Sunday 1 June 2014

Innovating for Caregivers at The SIX Vancouver Summer School

I’m on a plane now, reading over the notes I’ve made from the last four days.  I’ve just come from a week of listening, sharing and thinking about how society can be shaped and shifted to support family caregivers.  I was thinking too, about how care is at the heart of social change.

The SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) Vancouver Summer School brought together social innovators from across the globe.  The place of care in social change was a theme that ran through every discussion and workshop and we were nudged to think about care through the cultural lens of Canada’s First Nations.

Day One began at the Musqueam Community Centre where a native woman welcomed us at the doorstep by sweeping our bodies with a cedar branch.  A Musqueam choral group in gorgeous, traditional regalia sang us into the meeting room as the blowing tall grass framed the sea outside the windows. 

What had this to do with caregiving?  I listened as our Musqueam hostess told us about finding herself through her culture.  Learning a forgotten language and studying the cultural traditions of elders had given meaning and personal power to her life.  “Language is culture”, she said.  I asked myself, “Do we caregivers have a language that gives us meaning and power?  Have we forgotten our language?  Did we ever have one, or do we need to invent one?”  I reflected on how difficult it is to find the words for asking for help or offering it. 

Frances Westley in conversation with Vickie Cammack began the day.  Frances is unique amongst respected academics in that she has two feet in the real world.  Getting to Maybe”, her book on the dynamics of social change is as easy to read as it is profound and full of possibility.   But Frances is also a caregiver.  Her adult daughter suffers from a serious mental illness, so Frances looks after her four year old granddaughter.  Her personal experience permeates her work.

Frances began by inviting us to consider silently where we stood on a happiness scale of one to ten at that very moment.  “This exercise can give you a sense of what you improve in your life… in your day.  Examine both the positive and the negative”, she said.  “It gives you an idea of what can be changed.”   I vowed to share this idea with caregivers and to practice checking in with myself regularly. 

Frances reflected on the pressures of our contemporary world – what pulls us away from being present in caregiving and being aware of our own true selves.  She described being pulled between connecting (networking such as caregiving, chatting or emailing) and doing (working such as tasks at home or producing a report at the office).  Connecting with people is the great time consumer, but we tell ourselves it is not ‘real work’.  Our sense of what constitutes worthy labor is from a bygone era, Frances lamented.  And so, we experience a sense of unrest and anxiety.  We try to squeeze in caring for the people we love between times when we are actually ‘working’.   “And yet”, Frances said, “caring for each other IS our real life.  Shouldn't work be for the sake of THAT?”

Vickie asked Frances about the role of resilience and vulnerability in igniting social change.  Frances began with resilience; “I have observed that resilient people have usually experienced some form of isolation and they’ve figured out how to overcome it.  They’ve cracked the code.  Then, they’ve been able to figure out how to facilitate collaboration.”  I thought about the successful and strong caregivers I know and how they fit that description perfectly.

Vickie reminded us that both vulnerability and resilience were necessary ingredients of innovation.  I wondered whether vulnerability was the opposite of resilience, but my question was answered when Frances stated that they’re not.  She described how vulnerability is only negative if there is no engagement.  If both or all parties recognize their own and each others’ vulnerability, positive change can occur.  She described a phenomenon called ‘catastrophic de-humanisation’; a relationship of true exclusion where one party fails to recognize the value of the other.  “And this is getting worse in our society”, she said.  “We are so busy that we feel hollow.  We don’t feel connected to ourselves, much less to other people.  We are afraid to stop because we’re afraid to be confronted by our own ‘desert spaces’.  Our fear of the other actually goes up.  So, we become more afraid of the vulnerability outside of ourselves and we become isolated.” I began to realize that because care is not valued, those involved in care relationships are often catastrophically dehumanized by members of society who are distracted, fearful and hollow.  Frances summed her message up this way: “Whatever challenge comes into our life (something that provokes fear of the unknown) SIT WITH IT for a while.  Admit the vulnerability in yourself and in other people, too.  That’s the way we can see that we all want similar things.  Because, cynicism will be the response if you don’t recognize the vulnerability in yourself and in others, and cynicism is the enemy of change.”

My colleague and mentor Al Etmanski inspired in an afternoon session titled “The Sacred Headwaters of Social Innovation.”  (Keep an eye out for Al's new book coming out soon!) Al is a disability Dad who co-founded PlannedLifetime Advocacy Networks in Vancouver, a model of support for caregivers and their vulnerable children that has been replicated around the world.  Love and necessity are at the headwaters of innovation, said Al.  People invent solutions to their problems because someone or something they love is struggling or in pain.  But they can’t do it alone.  The disruptive innovator may be the person with the original idea for change who shouts loudly about it and attracts attention to the idea.   Bridging innovators support, identify allies and sometimes give money.  Receptive innovators work the systems within agencies and governments to push a good idea forward.  That’s the changemaker team that helped Al push through the Registered Disability Savings Plan – a Canadian innovation that provides a tool for creating personal wealth to families raising children with disabilities.   The headwaters of change are pure love and pure necessity.  It’s up to us to ensure that the waters remain true to their origins as they flow downstream and into everyone’s water supply.  We must protect the intentions of our fragile models of change for vulnerable families and we must ensure that love is always the navigator.  This is why, says Al, that care is always the impetus and the guide for social innovation.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about love, power and learning at the SIX Summer School.

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