Social Innovation Emergence

The climate for Social Innovation Emergence is all around us in Hamilton. Seems to me the climate is created by three things we have in abundance: Assets, Need and Opportunity.

As has been documented, working artists tend to flock to communities where living/working expenses are low, as they don’t tend to make a big living from the art. What is often overlooked in conversations about this is that the working artists are entrepreneurs. While their market may be elsewhere, (somewhere where cost of living is higher but people are predisposed to spend money on art) they need to be able to live and work somewhere that they can afford. This migration brings some essential diversity of thought into an area.

Once there is a critical mass of artists supporting each other, it creates and energy that is like fuel for the industry, and attracts the small-business entrepreneurs. The risk is that the cost of buy-in for the small-business entrepreneurs is lower BEFORE there is actually sufficient market for their products. This tends to attract dreamers and visionaries rather than established commercial outfits who do their market research ahead of time.

The artists-entrepreneurs and small-business entrepreneurs are part of the innovation equation that is created by the OPPORTUNITIES to be found in low-cost environments, or depressed markets. Another part of the equation are the ASSETS and this is why I single out the depressed market. Though we have such frontier energy going on here, if we were really on the frontier, we wouldn’t have so many civic buildings available for our use, well-established organizations and infrastructure, to say nothing of abandoned and gorgeous architecture. This kind of environment has a flip-side, that of having to clean up much of what was abandoned, but one man’s garbage, is another person’s opportunity.

This brings us to the NEED. There is so much need here in Hamilton, besides the need to clean up abandoned toxic industrial lands. Talk on the street is that surrounding affluent municipalities consciously don’t provide for many of the raw human needs, so people with those needs, be it special care for medial reasons, drug use, homelessness, orphanages, aging without money or low-income housing, are sent to Hamilton. This creates a situation where everyone is in the same boat, and there are too many people in the boat, and the boat is sinking – as brought to the attention of readers in the Spec’s Code Red articles.

But as it sinks, there are opportunities for us to use the assets around us to help fulfill the needs. I have never seen more people anywhere so consciously helping each other, so conscientiously sharing. Social entrepreneur David Derbyshire works to develop Hamilton’s resident-led Community Planning Teams in the neighbourhood Hubs, empowering individuals in the cultivation of community assets, encouraging us to help ourselves and each other to thrive and flourish and recognize that we are part of the asset base of the city. Hamilton’s unique Hub system is a tremendous confluence of assets, needs and opportunities that is changing the way the governments and agencies interact with the communities they serve; creating a community of social innovators.

Social Innovators come in all different stripes, most of them unaware that you might call them that. Take Gail McGinnis for instance, who in less than nine months has initiated a community garden at Gage Park, a skate-borrowing room at Scott Park Arena, a beading and crafts group to help connect residents, a growing cat-rescue program and is now assembling an artist cooperative. All this in addition to her own work in photography and jewellery making. And all of it without fan-fare or recognition. Like many others, Gail just does what she does.

I remember the skate thing. I remember being daunted by even the idea of it, but there it is; over fifty pairs of donated skates for people to borrow. That brings me to the glue that binds the Assets, Opportunities and Needs into the breeding ground for Social Innovation Emergence: collaboration. Many hands make light work. Two heads are better than one. None of us needs to go it alone.

Indeed, none of us can.


Bedstemor’s Buttons

Bedstemor was 94 when she died and though she had ten children, 32 grand children and who knows how many great grand children, I got her jars of buttons.

My Grandmother made quilts. I suppose she made a thousand or more and gave each one away. She used to cut old clothes into squares, sorting and storing the buttons and whatever else was removed. Once our hand-me-downs had been handed down as far as they could go they usually wound up in a quilt. “Hey that’s Nellie’s dress! That’s my poncho!” There were woolly ones and silky ones and even furry ones. When she could she would buy the quilting to go inside, but the outsides were pieces of all her people, backed by so many 70’s flower-power sheets. It was a way of sewing all of us together, though I believe she never intended it that way. “It’s not a bed spread,” she would tell me, “just throw it in the trunk of the car for emergencies.”

Not only did she give away all her quilts but everything else too. It was kind of a family joke that if you gave her something you were sure to see it on someone else at the next event. I was a delinquent grand-daughter with grandiose ideas about visiting regularly, documenting all of her stories, writing a book about her, sharing her with everyone. Through her quilting and her prolific letter-writing she shared herself farther afield than she could ever have traveled and became a one-woman hub of family news. When she died she left a simple collection of items and somehow I ended up with buttons.

Jars of buttons that represent not only her, but all the people whose clothing was cut up to make the quilts. I have often spread them out, sorted them, admired some and recognized some. I figured that someday I would do something with them but had no idea what.

Recently, a neighbourhood jeweller was looking for vintage buttons so I passed the jars to her, sure that they would have a new life. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I suppose it is what Bedstemor would have done. But maybe there is a little bit of Bedstemor in all of us for Julie returned with a charm bracelet; a cluster of Bedstemor Buttons, each link hand-made in a tightly woven pattern like a family, or a community.

Each one unique and the whole a stunning creation.


Violence, threats, lying, sabotage and damage to personal property. Sometimes it is all around and overwhelming, hard to escape and hard to see through the dark clouds everywhere. I was ill-equipped to understand the hard-ball game that was being waged at Canada Post in those days, between the union and the management. To some I was too fast and to others I was too slow. Every day seemed like a lose-lose proposition. The constant hostility and blatant antagonism made me relish getting out on the road and dealing with real people who were not embroiled in. Violence, threats, lies. Everyone took sides and at the same time tried to stay out of it. Daily, both sides fought with invisible weapons whose long-term damage corroded our souls for which there were no spare parts.

Each of us had a role inside, a persona. I imagine that prison is like that. There was Angry Guy, the Island Dudes, the Greek and the Italian in a never ending duel of whose culture was supreme, and me, Definitive Answer Girl. I don’t know how it came about but after the Italian and the Greek had exhausted a topic and run out of arguments they would agree to settle it by asking me; yes the fork was invented in Italy; yes whats-his-name was Greek. Right or wrong, it was my shtick. The Tall Guys had sorting cases that faced each other, not that they could see over them, and they used to lob lyrics back and forth over the case, singing along to each other’s songs. Whether they had the lyrics right or not, it was their shtick.

One day I discovered harmony, an unexpected beauty on the front lines. I was in a trench of despair, not sure how to see my way through, how to function with people who treated each other in manners unimaginable, when Tall Red began.

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

And then the Tall Blonde joined in

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see, here will be an answer, let it be.

And then Jamaica and Trinidad joined in and so did Greece and Italy and all the rest. I couldn’t believe they all knew the words, could sing together. Even Angry Guy.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And I stood there, stupefied, watching, listening, in wonder.

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me, shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

And I didn’t understand how people could find such depths and heights within themselves, within a moment.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And I still don’t.

It seems as if music has always had a special place in society, whether a collective-participatory experience or more of a giver-receiver situation like nowadays. Music night is my favourite here at the cafe. You can almost imagine the little notes on waves of music floating up and out, encircling and embracing everyone. It moves through us at once dissipating the harshness and elevating the loveliness of the reality that we live and breathe. Maybe it connects that all-important breathing of the singer with our own, reminds us that we are all fundamentally sharing the same space, the same air.

Maybe it’s medicine, maybe it’s magic. Maybe we all need a little more harmony in our lives in order to let it be.