Building a Social Innovation Ecosystem in Alberta

“Part of [this work] is finding out who are the people who are doing really innovative, impactful work, but they aren’t a part of this community, or using the jargon. How do you bring them in and foster opportunities for shared learning?”

Naomi Mahaffy has a lot of coffee dates and phone meetings. She works with ABSI Connect to bring together a variety of different people and organizations. All with the overarching goal of advancing social innovation in Alberta.

Acting as the ‘Weaver’ for Social Innovation Canada in the province, she brings together local resources, organizations and individuals to advance the social innovation ecosystem and create positive change in local communities.

Part of Naomi’s role is facilitating a local Network Weavers Group—a collection of key individuals in the region doing the kind of work Social Innovation Canada and ABSI Connect are interested in fostering. Founded in spring 2019, the group is comprised of key Albertan changemakers, each of whom have local networks of their own to bring to the table. They connect online and share what they’re learning, what patterns they see emerging, and what they view as the best way to grow together.

“It’s a lot of finding out what people are doing, what they see as the main barriers and enablers to doing really impactful and innovative work, and hearing what they’re learning along the way, and what connections and support they feel they need,” Naomi says.

ABSI Connect gathering 2019 ABSI Connect spring gathering 2019

Building the bridges for real inclusion

One of ABSI Connect’s big successes this year was their ambitious spring gathering, an event that brought together over fifty changemakers from across the province. A large portion of the day was presented as a storytelling exercise. The participants were asked to gather around the key themes and questions that resonated with them the most. In turn, they shared what they were doing and learning for the benefit of the group.

There were countless discussions that day, with topics ranging from how to better engage with and support young changemakers , examining different finance mechanisms, bringing together Indigenous and Western ways of working, and helping to bridge divides.

“I heard, months later, in conversations, that a lot of those folks ended up collaborating on an initiative further down the road,” Naomi says.

Naomi cites one conversation in particular that stayed with her long after the gathering was over. “There was a very interesting and thoughtful discussion lead by a few stellar indigenous changemakers who were really reflecting very honestly on what it means just to show up in what is often a very white space,” she recalls. “(They shared) what they’ve learned and how they’ve brought Cree, or other wisdom into what they’re doing and the groups that they’re working with.”

“That led to a number of people saying ‘Hey, I’ve never seen myself—as an Indigenous person—as someone who was part of a social innovation community, doing this work.’”

Learning with the community

In terms of furthering the conversation, ABSI Connect has also been focused on accessible creative content like podcasts and blog posts. They believe this strategy makes it easier to share local stories with stakeholders, community members, and the general public. “There’s a tendency for people in the social innovation world to jump to jargon, and then there’s an in group and out group situation,” she explains. “So part of it is finding who are the people who are doing really innovative, impactful work, but they aren’t a part of this community. How do you bring them in and foster opportunities for shared learning? There’s a lot to be learned back and forth there.”

Edmonton Shift Lab, for example, is an organization that directly addresses racism, developing potential service, policy, system, and community action solutions that reduce how discrimination contributes to poverty. Vivo for Healthier Generations in Calgary works on preventative solutions to improve the health of children, youth, and families in north-Central Calgary, hiring people with lived experience as consultants. The Alberta Nonprofit Network (ABNN) responds to and takes collective action on systemic issues that impact the nonprofit sector in Alberta.

ABSI Connect gathering 2019
ABSI Connect spring gathering 2019

A national ecosystem

One of the benefits of being part of a national network like Social Innovation Canada is the ability to adopt the systems and strategies of partner organizations, to learn from both their victories and mistakes, and generally improve upon process. For example, ABSI Connect has learned from the fellowship work Inspiring Communities has been doing this year in Eastern Canada. The ABSI Connect team is working to incorporate lessons learned from the WeaveEast initiative (and other similar programs) into the Community Catalyst Program they are launching this spring in Alberta. Through this program, ABSI Connect is looking to move some of the focus out of urban centres and into rural and marginalized communities, making sure changemakers there have opportunities to connect, access resources, and find support.

Like others who share her role, Naomi stresses that this is slow moving work enacted by devoted yet small teams of people, and that the pace in which it produces tangible, measurable results can at times be frustrating. “I think a lot of us who are in these roles are people who really care about impact, and yet this is very slow work that is difficult to track,” she says. “It’s about relationships, and relationships take a long time. Trust-building takes time.”

Having said that, Naomi is buoyed by the many connections she’s facilitated, the trust she’s built with regional changemakers, and the general progress she’s made in 2019. Excited about the future, ABSI Connect is confident that the impact of those myriad connections will flourish in years to come. It may be a lot of coffee dates and phone meetings, a lot of creating opportunities, observing, and waiting—but it’s also vital, thoughtful work that’s rife with potential.

“It sounds small and simple, but it has been really important.”


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