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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Where Worlds Collide: My Impossible Dream

Wakata Inc.

How might we build and maintain a community of engagement committed to realizing shared solutions that strengthen our society as a whole?

I’ve got a bad habit of questioning conventional wisdom.  

This isn’t something I do merely for the sake of being disruptive; like buying a used car, I simply feel it’s important to kick the tires on any process, new or inherited, to see how it holds up in practice.  I also have an innate, probing curiosity that compels me to understand how and why things work and connect, rather than simply accept them as they are.

I have a particular fascination with human behaviour – what motivates us individually, how we function systematically, how our social system impacts our motivations and behaviour individually.  This curiosity about human nature is what compelled me to major in anthropology in university; it’s also why I have spent so much of my life as a visitor, exploring different communities around the world and right here at home.

Whereas conventional wisdom tells us that success is the result of functionally fixating on one narrow path and pursuing it rigorously, I’ve done the opposite by dipping my toe in subject matter as diverse as healthcare policy, human resource management and political engagement.

It was through working as a political staffer that I really began to understand how misguided conventional wisdom was. 

There can be no better training for life both personal and professional than working in the office of a dedicated politician.  Politicians don’t get clear-cut job descriptions; they are advocates, service providers, communicators, partisans, legislators – the list goes on.  Committed politicians find themselves deeply immersed in community affairs, regulation, healthcare policy, transit policy, etc.

Of course, not all of them are committed, nor do all political staff appreciate the opportunity their position provides.  As stakeholder after stakeholder comes through the doors discussing their particular issue, it can be very hard to focus on the litany of messages being conveyed and even harder to harness the mental space to figure out how all these pieces fit together.  

After all, there are calls and emails to be answered, briefs, press releases, statements, speeches, etc to be written and cases to be managed.  The role of a political staffer is to ensure their Member gets re-elected, which also happens through supporting the Party; if an issue brought to your attention fits outside this very narrow focus, why should you care about it?

Yet all politicians, and staff, and public servants, and players in the public, private, not-for-profit and grassroots sectors all talk about structural concerns and the need to do something different to solve them.  

We wring our hands about big-picture problems like traffic congestion, energy generation and usage, economic growth, poverty, crime, etc. in abstract, but when it comes to implementation we always revert back to our narrow focus.  

This is, after all, conventional wisdom - if everyone puts their self-interest first, the system will take care of itself.  If you don't focus all your energy on getting yourself ahead, well - you'll be left behind.

But who, then, is responsible for addressing the big picture?

From Bay Street to main street to rural communities and First Nation reserves, there's a common theme emerging - every man for himself doesn't work.  I cannot tell you how many conferences I've heard well-paid and well-respected leaders articulate this message at, nor how many times I've heard it in coffee shops or community centres or in random conversations on the subway.

We get that conventional wisdom is flawed; we talk about it when we get together for one-off forums or in one-on-one gripe sessions.  Yet we still go back to functioning within our silos.

Bucking conventional wisdom has allowed me to recognize how universal this theme is; it also affords me exposure to the cultures (including work cultures) that encourage our silo-based operations.

One of the key things I've realized (and I've been helped by the fact I'm a polyglot) is that while people across the board share similar concerns, they're not all communicating it through the same language or from the same perspective.

A seasoned government relations expert with a background in planning once told me that people and politicians need to respect the trained professionals and get out of their way - only they can fix the system.

A community organizer fumed about how professional planners were making false assumptions about communities based on simplified interpretations of data and were actually part of the problem.  The only people who could devise the right solutions for their communities were those who lived in that community.

A reporter complained about politicians who refuse to engage but rely on messaging; a politicians despaired about how hard it was to have meaningful dialogue with people who were great at articulating "we want this from you" but not willing to collaborate on solutions.

There's us, there's them, and then there's the problem-solvers.  Again, silos.

Thousands of conversations with people across countless sectors and up and down the social spectrum have all led to the same conclusion; conventional wisdom is failing us.  A focus on me-first and top-down management or bottom-up advocacy is fueling our expanding concerns of duplication, gaps and overlaps.  It's not sustainable.

This remains a massive tragedy, because if we could bridge the communication gap between people and sectors, we'd see collectively what I've experienced individually; the solutions we seek exist right now, but like pieces of a puzzle they need to be put together.

There's no better example of this than the move towards Open Government and Open Data.  There is a community of public servants, private sector partners, social innovators and community catalysts who are truly committed to opening government to the people.  They are willing to learn, willing to reach out, actively exploring the latest findings around motivation, engagement, effective management, so on and so forth.

But they run up against cultures that work the opposite way.  

Bureaucracies are gated communities that are loathe to let outsiders into their space.  Management still believes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that innovation can be motivated through the same top-down, carrot-and-stick approach that worked in the industrial economy.

Marginalized communities are tired of being stigmatized, frustrated with the doors of engagement that remain closed to them and mistrustful of public programs that come and go without continuity.  Great, committed people want change, but don't know how to catalyze it and have no reason to trust the system that really needs their input.

From every corner of society, I keep hearing about the need for structural change, but couched in language that says they need to come to us and earn our trust.

That's not how it works; people need to want to come together and have to be willing to come part way themselves.  This can't be done overnight; it has to be a process all parties commit to for the long haul.

Communication requires trust, but also a willingness to trust; it requires understanding, but also a willingness to understand.  Most importantly, communication requires a large degree of introspection; we need to know what our biases are and why we have them before we can overcome them and bridge the gap with others.

So - how do we do this?  How might we bring communities together in a sustainable way that allows for understanding to develop and real communication to occur?

Having thought a great deal about this, I've come to the conclusion there's an older bit of conventional wisdom that does apply here.

Community is built around bread and candles.  Through the creation of a safe space where common needs are met regardless of rank, demographic or wealth, people are able to focus on that which they hold in common instead of that which makes them competitors, targets or irrelevant to each other.  One thing we all have in common - a need to eat.  Eating is, universally, a social activity.

Here we come at last to the impossible dream, the biggest bucking of our silo-based conventional wisdom which also happens to be a return to common values that does and always has existed in every community throughout history.

The end goal that everyone agrees upon is the need to engage.  For engagement to happen, we need community.  Communications + unity = community.  

This is the whole purpose behind Where Worlds Collide - to bring people together from different communities in a well-lit space where food and drink are available.

Hopefully, there will be friends of mine from grassroots communities who come, but don't have the means to buy food and drink themselves.  Being in the same space, other friends of mine who have resources to spare will feel that magnanimous urge to show their generosity and buy a drink or a sandwich for their less-well-off peers.  In return, my grassroots friends will do as I have done the world over - earn their keep by opening doors of understanding.  

Then, maybe we can do this again, but somewhere other than downtown Toronto.  Or better yet, we can do a whole bunch of events in different locations where people of diverse communities cross-pollinate.

It's all a good idea, but missing is one key thing - the stone in the soup, the spark that excites individuals and communities to want to be part of this expanding community of engagement.

Frankly, I don't know what that is.  I'm hoping you do.  

There are leaders out there with powerful stories to tell, charm to spare and ideas so profound they can literally change the world for the better.  These leaders exist everywhere, speak many languages and burn for change in their own unique ways.  Maybe you're one of them.

There are also folk with money, position and/or connections looking for stories and ideas to harness and support.  Maybe this is where you fit.

Being the unconventional guy I am, my strength doesn't lie in selling myself, but in connecting others. That's what I bring to the table.

But only you can make this impossible dream of mine come true.  

But when you commit to this dream, we can make the impossible happen - we can catalyze the solutions that strengthen our society across the board allowing, finally, for each and every individual to reach their full potential.  We all win in the process.

It's a dream I believe in.  I've got faith that you will, too.

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