(Re) Visiting

There’s a lot you can learn when traveling, even (especially?) when you’re going to a place that’s familiar. Earlier this month I made the trek to Winnipeg, the city where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. Although in recent years I make it back on average a couple times a year, I usually don’t break out of the normal routine of seeing family and friends. Funny enough, out of all the cities I’ve lived in I’m probably least familiar with what’s happening in the “for-impact” sphere in Winnipeg, even though I spent more than half of my life there.

Lunch with a Side of Change

To start changing that imbalance, I met up with Kaye Grant, an independent consultant as well as the communication coordinator for Canadian Worker Co-op Federation1. Kaye’s primary focus is management consulting with both businesses and nonprofits, and also has a strong interest in social enterprise. As it turns out, we both were at the Social Enterprise World Forum a few years ago in Calgary: she has also worked with Marty Donkervoort, who presented at the conference on his experiences with Inner City Renovation in Winnipeg.

Our time together started with a late lunch at Neechi Commons. This space, located just north of Winnipeg’s downtown in the Point Douglas neighbourhood, is in many ways a mirror-image of Saskatoon’s Station 20 West. Both buildings house a grocery space, café, and office space for local community organizations: Neechi also includes a small store selling art and craftwork with a focus on local artists.

There’s also a geographical similiarity at play. Like Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods of Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, Winnipeg’s Point Douglas has faced a lot of difficulties over the past decades. Visiting that area after dark was seen as dangerous for someone growing up in the suburbs, a stereotype that, while having some basis in reality, was exacerbated by regular media stories of poverty and crime: I imagine that the core neighbourhoods here in Saskatoon have confronted similar stigma. Although these communities in both cities still face numerous challenges, there’s a renewed sense of hope and energy for creating meaningful and equitable change.

Have Warehouse, Will Innovate

After Neechi, we travelled a few blocks down to Winnipeg’s Social Enterprise Centre. Located in a repurposed warehouse just north of the train tracks seperating Point Douglas from Winnipeg’s downtown, the centre houses multiple tenants including neighbourhood groups, a community-university research partnership, a hardware co-op and several construction and renovation social enterprises, including BUILD and Manitoba Green Retrofit (MGR).

Lucas from MGR gave us a tour and shared some of the history of both the building and his organization. He had started working for BUILD, an organization that provides energy retrofits of old homes as a means to improve local low-income housing stock and provide training for people who face barriers to employment. Although successful on the training front, BUILD faced two issues: first, their graduates were having difficulties finding and holding employment in their field, and second, due to funder restrictions BUILD was limited in the types of contracts they could take on.

The solution? Start a new social enterprise, Manitoba Green Retrofit, that could provide the work experience and would be free to pursue different contracts. Graduates trained through BUILD could find meaningful employment with MGR, building their resume and developing soft skills such as learning how to navigate workplace culture. According to Lucas, so far the approach has been successful, with expansion in the cards: the only snag is accessing capital, which is somewhat complicated by their non-profit status.

The City You Visit is Not the One You Grew Up In

What did I take away from this experience?

First off is inspiration. As with many Winnipeggers, I hold a love-hate relationship with our common city of origin2, and it can be difficult to shake impressions rooted in 18 years of memory. These views have been challenged recently by friends and colleagues here in Saskatoon who’ve spoken highly of the city3, but as the old saying goes, seeing is believing. Meeting people from my hometown who are tackling deep-rooted issues with innovative approaches was hugely inspiring: hopefully there will be future opportunities for me to continue learning from them, to share ideas with organizations here in Saskatoon, and perhaps contribute to their work!

The broader lesson that I took away is linked to the importance of a longer term impact and vision. The people and organizations I connected with were all working towards the same end, namely creating positive change for the community and its members, even though they worked under different structures (non-profit, social enterprise, for-profit) and utilized different skills and knowledge bases. There’s the risk in promoting social enterprises of over-emphasizing the importance of business-based solutions: at the same time, saying that all social change has to come from charity or government can be just as limiting. There’s no one-size approach for the change we want to see. In my opinion, so long as we bring similar values, goals, and dreams, that’s a good thing.

  1. Hat tip to Victor Das for making the connection!
  2. Check out the forward to an aptly titled book, “Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg” if you want further insight into this duality.
  3. Just not during the CFL season.