Starting Wednesday, November 19, 400+ community activists, leaders, partners, statisticians and artists descended on two iconic Toronto cultural spaces dedicated to storytelling for the inaugural Community Knowledge Exchange (#CKX) Summit – the CBC and TIFF Bell Lightbox:
….Whether it’s connecting them to this country, to their communities, or to each other as individuals with their own realities and interests, CBC/Radio-Canada will be there —for everyone, every way
TIFF is a charitable cultural organization with a mission to transform the way people see the world, through film
As the Summit kicked-off, we were being held in spaces with a long legacy of engaging in the premise that had brought us together: What is the power of community knowledge?
Community Knowledge Exchange
Prior to the Summit, I thought this question was an epistemological one: what is the nature and power of community knowledge? Are we investigating a grand theory of community knowledge? (You can take the academic out of academia…)
I arrived thinking that the Summit would be about negotiating the tension between quantitative (the #s) and qualitative (stories & experiences) data and exploring different forms of ‘community knowledge’ that we could exchange, learn from and collectively act on.
While these topics did surface in sessions, it became increasingly clear as the Summit progressed that this gathering was actually born of an even stronger impetus to ‘leverage and unlock community knowledge to create social change.’
The real premise inspiring the Summit — co-created by Community Foundations Canada and the Ontario Trillium Foundation — was that we already cumulatively have the resources we need to tackle our most pressing issues. If we can develop new tools and norms to embolden knowledge exchange and coordinated/collaborative action, we can unleash our collective strength.
We’re building CKX to exchange ideas and knowledge to improve our communities
– Lee Rose, CKX Sherpa
This was not about a grand theory then, but a grand narrative: collectively curating a common story around community knowledge to empower collaboration and impact at scale.
With a deepening understanding and appreciation of the Summit’s direction, the answer to “What is the power of community knowledge?” came into focus: the power of community knowledge is that collectively there is knowledge — as stories, data, experiences, failures, success — enough to collaboratively improve our communities.
The Summit was an exercise in civic intelligence.
Community | Knowledge | Exchange
CKX was not just about an exchange of ‘community knowledge,’ but about community + knowledge + exchange and the relationship between them. With an eye toward building a community of exchange around knowledge (and know-how) that is valuable for driving social change together, the Summit was a starting point for collaborative action by serving not only as a networking hub, but also as impetus to share and improve actionable practices emerging from new knowledge frameworks, such as: open data, collective impact, and shared measurement.
My enthusiasm about the discussions we were having around shared action and measurement was overshadowed only by an apprehension that the open data and data platform discourses would dominate the list of what and how the community sector should move forward together.
This apprehension was born only of an awareness of how easy it is to slip from data as information that facilitates evaluation or shapes knowledge to data as knowledge or a causal force of social change. It was an uneasiness that was largely unnecessary given the depth of thought and critical reflection the Summit curators had put into the schedule, including sessions on the dark side of data and responsible data (H/T to the curators).
Yet we did slip and in a rather compelling and powerful way — via the moving, tributary keynote by Don Tapscott, whose stirring presentation introduced several inspiring stories of open data accelerating broader social change. Although each story offered significant additional learning to the broader knowledge exchange at the Summit, the evangelizing wave of such a strong presentation carried the argument too far, equating open data to engaged citizens.
While the availability of the resource (data) is important, it is social capital, networks of action, and cultures of engagement, inclusion, passion and rage that foster citizen engagement. The potential of open data is that it can empower engaged citizens to further empower themselves and others.
It was a brief slip, as this latter approach to data — the utility of data as a key tool, rather than a silver bullet — was truly the undercurrent energy of the Summit, but it raised to the forefront an important bit of know-how best summarized to me by a fellow participant: data is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.
To leverage our collective knowledge is social
The ‘nature of community knowledge’ was not the focus of the Summit (the actual premise was much more potent and inclusive), but to indulge in that subject for a moment, what was so powerful about the lived experience of the Summit was that it embodied how community knowledge is developed: “It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound.”
The Summit was social, certainly goal-driven for each participant, and culturally-bound by the curation of the schedule and experience: we were co-creating a community knowledge of collective action in the process of analyzing how we can act together around our collective knowledge.
The stories that we tell
Nowhere was this most evident than in session with three leading funders. The focus of the session, “Wise Crowd: Unpacking the opportunities and challenges of collectively measuring our impact” — featuring Toronto Foundation CEO, Rahul K. Bhardwaj, Ontario Trillium Foundation CEO, Andrea Cohen Barrack, J.W. McConnell Family Foundation President & CEO, Stephen Huddart, and SiG@MaRS Director/MaRS Senior Fellow in Social Innovation, Allyson Hewitt (moderator) — was on how we demonstrate and show that we have done good: What do outcomes look like? How do we know? How do we communicate them? How do we know we have done good together?
Data was deservedly championed during this session as a form of information that plays an important role in helping to deepen our understanding of the nature of problems, as well as inspiring new frameworks to evaluate and measure our impact, but the funders spoke most eloquently about the need to shift our knowing process toward collaborative knowledge and evaluation — or as Allyson Hewitt later summarized: to focus on “exercising our collective muscle.”
Each funder celebrated how new data platforms — such as Vital Signs and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing — have powerfully reimagined how we can identify key issues facing Canadians and coordinate to address them. But to get to vibrant communities, what Rahul, Andrea and Stephen cumulatively knew was:
It’s important to have a narrative that speaks to collaborative outcomes and impact
Change happens when a new set of people are invited to participate and lead
Measurement may have to be innovative/creative to honour emergent process, community vision, new voices, and/or self-determined outcomes, i.e. Development Evaluation
It isn’t what gets measured that gets done, it is what gets funded that gets done
We cannot abandon important things just because they are hard to measure
Collaboration is key to achieve the impact needed
In the other words, the complex work of nurturing vibrant communities goes beyond sharing our knowledge to knowing each other, knowing how to collaborate, knowing our common values, knowing a common language (or discourse), knowing how to include people and cast the net farther, knowing how to live with vulnerability, knowing how to see and hold what is hard to measure, knowing that we won’t always get it right, and knowing that our collective impact will be greater than our individual efforts and that it is worth it to try, even when uncertainty clouds the way.
This is the power of community knowledge: our lived experience of learning, listening, trying, succeeding, failing and opening up emboldens us to work together. This is the story that the three funders wove together. This is what CKX was all about.