together more effectively to produce positive change, I have built a greater reserve of empathy for differing points of view and experience. While empathy was not necessarily the principle outcome or intention of my study, it was certainly a welcome bonus.

During the 2012 Skoll World Forum, Huffington Post President and Chief, Arianna Huffington wrote:

“The role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century.”

Assuming we agree about the importance of empathy, how do we cultivate it? Huffington quotes Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary Gordon in her article; an Ashoka Fellow and social innovator whom SiG has spoken to about the unique opportunity presented by increased empathy. The problem as Gordon sees it is that without empathy, we have insufficient traction for conflict resolution. Developing empathy is the key to building understanding and breaking cycles of violence.

Roots of Empathy c/o Naming and Treating

While Roots of Empathy has expanded to include programs for young and mature adults, it is primarily designed to work with young schoolchildren. Ashoka Founder, Bill Drayton similarly sees the merit of developing empathy in children. In an April edition of Forbes online magazine Drayton states:

“If you aren’t given the tools of applied empathy as a young child, we shouldn’t be blaming you—we should be blaming us,” Drayton said. “We have to have a revolution so that all young people grasp empathy and practice it. This is the most fundamental revolution that we have to get through.”

Scaling up programs like Roots of Empathy offers future generations great hope and I believe should be broadly embraced. In the meantime however, it may well be possible to inject complexity and systems thinking into later stages of our educational systems to produce some complementary results. Pursuing this theory may even allay Paul Bloom’s concern that only concentrating on building empathy will not help us create a resilient world for billions of people.

In The New Yorker this month, Bloom writes that our natural tendency is to feel empathetic to situations we can see and relate to; for example the story of a baby that falls down a well. Bloom states: “If a planet of billions is to survive, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed.” I tend to agree that empathy alone isn’t enough; we need to have a framework to understand how we can explore the root causes of problems to propose solutions that help many. Consequently, by applying a social innovation lens with an understanding of systems thinking, we can tackle our complex challenges fuelled by the empathy to see the challenges from multiple points of view.

By enrolling in the diploma program at the University of Waterloo, my purpose was to better understand transformational systems change and to broaden my vocabulary for articulating the benefits of approaching complex problems with a social innovation lens. I did not anticipate that in achieving these goals, I would also tap into greater reserves of empathy.

If this past year’s experience is anything to go by, it could be helpful to build a healthy dose of systems thinking into more curricula and professional development programs, in the spirit of the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. For us further down life’s road, it could be a beneficial companion to the empathy programs we are rightly providing for our children.

Further resources:

Roots of Empathy

SiG’s Profile on Roots of Empathy

Start Empathy

The Empathetic Civilization

The Baby in the Well, by Paul Bloom

Empathy is the New Black by Christian Bason; calling for a humanistic think tank for public sector renewal

For more on systems thinking, visit our SiG Knowledge Hub

Lessons from module 2: We have the means to produce the outcomes we seek

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My journey in the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation continued last month, this time in Guelph, Ontario. Once again 30 participants were absorbed in complexity and design thinking, with the added bonus of some terrific presentations on the nature and history of consumerism and lessons in anticipating and planning for system change.

c/o Edgewater Bricolage

There’s an enormous store of takeaways I could write about, but conscious of your time, I’ll focus on three:

  • Bricolage – a French word meaning, the creation of something new from a diverse range of things that happen to be available
  • The question of translation
  • Big picture thinking


Perhaps this concept stood out most for me as I hear my SiG colleagues often talking about, not the invention of something totally new that will transform the systems we live in, but a new configuration of existing resources that will enable us to live more resilient, sustainable lives. Understanding this means we are likely sitting on the very means to procure the outcomes we seek.

This is an important takeaway for our SiG work in Social Innovation Labs too. Through the application of design thinking methodologies in a lab-like environment where various wicked questions can be explored, prototypes developed, testing done, simulation techniques applied to see possible futures, the hope is we will be able to reconfigure current resources in such a way to produce positive outcomes.

There are two caveats to this; designing possibilities is one way to coordinate things but won’t create change on its own. We will need both the ability to recognize and seize opportunity when it presents itself; then we must tackle the tricky business of translation.

The question of translation

Here’s where things start to sound a bit technical, and I have to admit to a certain degree of frustration in reading about it prior to the module starting. However, in the way they do best, program directors Frances Westley and Brenda Zimmerman were able to make it comprehensible.

I found the best way to understand translation in this context was to think about it by way of example. Adrian Smith, who has written about translation used organic food as a case study. The organic food movement began as a niche movement – a reaction to multiple concerns people had with the mainstream food system. As the organic movement grew stronger, its influence was felt by the mainstream with some members of the movement talking with mainstream players about getting organic food into supermarkets, into regular distribution channels and so on. In the uptake of organic food at supermarkets, the ethos of the organic movement was translated to make it accessible to regular businesses and consumers. For some in the original niche movement, they felt that uptake by the mainstream was antithetical to their passion, and they reacted by setting up new distribution systems – organizing organic food box programs and the like.

Translation across different levels of a system takes place as people work to find a foothold and grow their innovation. Anticipating the translation, an innovator can be better prepared for some of the questions that will likely arise. For example, in the organic food case:

  • Did the organic movement lose purity in the translation of their movement into supermarkets?
  • Did the mainstream distributors actually change their thinking at all about how food should be produced?
  • Would the likes of food box programs have evolved if the uptake of organic food in supermarkets didn’t take place?
  • Is the uptake by mainstream distributors a win in general for the organic movement, despite the loss of purity?
  • Have more people’s attitudes towards food production and organic food options changed because of the uptake by mainstream distributors?

How to answer these questions requires more space than I have room (or adequate knowledge), but all this to say, translation between niche movements, mainstream (aka regime) level organizations, and the values people hold, is a rich area for study and definitely something to think about as innovations are developed.

Big picture

One of the presentations still resonating with me as I reflect on Module 2 was by Stephen Quilley on the Paradoxes of Culture.  What I found very interesting in this presentation was his articulation of the possible negative impacts of a well-intentioned intervention in a system. He also covered the history of consumer society and how incredibly resilient it is. It’s a formidable opponent no doubt. As we further explore the details and obvious merits of innovative methodologies like Collaborative Consumption, questions I am thinking about still include:

  • If we adopted Collaborative Consumption methods wholesale, what parts of the economic and welfare systems would be affected?
  • What new “versions” of the economic and welfare systems could be developed to enable broad uptake of zero waste societies?

Quilley’s presentation was well balanced by Mark Weber’s presentation on the lessons for a social innovator trying to change behaviour. One great lesson that helps round out this blog is that if you’re thinking about changing attitudes, it may well be best to concentrate on changing the conditions around people that influence their behavior – not give people a whole bunch of information and expect things to change.

Technically I’m nearly halfway through the diploma program and continue to have more questions than answers, but I love the questions and the thinking of possible answers regardless. In blog 3 on the program I expect to write more deeply on the development of our team project, which will hopefully be taking shape.  It will put to the test many of the lessons from the first two modules. I’ll make sure to keep you posted.

Note: this is the second in a series of posts about my participation in the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. Read the first post here.

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