The man's eyes spoke of a deep frustration, almost a fear - the kind that sets in when hope seems lost, like the cold on a wet winter morning.
"Tell me - what is this place? What will I find here?"
The man was a first-time visitor to CSI Regent Park. Without going into too much detail, his personal story was heartbreaking; he had spent most of his life seeking to right social wrongs and fight against inequity, often against a system that punished him for his efforts. He'd heard from a friend about this special place where things were different, where courageous conversations were encouraged and where change-making was a common bond of fellowship.
This man had come to CSI looking to find something. It wasn't a career boost or a new model of workspace. It wasn't even the excellent customer service and "getting to yes" attitude for which CSI has become famous. He had come looking for something far more basic, something far more essential than any of this.
At the edge of hope, the man had come to CSI looking for community.
No pressure, right?
I am a big believer in not setting false expectations; I've seen too many politicians fall as the towers of lofty promises they've built crumble to play that game. Having said that, I feel pretty confident about the culture that CSI has built (and, as we'll explore tomorrow, others are also nurturing) and what it has to offer individuals and society both.
The gentleman and I had a chat out on the balcony; we discussed his life and his frustrations; we talked about the why behind CSI, the secret sauce that makes the CSI culture one organizations around the world are looking to capture and bring back to their own countries, like Social Innovation Prometheuses. At the end of it all and after a walk around the building, I left him not with a promise, but with an invitation.
"To really see what CSI is about", I said, "come to salad club. To see what makes CSI Regent Park a model of how to do big-C community right, come to the Potluck."
No lofty promises, no sneaky sales pitch. Just an invitation. I knew, from experience, it was enough.
What's the secret ingredient that makes the CSI Regent Park potluck an event so meaningful, so inclusive and inspiring that I would have faith enough to believe it might provide this man with what his soul clearly craved?
I'll share that with you in a moment - but first, here's how CSI RP Manager Shilbee Kim describes the potluck:
We believe that a great community is like a potluck - it only works when everyone brings something to the table.
But we all know that potlucks don’t just happen. Someone needs to convene, there needs to be space and probably the most common question we hear is, “what should I bring?” For the last decade, our work in Community Animation has been to convene, create collaborative spaces and find creative ways to surface that last question. In the potluck analogy, asking what you should bring is commonplace, but in the real world we rarely ask.
Imagine if we did! What would happen if we brought intentionality to connecting the needs and assets of the community?
The Centre for Social Innovation is collaborating with the Daniels Corporation and the Toronto Community Housing on a community building initiative for new, returning, displaced and existing residents of the Regent Park neighbourhood. Our vision is to convene a monthly evening potluck in the CSI space during which we share information about the neighbourhood and facilitate connections through our most popular Community Animation activities.
The activities intend to surface the names, common interests, needs and assets of everyone in the room and are casual, fun and positive. The core objective is to build new connections and reinforce existing ones, ultimately to build social cohesion in the community.
All sounds great - but does it work?
For me, the answer is a yes, plain and simple.
This is the only reason I could, in good faith, look my new friend in the eye and encourage him to come and see the fullness of what CSI has to offer.
I base my answer on personal experience - something I can describe to you, but is best experienced first hand. When you're that confident in what you belong to, it's not about sales - it's simply about extending the invitation to take a seat at the table.
But I promised to share with you the secret to community-building that is so deeply sought by people and corporations around the world, but seems so hard to find.
In truth, it's not as mystical as you might think.
Are you ready?
Don't look up. Don't look down. Look inwards.
Yes, I'm talking about you. And you, and you, and that person next to you, and especially my new friend who walked into CSI looking for community.
There is no secret ingredient; there is no spoon. There is only us, and what we bring to the table, and what we build together - much like a potluck, or an organization, or an ecosystem. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, but its parts are what allow it to becoming something greater.
The stone in the soup that makes CSI a magical place of collaboration, innovation and change-making is the same seed that's being planted in government agencies by virtuous schemers (more on them tomorrow), in the private and not-for-profit sectors by a growing movement of people who believe that strong, engaged individuals create strong, dynamic societies.
It's not about the thing they bring that no one else can replicate; it's about empowerment.
CSI has been intentionally designed as a place where people can grow into themselves, cross-pollinate with peers and have the resources, encouragement and confidence they need to catalyze great things together.
This is the big difference between the boss who says "follow me" and the leader who says "how might we make this even better together?"
That's what CSI is about.
I look forward to seeing my new friend out for the potluck - maybe not the next one, but I bet the one after that.
Who knows - maybe I'll see you there, too. I hope I do; that would be awesome.
With special thanks to social gardener Shilbee Kim; she is a constant inspiration and the embodiment of leadership.