Without community, politics is dead. But communities have been scattered like dust in the wind. At work, at home, both practically and imaginatively, we are atomised.
As a result, politics is experienced by many people as an external force: dull and irrelevant at best, oppressive and frightening at worst. It is handed down from above rather than developed from below.
[But] … Participatory culture stimulates participatory politics. In fact, it is participatory politics. It creates social solidarity while proposing and implementing a vision of a better world. It generates hope where hope seemed absent. It allows people to take back control. Most importantly, it can appeal to anyone, whatever their prior affiliations might be. It begins to generate a kinder public life, built on intrinsic values. By rebuilding society from the bottom up, it will eventually force parties and governments to fall into line with what people want. We can do this. And we don’t need anyone’s permission to begin.
— George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian
As the new Executive Director of Social Planning Toronto (SPT), I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself to you. I stepped into this role because I want to join you in your efforts to rebuild our society from the ground up, in the way that George Monbiot describes above, in the city I love.
I am one week shy of my two-month anniversary at SPT, and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been more than a little intense! I have been spending my time getting to know our fantastic team and getting oriented to the multitude of initiatives SPT is involved in. I find it mind-boggling that an organization with an operating budget of only ~$1.6M is involved in so many different areas and has such a strong reach within the sector. As I am new to the social sector, the learning curve is steep, and I am so grateful to our staff and board for bearing with me as I get up to speed. I’m also so thankful to Peter Clutterbuck, who returned on his “second tour of duty” to serve as interim ED of SPT for most of 2018. Peter’s steady hand on the wheel was crucial, and his support to me in these early days has been invaluable.
I am also grateful to my mother. You see, many years ago, she immigrated to Canada and, after meeting my father in Toronto and getting married, took a job at the Social Planning Council of Toronto (as SPT was then known) as a “clerical administrator.” Ed Pennington was the executive director. During one board meeting, as my mom was taking the minutes, I started kicking in the womb. In pain, she had to leave the room. Ed had to take over, and he wrote right in the minutes that my mother had left the room because “the baby is kicking.” It was my mom who encouraged me to apply for this position, because she was certain that it would be a good fit, for both me and SPT. Maybe I should listen to my mother more often (but I hope she does not read that)!
Last but not least, I am so deeply grateful to all the phenomenal people I have had the privilege of working with to date. Though they are from other sectors, the lessons I learned from them have given me the confidence to tackle the strategic challenges I face in this new role. My time with KCI (then Ketchum) taught me how to align fundraising with strategic goals, and how to build productive and meaningful relationships with funders; supporting York International (at York University) taught me the crucial link between the global and the local; completing my MBA at the Schulich School of Business taught me how our current economy works and how to think strategically; being part of the incredible team at the Pembina Institute, probably my most influential professional experience, taught me how to advance policy solutions and how a high-functioning and strategic organization is built and managed; WWF-Canada taught me how important a strong, well-resourced communications and marketing team is to bringing about change; and my volunteer work with the Catherine Donnelly Foundation is teaching me how to support radical change through public mobilization.
The environmental sector that I came from most recently is filled with people for whom the work is deeply emotional, and so much more than just a “job.” At SPT, I see that same passion and commitment among the staff, board, and external partners. It is truly inspiring and motivating.
I have learned that 2018 was an extremely difficult year for SPT's staff, board, and partners, but they worked heroically hard together to stabilize the organization. My priority in 2019 is to continue building that stability. This means that the focus of SPT’s work will remain status quo for most of this year, as we work to align our existing resources as efficiently as possible to deliver on our many existing commitments to funders and partners. It also means that much of my time will be spent internally, with staff and our board, implementing management structures and processes to help the team function as effectively as possible. SPT’s successes and failures have never rested on one person. Our diverse staff and board, who represent many of the populations we aim to serve, are all vital to our success, and my job is to serve our collective.
We will pause on moving in new directions in the immediate future, so that we can create much-needed space to ask and answer some fundamental strategic questions: What are the greatest barriers to systemic change in our sector right now? Who else is tackling those barriers? Where are the gaps, and where within them is SPT best equipped to contribute? What kind of system-change impact could we hold ourselves accountable to if our entire team were empowered to work together in the same space, such that the whole would be greater than the sum of our parts? This is where I hope you will come in. I want to meet as many of you as possible over the next few months. I am extremely open to your guidance, advice, and feedback on these kinds of strategic questions (and, of course, anything else you wish to share). I am looking forward to learning from, and with, you all.
In transitioning between sectors, I’ve realized that the challenges faced within each share a common root cause: an economic structure that is designed to make just a handful of people extremely rich at the great expense of everyone else, other species, and our planetary systems. Whether we’re considering the life-threatening loss of biodiversity, the climate change crisis, the affordable housing and homelessness crisis that has been in the news during these days of extreme weather, the transit crisis holding Toronto hostage, or any of the many more challenges we’re facing, it is clear that the theory of “trickle-down economics” they teach in business schools is quite simply a farce. We are fighting for access to the resources required to build a better world, even though the resources clearly do exist. Our current economic system has been purposely designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. We’ve been duped, and the impacts of this reality are the fuel of populism. I hope that as a sector we can work together to strategically dismantle some of the existing power structures that do not serve the public benefit and replace them with structures that are inclusive, equitable, and sustainable.
No meaningful change comes about without many people rowing in the same direction. Our team is building upon an impressive and solid legacy created by hundreds of people — past executive directors, staff, board members, volunteers, and partners. SPT is well positioned to continue working with a wide, diverse array of activists, marginalized populations, stakeholders, partner agencies, bureaucrats, politicians, and community leaders, as it has for over 60 years. That isn’t going to change. I am excited about contributing my melody to this symphony orchestra. The baby is still kicking!