Belonging versus Change

SiG Note: This article was originally published by In With Forward on April 15, 2014 as part of their Toronto Project: St. Chris Stories, in partnership with St. Christopher House Drop-in Centre. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

Is too much community – too much belonging – a barrier to change?

That’s the question we’re posing. After spending time with 16 of the 200+ members of the Meeting Place Drop-in Centre. On the corner of Queen and Bathurst in downtown Toronto. Open from 11:30am to 4pm Monday to Sunday during the brutal winter months. And Monday to Friday during the milder summer months.


Anna’s been coming to the corner for over 20 years. So too has Ozze. And Dwayne.

Telia is a relative newbie. She’s only been dropping by for 7 years. Ever since her methamphetamine addiction pushed her on the streets, and pushed her kids in care. Then came the heroin. And the crack. And the abusive boyfriend. And the death of her good friend, Greg. From an overdose. She found him. The stench was so bad. That’s when Telia decided she was going to stop putting all those street chemicals into her veins. Just the pure stuff – prescribed by her doctor – and used with supervision in the harm reduction clinic bathroom.

TammyforwebBut Telia walks by the Corner on her way to the Clinic. And it has a strong pull. Because Drop-in Centre members and staff have curated a strong community. That accepts and embraces you as you are.

“That’s the place where my friends are, where you’re not judged. But then again you are just surrounded by substance abuse and brought back in. If I stay at home, though, I’m totally bored. I start to think. And that’s no good either.”

Telia’s home is filled with remnants of her past life. Photos of her older daughter. Pictures before she was heavily using. A laundry basket full of markers and paints. Telia’s always had an artistic side. She used to be a school photographer. You know the ones who snapped cute kids with missing front teeth? Now her teeth are missing and not coming back. She’s got removable dentures.

Dentures are easy enough to remove. But removing yourself from the community that understands you isn’t easy. And once you leave the corner, and are out of sight, you’re also out of mind. Few of the 16 folks we spent time with could name anybody doing well. Even though many of the staff of the Drop-in Centre were former users, ostensibly doing well.

“I don’t know nobody doing well.” Mike

No change narrative

Indeed, after 12 days and more than a dozen Tim Horton’s double-doubles, we heard no shared ‘success’ narratives. No discourse about life after the Drop-in Centre. Instead, most conversations centered on survival. On where to find a bed, a meal, a cigarette, a decent spot for pan-handling.

A survival discourse

Staff were also caught in the same survival cycle. Filling out forms for emergency housing; calling around to find treatments for bedbugs; breaking-up fights; enforcing rules; calming down irate individuals; cleaning-up urine. Less than 10% of staff’s time was spent in longer or deeper conversations. What might be called therapeutic or developmental conversations. Where the focus was on prompting or supporting change.


Identity confusion

And some Drop-in Centre members were on the precipice of change. Including many of the members who unexpectedly passed away. Greg had been recently housed. Junior was signed-up for treatment and about to re-enter school. And yet the members preparing for something different seemed to be the most vulnerable. Caught between wanting a different identity and a social network that embraced their current identity. That implicitly advocated continuity.

“You could say I am addicted to the place. Just like I’m addicted to beer. I’m sorry, but to be crude, it gives me a big hard-on being here. It’s really hilarious. It’s a big soap opera. Like Coronation Street or Jerry Springer. It’s the same shit, just a different day. I don’t need to watch TV, I can just come here.” Dwayne

What ifs…

What if the Drop-in Centre (and wider service system) distributed support based on members’ readiness to change? So that somebody like Telia – very much in the preparation stages of change – was supported to build a new social network, received validation & recognition for each step forward (and back), and had real opportunities to explore other parts of her identity (her painting, her photography, her mothering).

Using the Transtheoretical Model of Change, we began to re-sort the members of the Drop-in Centre. Those in the pre-contemplation stage. Content with their current situation. Those in the contemplation stage. Ambivalent about change. Those in the preparation stage. Getting ready to do something different, to learn about treatment options for Xanax addiction and things like that. Those in the acting stage. Doing something different. And those in the maintenance stage.

Here’s what our segmentation looked like:

Screen_Shot_2014-04-20_at_12.11.27_AMLegacy Healing Center says when you re-segment people based on motivations, rather than lump them into a non-differentiated group based on risks such as drug use & homelessness, new ideas for interventions rise to the surface.

Like identifying members cycling in and out of contemplation – and in the moments where they are interested in change, pulling them out of the same-old, same-old context. So they feel change might be feasible and desirable. When members come into the Centre for the day, they might choose a different coloured coffee mug based on how they are feeling. Enabling staff to have a different conversation and set them up with experiences happening outside of the Drop-in Centre building. Perhaps working as a chef for a few hours, or fixing bicycles down the street, or meeting a former user for a coffee. Staff might also be matched by stage of change – enabling the collection and application of specific know-how and strategies.

Screen_Shot_2014-04-20_at_12.16.55_AMThe most poignant moment of our time in Toronto came on the last day. As we were sharing our reflections back with the members themselves. We drew a line on the floor with green tape. And asked members to sort themselves based on the 5 stages of change. Bruce, one of the long-term members of the Centre, stumbled over. And told us we were missing a category. Removing 2 Listerine bottles from his shirt, he said, “What about the people who want to change but just can’t? Who have tried, but it’s not possible?”


It’s true. We were missing that category.

We tried a number of different categories. Re-grouping members according to the stories they told themselves (their narratives) and according to their social networks (bridging, bonding, estranged, etc.). Based on the theory of story editing, along with research on the dangers of too much bonding social capital. Each grouping offered a few new ideas for re-thinking supports and services. Give us a shout if you’re interested in the full range of segmentations and ideas.

Of course, all of the ideas are untested. No doubt, many won’t work. That’s why they need to be prototyped and revised so we can learn what works, for whom, in which contexts. We’re currently sharing stories with funders and champions – and together with St. Chris House – preparing for change.

You can prepare too…

Learn from or work with In With Forward by exploring our new Learning Packages or get in touch.


Creating the Future: A new method for enabling change

Let’s start at the end

When asked to reflect on their learnings from the Creating the Future workshop they had attended, participants stated just that: when thinking about creating change, start at the end (envision what you want) and determine how to get there (work backwards to achieve your end goal).

This was the simple yet powerful message of Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder and chief boundary pusher of Creating the Future. Hildy also declared that creating the future is something we do every day—except when we’re thinking about creating social change.

For example, if Hildy asks us what time she has to leave to get to the airport, we all know what to ask her. What time is your flight? Pearson or Billy Bishop? Will you be checking baggage? We know what has to be done in order for her to accomplish her end goal.

We need to transfer these skills to the world of creating change. We need to practice them in this new context, or—as a member of the audience stated—we need to practice this way of thinking and being in the world. Our real job should be to determine what favourable conditions would enable us to get to where we want to be, and then take the actions required to create those favourable conditions.

This is what I enjoyed most about the evening. Hildy took the complex challenges we are facing and gave us tools to make the change we desire to address those challenges.

What were some other lessons?

  • Take the time to get to know each other. We started this session by giving people a chance to “describe their meandering journey.” The buzz in the room as people shared their stories, before the session even really got started, was inspiring and suddenly the room felt opened to new possibilities.
  • There is real power in asking good questions. This is a great lesson, especially for those of us who are perceived to have the answers. The best thing we can do for you, anyone can do for you, is to ask you really good questions that challenge your operating assumptions. Then reflect on those questions honestly and make yourself vulnerable to what the answers might reveal.
  • Be aware of the stopping words. Phrases like “if only” can see us focusing on the obstacles, barriers and challenges that stop us from progressing, despite the fact that human progression is part of our DNA. Hildy encourages us “not to invite fear into the room” but rather to focus on the conditions that need to be established to create social change.

Hildy took us back to a time when we were programmed for survival—when as hunters/gatherers we knew surviving was good enough. By reflecting on this history, she asked the room to realize how some of us still believe we are doing well if we just “keep the doors open.” We don’t allow ourselves the chance to think big, to create substantive change, when our focus is rooted in survival.

4564135455_4c14304e481She gave one example that resonated with many in the room: the misplaced focus on strategic planning. We spend untold funds and resources in one area while many plans are parked, others dismissed, and yet others referred to, if only occasionally. Still we get no closer to social change. It’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we don’t do it. No strategic plan will get us where we need to go. We need to focus on areas that will lead us to make change.

But we don’t have the systems in place to do that. Let’s look at governance. Right now, board members are brought on for their expertise in finances or legal or other skills linked to accountability for adherence to certain rules. They look back to see what an organization did over the past month/quarter/year. The focus is misplaced on this kind of accountability, not on what the organization is doing to make real chance or create real social impact.

More often than not we end up saying we need more of the same, such as, more food banks as the answer to reducing hunger. We need to a challenge our own assumptions, to questions the stories we tell ourselves as this leads to our actions and the results we achieve. We need to question what we believe is possible and what we believe about each other. We need to get beyond a sense of scarcity and limited resources to considering how we can work together to grow the pie.

When you are stuck in a place of disagreement—go bigger. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who agrees we should have more homelessness or hunger in the world, but each of our ways of solving these problems differ dramatically. When working with groups from different perspectives—which is required when making real change—we need to get beyond details and back to the world we are trying to create.

We often believe that getting to the root causes, instead of the focus on symptoms, is the secret to success. But Hildy warns us that this approach can also be narrow and unfulfilling as it sometimes leads us to focus on finding the thing or person to blame instead of focusing on creating a thriving community. Ecosystem and community are the real solutions. It is messy but nothing is working if we don’t open the context.

So who is Hildy Gottlieb? In addition to her current work on Creating the Future, which is described as “a learning and teaching laboratory for accomplishing social change”, she is also a social scientist, an activist, and a prolific writer and speaker. Her writings can be found in the Huffington Post, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. She is the author of several books on the nuts-and-bolts of creating social change—the most recent of which is The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing ‘Nonprofit Organizations’ to Create the Future of the World. She claimed the word “Pollyanna” before the others could use it against her. That works for me.

Having begun her career in the world of politics, she quickly found her calling in building successful businesses with Dimitri Petropolis, her business partner for over 20 years. In 1993, Hildy and Dimitri founded their first social enterprise, consulting to community organizations across North America. Since that time, the team has founded three more social enterprises—the first two Diaper Banks in the world, and now Creating the Future. Hildy has received numerous awards for her work and the entire team at Creating the Future won an award from the Awesome without Borders Foundation, for their efforts towards Radical Openness which sees them using online tools, like Google hangout, for their board meetings.

If you are interested in more information on Creating the Future, or in supporting them in their 10-year mission to learn what practical tools it takes to change the world, please sign up here.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on It has been reposted here with permission from the authors. Co-authored by: Allyson Hewitt, Geraldine Cahill and Dave Kranenburg

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