Q and A with posAbilities director of innovation
Michelle Strutzenberger

Canada’s community living movement and developmental services sector have some tough questions to grapple with that go far beyond funding, posAbilities director of innovation Gord Tulloch says. These questions include: Are these systems, built up over the last 40 years, worth maintaining? Are they delivering on the mission of “good lives in welcoming communities?” And is it even possible to task systems to care? “Have we surpassed the moral limits of a system when we treat care as a contract deliverable, as a commodity that can be purchased?” Gord asks.

The fractured response to social problems is also of growing concern. Intractable social problems require collaboration across the different silos, including the one that exists between business and philanthropy, Gord says. “We need to stop seeing social problems as the province of different charities — they should concern all of us. Businesses need to be part of the solution.”

Gord Tulloch

Gord Tulloch

We caught up with Gord for a brief conversation on the crossroads community living in Canada is facing and the possibilities he sees in creating a shift.

What does the community living movement have at its disposal now that could help in making things better than they’ve been before?

Gord: One of the things we’ve got now is capital or access to capital, whether through government funding, philanthropic funds, or business partnerships. Some of it is ongoing funding, some is related to projects/initiatives, and some of it is accrued in terms of the assets and the real estate that we own.

So, given all that, if we applied ourselves to new ideas, we have an opportunity here to dismantle some of the things that we have, in order to create something new.

For example, if we wanted, we could shift resources from the custodial kind of care we’re doing now to community building — just general community building. So, focusing on neighbourhoods and communities, and having conversations with them, seeing what they care about, and finding ways of supporting them.

The end goal is to create caring communities, because when we do that, everybody wins. When we thicken the connective ties between people, we create inclusive webs and networks that can catch everyone who might be lonely — new Canadians, the elderly, people with disabilities, youth, etc. Not only do we begin to address our own mission of inclusion, but we begin to address it for everyone. The solution requires all of us.

Another example is real estate development. We don’t need to build more social/affordable housing units in models that only create or exacerbate social isolation. We already know that social isolation is most evident in high-density buildings. So why don’t we try something different — something like a cohousing model which includes community cooperation, inclusion and empowerment as core principles?

Again, we’ve already got a lot of resources or capital or access to capital, as nonprofit charities. We just need to shift how we use them.

What are barriers to making some of those shifts? Are there constraints in terms of funding criteria to consider?

Gord: It would require ensuring our funders are OK with that, yes, but I honestly don’t see that they would have all that much of a problem with it.

It also depends though, in some ways, on the size of an organization.

Smaller organizations are usually a lot more tapped and so (when thinking about) shifting resources, they’re not really sure how to do it. This is because whenever you do shift resources, there are always increased costs during the period of transition because you’re now maintaining something old, developing something new, and then bridging the two.

And of course, those additional costs are unlikely to come from funders like Community Living British Columbia or the Ministry of Children and Family Development, because their funds are largely committed to delivering services, not overhauling them. So organizations need to figure that part out and some really struggle with it. It’s expensive to shift resources and it requires an intense amount of planning.

One important consideration is collaboration. It is really essential when undertaking projects and changes of scale — and it’s essential to start thinking outside of our sector for partners with whom we can collaborate. Our partners can’t be only those in our silo — they need to be new people and organizations from across the silos.

Is there anyone already taking the lead with regards to some of the changes you mention that we could be putting attention to right now?

Gord: This is a learning space for me right now too; I just made a decision in the last year to stop having system conversations within the sector and to start looking outside of the sector, so building entirely new networks and doing reading in different areas, and finding out who are the champions or thinkers who can help us disrupt the service-thinking culture which exists. I am trying to learn how to think differently, partner differently.

We need to look outside because we’re really stuck in our own thinking. Usually the cases of new thinking that emerge are not that new; they’re just small “i” innovations. They’re not disruptive innovations.

But there are some people that I’m watching within the sector, people such as Cam Doré and his involvement in cohousing, people like Ernie Baatz, Susan Stanfield and Aaron Johannes and their effort to become the “non-service” service providers.

Outside of the system I’m quite intrigued by thinkers like John McKnight and Peter Block and the ideas around the abundant capacity of community. I’m interested in what change-makers like Al Etmanski are doing to bring innovation into our systems and structures, or what people like Ken Gauthier are doing to bring business and community-mindedness together. Both of them are local innovators who are doing amazing work.

And I’m really interested in a lot of the grassroots movements that you find in social media and the media campaigns that exist as part of neighbourhood projects or groups or hubs and hives. It’s usually young folk between 25 and 35 or so (who are) involved and engaged, and there are all kinds of cool stuff they’re doing to build community tissue in the world.

I was involved in a handful of interviews recently for a standard management position (not within posAbilities) and was amazed by how many of the candidates self-identified as being community engagers. Their neighbourhoods and communities mattered to them, and it showed.

So I think that’s where we need to do some learning and those are some of the places where I think we could pay more attention.

What’s the commitment you hold to be engaged in this way?

Gord: I want the world to be a better place; I want people to be happier; I want people to be more caring and I want our communities to be more healthy and resilient. I don’t know necessarily why that is, but I’m quite driven that way.

I also think that, for me and probably most people in life, part of this is an act of redemption; it’s making up for, say, the privileges we were born with or maybe our shortcomings. It’s not necessarily penance for mistakes, it’s not wanting our shortcomings to define us. Wanting to leave the world a better place for being in it.

There’s also this sense of the evolution of self — that I can always be better, that there is always an opportunity to be a better person.

So that’s part of it too, the commitment to be a good person.

What elements are required to make whatever efforts you undertake going forward as effective as possible?

Gord: There are a couple things that figure prominently, one being the need to deconstruct risk.

Risk is the cornerstone of our entire sector and it’s also the biggest impediment to innovation.

We need to start asking ourselves what we mean by risk and what keeps people safe.

This is important not only at a service-provider level and a governance level for service providers, but also at a political level.
We need to rethink or ask, what do I mean by “risk”?

Are people really safer in a group home than being in community, and, if so, safe from what? And what are the risks of keeping people safe?

I think we need to get comfortable with infusing a little ambiguity into our systems because ambiguity is part of being human. We need to find a new language for risk that allows us all to participate in the human experience, or at least that will somehow inoculate us against the effects of wearing a risk lens.

The second piece is that we need new conversations.

We need new conversations with artists, with social innovators, with people that develop technology, with impact investors, with the great thinkers, with authors and universities and businesses and champions from other sectors that have demonstrated vision and who think about things in new and different ways.

One of the problems around the collapse of the American economy was that when it came to finding a solution to it, they brought in the very same people who had created the problem in the first place.

We’re in a similar situation where we have an old and tired paradigm and if we want to rethink it, we can’t use the people in it; we have to bring in some disruptive voices and we need to create intersections with other voices.

And the other thing, too, is that new ideas emerge in conversations. So I might have an idea but in talking with you it will evolve, you will bring in some other things that we’ll build on and before you know it, we’ll have this really creative process, this really new innovative approach to something — because we talked.

Nick Jankel is a social innovator who said something that really stuck with me; he said, if your innovation doesn’t involve collaboration with a lot of people it’s probably not very ambitious; if it’s weighty you’re going to need a lot of shoulders.

But we’ve just got to get out of the conversations we’re in and start new ones.

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