What I Learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows

SiG Note: This article was originally published on ABSI Connect on April 22, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

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It is time to pull back the current, briefly. For the past 8-months, I have had the privilege of being the administrator and an advisor for the ABSI Connect Fellows.

My ‘usual hat’ is Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National, based in Toronto. It seemed curious to many that myself and my colleagues would be the backbone administration for the Fellows. The simple truth is that SiG, with our national scope, was a nimble and willing platform of support when the idea of ABSI Connect was first conceived. An experimental initiative launched at a time of immense disruption focusing on a concept with a vexed reputation in the province, the focus of ABSI Connect on emergence, deep listening and relationship-building resonated strongly with the type of approach that we’ve learned can significantly support transformational change. It was our pleasure to help.

Despite the Toronto location of the Fellows’ administrator, ABSI Connect was from Alberta, about Alberta, for Alberta, and led by Albertans. The Fellows tenaciously spearheaded the initiative with patience, determination, humility, deep reflection, passion and critical thought, embracing their role as systems thinkers, bridges, resources, relationship brokers and capacity builders.

Their collaborative effort produced the story of Albertan social innovation, as they heard it, patterns of cultural elements accelerating or holding back the community, and a common agenda to move forward together in a uniquely Albertan way. The full richness of their findings can be read in their paper, “The Future of Social Innovation 2016” or you can read the summary paper here.

Here is what I learned from the ABSI Connect Fellows…

Alberta is rad(ical).

Alberta has a rich tradition of social innovation. It is the province of the Famous Five, who secured women legal recognition as ‘persons’ in Canada, leading to a radical shift in our social relationships and in Canadian jurisprudence. It is the only province where the Métis have a legislated land base, with the goals “to secure a Métis land base for future generations, local autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency” (Source: Alberta Indigenous Relations). And it was the first province to develop a formal interface for non-profit sector leaders to address high level, sector-wide issues directly with government officials – the Alberta Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Initiative.

Alberta has consistently been the home of key justice and equality movements, from the United Farmers of Alberta to the Pembina Institute.

What is common to all of these milestones? Each transforms a critical relationship, introducing a new status quo that advances, in some way, inclusion, openness and deeper collaboration.

Author Thomas King (and a former professor of Native Studies at University of Lethbridge) writes, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (The Truth About Stories, 2003). The stories we tell about ourselves matter; they inform how we see, show up and act in our daily lives. The Fellows amplified Alberta’s story as a leader in doing what it takes for community well being and equality, shedding light on an inspiring legacy of operating at the radical edge of innovation.

It is time to raise a barn together.

While there is this rich history of social innovation in Alberta, one contemporary pattern the Fellows surfaced was in the opposite direction. Today, the social impact ecosystem celebrates and rewards individualism over collective action. There has been a shift toward communities of heroes, rather than heroic communities. Short time horizons for results and a focus on individual agency undercuts an otherwise deep interest in collaborative action and isolates successful initiatives embodying this approach.

Listen to speak.

When the Fellows began their journey last summer, social innovation was a vexed concept in Alberta, specifically in Calgary and Edmonton, where their efforts were concentrated. Some folks considered it a critical new process to advance long sought social change, others considered it an empty fad, others still saw evidence of neoliberalism in the approach, and yet others felt it was either a useful or obnoxious term to describe the kind of breakthrough work they had already been dedicated to for years.

The Fellows started from a place of deep listening, inviting each person they spoke with to share what they thought the value, definition, and possibility of social innovation is. In doing so, the Fellows killed two birds with one stone: they discovered that there is a common direction that people want to walk together  (toward solving root causes) and, by listening and resourcing, they empowered the work of a diverse array of actors in both their current work and towards that common direction.

The Fellows learned that it absolutely matters to have a shared story, but that story must be accessible, inclusive, inspiring and democratic. Here is how I heard it: our common ground is in our deep dedication to aligning our social change efforts with our fundamental intent. If the goal is to solve something, then we focus on solving it. If the goal is to change the status quo, then we reimagine it. There is a growing movement of processes, models, approaches and shared learning that will help us align intent with action, whether we must invent, innovate, adapt, adopt or collaborate to get there.

Social innovation is the stuff of culture.

With little or no preconceptions of what they would be sharing back with community at the end of their term, the patterns and opportunities the Fellows identified through emergent learning all relate to the cultural elements shaping how and why we seek to forge solutions to our most complex challenges.

What they heard and learned strikes at the heart of how we think about, enact and vision impactful social change. What we call it matters less than identifying the systemic patterns shaping how we go about it and working to break the patterns holding us from our core intent.

Like any journey without a map – and solving complex social and ecological problems is as far from having a map as possible – we must constantly check-in on our direction and our path, referencing the changing landscape, the local know-how, resonant examples, our experiences, the experiences and stories of others, and our own courage to try a path untested. With an appreciation that we alone do not have the answers, but the answers are out there, we can make a concerted effort to contribute to their collective creation.

Thank you to the Fellows for leading and inspiring a unique inquiry, learning journey and community. Thank you all – especially the funding partners, hosts, advisors and contributors – for your time, contribution, support, insights and partnership. The journey continues with the Fellows’ insights offering pathways forward and a true shock of the possible.

Cracking the Code of Internships

When my mother was just a little younger than me, she got a job by asking the receptionist in the lobby of a company if they were hiring. She didn’t just get the job but she also managed to get some of her friends interviews as well.

My job search after graduation was more complicated, which is the story for many new graduates. Competition is fierce with many entry level positions receiving a hundred+ applications. Social Innovation Generation at the MaRS Discovery District (SiG@MaRS) recently advertised for a summer internship and received 276 formal applications and about dozen more sent in offline. This number is not surprising. More and more young professionals are looking for jobs that more closely align with their values and create impact, so this unique position was expected to attract a wide range of talent. Given the size of the applicant pool, I was asked to assist in the selection process. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those applicants, so I was excited by the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table in the hiring process. Reflecting on this experience I’d like to share some tips on what I’ve learned on how to approach a job search.

If you are interested in the topic, a previous Associate at SiG@MaRS, wrote a great paper in partnership with BMeaningful titled “The Impact Economy: The Insider's Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent”

If you are interested in the topic, a previous Associate at SiG@MaRS, wrote a great paper in partnership with BMeaningful titled “The Impact Economy: The Insider’s Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent”

1. The job posting is your best friend, but it is needs to be decoded

A good job post will tell you exactly what the company/organization hiring is looking for, what the role entails, and what you will need in order to be successful. Not every job posting will tell you all of this, particularly what specific projects you’ll be working on (i.e. where you could really have added-value), but the Summer Associate posting for SiG@MaRS had all these elements. A lot of applicants ignored the clues, but those who decoded the job posting and made modifications to their application really stood out. With 276+ applications, many of whom had similar qualifications, this is the way to differentiate yourself. I heard once that the best way to prepare your application was to jot down all the skills that the job posting lists in one column and in a separate column list the skills you have that match those required.  I had originally dismissed this advice, but this exercise could help you clarify the skills you have and those you are lacking.

 2. Think of your application as a road map

Young people are eager to prove themselves to employers so they list everything they have done to show just how capable they are (I may or may not, have followed that school of thought once upon a time). We had very impressive young people apply for the position, but with 276+ applications it becomes a question of highlighting the relevant skills – not all of them. At the start of this process I became overwhelmed by how time consuming looking at an entire application was, but after a quick crash course on recruitment I learned what I have always suspected – most cover letters aren’t read. Your resume is your first impression to show you are qualified. You cover letter is an opportunity to prove your first impression right and should show that all roads lead to hiring you. Now, I understand that you don’t always have all the experience needed but make the best case you can. That is what any job application boils down to.

 3. It’s not personal

Job searching can feel like an inherently intimate and personal activity. You become attached to the possibility of a job you know you could be great in. However, whether it’s because they nailed the interview, but were not the strongest candidate, or because they were very qualified, but were challenged in their interview – everyone has been disappointed at one point or another. If you are not successful, remember two things:

  • There will be other jobs. Wherever you land, remember that every job has something to offer, and the skills you learn will help you land another job in the future.

  • The selection process is full of variables you can’t control. What the team is like, what your boss is like, how much time they have to provide guidance, the skills the previous employee had. Focus on what you can control, remember the skills you lacked and be intentional in future opportunities.

4. Be intentional and value your skills

provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for College and University students to become drivers of progress and change.

RECODE is a program by the J.W. Family Foundation that provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for College and University students to become drivers of progress and change.

Looking for a job following graduation is a nerve-wracking experience but every job has something to teach you, and who you work with matters just as much as what you will be doing. You can start as an assistant, but with a true mentor by your side you won’t be an assistant for long. Similarly, you can land a great job but with limited mentorship it may be a negative experience limiting your ability to accomplish your objectives. Don’t just find a position where you would like to invest your time, find a position where they will invest their time and resources in you as well. logo55

If you are trying to break into a new field there are plenty of ways you can learn new skills, make new connections, and stand out. Some good examples of this would be volunteering at conferences to learn about the field and network, but you can pursue other strategies like writing about what interests you. Many places like socialfinance.ca and the RECODE blog accept submissions from students.

5. It’s not personal, but being interpersonal makes a big difference

One of the best investments you can make with your time is building relationships. The world is a small place and the world of social innovation is even smaller. When it comes time to look for an internship, tapping into these relationships will be the best way to find out who is hiring and even possibly getting a recommendation from someone on the inside. If you aren’t chosen for a position allow some time to pass and then reach out to the organization. Don’t necessarily ask for specific feedback, but ask to learn more about the organization. Making a contact will be far more useful in the long term. Your curiosity, engagement, and maturity is worth being remembered for.

Allyson Hewitt, the Senior Fellow in Social Innovation @MaRS, who helped lead the hiring process with me, also offers a few words of advice:

  1. Please send a cover letter with your application and clearly address the requirements outlined in the job posting. You need to make it easy for the screener to match your skills to those needed for the position. Start off by indicating why this position is of interest to you.

  2. Customize your resume based on the job posting and even if you don’t have an extensive employment history, indicate a few things you have learned at school that directly relate to the position. For example, I participated in a social enterprise competition and learned the value of getting market intelligence to back up my idea.

  3. Keep everything short: one-page cover letter, two-page resume. 

  4. Many people have great education, lots of you have great international experience, and it is really amazing to see how you juggle your course work alongside a part time job and extra-curricular activities. Indicate clearly how you prioritize all that you do.

  5. In a job like ours, highlighting your volunteer experience is important. Don’t minimize that experience and ideally indicate what you learned from volunteering.

  6. Finally, take your time when applying. Check for typos, especially the name of the company/ organization you are applying to. Ours is hard – MaRS Discovery District. Very few people got the spelling right with the right upper and lower cases but it makes a difference. It shows your attention to detail and that you really care about the place you are applying to.

Overall, Allyson and I were deeply impressed by the quality of the applications we received and we are very hopeful for the future of social purpose work in this country. If I can leave you with some lasting words, it’s that I interviewed back for a position at SiG National over a year ago, and I wasn’t the chosen candidate. I was gutted because I gave one of my best interviews yet. But I moved on, to get more experience, to look for the next opportunity – hoping I’d be successful next time. When a new position opened up 6 months later, I was invited back there to work.

Here are some resources that can help you find your way:

Careers at MaRS DD

Charity Village

C[ONN]ECT NonProfit Jobs

BMeaningful

Centre for Social Innovation Jobs Board

Provoking innovation through stories of social entrepreneurship

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are…”

―  Thomas King, The Truth About Stories (2003)

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

In 2015, the Trico Charitable Foundation published four extensive case studies on the 2013 Social EnterPrize winners. Each case study was developed in partnership with the winning social enterprise and a post-secondary institution, converging the rigor of frontline experiential learning with the rigor of a critical academic lens.

The result? “A series of social entrepreneurship case studies that, in terms of the breadth of the organizations studied and the depth of the analysis, is the first of its kind in Canada” (Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015). Together, each social enterprise and academic team revealed and codified key insights, challenges and lessons from these four thriving social enterprises.

“Storytelling is one of the most powerful forces in humanity. As a private foundation, we have learned that our work is better when we tell stories and when we listen to them.”

― Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015

It is clear that an appreciation of the power of stories spurred Trico’s interest in developing the case studies. Why are stories so powerful? An audacious question, but one that provokes serious consideration of the role of stories in our lives.

In the context of social innovation, the defining stories we tell each day reveal our core beliefs and the conditioning beliefs of our broader social system.They tell us something about what we value, who we value, and what purpose we believe our systems (and selves) exist to serve.

Photo via Trico Foundation

TurnAround Couriers. Photo via Trico Foundation

In sharing – in depth – the story of the four Social EnterPrize winners, Trico Charitable Foundation contributed to a narrative that values business as more than a vehicle for profit maximization. ‘Social entrepreneurship’ is a story of sustainable social processes leveraging market solutions to serve social purpose. It advances another, broader story about our economic system, one where the economy thrives as products, services, and experiences put the best of our capital (financial, human, knowledge) sustainably to work producing (and reproducing) positive social and ecological outcomes.

The story of a new economy

Each case study offers a window into how this new story is taking root and reshaping economic life. Each case exemplifies business models succeeding not in spite of their social process and purpose, but because of it. And, to explain this success, each case brings to light that the triple bottom line of social enterprise (or social purpose business) is more than people, planet and profit – it is also process, purpose and outcome.

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

This is the triumvirate of a new economy where, similar to the case studies in the recently released book Citizen-led Innovation for a New Economy, “organized citizens are forging innovation, prying open cracks in the prevailing economic system and seizing opportunities to redirect economic life” (From the book blurb - Purchase the book here or the PDF summaries of the cases).

Stories describe where we come from and why we exist. They define ‘the good life,’ our expected roles in the society or how we should relate to each other. Stories tell us what our essence is: good or evil or somewhere in between; independent or interdependent; fundamentally threatened or enriched by difference. Above all, stories reflect and influence our perception of the world and, in doing so, our actions.

“A fundamental sociological premise is Thomas theorem: what is perceived as real is real in its consequences. We would add: how we think about and understand the world frames our actions. Indeed, we can be even more basic: whether we think about things matter.”

― Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed (2006)

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Each Social EnterPrize winner understood that “whether we think about things matters.” Whether we think about the potential of low-income folks living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (EMBERS); the common need for safety and comfort by travellers, students, women in crisis, families in transition or with medical issues, seniors and refugees (YWCA Hotel/Residence); the untapped work ethic of job-ready, at-risk youth (TurnAround Couriers); or the pedagogical opportunity to empower every student to be a math prodigy (JUMP), it is actually noticing and thinking about these things that shapes our understanding of the world, frames our actions and, through our actions, reimagines our communities.

How do we follow in these footsteps? Thankfully, the case studies not only exemplify how these social entrepreneurs advanced a different perception of the world – and in doing so, ignited cascading opportunities – each also reveals how that acute perception translated into tangible insights, challenges, solutions and outcomes. They lend evidence and advice to others seeking to leverage a new worldview and market opportunity to achieve sustainable, measurable social and ecological outcomes.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

Final takeaway

The ability to unlock market solutions that successfully redeploy capital to achieve transformational social and ecological impact often demands challenging the prevailing beliefs of our day. It butts up against the way so many people currently see or understand the world. The Social EnterPrize case studies remind us to know intimately the story we are telling through our actions and through our words…by whom, about whom, for whom, to what end. This story is our compass. As are these case studies which, with practical and inspirational insight, reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact.

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world

—     James Baldwin

Two tales of a city: converging realities of culture in Toronto

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting – Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of the Lion

How do we imagine this city?
What are the rumours and tall tales charting…?
Tale One: The Soho Effect

Artists bring vibrancy, cohesion and activity into our neighborhoods – Yorkville (1960s); West Queen West (1990s); Regent Park (2000s). Real estate prices go up in Colorado. Artists – often renters – get priced out, along with other low-income residents. Artists drive the yuppification of our communities, inspiring demonic growth and displacement, the hapless victims of their own success. We are more shallow, disconnected, and cold for the loss.

 Here’s where the wrecking crew tore out the heart of the ward
No street signs remind you that a neighborhood died here before 
But things are working out well
Don’t believe what you see on the streets
No threadbare armies of men broken and dead on their feet 
No more bending your back to the weight of the world
No more sorrows, no setbacks, and no more diving for pearls in the ditches and drains
All our history’s remade and no memory remains of us now
– “History Remade” by The FemBots (2005)

“Evolution of Graffiti and Revolt” by EGR

“Evolution of Graffiti and Revolt” by EGR

Tale Two: Artistic Antidote

Artists are the antidotes to the homogenization of place. We have the knowledge and practice to leverage the power of the arts to both help artists and inclusively build the city. We can leverage ‘growth’ – the dynamism of a growing city – to counteract the displacement of artists and low-income Torontonians. We can not only creatively ‘make place,’ we can creatively keep what artists and neighbours have already made, through a combination of tenacity, collaboration and strange bedfellows, charting a real city imagined over time through deep connection and relationships.

Talking about a new way
Talking about changes and names
Talking about building the land of our dreams
His tightrope’s gotta learn how to bend
We’re makin’ new plans
We’re gonna start it again

(Rise up rise up) Oh rise and show your power

(Rise up)
Everybody
Time for you and me
– “Rise Up” by The Parachute Club (1983)

ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒋᓐᓂᖅ - Piliriqatigiingniq Mural Project (Follow on Instagram @thepasystem)

ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒋᓐᓂᖅ – Piliriqatigiingniq Mural Project (Follow on Instagram @thepasystem)

On November 26th, Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, shared both of these tales of Toronto during his MaRS Global Leadership and SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk.

The first tale is a story that happens to us. The power to shape the city lies with amorphous forces of real estate, gentrification, homogeneity and private profit. The city grows itself mysteriously around us, burying the sincerity of neighourhoods with ever-rising towers of glass and concrete, enriched by the cultural roots that others – now displaced – nurtured.

The second is a story that we co-author, where the tools of the arts empower us to be savvy, thoughtful brokers of the value that rich artistic communities create; we know, appreciate and foresee the value of deep, cohesive place-based culture and leverage it to creatively, deliberately and inclusively ‘keep place’ as the dynamism of city-building introduces new energy, offers, interests and investments into neighborhoods.

Both tales are true. Because these stories not only reflect what is happening, they actively generate and construct reality by shaping what we believe to be true and therefore, how we act in response.

Through the experiences of Artscape, a broker in the manner of the second tale, we learn about practical, actionable approaches and prototypes to inch away from lamenting the Soho Effect to embracing and reclaiming the artistic antidote.

While there is nothing simple about the Artscape model, in its simplest form it honours artists’ natural tendencies – to cluster, to collaborate, to invest locally and in each other, and to engage as changemakers – as a critical city-building asset and community development force.

It stands to reason that when a critical mass of people come together in a neighbourhood, everyone is drawn to this, creating a strong, powerful push for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

This powerful push for residential development that follows where artists thrive is the carrot for development deals to accommodate artists, make space for low-income residents and accommodate urban growth at the same time.

In other words, it is an opportunity to innovate urban growth that Artscape first began playing with in the 1990s. Their innovation: work with the city, community members, and developers together to manifest prototypes of creative place-keeping into public-private development deals. How? By taking advantage of a little extra density, inclusive zoning and a new tale about the imperative role of cultural value-creators –artists – to ensure they and other low-income community members remain in community.

You can build all kinds of social capital and social infrastructure, because in part together we are creating a multibillion-dollar market for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

If we understand how culture creates value for urban development (and if we know that the value is predictable, as it has been throughout Toronto), we can shift from advocating for creative place-making as an endangered need to deliberately and effectively appreciating culture as a critical lever for creative place-keeping – a fundamental case for more community and artistic ownership in public-private development deals.

Tim calls this engaging in culture as a form of “urban acupuncture” – engaging in small- scale, neighbourhood-level innovation to have a city-wide (city-building) impact.

There can be healing in cities by stimulating ‘nerves’ (creative, original expression) and ‘releasing pressure’ (through unusual partnership or collaboration) to create transformation…charting a new reality where self-interest compels policymakers, developers, community activists and artists to put culture at the heart of city building.

Let the beat of the drums harmonize with the beat of your soul
And let it travel miles.
Even if you are spiritually drained as you dance, as you dance, just smile.
Smile until you forget sadness and laugh at anger.
Until you can look into the eyes of anyone as a future brother
And not a stranger.
To invest in relationships you don’t need to be a banker.
– “Spectrum of Hope” by Mustafa Ahmed

Art – music, poetry, installations, painting, craft, writing – is “the quickest and easiest way to get back to something that makes you feel tied to where you are, and who’s around you, and who came before you, what they were doing” (Philip Churchill, The Once). It is how we imagine the city, how we engage in it, understand it and connect to a through-line of histories woven into this place.

Converge the realities.
Ice, wind, pain
Love, sun and rain.
Converge the realities.
Past, present and future.
– “Converge the Realities” by Charmie Deller

Watch Tim’s Talk: Culture as Urban Acupuncture (Full Video)

MaRS Global Leadership: Culture as Urban Acupuncture from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Learning from our past; innovating for a stronger future

Understanding how and where change has happened in our past, can provide an innovator with important learning for designing and introducing a new idea today. It also honours and celebrates those ideas that make our lands and our systems more positively resilient.

The History of Social Change is a multimedia project of SEE Change Magazine profiling social change movements in Canadian history – and their key players – that have shaped who we are as Canadians today e.g. Suffrage, Marriage Equality, Cooperatives, Environment, Social Economy, Labour etc. With a focus on the 20th century, each profile will offer an in-depth look at the movement’s origins, its activists, challenges, victories and its status today.

As publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, Elisa Birnbaum explains: “Social change is not an easy process. It takes effort, stubbornness and the ability to persevere in spite of all obstacles and opposition. Once achieved, social change and any newfound rights and freedoms should never be taken for granted, yet they often are. When that happens, we not only lose our sense of who we are, we lose sight of how we got here, which makes looking forward that much more challenging.”

And so Elisa set about interviewing and developing profiles with people who have changed Canada for the better. There’s dozens of inspiring stories on their site and SiG is happy to amplify their messages. It’s the kind of project we love. Elisa also took the time to chat with SiG National Executive Director, Tim Draimin about where his passion for social change began and what social innovation is all about.

Spend some time trekking through these stories and let Elisa know what you think. I’m sure she would agree that it’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a significant contribution to honouring our history. Importantly The History of Social Change project provides additional information and written history to give the interviews due context.

Leaving the last words to the producer herself: “It is my hope that this project will offer a valuable examination of the diversity of issues, people and social causes that define our country, remind us of the values we hold dear, celebrate the successes and illuminate the steps we must take next.”

For further stories of social change, visit our profile page as well.

Final Storify for #IIS15 Thank you!

Honouring Justice Murray Sinclair at the Indigenous Innovation Summit

Day 2: Indigenous Innovation Summit Storify capture

Storify from the Opening Reception of the Indigenous Innovation Summit

The Future of Evergreen: never changing, never staying the same

After starting a series of small businesses in university, Geoff Cape fell in love with big ideas and mustered the courage to explore these ideas, learning much along the way.

This is the story of Evergreen.

On September 25th, we were fortunate enough to have Geoff Cape, Founder and CEO of Evergreen, join us for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact lecture series. As we listened, it is clear that it has never been a straight path for the organization, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but it continues to be guided by a simple idea: we need to integrate nature into cities by engaging people in transforming the urban experience. From the very beginning, Evergreen brought this idea to life on the ground with activities like tree planting, but it has always played with complex issues as well, working with unusual partners to spark creative projects.

The Urban Century – what is happening to our cities?

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Calgary’s 2013 flood showed Canadian cities were vulnerable to natural disasters. Photo by Stuart Dryden/QMI Agency

In 1990, environmental messaging was about saving the polar bears, saving the rainforest or thinking about wilderness landscapes – none focused on cities. While Evergreen didn’t have the capacity to tackle the full complexity of urban issues at the time, they were always focused on the urban experience. It is at the heart of their work.

A nightmare scenario is now playing out globally in cities as a result of urban sprawl and population growth, creating sterile and isolated urban communities. Combined with the intensifying impacts of climate change, cities have also seen damaging fires, extreme weather storms, and water damage that have the ability to cripple industries and local economies. The 2013 Calgary storms caused billions worth of damage.

From a simple idea to radical innovation

Before receiving permits from the City of Toronto, Evergreen commissioned an artist to create an art project that would symbolize Evergreen's vision for the Don Valley Brick Works.

Before receiving permits from the City of Toronto, Evergreen commissioned an artist to create an art project that would symbolize Evergreen’s vision for the Don Valley Brick Works. Photo c/o: Ferrucio Sardella

Innovation has always been at the core of Evergreen’s DNA; they were one of the first organizations in Toronto to  have an internet connection and email addresses. Evergreen continues to push for innovation while staying true to its mandate through creative and often grassroots programming, such as its work to transform children’s learning environments.

By literally bringing nature to children in their playgrounds and other learning environments, Evergreen ignited the re-design of children school grounds across Canada. This fresh approach resulted in changes globally and has inspired similar projects in California. The concept puts civic engagement into the hands of community, allowing them to transform their shared spaces leading to empowered communities and, often, introducing a way to bring the interest of both corporate and political partners to the table. More recently, Evergreen transformed the Toronto city landscape with Evergreen Brick Works. The Don Valley Brick Works Factory helped literally build the city, including landmarks like Casa Loma and Massey Hall, but once it closed, it left a heavy industrial footprint. Evergreen had the vision to reimagine what it could mean for the city – before it even had permission to do so. Combining bold artistic statements and creative thinking, they found an architect who could help realize their vision, while also keeping and retrofitting the original industrial structure.

Photo provided by Diamond Schmitt Architects

Photo c/o: Diamond Schmitt Architects

Unusual Partnerships and Bringing Funding to the Table

logo-telg

Logo from Evergreen

When Toyota officially came on board as a partner 15 years ago for Evergreen’s school landscape program, this kind of partnership was rare.  In 1998, when talks around partnership began, no environmental organization would partner with a car company and Geoff was heavily criticized for suggesting the idea – many staff nearly resigned.

Feeling his way forward, Geoff created a partnership strategy that incorporated the strong values of the Evergreen staff. He drew up a charter, which was signed by the CEO of Toyota and Geoff, holding both partners accountable to be leaders in their respective fields. As of 2010, the partnership has worked with 2,200 schools and has had a direct impact on almost 900,000 students across the country.

Through the years, Evergreen learned that by connecting externally and building unusual partnerships they could foster creativity, but with unusual partnerships, there was also a need to listen carefully to the community, ask for help, and ask good questions to navigate the unknown.

What’s in the future for cities?

With a majority of the world’s people living in cities, it is estimated that $50 trillion will go towards building urban infrastructure in the next 15 years.  Evergreen knows we need to build something fundamentally different to the status quo and wants to be part of bridging and developing the ideas that support sustainability, resilience to climate change, and efficiency. The future of our cities should not just deliver more infrastructure, but engage citizens with equality to create a higher quality of life.

Lasting Lessons

Evergreen has and continues to evolve as an organization by running a diverse variety of programs, being comfortable working with ambiguity, and operating with both distributed leadership and constant restructuring to make sure the organization reflects its priorities.

It is rare for a founder to continue as CEO after 25 years, a fact that is not lost on Geoff. He admits he is not sure it makes sense for him to lead Evergreen in the future – although at this stage, he would like to. This is not the talk you hear or expect to hear from a CEO whose job security relies on the board of directors being confident in a CEO’s vision and leadership.

This is also not the first time Geoff has voiced these exact worries.

Back in 2008, just as Evergreen Brickworks was starting to secure its funding and bring new partners to the table, the organization was experiencing a pivotal point of growth. At that stage, Geoff expressed concern that he would become an institutional bottleneck that would stifle creativity in the organization.

Seven years later, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth. During his 25 years, Geoff has handled controversy and risk taking, continuing to earn the support and confidence of those at Evergreen.  Every challenge is faced with Geoff’s trademark of open leadership. Being self-aware of himself and the organization, and transparent with his staff, he is committed to doing what is right for the organization and the urban communities they seek to inspire and empower.

These values are now at the roots of Evergreen.

For Geoff’s full talk, watch below!

Greening Cities, Healthy Planet with Geoff Cape – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

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