Where the Magic Happens: Highlights from SIX

Key learnings from places of vulnerability, emergence & gratitude
C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

During the close of the seventh annual SIX Summer School, 150 bright-eyed participants chatted excitedly in a room overlooking Vancouver’s False Creek, a scenic inlet separating downtown Vancouver from the shores of Vanier Park and Fairview. The organizers shared their final words. Six ambassadors — participants chosen to witness key themes — offered concluding insights on empathy, empowerment, courage, beauty, power and love, and generations. The room’s energy was almost palpable. Things were coming to a close.

As the coordinator of the Summer School and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had the opportunity to offer my own final words. The thoughts I shared were those of boundless gratitude. I admitted that the largest event I could recall organizing was my twenty-fourth birthday party. The jump from local social planner to lead coordinator of an international conference was not part of the career plan. And yet the faith my supervisors placed in me opened up the opportunity for me to dive into something completely unknown. As I stood overlooking the crowd, knowing that my team had co-piloted this event to success, I felt deeply humbled.

A month following, my sentiment of thankfulness is the same. In this post, I offer four of my personal highlights from the global conference and the week’s flurry of concurrent social innovation events.

Creating the Conditions for Social Innovation
C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

Our visionary maestro, Al Etmanski, guided the SIX organizing team on a journey to “get social innovation into Canada’s water supply.” Al, along with Tim Draimin and Cheryl Rose, perceived the global SIX Summer School as a unique opportunity for Canada – our nation’s time had come.

The SIX Summer School created the conditions for an international group of radical doers and thinkers to convene with local and regional changemakers. From government and activist organizations through to businesses and foundations, Canadians of all stripes participated in SIX, gaining new connections and insights. It was through intentionally linking local Canadians with global practitioners that some of the greatest value of SIX and Social Innovation Week was realized.

Vulnerability is the secret sauce

In the early days of developing the conference program, the Canadian team was bent on creating something different. Our team had the privilege of attending numerous conferences and we knew we didn’t want to simply create a container for the same conversations. We wanted to shake things up! We wanted people to feel a little uncomfortable. That is where the magic happens…

Where the magic happensAlthough the conference program had three themes – society, sector and self – “the self was our secret sauce,” as BCPSI partner Ken Gauthier identified.

During the first full day of SIX, participants were welcomed with the local traditions of the Musqueam People, involving a purifying cedar brushing ceremony and evocative song and dance. The opening plenary was a deep exploration into vulnerability, led by two of Canada’s leading social innovation thinkers, Frances Westley and Vickie Cammack. The visceral cultural experience and thought-provoking morning dialogue were designed to open participants’ hearts and minds to vulnerability. Empathy, humility, and honesty with oneself lay the groundwork for understanding how to make change.

“If we are afraid of our desert places then we become more afraid of the vulnerability outside ourselves — of the other” – Frances Westley 

Putting Faith in Emergence

In order to execute on Al’s grand vision for SIX Summer School Vancouver and Social Innovation Week Vancouver, I had to put great faith in my team, our 22 partner organizations, my own abilities, and the elusive magic that is emergence. I believe emergence is about letting go of control and expectations and allowing ideas and actions to happen organically. When you make room for people to animate a space, you empower them to create something awesome – truly awe-inspiring. It was our team’s responsibility to highlight the opportunities of SIX for innovative organizations, embrace ambiguity, and allow the cultural norms of our partners to inform the week’s direction.

Boundless Gratitude

Most importantly, what stays with me is the gratefulness I feel for working with so many incredible people. Our partner organizations could not have been more creative, thoughtful, positive and driven to make Social Innovation Week the success that it was.

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

C/O Komal Minhas for KoMedia

As I move on from my role, I will reflect fondly on the time when hundreds of Canadian and international leaders came together to celebrate social change. Now, more than ever, I believe that we can learn more together by learning from one another. Together we can start to understand where to leap next.

Who organizes SIX Summer Schools?

Since 2007, each Summer School has been co-organized by the global partner, Social Innovation Exchange, and a local in-country partner. This year, there were two local partners – BC Partners for Social Impact (#BCPSI) and Social Innovation Generation (SiG), representing British Columbia and Canada respectively.

On seeking, sharing and systems change

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.