Ordinary people an untapped force for social change

VancouverSun.com – Entertainment
July 3, 2015.   Vancouver Sun

Order of Canada recipient Al Etmanski has worked to achieve long lasting social change for more than four decades. His successes include the launch of Registered Disability Savings Plans, which now contain more than $2 billion in savings of people with disabilities. In Impact, Etmanski provides a roadmap for others wishing to transform our society, demonstrating how lasting impact requires deeper patterns of change, only accssible when we look past quick wins and surface-level victories.

Q: Tell us about your book.

A: Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation taps into Canada’s rich tradition of social change. For example, Greenpeace founded in Vancouver in the 1970s profoundly changed environmentalism. Impact is illustrated with more than 50 such stories of Canadians innovators, activists and social entrepreneurs who have made the world a better place and who have achieved lasting impact.

Impact explores the frustrating paradox of short term success versus minimal long-term impact. Given the time talent and money invested in reducing poverty, homelessness or living conditions of First Nations people, Canadians have every right to expect things would have improved more than they have.

Q: Is this book just for activists? Who else would enjoy reading it and can apply your advice in it?

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A: The book was written for so-called ordinary people who don’t perceive themselves as activists but who care deeply about our social problems. They are an untapped force for social change. Most social innovations start with a group of people I call passionate amateurs. My greatest satisfaction about the book so far is that everyone who has read it sees a place for himself or herself in making their community a better place. This is particularly true of young people.

Q: What makes Canadians such remarkable social innovators? Do you see this trend in decline or is it continuing?

A: Canada is a country born of adversity — i.e. a harsh climate and small population — and strong values of inclusion, interdependence and equality thanks to our First Nations and settler ancestors. This is the perfect breeding ground for social innovation. In 1867 we had a bellicose neighbour to the south who was armed for territorial expansion. An argument could have been made to invest in boosting our military capacity. Yet one of our first political decisions was to make public education free for all students even though we had bankrupt coffers. Isn’t this a glorious heritage to honour?

I have spent the last 10 years studying Canadian social innovation. If anything we are undergoing a renaissance of social problem solving. Canadians are inventing solutions that are spreading around the world.

Q: Why do we continue to see such rates of poverty, inequality and climate threat despite our growing wealth and prosperity as a nation (and civilization)?

A: Our efforts aren’t linked up. There’s a certain wilful blindness in many of us. We keep our heads down. We ignore what others are doing. We think our efforts, our approach will be ‘the one,’ despite what has been done before and despite what others are doing now.

In reality we have more than enough solutions to our social economic and environmental challenges. They are just not at scale and that requires as I suggest in the book that we ‘think and act like a movement.’

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