Data and Wisdom

When we look to another for wisdom, it is not data that we seek.

We want more than information; we need more.

We deserve more.

Data sends signals, whether standing on its own before us  or alongside of  its counterparts on a trend line or a scatter diagram.

Data may be objective, though I tend to think not. Data on its own is just data; for it to have meaning requires our engagement of it. How could it be “objective”?

Data is birthed in our profound lack of homogeneity (not that “homogeneity” should be a goal). Data is how we sort through the chaos, but it is neither good nor bad in and of itself.

How often have you heard someone insist that you give them the facts, show them the numbers. Of course data is important, but it will not unite us in understanding or resolution. Data only means what we let it tell us and if we will embrace it even if we prefer to let it slide. Unfortunately, more often than perhaps any of us prefer, this means we live with opposing views and all the snipes and barbs and pedantic polemics that accompany them.

Who decides what the facts actually are? Is the desire to claim that authority why we are so data driven?

Just before my grandfather died, he lifted his hand up towards my face and crooked his forefinger to bring me closer. He opened his mouth slowly. What he told me is private, but I guarantee you he did not spout one last statistic with his final  breadth.

Wisdom requires time for experience to do its thing.  It  is the inexplicable aggregation of ever-changing context with the content of our lives.

Just how wise we become actually depends on what we hope wisdom means – hopefully something good, compelling, just.

Wisdom emerges from the quality of our lives, not from quantifying our largesse.

Sometimes it is short on patience; sometimes wisdom is not kind. But we need it. We need it to help us think about what is right, not merely what data indicates.

Freedom of Choice and Human Rights

Your freedom of choice (or mine) does not trump the human rights of another.

Human rights are  fundamentally and legislatively enshrined and set the stage for how we live together. Human rights are hardwired into our collective identity. The very act of challenging the human rights of another human being is, in effect, questioning or challenging who you are as a human being living with other human beings.

In Alberta, legislation has been passed that will no longer allow child-free rental housing in the province. The fact that legislation was in effect forced upon the government by a Court of Queen’s Bench judgement is fodder for another posting. However, the fact that Albertans are debating the legislation is disturbing.

To deny another their protected human rights is wrong. It is wrong if it happens to you or to me or to anyone. Is this something Canadian society wishes to debate? I don’t think so.

Human rights create a level playing field; they represent the “must-dos” and the “must-not’s” that govern and frame our collective behaviour.  The protected human rights of all Canadians is what fosters  and frames personal freedom and choice. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would feel justified to  embrace these benefits only for themselves yet  believe someone else’s human rights should be denied to uphold one’s own personal freedoms (freedoms, not rights).

Saying things like: “I raised four kids and now I deserve peace and quiet” as rationale for an offensive against the human rights of children is at the very least unfortunate. At a deeper level, it is sad commentary on how often in society, through racism and discrimination, we claim a faux human right in order to reduce, if not, destroy the actual human rights of others.

Think about it. If children are denied housing because they are children, why not GEN-X only housing or Skinny People only Housing. How about housing only for cynical blog writers? Or worse.

We are entitled to our personal preferences and choices but only if they do not betray the human rights of others. We are not entitled to being more worthy of our human value than another human being.

Some or even many might not like that, but too bad.

Instead of whining about it, try to understand the fundamental  importance of this in your own life and accept that your personal choices not only do not trump human rights, but you should be advocating for the human rights of all Canadians, not feel sorry for yourself because someone else’s human rights are an inconvenience.

Again. Your freedom of choice (or mine) does not trump the human rights of another.

It can be no other way in a civil society.

About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Collective Impact is multi-sector approach to large-scale collaboration that is authentically inclusive of citizens in its development and implementation – in particular citizens who have life-experience with the big problems or issues being addressed, such as poverty, climate change, family violence, and so many more.

Collective Impact is not an approach aimed at creating program changes among a few agencies or undertaking collaboration in order to compete with other community initiatives. Rather, it tends to be focused on efforts to leverage talents, existing services, innovations, and resources in order to effect significant changes to policies and systems and where needed, significant programmatic changes. Such changes might occur within governments or government-run institutions, within education and health institutions, within business, or within service providers.

At recent sessions and workshops I held in Vancouver (Community Change Institute) and in Edmonton (Upside Down Thinking) , I shared a perspective on three types of problems identified by Brenda Zimmerman and how they connect to three types of change, three types of learning, and various types of thinking required in addressing each type of problem. My intent is to help our collective thinking about significant problems/issues facing our communities.

Simple problems are those we can fix easily and are sometimes called kaizen (the Japanese word for “continuous improvement”). Solutions to these kinds of problems are akin to tweaking a recipe or adjusting a process to improve quality or reliability of performance. Typically such changes are incremental.

When confronting these types of problems, we tend to focus on learning how to do things better (to do things right). A primary way to think about these problems is via event-oriented thinking, which is about focusing on events in sequence. This type of thinking is generally about undertaking changes to an “event” that impact the behaviour of employees in their delivery of a service to others. While important to achieving kaizen, this type of thinking limits its scope to causes of the event and does not involve looking at the overall system. Continue reading About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is within us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves. Continue reading Why are we here?

35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

C lick Paper to Download

In July and August, I sought out individuals in my personal and professional network to contribute to a major paper I was writing on Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future. I sought out participation through Facebook, via a survey which I promoted in emails and through Twitter.

The paper was released last week at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. It’s not a coincidence that it was titled: Cities of the Future: Co-Creating Tomorrow.

I have to say I was so pleased with the participation and the depth and range of responses. The narrative written by participants was so compelling, at least half of the paper is written in their own   words and the remainder is presented in aggregate, through summary commentary. I do admit I might have thrown in my own point of view here and there, but the paper truly is one example of co-creation. Continue reading 35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

Democracy is dying. Time to get to work.

I came across an article by George Monbiot (www.monbiot.com) that appeared in the Guardian this July. In this article, Monbiot writes about James McGill Buchanan, an economist influenced by neoliberalism and deeply funded by billionaire Charles Koch, the 7th wealthiest person in the world.

According to Monbiot, Buchanan was an advocate for what he called the public choice theory. The general gist is that “society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes are forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

“Any clash between what he called ‘freedom’ (allowing the rich to do as they wished) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defense of freedom. Continue reading Democracy is dying. Time to get to work.

Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

Banff, Alberta. Located in one of the most beautiful areas in Canada. People come from all over the world by the bus loads. There is money being made for sure. Nothing wrong with making money, right?

The hotel industry does alright. I perused hotels there via Expedia and most of the rooms available were $400 to $500 per night. Then there’s all the restaurants and bars, the tourist shops, art galleries, the rafting experiences, horseback riding, and on and on.

Life is good in Banff. Good for business people. Good for visitors who can afford to be there. But what about the workers at the clothing stores, or at the restaurants, or the ones who clean the rooms at the $500 per night hotel? Continue reading Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Note:  In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”

One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.

Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well.  She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go. Continue reading LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Developing Collective Impact Strategies

This article contains tools and approaches designed to help with the development of Collective Impact strategies. This resource is meant to serve as a guide for you and your colleagues as well as to stir your thinking. Three approaches are addressed: Divergent and Convergent Thinking, Strategy Criteria, and a structured approach to Strategy Formulation.

Ending Precarious Employment – A Game-Changer Strategy

Precarious Employment is the jargon people like me use to describe the employment conditions and experiences of a growing number of workers in our country. Here is what that jargon means:

Precarious employment is in effect sub-standard employment that offers low wages that typically are not enough to live on, and that does not offer basic benefits like sick leave, vacation leave, or even unpaid bereavement leave. Health and dental benefits are too often absent as a benefit to low-wage workers.

In Ontario, according to the Wellesley Institute, one in three workers do not have health and dental benefits. And the lower your income the more likely you will not have these benefits. In fact, the Institute reports that only one in five persons making $10,000 or less receive health and dental benefits from their employer. As well, the Institute reports that it is not until workers are earning $60,000 per  year that the majority have employer provided health and dental benefits (90%). See this link from Benefits Canada’s website.

Such employment also lacks in any form of job security. Workers can be sent home on a slow day, laid off for seasonal reasons, or simply let go if they are seen to be a “problem.” By “problem” I mean when a worker has to stay home to take care of her child in a work environment where such leave is not allowed. It might be allowed on the books (unpaid sick leave) but not so in practice. Precarious employment can also include work situations where worker safety is ignored, side-stepped, and seen as an unnecessary drain on revenues.

Most employers are likely decent employers, but precarious employment is not rare. Living Wage Canada reports that one-quarter of workers are low-income, the highest rate in the world. Precarious employment is estimated to affect 50% of Ontario workers, according to the Fight for 15 and Fairness collaboration.

A livable income is a game-changer for people. Sufficient income means better access to health services, to good food, to accessing services for our children, for planning for the future, and participating in the economy. A good job offering sufficient income reduces mental health problems, helps reduce stress in family relationships and can avoid the embarrassment, not to mention lack of opportunity, that children face at school when their parents cannot afford the extra fees required for participation in a sport or other school activity. People who earn a livable income can turn their attention from survival to contributing to their community and the lives of those they love and care about.

Imagine if there were more groups, more community leaders, more businesses, more citizens focused on stopping precarious employment and increasing the number of jobs that compensate people fairly.

Systems would change, new and effective policies would surface, employers would treat workers with dignity and people’s human rights would be met.

For more information:

Fight for $15 and Fairness (Ontario)
Fight for $15 (British Columbia)
Fight for $15 (Nova Scotia)
Fight for $15 (United States)

 

Precarious Work

When an employer won’t allow a worker more than 25 hours a week but requires that worker to be available for work 7 days a week, people become little more than commodities on the open market of Precarious Employment.

Lately I have made an effort to talk with folks that work at places like Shopper’s Drug Mart, Home Depot, and Save-on Foods and none of the workers I have talked to get an eight hour shift. My partner’s son just landed a job at 30 hours per week, no benefits of any kind.

Efforts like the Living Wage movement are gaining traction but large corporations seem slower on the uptake than do small business owners. When will the incessant desire to keep wages low by major businesses end up hurting the economy on which these low wage employers depend? There is a tipping point somewhere down the road – for everyone. Continue reading Precarious Work

IF WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD

As some of you may know, I often open and close Tamarack gatherings with original music. Some years ago I wrote The Truth We Find in All that We Deny and since then have performed it numerous times around the country. You can listen to a version of it HERE. That simple song is about how often the truth is found in what we turn away from, found in what we step around or deny.

I was going to perform it again this year at Tamarack’s Poverty Reduction Summit in Hamilton, which took place April 4 to 6, but a few weeks before the gathering I told myself I should write a new song for the closing. Telling myself I should write a new song was easy. Actually writing one was a tad harder. In fact, by the weekend just prior to the Summit, I had yet to even attempt a new song.

Continue reading IF WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD

More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction

As some of you know, I have written about and I am continuing to work on what I call a Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation. You can read my initial paper HERE. And a recording of a webinar I did with Mark Cabaj is HERE.

I have been asked about the difference between Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) and this game-changer approach I am working on with my colleagues at Vibrant Communities Canada. The game-changers we have identified are Housing, Transportation, Education, Health, Income and Jobs, Food Security, Financial Empowerment, and Early Childhood Development. All of these are aligned with SDoH, but there is, I suggest, more to what we are exploring than social determinants of health.yes-and-no

The Game-Changer Approach also is stressing the importance of avoiding the creation of “thin” strategies among a host of other “thin” strategies that, in effect, can lead to an overall poverty reduction strategy that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

The notion of prioritizing our efforts is one that is often accepted as necessary but in practice not emphasized. One of the fundamental tenets of the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation is rooted in an old Taoist saying, For every yes there is a no. Continue reading More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction

Mandatory Winter Tires and Poverty

Yes, perhaps an odd title for a posting, but bear with me. I was on my way back home from meeting downtown with Alberta Government colleagues who also work in the poverty reduction arena and I heard this call-in show about winter tires and more to the point about whether or not winter tires should be mandatory.

They are in Quebec now but even in some provinces without a mandatory requirement more than 80% of drivers have winter tires. Not so in Alberta where the percentage is just over 50%. Not sure about other low percentage provinces, but here is what went through my mind. Continue reading Mandatory Winter Tires and Poverty

Movement Building and Collective Impact

In an article written for Fast Company, Kaihan Krisppendorff, identifies four steps to building an effective social movement, which I have adapted below:

1. A community forms around a common goal or aspiration.
2. The community mobilizes its resources to act on the goal/aspiration.
3. The community crafts solutions and acts to deliver them.
4. The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment or established regime of laws and policies (Source).

If you are involved in a collective impact initiative, these steps should resonate with you, in particular with the five conditions of collective impact.  Krisppendorff doesn’t address shared measurement in his post about social movements, but successful movements are always about moving the needle and bringing about systems change to do so.

Consider the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. in 1964; the Civil Rights Act rendered discrimination/segregation illegal, especially with respect to jobs and workplace advancement, and termination because of colour. States that did nothing to address discrimination lost federal funding. There were other impacts but you get the gist. Big change for sure. Continue reading Movement Building and Collective Impact

Simplicity and Complexity

The top drawing suggests there is complexity to the journey from A to B. That journey requires numerous loop backs before moving forward and takes the traveler up and down and back and forth along the way until the destination is reached. Who knows the reasons why the journey was somewhat unpredictable or if there were side trips that were either necessary or just taken out of curiosity.

I have taken journeys like that one and some were enjoyable. (I was once drove half way from Edmonton to Vancouver taking dirt roads through farmland and forests and loved it.) But sometimes the complexity represented in a diagram like the one above is caused by necessary diversions, distractions, or even arguments about which way is the best way to go. In other words, sometimes complexity is a good thing. It factors in different view points and it allows us to see more scenery along the way, perhaps learn more as well.

But sometimes getting from A to B can be quite simple and straightforward. Could be we need to get there as soon as possible. Could be the straight path is the safest path to take or more economical. Maybe there is some correlation between having a sense of urgency and getting to where we want to be as completely and as quickly as possible.

The reasons abound if we really think about it – for both scenarios.

Complexity and simplicity are not at odds are they? They just offer us a different perspective, offer options that perhaps the other doesn’t.

 

Maybe there are simple solutions to complex problems.

There appears to be a common perception among some thought leaders that complex problems require complex solutions. I am not arguing against that perspective except to ask, if it is always true? In my early life as a consultant to non-profit organizations I was involved in developing software, databases primarily, that were purposed to help organizations collect, analyze, and report on their work. Without exception the work these organizations were doing was addressing complex problems like exclusion, poverty, mental illness, and so on.

I remember one time when we were coding the database, we discovered that the entire database did not work. Not just parts of it but all of it. I tried every which way to identify why this was happening. An earlier version worked fine, but now after adding copious amounts of code, nada.

Code is complex in and of itself but even more so when code must work with other code. In other words, a good coder has to understand how to use the development language but also needs to understand how that language interacts with itself across patterns or clusters of code.

After literally days of trying to figure out what was wrong, I finally identified the problem. I had forgotten a period in one line of code and that small mistake stopped everything. The solution was laborious to locate but it was a simple one. Add the period and voila, all was as we intended.

Maybe there is a lesson here for us in terms of our design of programs and services or collaborative ventures. Maybe our policies or systems that exist to solve complex challenges do not always need to be scrapped or undergo a major rethink. Maybe sometimes, within what we currently have before us, there is a small, simple change that will in turn change everything.

What do you think?

Watch out for the solution bias

Solutions are exciting, especially those you are a part of creating, but even if the ideas behind them were not your own, implementing a new solution is an intellectual turn-on. Sometimes there is even an ego-boost one experiences when part of something on the “cutting edge.”

I wonder though if at least some of the time solution-makers are so pumped about the potential of their new journey, they can overlook pitfalls, obstacles and unintended consequences. I call this, solution-bias.

There’s a kind of bandwagon effect that can get in our way if we are not careful. Jim Collins, the Good to Great, author, talks about “getting the right people on the bus.” His intent was to point out the importance of having the right group of people engaged together to achieve a common aim, but what if the bus is headed in the wrong direction? Or, even if its direction is correct, what if it is winding around obstacles or even running them down that actually require a stop along the way to understand the journey better, if not the destination itself? Continue reading Watch out for the solution bias

About Crowd Funding

Posting #2 in a series on Resource Development
See # 1, Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

First, a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: Crowdfunding (a form of crowdsourcing) is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, today often performed via Internet-mediated registries, but the concept can also be executed through mail-order subscriptions, benefit events, and other methods. i

Wikipedia adds this: Crowdfunding is a form of alternative finance, which has emerged outside of the traditional financial system. ii

This latter definition is sometimes called “Equity Crowd Funding” and investors receive equity in the business or venture they are contributing to. This posting is not about this type of Crowd Funding. Rather I am writing about the most common type of Crowd Funding today which allows anyone to donate their money to anything that gets posted on an Internet-based Crowd Funding website. Recipients of funding can be individuals in need, informal groups, performance artists, individual schools, clubs, inventors, product developers, techno- projects, as well as conventional charities and businesses.

Donors to such initiatives do not, as a general rule, get anything in return. Some may get a charitable receipt, but equity is not particularly part of the arrangement. Actually for many, if not most, of the asks being made on sites like Kickstarter or Go Fund Me, there is no equity to be had. Witness two of the appeals below from Go Fund Me, Canada’s largest Crowd Funding website.

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crowdfunding2.png

The first one is about saving a single mother and her four children from losing their place and becoming homeless as of September 3, 2016. I am writing this on September 4th, perhaps too soon to see if the money raised stopped her eviction. I sure hope so. The other one is about Pebbles, a dog with liver problems and other illnesses who needs interventions that Darlene cannot afford.

I am not saying these are not causes to donate to. I use these two examples only to highlight that Crowd Funding is changing the how fundraising is done, about why it is needed, and who does it. There are the more standard types of appeals on these sites from charities and relief funds. For them Crowd Funding may very well be but one more way to generate support.

Unlike Go Fund Me, Kickstarter does provide some accountability on its site by reporting on fundraising results in a variety of ways, although neither site offers any accountability reports or information on impact, other than showcasing “success stories.”

Kickstarter tells us the following about its funding activity iii:

  • Since its inception in 2006, Kickstarter as generated pledges of $2.58 billion and successfully funded 111,500 projects.
  • Kickstarter is an “all or nothing” venture. If you do not raise all of the goal, you get zero. Unsuccessful initiatives were greater than successful; there are 200,000 of them reported by Kickstarter.
  • Most successful fundraising appeals were small ones, just shy of 75% of them. Just over 14 raised between $10,000 and $19,999. The dollar range categories are much wider than the smaller ones. Those raising $20,000 to $99,999 make up about 13.2% of the total successes. Less than 3% generate funds in the $100,000 and up category. If you are wondering if anyone has raised $1 million or more, the answer is yes. Of the 111,500 projects, 189 of them hit the million dollar mark (.0017%).
  • Those appeals that have the highest success rate are by category: Dance, Theatre, Comics, Music, and Art. Of the 15 categories listed, Food is in the bottom five. There is no category listed for Social Service, Human Services, Community Work, and so on.

In the United States there is another site that caught my attention: DonorsChoose.org, which exists solely to raise money from citizens for class room projects in schools around the country. Most of these requests appear to come from teachers looking for money to support something in their classroom that the public school system doesn’t fund. Most requests seem to be in the hundreds of dollars. Of three I dug into, the highest request was for $296.75 to support teaching 15 kids about cosmetic surgery. Other requests seem to be about getting money for things that one could argue should be paid for by the school system. I will stay silent on that topic, at least for this posting.

Whether or not Crowd Funding is a good thing for the market place has no right answer. It depends on how it impacts the community and community systems. In other words, its value is contextual. For the mother and children saved from eviction, the impact is substantive for her family. But as a business – Kick Starter is a business – its implications include diluting overall giving patterns of donors which may – and perhaps are – hurting other more traditional appeals from organizations who are trying to help thousands of single mothers and their children. Perhaps more importantly, sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe are redefining what help and impact look like; they speak to those who are disillusioned with formal charities or with banks and so on.

For your organization or group, the questions you likely face if you are thinking of including Crowd Funding in your fundraising program include the follow:

  • Will raising money this way impact other revenue sources, whether support from your donors or from more traditional funders, who might see success as Crowd Funding as an indication of your lack of need for their support?
  • Given that, by far, the majority of projects that meet their fundraising goal receive $10,000 or less in funding, will entering this market place suit your needs and will the effort and the exposure be worth it, especially if you are not successful? Remember, at Kickstarter and other similar sites, it’s all or nothing.
  • Ten thousand dollars is a good amount of money and for some small groups it is big money. The key will be putting an ask out there for something that is compelling and likely to motivate a large number of small gifts that more likely or not speak to each donor’s emotions. While I could find no evidence to support this next point, my sense is that these types of appeals must be of a kind that generate impulse giving.

I will leave it to you to form your own judgements on Crowd Funding and to decide if and when it has a role to play in your resource development activities. My intent here is to provide information that may be of help.

Stay tuned for the next blog posting, About Social Impact Bonds.

i Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/crowdfunding, September 4, 2016

ii Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdfunding#cite_note-1, September 4, 2016

iii See https://www.kickstarter.com/help/stats?ref=about_subnav

Continue reading About Crowd Funding

Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

Posting #1 in a series on Resource Development

It’s tough out there for non-profits and social causes when it comes to raising money, especially money for core operations and services. All of the seed grants, innovation grants, or target specific project grants are fine and dandy, but the growth in sustainable funding is not growing, is it? Impact Investing, Social Enterprise, and Crowd Funding are among the more recent methods of financing social good, though the extent of their reach and utility by the sector overall are emerging, not yet clearly understood.

I have read a fair amount over the years on fundraising and other resource development opportunities and one thing I found irritating in most of them was the thesis they presented, which generally was, “if you all do this or that, or follow this methodology, you all will raise more money.” The reality is, as you  know, every organization will not increase their revenues in a given year. Many struggle just to maintain current levels of funding.

intimate-relationships-connection-you-me-us-we
Relationships Matter

A colleague of mine recently suggested I write a piece like this, given my “success” in significantly growing two non-profits. For one, I doubled staff and financial resources in about three years; for another agency the growth in revenues was about 70% over 5 years. At both agencies there were significant additions in services, but also large gains in securing sustainable funding and improving operational infrastructure (which is all about capacity). This leads me to my first point about generating resources: Raising revenues significantly takes  a significant amount of time.  Patience is definitely a virtue in this instance. Continue reading Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

There has been a movement afoot for the past 15 to 20 years that evolved out of a growing dissatisfaction with the charitable sector or more to the point, the Charity Model. Critics of the sector are nothing new, of course. And these criticisms are often based on unproven perceptions (e.g. there are too many charities), biases people have toward “the needy” (e.g. I made it through hell, so can you), and some that still boggle my mind like, non-profits need to be more business-like.

But the conversations I am talking about have gone further than that and very often have been initiated and led by well-respected non-profit sector leaders tired of seeing good work (or what they saw as good work) not really moving the needle of big change. The impact, they say, just hasn’t been good enough, which has evolved into concluding that the so called Charity Model has failed us all.

What I find interesting and somewhat unnerving is that this thing we call the Charity Model is in effect a descriptor of organized helping; it is not and I suggest never has been an actual model in the manner that we tend to think of models or frameworks.  Usually a model has an author or set of authors and has an intended purpose, and governs or guides how you do something. I am not aware of anyone who authored the Charity Model. As a term it represents our attempt to put meaning to what the charitable sector does and why, though we tend to spend less time on the latter.

My sense is that the Charity Model is about our desire to capture and understand how the organized expression of love or kindness is implemented through institutions and systems. It is a term that offers differentiation from the private and government sectors. How that expression is organized is certainly worthy of review and adjustment, if not significant change, but my struggle with the direction many are taking is that charity has become something sector leaders want to move away from while replacing it with something better. Continue reading Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore

In September I am doing six workshops at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. One of the workshops is: Ten Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore. I am gathering data right now, investigating trends identified by others; there are so many trends we have to pay attention to that I am not yet certain of the ten I will showcase.  But here are a few trends I am tracking right now that I believe qualify for some substantive, authentic attention by our political, economic, and community leaders.

All the charts below are all based on data from Statistics Canada. Ask yourself what the implications are of these trends and what options we have to address them. While you might take issue with my commentary, the data is the data. Do you think these trends and patterns suggest good news for our society going forward?

wealth
I have written before about Wealth and Income Inequality. While the gap in Canada is not yet as severe as the worldwide trend, the gap is significant and it’s getting wider, as the chart below indicates. Continue reading Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore

Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking has a relationship with Disruptive Thinking and Disruptive Innovation, but they are not merely different descriptors of the same thing. You can read a previous posting I did a while back on Upside Down Thinking; this posting is about Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has its roots in the private sector. The concept was first articulated by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen in 1995 who defined it as “an innovation [that] transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.” [1]

According to Christensen, there are two fundamental aspects of a disruptive innovation. It either provides a low cost alternative aimed at a segment of the market that the dominate players are not focusing on; or it actually creates a brand new market that is also typically a lower cost alternative in the market place

Consider the disruptive innovation that changed how we “rent” movies. Remember Blockbuster? Continue reading Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Signals of Coming Disruption

Big change doesn’t just click on. It occurs over time, starting out often as weak signals of the change to come. Sometimes it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Put the frog in when the water is cool and turn up the flame and eventually the frog realizes its plight, just too late to adjust, to escape.

For years, donor giving has been changing. Charities have become increasingly dependent on larger gifts from fewer donors. As the economy has served to increase the income and wealth gap between the small numbers of wealthy and the rest of everyone else, we have seen food bank use escalate and a growing number of workers living pay check to pay check. Job security is no longer a reasonable expectation for a growing number of people, much less the chance for advancement. Employee supported pensions are no longer the norm and health and dental benefits are harder to come by for low income workers and many who do not yet qualify as “low income” workforce members.

imagenoise_signalmlab2The adaptations charities have taken have been focused on how to grow revenues through different sources of revenues. Funders are looking at alternatives too, given their inability to fund all the good things that come their way. Crowdfunding, social enterprise, impact investing, social purpose businesses are among the more recent options in financing social good.

GDP growth has been slowing, 80% of Canadian incomes are not increasing or if they are, at far less a rate, the restructuring of the job market is creating more insecure and benefit-less employment. the ratio of workers to seniors is dramatically decreasing. Key drivers like oil prices are in turmoil. Consumer debt keeps increasing. The numbers of people making $15 or less are growing as businesses work harder to cut back on expenses in order to feed more profits to investors. Continue reading Signals of Coming Disruption

Edmonton Moves Forward with its Roadmap to End Poverty in a Generation

Mayor Don Iveson’s Taskforce to End Poverty in a Generation had its final meeting on May 30, 2016. Actually the meeting was really a celebratory gathering, a time to acknowledge the work and leadership of so many.

In particular we celebrated the publication of End Poverty Edmonton’s Roadmap to Guide Our Journey which is based on the EPE’s Strategy  to achieve a poverty free city within a generation. Both of these documents have been endorsed by Edmonton’s City Council and indeed, City Council has already been involved in implementing certain aspects of the strategy even before the Roadmap was finalized.

eperoadmapThanks to a partnership with the Alberta Government, the City will be launching a low income bus pass that will provide a 60% discount on the standard fares for public transit. The program is being launched in 2017 with three years of funding in place. The total cost is estimated to be around $12.4 million and will be split 50-50 between the province and the city. Approximately 20,000 low income families will benefit from this savings. For more information about how the subsidy works, click HERE.

As well, City Council recently passed a motion to support the planning phase for the creation of a standalone Community Development Corporation. The CDC will focus on low income neighbourhoods and the development of affordable and supportive housing, retail shopping, job creation and ultimately build stronger, healthier communities. Through a collaboration between the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Community Foundation, United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, and Homeward Trust (Edmonton’s organization that funds Housing First efforts), the intent is to create a CDC that will be community owned and driven by community needs and aspirations.

During the Task Force’s work, it heard from young people living in poverty and often on the fringes of community life about the importance of decriminalizing poverty. Unable to afford public transit, they shared stories of being fined and eventually taken to court when they could not pay the fines.  This kind of thing happens to the homeless all the time, regardless of age, and their clear and compelling message about such treatment of the disadvantaged prompted action from the city as well, long before the Roadmap or even the EPE Strategy were finalized. New rules, along with training of Transit Officers who do the checking and the ticketing, were instituted because of the challenges put before the Task Force by 10 articulate young people.

All of these accomplishments are a testimony to the momentum of the Mayor’s Task Force, the diligence it had in engaging citizens throughout its work, and City Council’s openness to new ideas to address the suffering of more than 100,000 neighbours who are living in poverty. They are a testimony to the tone set by the Mayor from the get-go around openness to new ideas and basing strategies and actions on a People-First mindset, a fundamental principle brought to the table by Indigenous leaders, citizens, and elders.

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the importance of the leadership and thinking provided by the Task Force’s Aboriginal Roundtable. Not only did they help all of us better understand the challenges faced by Indigenous people, they enriched all of us with their cultural and spiritual approaches to making life better for everyone. The EPE Strategy is rich with the influence of the Aboriginal Roundtable and instead of being integrated throughout all of the strategies, we ended up with a strategy that clearly and comprehensively frames the work required to not only advance poverty elimination but also to advance reconciliation across our community.

The end of the Task Force is really just a new beginning. While there will be task force members who continue on with the roadmap work, new people and organizations will be invited to join the implementation efforts, whether in a stewardship/governance role, as advisors, and/or as deliverers of services and initiatives identified in the roadmap. The inclusion of diverse cultures and perspectives will continue as well ongoing engagement with the general public

I was fortunate to be a part of the Mayor’s Task Force to End Poverty. Fortunate to have my mind challenged and my heart nurtured by others. We argued. We laughed. We worked through differences. We stepped up when needed and sat down when others stood before us. We listened to the naysayers and then carried on. And as I mentioned earlier, we have a new beginning before us. We need new leaders, new voices, fresh perspectives carrying the implementation of the EPE strategy forward.

A tip of the hat to Mayor Iveson for having the courage to say “Enough” to poverty and for his passion and caring for all Edmontonians. It’s true, Mister Mayor, you couldn’t have gotten this far on your own, but  it’s also true that we couldn’t have gotten here without you. Ending poverty in a community requires leadership and local government’s commitment to the work.

Also a tip of the hat to Bishop Jane Alexander, the Mayor’s co-chair, who worked and spoke tirelessly about the Task Force, its importance, and for reminding us that ending poverty is a just cause and a human rights issue we must resolve.

For the first time in my long life of actively pursuing the end of poverty and homelessness, I feel hopeful that we can actually do this in my community. I hope you feel that way too about your community.

It’s about time, don’t you think?

___________________________________________________________

Resources

Download the EPE Strategy
Download the EPE Roadmap
Visit the EPE website
@endpovertyyeg

See my interview with Mayor Iveson and Bishop Alexander in the current issue of The Philanthropist, which is doing a series of articles on the theme of Poverty and Human Rights.

 

Leanings toward heresy

Complex and Simple
By acknowledging that societal issues and solutions are complex, do we then believe complex solutions are the only options? Is it true that a complex issue cannot have a simple solution?

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Data
Data is neither good nor bad. It offers no explanation and on its own cannot provide a definitive sense of progress or under performance. We determine such judgement by holding pieces of data in comparison to one another. We are selective. We have to be, but what we select is also always about what we do not select.  I suggest that is what we do not select that is often the real culprit when it comes to spin.

Sometimes our love of data is not as strong as our love of data that affirms us.

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Understanding
Understanding is not agreement or disagreement. Mutual understanding about an issue or a condition or a model is not strategic alignment. We move too quickly toward strategy without understanding one another, which results in positional arguments based primarily on one’s interests, biases, experiences, and individual perspective pitted against another’s. I am not saying that taking positions is avoidable or even should be. I am wondering what position-based exchanges might look like if those holding opposing or conflicting positions actually did so from a foundation of understanding one another.

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Models
Models are not plans or prescriptions, far less recipes. They are organized ideas gathered into a structure that the modelers put forward based on research, evidence, best and emerging practice and their own ingenuity. They are not meant to be followed as much as they are offered to you as consideration. They are well articulated suggestions that are not intended to be followed in a rote manner.

All models are imperfect. Their genius is revealed in how you use them to build your purpose and the work necessary to fulfill intent. In other words, you are the genius of a model, unless of course you fall short of your expectations.

Follow me @mjholmgren

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Preface
Earlier this June I had the delightful experience of being a part of a workshop at Tamarack’s Deepening Community gathering in Edmonton. The workshop was with Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack. Al called our session a “beauty jam” and both Al and Vicki wanted an “artist” to be a part of the jam. I was thrilled. And our time together was awesome.

The spoken word piece I did was an update of my first version of Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good. The process of editing and rewriting continued after our beauty jam. This is what I love about writing: it never is done. So here’s the latest version:

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Let’s forget our worries and our doubts and walk together unencumbered by the need for a destination. Let’s close the big books of plans and studies and turn down the volume of all that best practice noise. Let’s prefer to have faith in something less predictable and confining.

Let’s agree to never again meet in board rooms or scrawl logic models on white boards. No more sitting in a circle going around the room saying nice things about evaluation that we really don’t mean. And no more stories about the innovator’s dilemma. They all sound the same, don’t they?

Let’s run outside into the blue and green grinning wildly. And kick off our shoes and dig our toes into the dirt and feel what it is truly like to be grounded in Mother Earth.

Let’s walk along the water’s edge and enjoy the rhymes of the river. Watch the way water prevails no matter what sits in its path. How it can wear away mountain stone and heal and nurture all at once.

dandelionsWhen we reach a clearing, let’s stop for a moment and receive the murmur of the forest and wonder about all the beauty that lives there, whether deep in the brambles or swimming in a raindrop on maple leaf. Stop for a moment and listen to everything all at once envelop us in the chaotic music of balance.

Over there! Let’s sit on those cool stones and pray for sunbeams. Let’s scan the shore across the river and if we see a miracle or joy or peace, let’s not ruin it with our analysis and or remind each other than nature is a system.

Let’s think like wild flowers.

Let’s feel life like insects do.

Let’s shut our mouths and let quiet matter.

Then let’s walk together and climb the hill to discover whatever is there for us, open to the horizon, content in the moment. Let’s watch the lights of city streets move and pulse and how starlight sparks against the glass of skyscrapers.

As is always the case, all paths end into a new one. The dirt path transitions to pebbles on crackled tar and then to the slabs of concrete we call sidewalks. This one has been ignored for too long, and unfolds before us with its slabs akimbo from shifting over time. And in each crack and crevice, life grows.

jackhammersFor once, let’s celebrate tenacity of the dandelion and smile at its golden disruption and banish the word weed from vocabulary. Let’s just keep walking until being alone gives away to manoeuvering through the crowd of shoppers, tattooed teen-agers, slow walking elders, and those misunderstood pet owners who dress up animals in the latest of fashion.

Let’s be happy when a dog wraps his leash around our leg and looks up at us with dark eyes that yearn for recognition. Let’s stand before workers with jackhammers like we often stand before street musicians and nod our affirmations in time with their difficult music. How important they are. Without them nothing would change.

Let’s go buy roses at the farmer’s market and hand them out to strangers and wish them a happy day. Let’s stop and drink Fat Bastard at the Thin Lady Café and pretend sitting there is everything.

We can tell jokes to anyone who will listen and laugh from our bellies.
Let’s risk odd looks from others as we roar our joy, spilling on ourselves the excess of our happiness and not even for a moment think of erasing the stain with a Tide pen.

Let’s make silly faces as we read each other stories from the newspaper that the other would not choose to read. Let’s write down our peculiarities on napkins and then leave them for others to read after we leave.

For a short while, let’s pretend to be shoppers and peer into sun-lit shop windows and gawk at the shoppers inside. Let’s gawk like children and enjoy the wonder of discovery.

Then let’s turn the corner and then another and walk down alley ways and enjoy the gardens of strangers and let the colours and aromas kiss our skin. When we see a can over-turned, let’s set it right.

And as the sun drifts down toward the sanctuary of night, let’s sit in that small park named after a minor hero and refuse to look tired and resigned to the small odds of changing everything that is waiting for us to resolve.

Before our pause threatens us with ending our time together, let’s find the busiest of plazas, and in the middle of the chaos of people and neon and honking horns, let’s dance.

tiny dogs
Let’s dance like tiny dogs do

Let’s dance like tiny dogs do.

Let’s inhale everything that is good and uplifting and exhale all of our broken pieces and watch them float away toward the moon.

Let’s forget that we want to save the world.

Let’s forget for a short time that what we do is important.

Let’s set aside our certainty and our egos. Put away our positions and our failures. Let’s forget how afraid we are and defy our tendency to think professionalism trumps personal relationships.

Let’s embrace on the sidewalk for all to see.

Let’s communicate like dolphins and hold on to one another.

Let’s hold onto one another like couples do at the end of a sappy romance. Like grandmothers do when their grandchildren run to them for love or because they are frightened or for any other reason at all.

And then, let’s get back to work.

There is suffering everywhere and while we may not ever end it, God help us if we ever get to the point where we just give up and accept that suffering is inevitable and something we just have to learn to live with. Let’s never do that.

Let’s never do that.

 

Innovation. What is it?

Innovation.

We all love it, want it, speak it, eat it, and it feels good when something we do is affirmed as innovative by others, especially those we admire. Sometimes, though, and perhaps often, when we don’t hear such affirmations, we create our own. We cite our own work as innovative.

However the recognition of our innovative work manifests, the cynic inside of me does wonder from time to time if our desire to be innovative gives birth to claiming innovation in much of the work we do. That cynic inside of me has wondered the same about me on occasion; just mention that to suggest that my inner cynic has no qualms about digging in on me, what I think, and what I do (and don’t).innovation

What it is?

A common definition of innovation is this: a new method, idea, product. I think other words go here, too, like a new service, device, or structure. Feel free to add more.

Synonyms often cited include: change, revolution, departure, introduction, variation, transformation, upheaval, and alteration.

Okay, so far so good. I see innovation having such words point to its meaning. The real challenge for me is understand how it begins, what happens when it happens, and when and how it transitions into something else. Continue reading Innovation. What is it?

Income Trends and Canadian Consumer Debt

Over the past 15 years Canadian consumer debt has risen dramatically.  Since 2000, the percentage of Canadian debt in relationship to disposable income has risen from 110% of income to about 165%. The change in debt to income ratio represents a 12 year increase of 50%.

Income to Debt

The old adage about “people should live within their means” has validity no doubt in many cases, but such maxims simplify the complexity of economic influences and impacts and in this case categorically blame individuals for their debt problems. It’s akin to telling people living in poverty to just buck up and get a job. Stop being lazy and all of that.

Does rising debt have a correlation to slow if any growth in income for Canadian workers? The chart that follows tells a disconcerting story about after tax income in Canada by three cohorts: the top 20% of earners, the middle 60%, and the bottom 20%.  The chart goes back much further in time than the chart above and ends in 2011, but the trends are very clear.

incometrends2

From 1976 the trend in after tax income growth was about the same for all cohorts. In the latter 1990s, however, things changed. Income for the top 20% has escalated quite markedly since then, whereas income growth for the 60% middle earners and the bottom 20% have been small at best.

As the majority of Canadians have experienced flat to very small growth income over the years, they have also experienced far more growth in the expenditures required to house themselves, feed and clothe their families, and so on.

In Edmonton, where I live, the cost of rental accommodations increased on average by 75% between 2000 and 2010. Incomes for the large majority of city residents did not experience such gains. Add rising costs of food over that same period of about 5% per year on average, and the income to expense challenges are obvious.

pullquote1The more one spends to survive, the less likely it is that they will save for a rainy day, much less for retirement or even a short vacation. This contraction on disposable income creates vulnerability for people. When faced with a family emergency or job loss, even job loss for a short period of time, the options are few. Using one’s credit cards are among the few options available.

The Canadian Payroll Association has done annual surveys for a number of years and each year the results indicate that between 45 to 50% of Canadian workers are living pay cheque to pay cheque. The loss of a job to them would, according to the Association, result in serious threats to maintaining their housing. This suggests that half of Canadian workers, while not necessarily qualifying as living below the poverty line while employed, are economically vulnerable to disaster should their pay cheques be lost or interrupted, even for a short period of time.

There are other life experiences that lead to unmanageable levels of consumer debt. Divorce plays a role for many, in particular women who leave the relationship with children to care for, and all too often insufficient, if any, child support. Add to this that the majority of women earn less income than men and we end up with single parents financing their transition from marriage to single parenthood with debt.

Health problems can exacerbate debt as well. Temporary absences from work for surgery, for example, plus recovery time add to the fray. Even those with health and short term disability benefits experience reductions in income during those periods of time. And those without any such benefits are left without any supports from their employer. In Ontario, for example, one-third of workers do not have extended health and dental benefits, according to the Wesley Institute.

Of course debt problems are also caused or at least magnified by a lack in money management skills and other aspects of financial illiteracy. Increasing knowledge and skill about money should be attended to, but to think financial illiteracy is a panacea answer would be both impractical and irresponsible.

Rising consumer debt is not just an economic problem in and of itself. It is part of an overall pattern of systems and values that work to keep worker costs as low as possible to order to drive up margins and that fosters and sustains discriminatory practices that stymie participation in the economy by women,  visible minorities, Indigenous people, the disabled, as well as older and younger workers.

As a general rule unemployment rates and levels of income are higher in the former and lower in the latter for these populations. How come? Do we really believe that such populations do not measure up to the mainstream of the workforce in terms of skills, experience, and work ethic?

There is an irony in all of this. While there is a tendency to blame individuals for accumulating unmanageable debt, our economy is based on growing profits and to do so products and services are pervasively and unrelentingly marketed to grow sales. Persuasive advertising is fundamental to such growth in profits and it tends to work, resulting in too many people purchasing what they want more so than limiting themselves to what they need. In other words, one could argue that we are happy when a sale is made but then critical of those who grow their debt because the advertising worked.

We are seeing progress in addressing some of the factors mentioned above. There is a growing and welcome trend across the nation around employers paying a living wage. For many workers, especially those that have employer-based health and dental benefits, this will make a difference. Paying a living wage is connected to paying a fair wage, but on its own the living wage movement is a partial answer. For example, the cost of living for a single mother with two young children will more times than not be far greater than an increase in income brought about by a living wage.

If we want to turn the tide on economic vulnerability and poverty in Canada, we need to act on the income problem systemically. Child Tax Credit payments are helping and do lift many out of poverty, but for too many the transfers are insufficient.

Canada’s universal health care system is not really universal. For example, unlike many if not most countries with universal health care, we lack a national pharma benefit. Without employer-based benefits, the cost of medications can mean that Canadians are not able to buy them, which eventually leads to higher public expenditures on hospitalization for acute and chronic care. Add to this mix the dramatic trends in length of life, one has to wonder how a rapidly growing number of senior citizens living into their 80’s will be able to manage their health care costs without a pharma plan.

pullquote2Tax reform has a place in the changes we need to make, but on its own is not the answer either. While it seems reasonable for the super-rich to pay more taxes and have less access to opportunities to avoid taxation, the bigger challenge has to do with how governments see priorities, how they decide to spend our money. Systems change that doesn’t address this will be hard pressed to effect substantive change.

Attitudes and values need to be assessed as well. There is an emerging movement to consider human rights in our economic and social decision making. If in a democracy we believe people should be treated equally and have at least equitable opportunities to participate in the economy and in social living, what are the human rights that should guide decision-making?

Our systems appear to place more value on those who are working and doing well than on others who are struggling or who for a variety of reasons cannot work at all (e.g. the mentally ill). While there is a general acceptance that governments should provide income security programs for those who are between jobs or who can’t work at all, there is little, if any, justification for the inadequate financial benefits these income security programs provide. Across the country, at least from what my own research has uncovered, income security benefits do not come close to what it costs to be alive in Canada.

There is encouragement to be found in governments that are exploring a Guaranteed Minimum Annual Income as well as adopting living wage policies and practices in their own shops, but if we carry the same sentiments that keep current benefits far lower than what is reasonable, then I fear a GMAI, for example, will fall far short of the mark. Program changes unaccompanied by a shift in values will at best produce inadequate progress.

While there is a growing understanding that poverty is not just about money, let’s be careful that we don’t step away from the undeniable impact that a lack of income has on people’s lives. The millions of Canadians living on low and unstable incomes may benefit from more social inclusion or subsidized public transit or free passes to recreational facilities, but such programs, although welcome, will not turn the tide of the biggest most pervasive aspect of living in poverty, which is a lack of sufficient income to survive, much less thrive.

Across the country, local communities are taking charge of poverty reduction and this is exactly where such leadership should come from. Local economic reforms are possible in local communities but without addressing national and provincial systems that work to marginalize people of low income and keep them poor, we won’t win the battle. Which is another way of saying, despite our progress, we have so much left to do and we need to foster ways to improve our systems together, across all sectors.

RESOURCES
Vibrant Communities Canada

Time to reframe poverty reduction as matter of rights (Maytree)

Living Wage Canada

Canadian household debt soars to yet another record

Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, especially in B.C. and Ontario, survey warns

Canada needs a national pharmacare plan: Editorial

 

I am angry about poverty

As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality
persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.
– Nelson Mandela                        

I have been doing research for a keynote I am doing next month on the socio-economics of poverty.  I am speaking in Revelstoke, so I took a look at the welfare rates in British Columbia.

There, if you are a single person deemed employable your income support “benefit” is $605 per month and the government’s website indicates this has been the rate since 2007.

To be clear, that’s the total. It’s broken down into two segments: $375 for rent and $230 for food (and everything else). It’s not clear to me if a single employable person also gets a bus pass over and above that amount, but I am hedging my bets against it.

If you are single parent with two young children, the benefit is $660 for rent and $401.16 for everything else. That’s just over a grand for three people, which I found disconcerting to say the least, but you know what? That 16 cents made me angry.

I imagine there is a formula used to figure all of this out and that the powers that be didn’t want to round the number off. Perhaps they felt that a single parent and her two kids should get every penny coming of what can’t come close to supporting them. It felt like a slap in the face.

I won’t go through the motions here of comparing these benefits to the cost of housing and food, clothing, and household incidentals. We have done math like that for as long as I can remember and despite our analysis, people still are suffering from what I call “our ”economic indifference.”

The indifference has its excuses: Governments can’t afford paying any more. Poor people are lazy. She should have not gotten pregnant so young. It’s his fault; he’s an ex-con. Oh yeh, there’s the “drunk Indian” expecting “another hand-out” and they should have stayed in their own country. Why should I have to pay taxes so they can just lay about.

Yep, lay about on $605 per month.

We don’t want people to receive so much money, they just live off the taxpayer and don’t look for a job. Let’s give them far less than it costs to live.

Sure, that will motivate them.

I know. I am being sarcastic. Venting a bit as well.

I swear I could write an excellent, professional brief on how the welfare rates in British Columbia (and in every other province most likely) perpetuate poverty and despair. I could point out how many rules and hoops one has to navigate is not only unnecessary, but also demoralizing, inhumane. But not now. I will save that stuff for my speech.

Right now, I am just angry. Angry about poverty and its myriad systems, rules, and formulas. So angry that I don’t know what to do.

Do you ever feel that way?

Not just sad, but angry. Angry that poverty exists.

Perhaps this anger resides on the extreme end of my compassion for people. Perhaps it is that feeling one gets when a loved one is harmed by another.

I wrote this because I needed to accept this emotion, welcome it as one might an unwanted visitor, tentative but open to what may be possible.

I am angry about poverty and about our many “solutions” that are from what that word means.

I also wrote this because I have to believe you get angry, too.

And I wanted you to know: you are not alone.

 

Was that you I saw standing on the edge?

I was the Lumber Jack size of a man with his toes on the precipice just a stone’s throw away from you.  My toes were nearly hanging over, which meant my belly extended even further over the edge.

The other side – that place beyond the chasm where I wanted to be – wasn’t all that far away. I imagined if I backed up 20 yards and ran fast, I could make the leap with room to spare.

Were you thinking the same thing?

I tried not to look down or at the jagged rock face that would be my ruin if I missed my mark. I tried to keep my eye on where I wanted to be, on the prize so to speak. But truth be told, I stood there on the edge alternating my eyes between the perils below and the possibilities that waited for me “over there.”

We looked at each other a few times, quick glances as if each of us offered the other some solace, some sort of connection about the individual choices that we were facing. Would it help to stand side by side?  Could we help each other understand the risks and the rewards we might realize by leaping over the void?

Of course, we weren’t alone. Down the way from each of us were others standing on the edge as well.  Young and old, women and men, people of all colours. I think I saw a mother carrying her child and a man in a wheel chair.

There we were, all of us on the edge of who we were at that moment, wondering about the possibilities over there, our fears swirling beneath us, dark and dangerous.

That’s when I woke up.

It was the strangest dream.

Like many dreams, this one lingered for a while as I went about my business and then dissipated over the next few days. I had forgotten all about it until I started writing this piece. I remember thinking, “that dream could be a great introduction to a book.”

As an activist, writer, musician, father, and partner, I have stood on the edge of who I am many times. Sometimes I leapt over the darkness below and carried on with my journey on the other side until, as you likely anticipated, I ended up on another ledge, facing another chasm separating me from possibility.

Other times, I turned around and walked away, either not ready for what I might find “over there,” or just too damn afraid to risk the fall. As well, there were times when I realized that the possibilities of where I was were still unrealized and that leaping from one cliff to another would have smacked more of escape than exploration.

In all of these cases, one thing was certain and constant, namely that there was no certainty I could rely on. Staying put may have offered me comfort and safety, but if I am honest there was no certainty that my current location would serve me best. And the possibilities offered across the way – or perceived to be offered – were only that, possibilities. Nothing guaranteed was waiting for me.

This uncertainty was simultaneously unnerving and exciting. It seemed like every choice facing me was terrifying and yet I felt rich with choice.

While the dream was mine, the experiences it painted are, I suggest, part and parcel to our humanity, our human condition.

In the context of my work to end poverty or within the frame of being a creative person (writer, musician, artist), I am constantly faced with choices and few, if any, offer me a predictable outcome.

Reflecting on the dream, I see it as a story about change and its many risks and possibilities. The dream sparked my thinking about my own resistance to taking chances and my all too frequent desire to just let what is be good enough. I am comfortable with good enough, with my routines of living. I know what to expect or at least think I do. My guess is you get what I am trying to say here. There is often something heartwarming about the status quo.

There are many, many people testing new waters, crafting ideas, launching innovative actions. I am blessed to know so many incredible leaders and thinkers, risk-takers and catalysts, and passion-makers and boat-rockers. But even the best explorers get lost, prefer calm waters, and hesitate.

I have said more than once: transformative ideas require (and deserve) transformative practice. They must weave together if we have any hope of our ideas coming to fruition. To create unique, beautiful music goes beyond the composition. Creativity, passion, and experience are put to practice (technique) and what we hear is all of that, not just the notes the pianist is playing. In other words, often, if not all the time, new music requires new technique in order to act on the possibilities of our creativity.

And for a pianist to create new music, does she not have to redefine who she is as a pianist, if not a human being?

Think of the risks jazz musicians take when they sit together and jam. For such interplay to work well, each of the players has to trust their skills and techniques while being open to possibilities that unfold during their session together. Even the best musicians experience times when the magic doesn’t happen. Even the best player can miss a note or go sideways while the others head off in a common direction.

The risk goes beyond embarrassment for missing a note. Mistakes and misses are also about the person making them and the more innovative we try to be, the more likely we will fail along the way. How do we incorporate a value of failing within our identities? How can we find sustenance from one another when our quest for the new and better way to do things, tumbles us to the ground.

Our desire to act on what is possible relies on all we have learned while at the same time challenges us to move beyond what we know to what might be. It is hard enough to do this by yourself; it is so much more difficult to do this together.

One of the fundamental tenets of my practice as a leader, teacher, and innovator is this: big change is a group activity requiring that we help one another overcome our fears, our personal or professional shortcomings, and our collective tendency to gravitate toward what is comfortable and easy.

We need our edges and our chasms. Without them we are limited in where we can go and what we can discover. But I suggest we should not stand on the edge by ourselves. We have a much better chance of leaping forward if we do it together.

 

 

Acceptance

We can’t do it when we are young.
We know too little.
We have not tasted enough truth.

Eventually we can taste everything:
the sweet, the bitter, everything in between.
One day, Wisdom appears at our door.

Small and unsure at first,
it speaks nonetheless, each word
finding courage from the last.

One day we walk around a corner
and there it is waiting for use:
that space so deep inside

where our nature resides, that
which never changes, the constant “I.”
It is not the “self” but that which holds it close.

If you could taste it, it would
taste like candy we know
we should not eat

but we do
because of we didn’t
we could not be.

 

Pride

Two_dancersIt’s hard to find.

There are so many who
do not want you to have any.

They think it belongs to them.
They think that if you have any,
they will not have enough for themselves.

Thankfully, there are those
who want you to have it
feel it
breathe it
be alive with it.

Welcome them.
Have the pride you deserve.
It is not the only reason
but it is a very good reason
to dance.

The Joy of Knowing Buddy

Buddha and I were having a beer. Actually he ordered a hard cider. Before he invited me out to the bar, I had always thought Buddha didn’t partake. Come to think of it I never pictured him doing much more than sit on his ass with a big grin on his face. After a few ciders, I clued into the cause of his happiness.

We lived in the same neighborhood. We first met at Max and Cherry’s Laundromat and Gift Shoppe. We were folding clothes at adjacent tables. He was buttoning up a Hawaiian shirt when a long sigh left his mouth. I looked at him and he caught my eye. He smiled and nodded toward the shirt. Just remembering, he said. Have you been?

Maui, I replied. I swam with a sea turtle.

Buddha chuckled. They sure do stick their necks out when they want something.

When he first introduced himself, I misunderstood and thought he said, Buddy.

Hi Buddy,” I said, shaking his chubby hand. My name is Mark.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out, but before I could ask him to say it again, Cherry appeared. She was behind my new friend and could barely touch her fingers as her arms wrapped around his belly.

It’s so good to see you, she said.

She extended her hand toward me. Hi, I’m Cherry.

I shook her hand but in the process brushed my fingers against Buddy’s belly. I remember thinking it was simultaneously as hard as a turtle shell and as soft as a cumulus cloud.

I am Mark, I said. Continue reading The Joy of Knowing Buddy

Zombie-like at Wally World

I walked around Wal-Mart the other day. From one end to the other. I bought stuff and almost bought other stuff.

I asked a staff person where something was. She pointed. “Over there past the George Foremans, next to the computer stuff.”

Perhaps I looked dazed. She added, “Yeh I know. No matter where you are, what you want is somewhere else.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I chuckled.

I looked at my options, compared prices and finally placed my selection in the cart. I wove my way to the long bank of check out lanes, hearing “Welcome to Wal-Mart” in the distance.

I waited in line zombie-like, said “no-thank you” to the cashier who asked me a question that I really didn’t hear. I slipped my credit card in the money-taker contraption and walked off into the dusk, once again having no idea where I parked my car. But I saved three bucks, and when I finally found my car, I had to just sit there for a few minutes, the engine humming.

Then I drove home and didn’t realize until I walked through the door, I didn’t get what I went there for.

Wonder

Edmonton River ValleyAt night each light
tells a story: small rebellions
in the darkness.

We do not know
what the stories mean
or who offers them.

They are strangers. Strangers
we wonder about telling
stories we wonder about.

It does not matter if
we find out who they are
or the meaning of their lights.

Wonder is what matters.
Wonder makes life.

Worthwhile.

The Music of Collaboration

 

At the Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayor’s Lead gathering that Tamarack’s Vibrant Communities hosted in Edmonton April 5 to 7, one of my many roles and privileges was to be an MC at a reception at City Hall for summit participants. At this event, the trio Asani performed their version of our national anthem and two other incredible songs, sung in their native language. (At the end of this posting is a video of them singing O Canada.)

What I heard and saw and felt were received by me (and I imagine many others) as joyful revelation of the human spirit of these three women.

I watched these beautiful singers, the expressions on their faces, the look in their eyes, as their harmonies washed over us, weaved through us, and became a part of the air we breathed. Everyone there felt that and everyone felt the magic of their music each in their own way. Art is always experienced personally.

As a singer-songwriter, I look for more than the music or voices intertwined. I watch the human beings making the music. Watch how they breathe, how they sense one another, how they embrace their individual roles in the “we” of their creation. As I watched them, there were times I saw in their faces those moments of joy as they folded their voices into harmonies that I sensed not only brought chills to my body, but to theirs as well.

There are times when one is creating with others that such magic happens. New discoveries reveal themselves in the moment. Perfect blending of voice and rhythm reveals itself. What is created is bigger than, and beyond, the artists’ expression or expectations.

Asani’s performance was the epitome of collaboration. What they created far exceeded what they could create on their own. But even more so, what they gave to us exceeded the incredible voice they created together. Their impact went beyond their own unified expression of their music because as soon as it reached us, it was more than when their voices left their bodies. They became us. Singer and audience made their songs even bigger and more profound than what the three of them created. Their gift became the gift we gave to one another.

Artists understand this or at least intuit this phenomenon. The eloquent, well crafted story is not as powerful on its own. It finds its power in the reception of the reader. The sculptor, the painter, the weaver, all artists are unable to reach the promise of their talent without those watching, viewing, engaging in the art. Don’t get me wrong. To engage this way requires stellar artistic expression. All I am saying is that such expression is not fully realized without those of us who engage in their art.

Art’s power and grace are revealed not only in those who receive it but also because of those who embrace it.

Those of us working to end poverty or homelessness; those of us advocating for human rights; those of us who believe in the sanctity of being human – the work we are doing is the same work as the artist. We must engage others for our work to have its full meaning. In fact, the meaning of our work is to be found in the response and embrace of others. Like the work of the artist, our work must be stellar work, but the impact we seek must be embraced by our “audience.”

Our collaborative efforts, as powerful as they may be, fall short if they do not touch others in ways that inspire, motivate, and cause the engagement we hope to instill in others.

The  Asani singers are such consummate singers not just because of natural talent. Their beauty is precision that emerges from practice, long hours, struggle, debate about which way to turn a voice, up or down, softer or louder, and when to shake a rattle or beat the drum. It is mutual orchestration and no doubt the sharing of leadership required to attain their connection with us, their audience. And if they do it right, which they did, their music becomes ours to celebrate, to cherish, and to uphold as beautiful, amazing, joyous expressions of our  humanity. And once that happens, we carry that with us.

Imagine if our collaborative efforts to end poverty could achieve such harmony. Imagine how it would feel to see the impact of our songs on those we wish to engage and inspire. Getting there would be no different than the work of the artists, the work of the Asani women. I am sure they had their times of disagreement. I am sure there were times when egos may have stalled their collective commitment to their craft. I am sure they had times of being weary or lost or wondering if what they had created would be good enough. And I am sure there are some who may not appreciate their gifts. Some who might not be open to hearing, much less celebrating, an Indigenous version of O Canada.

Thankfully, they moved through such obstacles and resistance. Thankfully they did not allow themselves to be dissuaded by the naysayers or those who prefer different music. I am thankful they kept their focus and chose to be present for whomever was open to their embrace and to worry far less about those who might turn away.

This, too, is a lesson for us in collaborative work. We must focus on those who will walk with us to a better place, who despite differences of  opinion or talents still want to walk together. Should we remain open to the naysayers? Should we listen to their objections? Yes, but only to make ourselves better, never to stop us from creating the beauty we must create to make communities rich with harmony and peace and joy.

Oh and one more thing. I have no doubt, the Asani trio does not ever reach that point where they say to themselves, we cannot do better. The reason why they are so good at their art is because they never tell each other, “We are done. There is nothing more we can do.” No matter how incredible the collaboration, our work together can always get better, do more, reach further, and have more impact.

Thank you Asani for your inspiration and your art.

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