I fell into a cliche and died, unheard, unnoticed by the world around me.

I spoke words that weren’t my own and my music was lost amid the noise.

My thoughts came and went from the lips of others, repeated; in one ear and out the other.

Until I saw the ripple in the pattern that was me, only me.

And when I saw it others did; and when I spoke, others heard.

And then we spoke together, listening, talking, sharing. Ideas that dance on our mingled thought-waves.



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.


It’s been a year now since I started writing the blog: At work, at home, at play; learning things the hard way!

I write this blog for a couple of reasons; because I’m a writer; because I want to share what I am learning about community-building; because I think community-building will become increasingly important in the future, sort of the way second-languages became important over my lifetime; and because I feel like others may have had crazy experiences like mine and may not have the words or opportunity to express them.

Last year at this time I became remarkable. I’d been at CSI for about a year and was feeling a little bit nutty. Unglued. And then one day someone pointed out two things; 1) that I am remarkable and 2) that I don’t seem to see it. “What am I not seeing?” I wondered. After that, my eyes were open. Wide open.

It’s a bit like seeing mushrooms. I’d been thinking for years that I would like to grow mushrooms. I loved the idea of just walking out to pick a few mushrooms when you feel the need for an omelet. I imagined some day being a mushroom farmer. We had books about mushrooms and had heard all about the Mushroom Men in places like Germany, whose job it is to identify your mushrooms for you after you go off picking wild ones.

When we bought the Pink Palace in Montreal, it had a really big lawn in the back (think croquet, AND badminton AND garden that never produced food AND flowers AND shed AND dining/bbq patio) and at the very end were a hundred feet or so of woods, mostly poplar and birch trees. Mike would disappear into the woods in the afternoons and eventually there was a path all the way through to the big fields and beyond that the cemetery.

Kitty Cat would follow me when I went for a walk, but she always stopped at the end of the path, never ventured into the fields. Returning one day I noticed something remarkable in the woods; a tall white mushroom with delicate shingles down its cap. I rushed to get my mushroom book, amateur mushroom man that I am, and saw at once that it was a Shaggy Ink Cap and that the look-alike poison partner is one of the few that is distinctly different. And lo! The woods were full of Shaggy Ink Caps! How had I never noticed them before? As I picked them I began to see more and more mushrooms that seemed to have been there all the time and yet, it’s as if I couldn’t see them until I was introduced to them, got to know them. Then I saw them everywhere; at bus stops, other people’s lawns, you name it. We settled on two edibles; the Shaggy Ink Caps and the Morels. I’ll tell you, we didn’t just eat omelets! I was at last, a mushroom farmer.

And I think this is how it happened at CSI. Somebody told somebody that I was remarkable. And then they could see it too. And word spread, and pretty soon even I could see it. It was a community where everyone’s eyes were open to each others remarkableness. And when everyone thinks you’re remarkable, well, you become it.

And I’m so amazed by my community here in Hamilton, where such a high percentage of the people are seeing the greatness in each other, reflecting it back, introducing others to it. We aren’t mushroom farmers here, we’re Remarkable Farmers and it’s so great to be able to write about these people and their remarkableness. Thanks for reading!

It Takes a Community…

So I went to CSI on Sunday night to empty my office. I had been loosely hoping some magical solution to getting my things from there to here would appear, like a truck and big guys with muscles. And it did in a way, but it was Margaret and her daughter with a Van. Margaret proved herself most resourceful while I gestured in an empty helpless way about the fact that I couldn’t find the dolly. She is now Margaret the Marvelous.

There was a lot less to pack than I had imagined. As I transferred files from my beautiful four-drawer cube, circa 1920? I was panic stricken – “Oh nooooooo! These are the same damn files I have been carting around in boxes for 15 years! I am homeless again!!!” And for a minute, I couldn’t continue. I had brief flashes about squatters rights and “But you’re my family!! Surely I can just leave my stuff here in your attic till I’m all grown up!”

I told myself this was just my transient psyche, the result of too, too, too many moves. At the end of high school I realized that I had been to more schools than grades. I thought University would even the score but no such luck. When Mike (aka The Best) and I bought the Pink Palace in Montreal I told him, “This is my second-last move. Next time is into a custom-built house and we wont be taking the furniture.” So much for that. And my score is still many more addresses than years old.

But usually, you’re moving onward and upward. And as I sat having my own little Pity Party for One on a Sunday night while the rest of Canada watched as we went into overtime to become the most gold-winning nation on earth, I realized that I had moved out of CSI months ago.

I had come to CSI homeless, jobless and somewhat disillusioned about the state of our non-profit sector. Still believing in Saints and Heroes and Happily Ever Afters I wound up at CSI, aka Hero Central aka The League of Canadian Justice. Here I encountered values with which I resonated, examples aplenty that I can only hope to hold a candle to and opportunities galore; opportunities to learn, to fail, to invent and opportunities to practice being myself in a place that valued my me-ness. Now I have come away with vision and direction and energy and ideas and a network of Super Heroes to call upon when I have ideas for them. I have incubated.

It takes a community to raise a person and it takes a person to start a community. Thank you Tonya. Thank you CSI. I have cracked my shell and moved on to shrubbery and marble columns. Come see for yourself!

This is it! Heart of the Hammer is the red door on the left. What isn't in the photo is the little hand-made artisanal sign over the door. You'll see it when you get up real close. Best kept secret in town!

Window on the World

Trying to explain to my Hamiltonians why leaving CSI is so personally devastating, why it’s not just about leaving an office, the best I could come up with is that it’s like my church; it’s my touchstone for community, for values, where I say “yeah, that’s what I believe too, only I didn’t have the words to express it”.

Everything I do in Hamilton is about the neighbourhood, but CSI connects me to the world, and to the future of the world, in a way that I can’t do on my own. It’s like being part of a creature with 180 different antennae, each one trained to analyze and interpret the world differently.

It also helps me to keep things in proportion, to keep me in proportion. Sometimes I feel like I am too big, too much for everyone, and it’s nice to have a daily reminder that I am just one of many. Not sure what that’s about, an immature ego maybe, but sometimes it’s nice to have four walls to contain it.

While my office at CSI is only 10 feet by five feet, my window is 15 feet by 80 feet. Literally and metaphorically, CSI gives me a bigger window on the world that I could have on my own.

Bye-Bye, I sit and Cry, for CSI, the Heart Don’t Lie

Those of you who have been reading regularly may have seen this coming. But I didn’t. Those of you in Hamilton may be glad to hear it. But I’m not.

February 28th will be my last day in my beloved office at CSI.

I know, I can hear all the people saying “WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?? Throwin’ so many balls up in the air, you, who don’t even know how to juggle,” and ” Just get an office here, or work out of your cafe!”

But people, it’s not about an office (beautiful though it was!), CSI is an INCUBATOR, and I’m not fully INCUBATED yet! I’m like a chicken without feathers, fallen out of the coop too soon! Wrinkly and rubbery and I can’t even feed myself and nobody else is EVER going to understand me! I’m afraid I’m going to slip into a pit of despair and never get out.

Here is the Love Note I sent the the membership for Valentines Day:

Love Note for CSI: I found my voice at CSI, in the course of becoming myself. Now I am learning to speak my truth. What I know for sure is that the Journey is best shared. How glad am I to share it with you, the people at the Centre of it all.

The CSI folks were great, trying to find a solution with me but none of the solutions are near-future enough. And so my heart is broken. This is not how it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to get too big for the space and be forced to move somewhere else, with shrubbery and marble fountains. I have this sense that maybe, in the big picture, it’s all good. But right now I just want to put my head under a pillow and never come out. And I don’t want to go to the party on the 26th cause everybody hates me. And nobody even knows me anymore. Whaaah!

And where’d my sense of community go? Was I buying it?

Maslow’s Adendum: The Artists’ Paradigm

In my MBA class one of the weirder things we were asked to do to was to self-identify our social class based on a textbook list with a pretty strong bias.

In marketing terms, businesses look at groups of people to study their buying power, buying habits, buying preferences and figure out how best to make money off of them. I checked boxes indicating that I had the material values of the upper-upper, the social network in the middle-middle and the financial profile (historically) far below lower-lower. As I pondered this, I realized that most of my friends were in the same boat as I, making us undefinable targets for marketers. After pondering this I came to believe that for a minority of people, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is exactly inverted. I am referring to the Artist Class, though I suppose no one will ever study these people because there is no money it in. At least, in the short-term.

For the artistic temperament, self-actualization is all. They are willing to sacrifice safety, shelter, food, family, social acceptance, financial gain, everything on the imperative need to be themselves; to be true to themselves, to be all that they can be. When they develop some confidence in this, they then want to be accepted for who they are and build a place for themselves in the world, whereas previously they disdained the opinions of those who couldn’t value them. After years of toiling for little recognition or compensation, they start to want to indulge in a few material essentials, like a credit card, a car or a house with their name on the deed. And finally they start to want a little security, and begin to look for teaching jobs and other stable occupations that let them earn a living while practicing their craft and being themselves.

I see this tendency even in a child who knows in his heart that no one really listens to him, no one really understands him, no one sees him for who he really is or values him for his him-ness. We are all trying to stuff him into a box – for his own good – and his reactions repel us.

Given that this is being called the creative age from so many angles, I wonder what would happen if this small number of creative types were actually identified, invited into some kind of environment like the Centre for Social Innovation where they could develop some confidence that their self-ness wouldn’t be taken away, and then worked backwards from there to help make the world a better place. Is that what happened to me? Here at CSI I have found home, shelter (even food) acceptance, encouragement and all the support one could want for self-actualization and I wonder if that is the reason why I am now engaging in outreach, in (gag) cooperation, in helping others to self-actualize. And suddenly it makes me wonder, what’s next?

What if everyone was treated like an artist from the beginning and given these basic ingredients for life?