CALGARY, AB – Change starts with you, or in my case, with me. If you’re going to change the world, odds are you’re going to have to start with yourself.
That’s the message that accompanied me back to my hotel room following the opening night of the Social Enterprise World Forum 2013, being held here in Calgary.
It was delivered by Al Etmanski, a veteran social entrepreneur and leader in the B.C. social innovation community as the co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), the world’s first savings plan for people with disabilities.
Etmanski was one-third of a star opening panel that included Anne Jamieson, the head of the Toronto Enterprise Fund at United Way Toronto and the chair of the Ontario Social Economy Roundtable, and Craig Kielburger, who rose to fame at 12 as the founder of Free the Children and is now an internationally-known social advocate for his youth-focused Me to We movement.
They came together to answer a core question: How do you achieve social impact?
With a strong vision and the patience to collaborate. Patience because not everyone is going to embrace your idea as thoroughly as you want them too. For social innovators this can be a challenge because often those doubters are the gatekeepers and decision-makers within the very institutions and organizations that you need to work with in order to bring the change you want.
It could be the local school board uncertain of your plan to help students, the health department that is suspicious of your wellness program, the big industry you want to upend with new technology or the established non-profit that has long occupied the space you are now eager to enter. You need each other, even if the other side doesn’t realize it yet.
So what do you do about that, a guy in the audience asked Etmanski?
You go back to work, said Etmanski. On yourself. “The pain or inadequacy of working authentically with people I didn’t know or had crossed swords with in the past had to do with my personal immaturity.” he said. “You have to come to terms with the lesser angels of your nature so you can meet people half-way.”
In his presentation, Etmanski drew inspiration for this idea from the work of artist Bill Reid and his famous piece The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the image of which most recently adorned the Canadian $20 bill. The original was commissioned for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, its twin is on display at the Vancouver International Airport and the original plaster sits in the Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.
As Bill Reid described his own work; “Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction…”.
Those 14 mythical creatures still have something to teach us, here in the contemporary world. We are living in the midst of massive social, economic and political change brought about by rapid technological innovation. Everything is shifting – populations, power structures and even personal wealth. It can feel like we are adrift, lost in that famed Atlantic fog. It is tempting to batten down and demand everyone follow the course that makes us feel most comfortable. But if everyone does that, we’ll end up going nowhere.
In the Maritimes, we’re quite familiar with that method. We’ve been going nowhere for quite a while now.
Time to change course. Time to learn how to paddle together.
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Read more about Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii
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