• It’s okay, dad…

    Its been one year since my dad died… A few weeks after he passed, I wrote the following. 


    It’s okay… It’s all okay…Those are the last words my father heard. My sister spoke them to him several times over the last hour of his life. I think, to give him permission and to quiet any fears and anxieties. Maybe ours, too. As if to say that this is the way of things and it was okay to get on with it. To give him the strength to face forward; not aside, where we hovered, nor behind, where memories clung. Face forward. Step into it. And so we held his hands, stroked his arms, and rubbed his chest—until his breathing was too shallow, too fragile. We were with him, and each other, as his breath went from barely perceptible to imperceptible. Until the hospice nurse touched his chest with a stethoscope and listened, four times. And flashed a light in his eyes. And said, tearfully, that he was gone.

    But oh, two letters and a scratch cannot pretend to describe the difference between is and isn’t. Between being with us and being absolutely absent. He is ended. He is not here. Though something that resembles the man remains, emaciated. Unrecognizable, nearly; dad but not dad.

    The rest of our family arrives—they were already en route—and we stay for a while as he cools. We laugh, because our youngest brother can make us laugh. He has always made us laugh, but never have we been so grateful for it; for him. For his easy ability to smooth our solitary edges into a circle, for making solidarity more intimate than grief. The audacity of laughter. The temerity. The irreverence. It is precisely what we need. He offers us this gift because he can, even when there is no mirth in him. Even when he is leeched dry of joy. Even when he is hammered by another storm. It is what he does.

    I had two full months with my father before he died. Two months of regular, daily interaction and care. And despite someone wise advising me to be courageous with my father, and to be selfish around stealing moments of beauty with him every day, I stay reserved. Not cold, but not vulnerable, either. Not really. Until… until he is no longer conscious or lucid, until his breath is too shallow for the rattle to be heard, and then I lean in to whisper in his ear, to a 90-year old man who is not wearing his hearing aids, that when he sees God, to let Him know that we could do with a little help down here. And then, suddenly ashamed, I add: And thanks. And I mean it. For all my despair and unrelenting sadness, it’s still a magnificent life. But I don’t think he heard me, and I wished I might have said something like that to him when he was present. Or maybe not. Perhaps that would have made him worry for me; for us. Because we are all a little broken—sometimes a lot. And maybe he would have fought that grim current in order to be a father to our existential wounds, to see us discover some peace before he was delivered to his own. Perhaps it was for the best that I am a bit cowardly.

    I don’t know how we decide that it is time to leave him and go home, but we do. I watch from the door as my mother leans over him, his wife of 57 years, and kisses him. And leaves. I watch our eldest brother lean over and kiss him. And leave. And then I am alone with him. I approach his bed. I love you dad, I think I whispered, as I lean over and kiss his forehead. How quickly the body cools. It is a stark experience, like blue fluorescent. Incongruous, though I knew to expect it. One more offence to an already vexed and febrile soul.

    I leave the room to my sister, who has emerged from the bathroom. She should be the last. She was his light when he was disoriented. She was his protector, his unflinching nurse. I simply followed where she led. It is right that she speaks the last words to him, kisses him into the final night, and closes the door.

    We leave him for the body collectors.

    Outside the front door of the hospice I run into our eldest brother who is talking to Dave. Dave is waiting for his wife to die. He can play the ukulele. He offers his condolences and I am surprised by my voice, which starts breaking, and I am crying, and he is crying, too. I hug him, this man I hardly know, and touch his face and call him my brother and wish him peace. Then I go to the car and wait for my sister.

    I don’t go to the funeral home to see my father before he is interred. My sister doesn’t go, either. But my brothers and my mom go. My youngest brother takes a picture—the last—of my dad in repose in his coffin. Later, he asks if I want to see it. No. Maybe we could show it at the memorial service, he says? After all, we didn’t have a viewing or funeral service (just a graveside service for family). Maybe people would be disappointed if they couldn’t see dad one last time? Seeing that I am discomfited, he pretends to mollify me by adding, deadpan, that if people prefer a closed-casket service, maybe we could just show a picture of the coffin instead?

    Ha. Nice one.

    Mom doesn’t grieve because she knows he is happy and at peace with God. But she feels guilty for not grieving. And judged. How can she quite describe to others her relief that he has died? That she thanked God for taking him home? How can she explain that it is love that makes her joyful? Guilt can learn to take nourishment from whatever is offered it, I suppose. Or maybe that is guilt’s special power. Perhaps this is the existential concomitant to original sin—anything and everything can make us feel bad, even the good in us. I recognize it in myself, too.

    Almost a month passes. I have not seen him. I have not felt him. The turbulence of my everyday has flowed into his absence. Like it did when I was away and he was at home. Oh sure, there is some part of the absence that will never be filled. That will always ache, whether I rub it or something in the world does. I had bound the moment of his disappearance in my memory, the moment between when he was and when he wasn’t, to unpack and process at some future point, as I am doing here, but already it is eroding. Dissolving into the muck of my memories. I do not have time to grieve, which is just as well, because I do not know how to grieve.

    While I know that the fleeting and impermanent are the font of all things beautiful, this world is already too beautiful for me. Sometimes I don’t know if I am strong enough for it.

  • Finding An Alternative to “Success-Failure” Speak

    Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward (John C. Maxwell)

    Some problems remain problems because of the language we use to frame it. And quite frankly, “failure” sucks.

    Being successful is something we all want in our lives, and failure carries a weight of shame. Sublimating “failure” as “learning” is a conceptual convolution. We’re not wired to think that way. Failure is about inadequacy and culpability—if we really thought it was about learning, it would have more profile in our presentations and conferences. Instead, we skip the “failing” part and jump right to “key learning,” which is to say, what have successful people learned about being successful?

    “Failing forward” is a psychologically discordant word combination. If we experience failure as inadequacy and culpability, then failing forward produces psychological analogues of forgiveness, redemption or overcoming. Learning becomes a remedial outcome rather than a primary one—we’d rather we hadn’t failed, but now that we have, let’s do our best to learn from it and move on. Some of us would rather just put it behind us—try to forget about it or cover it up with future success. It’s usually painful.

    Design methodology and prototyping may prove an exception wherein failure is a “small-f” word that applies more to single occurrences of an iterative series than to the whole series. In such cases, the designer has been conditioned to regard these small failures as logical and practical precursors to creation. But I speculate that even designers may struggle with the “large-F” failure of a series of iterations, when a line of development has to be killed, and wonder whether there were lapses in their insights, intuition, creativity, skills or methods.

    “Fail early and fail often” because no one wants to be responsible for a colossal failure. The consolation of small failures is that it mitigates the risk of having a major one. But “failure” is still a contaminated word and I think it’s unfortunate that we have tied it to experimentation and innovation. If we used “testing forward,” no one would blink an eye because testing implies uncertainty and experiment, and because it’s primary function is learning. “Failure,” on the other hand, implies one has completely and utterly screwed up. Within an experimentation context, some failure may come from sloppiness, and some from hunches that simply don’t get traction—but conflating the two is the problem. They are not both “failures.”

    “Failure wakes” might be construed as a therapeutic ritual to purge shame, find humour in screwing up, and/or to salvage some learning. But it’s typically only successful people who take the stage—those whose wins are a little more widely celebrated and who enjoy established reputations. We want to learn from successful people who have failed, not unsuccessful people who have failed, because the former is alchemy and the latter is the spectre that haunts us. But even the occasional failure wake is a trickle compared to the tsunami of demand for successful case studies. That is telling.

    And let’s face it: successes are rarely successful.

    They almost always fall short of how they are being represented, especially if it is a solution to a complex problem. Truly innovative solutions are often messy. They consist of things like burnout, conflict, instability, sloppiness and haste, strategic blunders, bad hires, bad management, paper-and-tape prototypes, naiveté, serendipity, bad timing, good timing, casual-but-significant influence from others, etc. But we don’t tell those parts of the story—we talk about linear historical development, defined roles, particular activities and outcomes. Barriers overcome. Creative ideas made real. Powerful partnerships. Gumption. Why? Because we want to be inspired and because those telling the stories are expected to have something inspiring to say.

    But if the frame is “success,” and if the story is alleged to be a description of what is true, then there is a problem. Most of us are a little cautious about what people claim as true because we’ve been around for a while. We’ve seen enough gaps between rhetoric and reality, including our own, to know that we’d be naïve to be so easily taken in. Plus, it’s hard to believe that others have nailed it so perfectly and deserve acknowledgment while we are still struggling. Why them, anyways? Why hasn’t our work been noticed? It’s fertile ground for peevishness, pettiness and sabotage. People who may have peeked behind the curtain of someone else’s success, or who have heard rumours of what lies behind it, or who feel threatened by them, are sometimes only too happy to provide a counter-narrative and let the air out of the balloon. And we all feel a bit deflated, even resentful, but not really sure why.

    The frame of “success” is not helpful because it’s not accurate, because it constricts the range of available learning, because it suggests completion, and because it can foment disillusionment, unhealthy competition and envy.

    I’d like to propose a different word-pair, something a little closer to what I think is actually happening: something like Aspiration-Trying. I don’t know if that’s quite right, but it’s something like that. In other words, “x” is what we are aspiring to do, and “y” is how we are trying to do it.

    The stories shared by presenters are not the full stories, and nor are they exactly “true.” Neither are my own stories, even though I believe in them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are being hypocritical or deceptive or pretenders, or that they haven’t accomplished something potent, interesting and unique. Their stories have been mischaracterized as descriptively true“success” stories rather than something aspirational that has been given concrete form; an act of reification. Will and imagination transmuted into form and content.

    These aspirational stories are neither quite fiction nor non-fiction but have a mythological structure—one part historicity, one part personal experience, and one part yearning. It’s like an archetypal quest, a risky journey to create a better world, and it’s saturated with the truths of human experience—there is loss; there is overcoming; there is destruction and creation, capriciousness and tragedy, prosperity and beauty, a little luck and a little fate. And now there is a song sung about it, because it is a quest that stands out from other quests. The facts may be sketchy, or selective, but the truth is still manifest: a bold yet all-too-human undertaking to reshape the world. Something interesting is happening.

    Aspirational stories are stories about intentions-made-real. When told, they are meant to inspire us and to teach us even though they are imperfect and incomplete. They reference new things in the world, new journeys, and invite us to find some meaning and inspiration from it. There will be takeaways, not born of capital-s “Success,” but of accomplishments and struggle. Making these stories visible is important because they provide exemplars of new approaches, perspectives, and languages, and because they illustrate what sorts of solutions might exist, what sorts of strategies and methods might be applied, and what forms they might take. There is a lot of good learning to be had, both for those who are reflecting on their own journey as well as for those who are open to hearing about it.Everything is on the table for learning because everything is about trying to do something. It’s not just how one overcame some obstacle or other.

    These stories are worth paying attention to, though they mustn’t be confused with success. If a person tells a success story as a success story, and wants to write his or her own song, one invites a different kind of scrutiny. Truth has an uncompromising standard, after all, and there is the risk of being regarded as a braggart or a fraud and to have one’s good work ignored (unless one nailed it, of course). But if one acknowledges one’s stories as aspiration and effort, one is released from the tyranny of success and truth-mongering. It can be a triumphant story while also messy, unfinished and imperfect. Because that is what a quest looks like. And anyone who sees that as failure or unworthy is in the wrong business.

  • Prototyping from the Inside-Out

    It’s not that I’m not a believer, it’s just that it’s hard.

    I work for a social service organization (posAbilities) that has partnered with two other organizations (Kinsight and Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion), to invest in social research and development. We call ourselves “Degrees of Change” (DoC) and hope to publish something of a declaration or manifesto this summer around the sorts of pivots we think are needed in the social services sector. We’re going to try to open up a window on our efforts and what we think we’re learning—stay tuned!

    We also have a sister organization in Ontario (West Neighbourhood House) who has been at this for as long as we have (about 4 years). And there are other organizations coming online with Grounded Space who are making similar investments in social R&D. InWithForward has been provided guidance for this work, and it has resulted in learning and results unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

    So we’re grateful for that. But it’s hard. Really hard.

    Here are just some of the pain points.

    1. Resources. We’re not funded for social R&D and we’re not private corporations; we’re charities. We don’t have drawers of cash, and even if we did, there would be an expectation that those monies would get spent on concrete service needs and priorities rather than on an R&D process that has no explicit outputs or outcomes. There is extraordinary pressure to address exigent needs rather investing in processes that might shape the future.

    As you know, there is no government infrastructure for social research and development, so we have to cobble funding together however we can—grants, loans, lean administration budgets, etc. And because sustained funding isn’t a given, it adds stress because it means that everything we build feels fragile and vulnerable. It’s like we’re building sand castles as the tide comes in.

    And it’s so hard on our leadership teams. They were stretched long before social R&D happened. Their other responsibilities meant workweeks that regularly exceeded 40 hours. It’s no easy task to run programs or organizations, never mind retooling and repurposing them. Getting involved in social R&D adds 10 – 20 hours a week to schedules. It’s not sustainable, but what do you do when there is a vision and an imperative, but no funding? You do what you can.

    1. Pace. There are a lot of roles, processes, and structures that comprise an organization. Especially if it has been around for a while. It needs time to make things work—re-allocating resources, recruiting internal teams and freeing up some of their time, aligning incredibly busy schedules, sorting out internal and external messaging, coordinating logistics, etc. And of course, none of these pieces are static when we are iterating the R&D model itself. There is a steep learning curve for organizations and it takes time to do R&D properly.

    Organizations require at least 5-year time bites for undertaking social R&D, not 1 – 3 years. Short-term funding puts pressure on organizations to go through an intensive R&D process that chafes against multiple organizational and regulatory systems and functions. It burns people out and builds resentment. There is an urgency to produce something worthwhile before the money runs out, something that would justify the need for social R&D and associated expenditures. But it means 5 years of work gets compressed into 2 years or less.

    To compound this, the learning/iteration cycle that we do manage to eke out is too long. A single cycle of research, analysis, playback, idea generation and prototyping can take several months to over a year. That’s too way long. The cycles should be shorter and there should be more of them. But so far, it’s been hard to make that happen. The problem doesn’t lie with the method itself, but with the need to conduct it at a pace that is both effective and that is manageable by organizations. We haven’t found how to do that yet.

    1. Communication. Leadership and managers are accustomed to knowing what is going on in their agencies, what sort of decisions are being made, and the rationale behind them. Rapid-fire iteration means completely new directions or 180’s can occur in a relatively short period of time (hours or days). That is hard to take in high-risk, high-accountability systems. Leadership/managers feel constantly behind and may feel slighted or upset that they haven’t been part of important decisions or iterations. Or wondering why some people were somehow involved, or knew, but not others. They worry that perhaps they haven’t given their best, or been sufficiently available. If only they could keep up. They want to contribute and open doors, but they can’t flip the pages fast enough.

    Change is hard to take, especially when it is happening in one’s backyard and one doesn’t feel in control of it. “When did that happen?” “Who decided that?” “I thought we agreed/were told we were going to do ‘x’—why are we talking about ‘y’?” This is only exacerbated when research, playbacks, decisions or iterations produce a “problem” for the organization that make more work for leadership/managers and which may require them to go into damage control mode.

    Such problems are bound to occur when local and quick decisions are part of the process, versus consensus or authorization, and when the method itself is about surfacing gaps in one’s agencies, questioning conventional values, roles or practices, and when it is not a system-managed process. This sort of thing triggers an impulse to better manage R&D processes so that these problems don’t occur, so that there are clearer processes in place that will prevent their recurrence. Which, of course, is a hazardous approach. Once R&D processes become the legitimate subject of systemization, it is hard to know when to stop; there is so much clarifying, structuring, and cleaning up that could be done. But then, not being on the same page with everyone else, not knowing what changes are happening, not knowing who knows what or has been part of what decision, is hard.

    It is hard enough to explain what we are about to our internal and external stakeholders—how much more so when everything keeps changing? Things like our learning, hunches, roles, models, prototypes, narratives, etc.

    1. Culture clash.The cultures of social service organizations are about predictability, consistency, quality and control. The culture of social R&D is about interrogation, emergence, creativity and experiment. Social services are complicated and interconnected systems that require skilled managers, navigators and adjustors. Social R&D requires fearless questioners and makers. Social services try to avoid problems, eschewing mistakes that add more work/trouble to an already stressful environment; social R&D encourages and requires lots and lots of failure. Social services is about nurturing and supporting one another and celebrating what is done well; social R&D is about naming gaps and pain points and mobilizing against the status quo.

    The very concept of “innovation” has a structural prejudice against what exists—that it is somehow insufficient, inadequate, and needs to be improved upon and/or surpassed. There is an inherent tension between what is on offer and what is being envisioned—how this unfortunate tension is handled is critical because, done poorly, it can alienate employees and teams who are doing excellent work.

    At some point, leadership will face a threshold around their personal and professional comfort levels. How much interrogation can they tolerate? How much unpredictability? How much emergence? How much change and upset? What is required to run an organization is quite different than what is required to disrupt it.

    All to say, it ain’t easy. Even though everyone knows it’s important.

  • Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

    By James Wright (1990)

    This came across my virtual desk today. Loved it.

    Over my head I see the bronze butterfly
    Asleep on the black trunk,
    Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
    Down the ravine, behind the empty house,
    The cowbells follow one another
    Into the distances of the afternoon.
    To my right,
    In a field of sunlight between two pines,
    The droppings of last year’s horses
    Blaze up like golden stones.
    I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
    A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
    I have wasted my life.

  • On the misuse of user satisfaction surveys in social services

    User satisfaction surveys are perhaps the most problematic tool used by social service agencies to assess performance. Not only is self-reporting notoriously unreliable, especially when proxies are involved (families, circles or staff responding on behalf of users), but it can make service users complicit in validating services that are not helping them and that may even be doing them harm.

    1. Satisfaction is not an indicator of efficacy even though it is often confused as such by service delivery organizations, funders and accrediting bodies. Personal satisfaction tells us about someone’s feelings and impressions, it does not tell us about what actually happened. The taste of a thing is very different than its nutritional value.

    Worse, setting satisfaction metrics as effectiveness targets in outcomes reports is a category mistake because our perceptions are likely to differ from reality. To equate them is like saying we can advance scientific knowledge if we can increase people’s perceptions that they have it. In fact, it is quite possible for people to receive a very poor service and yet rate it very highly.

    2. Service recipients’ exposure to other services, or to different categories and types of services, or to a range of interactions and outcomes, may be limited. Without this wider exposure in which to ground feedback, levels of satisfaction becomes less helpful/informative because service users have not had an opportunity to develop and refine their expectations. We may feel good that someone who has been in our services for a long time rates them highly, but would they still do so if they had sampled others sorts of services? Without that exposure, satisfaction surveys can become fishbowl applause, supplying services with a false sense of desirability.

    3. Social service organizations often emphasize safety, sanctuary and satisfaction over catalyzing personal growth and social transformation. When that happens, they can create contexts that are caring, fun and social, but that don’t actually launch people into good lives. Instead, they can foster regression, complacency and ongoing dependence. High satisfaction with those services should not be taken as an affirmation, but as an admonition that we are not fulfilling our ultimate mission to help people live fuller and better lives. Satisfaction can be inimical to good outcomes. Consider, for example, Fenton’s study around paying doctors according to levels of patient satisfaction: it resulted in higher health care costs, because doctors were more likely to prescribe tests and treatments to satisfy patient expectations, and much higher mortality rates, because they were less likely to challenge patients around unhealthy habits.

    User satisfaction surveys have a place in social services to the extent that they provide us with information around how users are experiencing our services. But too often the preponderance of “outputs” reporting and absence of good outcomes data means satisfaction surveys become substitutes for quality. We think that if those receiving services are satisfied with what we think is important, and if they would recommend us to others, we must be doing good work. That is a fallacious conclusion. More importantly, from an ethical perspective, we run the risk of enlisting the voices of service recipients to validate services that ought not to be validated.

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social sector (Part 3): Process v. Products

    This is the last, I think, in a series that critiques our preoccupation with scale, especially within the social sector. It’s not that scaling is a bad thing, it’s just not nearly as simply as it’s being portrayed. In this last piece, we argue that because the social sector is deeply relational, the conditions under which solutions emerge are as much part of the intervention as the solution itself, and that this is what gives it legitimacy. Further, in those rare instances where charities and non-profits do engage in rigorous social R&D, the result may not themselves be scalable because the specific contexts of the work are unique. More importantly, there are qualitatively distinct characteristics of human-centered design and co-creation that resist scaling, especially when compared to traditional top-down pilot programs that are wholly baked within the system and don’t involve users until it comes time for program enrolment.

    Some of these characteristics are as follows:

    1. Relational legitimacy. Contextual research, especially deep immersive methods such as ethnography or cultural anthropology, are deeply curious epistemic dispositions that build rapport and credibility between local representatives of “the system” and user groups. The representatives are not problem-solving, counselling, or imposing a professional narrative; they are paying attention. When people spend time with users groups in their everydayness, across programs, contexts and time, the stiff conventional roles are discarded and authentic connection and relationships emerge. These relationships, rooted in vulnerability, goodwill and trust, are the cornerstone to whatever solution emerges.
    1. Method as Intervention. Human-centered design and co-creation are exceptional examples of promoting self-determination and person-centeredness because they invite user groups to articulate the problems and to shape the solutions. This invitation, this empowering of an often oppressed and disempowered population group, is itself a powerful intervention. It is part of the final product and yet cannot be scaled when the solution is exported to other jurisdictions.
    1. Ownership. These methods create a sense of local ownership because stakeholders have participated in the solution from the very beginning. It is a community solution, one wherein professionals may have played a role but they are not the sole owners. The moment the system undertakes to scale a solution that has been birthed under such conditions, it presumes the conceit of ownership and users in new jurisdictions are again relegated to the role of helpees who can enroll if they qualify. Unless there is some sort of adaptation methodology that allows for a transfer of ownership, the solution will belong to the system, not a community of stakeholders.

    When a solution is grown in a local context and then scaled to a different one, there is a presumption that the solution is discretely bound such that it can be extracted and replicated without any loss of fidelity. This is rarely the case in social services.

    For starters, the new context is probably anything but receptive; it could even be toxic to the solution. Organizations, their employees and user groups will likely experience any new program or service, even ones that are not particularly innovative, as an imposition from without—as yet another example of those with institutional power blundering into regional complexities. The prevalence of wariness and mistrust between most governments and service organizations, and between organizations and user groups, can salt the soil against any program replication–especially if it signals a future trend preferred by decision-makers, or if it is associated with having to give something up/closing other programs.

    More importantly, the originating conditions involved methods, competencies and relationships that are essential to solutions taking root. Unless the new jurisdiction has these characteristics, it is unreasonable to think that any scaled solutions can be adopted, adapted and continuously iterated. Instead, as suggested in a previous post, the solution will be “frozen” in some form that won’t be particularly well adapted to local conditions, and which, when introduced, will exacerbate misgivings around agendas and applicability.

    The social sector is heavily relational. Irrespective of the expert knowledge, competencies and credentials that are brought to bear, such characteristics are virtually always mediated by relationships. Too often, these relationships are saddled by dynamics that are not particularly constructive—where power accrues to the professional, deficit lenses prevail, and the relational binaries are restricted to humiliating ones of helpers:helpees.

    Involving user groups in defining the problems and outcomes, and developing solutions and testing them, changes power dynamics and relationships. It becomes an integral part of the intervention. In those rare instances where co-creation does occur, we cannot assume that the solution that emerges can be disentangled from its origin, from the relationships and processes that gave it birth, and embedded in new sociopolitical and relational contexts.

  • Inviting Arts & Humanities into Social Services

    This piece of writing was first produced for the Centre for Welfare Reform on August 23, 2017. I am republishing here as I am hoping to advance this topic in a series of experiments and writing over the next while.

    From June 12-14th 2017, we spent time with Exeko, an organization in Montreal that uses the arts and philosophy to advance social change. Sounds esoteric and highbrow – but it wasn’t. It was the opposite of that. It was about reclaiming our collective humanity, and with it, recovering a more productive ground to our work. Too often, the social services sector gets stuck on basic needs – food, shelter, clothing. Safety. Getting By. Coping. Our craft has been about supplying that stability.

    But somewhere, we lost sight of the deeper things.

    Beauty. Meaning. Hope. Mystery. Love. 

    We forgot that these things are perhaps more basic.

    Without them, we cannot live.

    Without them, the other things merely prolong our deaths.

    The arts and philosophy are ways we have always tried to uncover, recover, create and cultivate meaning. Perhaps it is time to bring them into our everyday practice. To see if we can blend it into our professional codes and training, our protocols and strategies. This shift is about asking whether we might do more than feed and clothe the body, but whether we might also feed the soul, nourish the imagination, strengthen the spirit, and engage the intellect. This shift recognises that the levers of change lie less in things, and more in how we see our world and ourselves.

     June 12th

    At the Museum of Vancouver, and against the beautiful backdrop of an ocean inlet and the North Shore Mountains, about 100 people gathered to hear how the arts and humanities might assist them with the change they want to see in the world.

    A couple things stood out from this presentation.

    First, the notions of intellectual marginalization and intellectual emancipation. The former is about how our assumptions around people’s intellect inhibit us from having important conversations with them. This includes not inviting them to participate in problem-solving and idea generation, even when the subject-matter is about them. We assume that “proper” reflection and analysis is beyond their grasp, and we dismiss their sensibilities, wisdom and experience as flawed, or not material, or not relevant. In this way we condemn them to powerlessness. And, in our conceit, we don’t invite critical perspectives to help us understand and navigate complexity.

    Intellectual emancipation occurs when one is able to overcome the things that are holding one intellectually captive. This recognises the essential role that thought and imagination plays in dislodging the yoke of oppression–to understand the shape of the barriers within ourselves and within the world, and to cast our vision past them. It enables us to discern the gaps between what is and what could be, and to become active agents of change. There can be no overcoming or self-overcoming if we are unable to problematize our circumstances nor imagine our possibilities.

    When one is intellectually marginalised and treated as intellectually inferior, it is impossible for intellectual emancipation to occur. One is not invited to criticize, construct or negotiate our institutional norms and social conventions. When we assume the intellectual inferiority of the people we serve, we strip them of voice. Of power. Of their futures. In this way we diminish ourselves as “oppressors,” and we diminish the greatness in “other” and the world.

    Second, the notion of the presumption of intelligence. This is not a philosophical or scientific proposition; it is an ethical posture. It is a conviction that (1) all intelligences and perspectives matter and are needed to co-create a better world and (2) emancipation is the moral rejoinder to oppression and (3) treating others as intellectual equals–that is, as persons whose perspectives, sensibilities, and experiences are just as relevant (and irrelevant) as others–expands the possibilities of self and world, which is morally preferable to restricting them.

    Where notions of intellectual inferiority are imputed, intellectual marginalization prevails, and possibility is severely constricted. The Pygmalion effect means that people internalise and perform the perceptions we have of them. When we treat people as inferior, which is how perception is manifested, they come to embody those preconceptions and the possibilities for themselves and their role in the world are greatly attenuated. When we treat people as equals, their possibilities greatly expand. One disposition shrinks opportunity, one opens it up. What does our duty require of us?

    Sure, someone could always ask:

    “suppose there were ways to definitively measure all aspects of intelligence? Wouldn’t we then have to concede that some intelligences are superior or inferior to others? In such a case, wouldn’t we need to dispense with the presumption of intelligence and realign our attitude to recognize the fact that some people might be less intelligent than others?”

    The answer is: “I don’t care” (regarding perfect scientific measurement) and “no” (regarding the attitude adjustment). It doesn’t matter.

    The deficiency that matters is around inclusion, not intelligence. It is a choice whether to organize the world along superior and inferior lines, or among lines of equality. When we choose the latter, we grow possibility, inclusion and the foundations of a democratic society. When we legitimize marginalization as a natural and logical state of affairs, we dehumanize and disempower others, and our society is the poorer for it.

     June 13th

    With this as background, what are the implications for the disability sector? With some leaders and thinkers from disability organizations, we parsed through what the implications of this might be for us.

    The first observation is that this notion of shifting practice so that we can more intentionally address deeper needs such as meaning, beauty and hope, is neither a criticism of what we do, nor a replacement for it. It is completely complementary. Our work until now has been important work. Critical work. At the same time, the focus of the social services sector on basic needs has created the gap that small organizations like Exeko are trying to address. Can we create a model in BC that infuses arts and philosophy into our everyday practice so that we are addressing both basic needs and the deeper ones?

    Once upon a time, our organizations were among the champions of change. We stood with families to close the institutions and turn social conventions and expectations on their heads. Can we do it again? And what would our role be?

    Certainly, it is not our role to intellectually emancipate others–that is an absurd pretension. We can only emancipate ourselves. However, we do have a role in constructing the conditions under which people can have opportunities to pursue self-overcoming and empowerment, to pursue beauty and meaning. But what is that role? Is it just about getting out of the way? A resourcing role? A credo? Pressing for systemic shifts in practices or assumptions?

    Every locality is different–each has it’s own history, it’s own collection of people, assumptions, values, protocols, norms, culture, etc. This is, in effect, is its terroir. What is the terroir of British Columbia, and the disability sector more specifically, that will allow experimentations to fill the gaps in our present system? Our intent is not to simply import Exeko’s approaches and to transplant them into our local context. The context is so different, they may not take. Rather, we should be thinking about what would make sense in BC and what would be more readily nourished, adopted and/or spread. What is the soil of our system, and what can be more readily grown in it?

    In Exeko’s context, it made sense for them to become event-peddlers. They were not delivering services, rather, they were showing up in the contexts of services and prompting completely different conversations. They opened up space to talk about things like story, music, and justice–not accidentally, or on the fly, but with forethought and intent. They brought in subject-experts to participate. Over time, attendance grew, self-expression grew, everyday conversations changed, culture changed. People changed. This should not be surprising. While the meeting of basic needs keep us alive and safe, it is the confrontation with beauty, meaning and love that summons us to our lives. That instructs us in our own value and worth. That urges us to wrest back control from the people and things that are stealing our futures.

    Can we introduce something like this into the context of our services, though preferably not as a traditional sort of program or curriculum. Can professional staff, rather than observing these conversations, convene them? Can the people we serve convene them? Can we fill the gap with something different than what usually fills gaps in our professional systems? For example, do we need to assign a trickster role within our organizations (a character in aboriginal mythology that disrupts norms and conventions and prompts change)?

    And where better to begin than with the language of “disability” which captures and ensnares people, which makes them, represents them, and situates them in a specific sociocultural context? Language is powerful; it is a power that the ancient spell-casters intuited. Today, within the disability context, it is our social, academic and professional Institutions that cast the spells of making and unmaking. Is it time to invite our poets, musicians, story-tellers and philosophers to make the incantations? To teach people with disabilities to become their own spell-casters? Is it time to be enchanted by new meanings? What if we invited them to reflect with the people we serve on language and identity and to create new meanings, new inflections, richer nuances? There is much ado on identity and representation politics within the academic literature and popular media, but persons with intellectual disabilities are severely underrepresented in those arenas. Do we bring arts and philosophy to bear, first, on language and identity? Self-discovery, excavation and creation?

    Lastly, we will need to keep evaluation in mind–it’s a tricky thing. How do we measure culture shift? Social transformation? Emancipation and opportunity? Are there ways to get at flourishing and happiness (yes, though they may be onerous). That said, what matters to whom, and how we count it, is often about power and politics. Can we see evaluation less as a funder-driven requirement, and more of a means of enquiry that helps us to detect patterns around shifts in identity, emotions and wellbeing? And over time? Can we avoid the philosophical debate between positivism v constructivism (and the rabbit hole of what is knowable and how), and take a pragmatic position that focuses simply on learning and growth in individuals?

    So, what next? 

    It seems that we are agreed that it is time to address deeper needs, and that to do so, we will want to draw from the wisdom of the arts and the humanities. Do we begin with a creed? An invitation? Another conversation? Or do we each undertake to try something ourselves or within our organizations, something that adds light to our path?

    While the existential imperative to live fully must not be held hostage to a planning process, but must be answered daily, the more that we can plan and strategize together, the better hope we have of being able to create abundant conditions for human flourishing.