Getting to Maybe – Stand Still

The second chapter of Getting to Maybe, somewhat confusingly sharing the title of the book itself, focuses on how social innovators get started. For many, there is a sense of calling or having reached a personal tipping point. There’s a realization that some aspect of the current reality is not merely a problem, but that it is inherently unfair, wrong, injust; a lack of action is no longer an option. Fortunately, by speaking out and taking small steps to change the situation, these change agents often find that they are not alone. Not only do they find allies, but the system itself that previously appeared to be fixed and unyielding suddenly seems ripe for change. The dichotomy between the heroic individual who single-handedly changes everything and historic inevitability breaks down: “[social innovators’] responses both epitomized and provoked a new pattern of interactions”.

If I have found anything like a calling, it’s helping others who have the calling to help others. Looking at my work and volunteer history, I’ve been all over the map in terms of topics, from strategic planning at a regional government, doing outreach with neighbourhood associations, planning new academic and social activities with a students’ association, revamping an environmental monitoring organization’s volunteer program, collating data on people with disabilities from a post-census survey for the federal government, and most recently conducting research and a variety of other tasks for two programs at a community health centre (more on that later). I have a couple of interests that consistently grab my attention, namely urban communities and public transit, but as the list shows, I have worked in multiple settings and areas, many of which I had no prior experience or specific interest in before starting. However, there is a common thread running through these experiences, namely helping individuals, communities, and organizations to build their capacity. Fortunately, there seems to be a growing interest in moving the non-profit sector beyond hopping from grant to grant; as noted above, it would be hard to tease apart how much I’m epitomizing this movement versus provoking new reactions, though I hope that I may be bringing some kernels of these ideas to my new city.

You may have also noticed that several of my previous experiences include a research focus, which brings me to the next chapter of the book, Stand Still. Once a problem has been identified, there is the temptation to go ahead and act to change things to the best of one’s abilities and current knowledge. Change agents by definition are action-oriented; those working on the ground may not have the time or energy to pursue further knowledge and understanding of the context and challenges that they and their communities face. The term “research” often carries an academic connotation with specific characteristics that can be antithetical to rapid change: abstract, large-scale, long-term, inaccessible, to name a few (not all academic research fits this pattern, though, especially with a growing focus on applied research and community-university partnerships – watch for a post on this topic in the future!). However, being able to stand still in the midst of action can help identify patterns and rules in the midst of complexity that could point the way to new possibilities and help avoid pitfalls.

In Kingston, I was fortunate to work as a researcher for two interesting projects at a community health centre. Being in a non-profit setting and part of a two-person team for one of the projects, I had lots of non-research tasks to keep me busy – I’d often joke that the “Other duties as required” line on the job description described most of my work! That being said, I was able to balance that action with learning through activities such as reading research reports, playing with statistical data, and following hunches about what I was seeing and hearing from program participants, stakeholders, and co-workers.

For example, one of the projects was a support program for high school students in a neighbourhood with high dropout rates and low post-secondary entry. High school dropout is a complex social issue, and we soon learned that what works in Toronto’s Regent Park (the origin of our program model) may not always be applicable in Kingston’s Rideau Heights. I often noticed patterns in the report card and attendance data of our students; sharing these insights with my colleagues and our contacts at the schools, reading papers on predictive factors for high school success, and connecting with local researchers in education helped our team develop a better understanding of current and potential barriers for our students and steps we could take to help them thrive.

I briefly mentioned in my previous blog post the concept of Developmental Evaluation, which is basically using research to support learning and action in areas of social complexity. Unlike the stereotypical view of research presented above, developmental evaluation is designed to be concrete, responsive, timely, and useful. Dr. Michael Quinn Patton, one of the authors of Getting to Maybe, wrote a guidebook on Development Evaluation which provided structure to my past work and my approach to working with non-profits. I’ll be attending his two-day professional development workshop on the approach that’s part of the American Evaluation Association’s conference in Minneapolis this October; keep an eye on this blog next month for any new ideas and thoughts that come up from the event. Ultimately, I hope the insights I gain from the workshop and the conference generally can be put to good use here in Saskatoon.