One of the initiatives emerging from the Southern Africa Food Lab seeks to create new ways for small-scale farmers to participate meaningfully in the economy. Launched in 2012, this initiative is currently prototyping five innovations in two rural districts of South Africa. A recent learning history by Reos Associate Karen Goldberg is helping all of us involved in the Food Lab to stay awake to how issues of power are not just “out there” but “in here” too.
The 1913 Natives Land Act relegated all African people to “homeland” reserves initially comprising just 7.3% of the total area of South Africa. Generally, the quality of the soil was poor, and this land degraded further over generations of subsistence farming. While the Land Act was repealed in 1991, its multiple legacies remain major challenges today. In the words of one of the Food Lab hosts: “The food system in South Africa reflects our current reality and the past. It is characterized through power, and power is about race, class, gender … Unless we put that in the centre of what we are doing, we are not going to shift the system.” 

[Picture: From left to right – a member of the hosting team (arm only), a small scale farmer, a researcher, an activist and a retailer build a model of the agricultural system]
Imagine for a moment a city that is the best place in the world for a child to grow up. What would it look like? Feel like? How would children grow, learn, and play? How would decisions be made and resources invested? What stories would be told about the value and role of children in our communities?
Thrive By 5: Calgary’s Early Years Innovation Lab, co-convened by the United Way of Calgary and Area and the Province of Alberta (Ministry of Human Services), has set Calgary on a course towards collaboratively seeking answers to these questions. In doing so, Lab members aim to transform the early childhood development (ECD) system in Calgary and drastically improve the statistics. Currently, one-fourth of the children in Calgary are not meeting key developmental milestones by the time they enter kindergarten. The Lab’s purpose is to ensure that all children grow, learn, and thrive by the age of five. In taking on this challenge, the Lab also aims to establish Calgary as the kind of city that knows how to collectively solve complex problems.
“I'm interested in the problem of action, not the problem of knowing—unless it's about knowing how to act.” —Zaid Hassan, author of The Social Labs Revolution, in a May 13 tweet
I recently read an article in The New York Times about a giant Antarctic ice sheet that is gradually melting into the sea. Evidently, as it melts, it could cause sea levels around the world to rise between four and twelve feet over the next 200 years. It’s sobering to think that, right in front of our eyes, we are witnessing events that could impact all of life on earth for a long time to come.
“Knowing how to act” is a question with which every change-maker struggles. I want to try to make sense of this question and pose, if not an answer, then at least a helpful provocation to get us thinking.
In practice, when we seek the underlying causes of systemic challenges, we often find them in a society’s paradigms and mindsets. As Emerson wrote in his 1838 essay “War”, the causes of all society-wide phenomena are to be found in “the master idea[s] reigning in the minds of many persons.” This means they are not “solvable” per se, because a group of stakeholders cannot change this kind of “master idea” or paradigm. Understanding this limitation is a good starting point for creating a healthy society, because it redirects us back to ourselves.

In 2012, Reos met with leaders across the community living sector in Vancouver, Canada. Our aim was to ascertain whether and how key service, community, and government organizations might better cooperate to help people with disabilities live a “good life.” In this sector, a “good life” is defined as the things that make life good, but are often hard to secure for people with intellectual disabilities: loving relationships and friendships, opportunities to work and contribute to the community, asset accumulation, self-determination, and other forms of integration into everyday community life.

Tanya Sather and Richard Faucher of the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion (BACI), a well-established organization serving 800 people with disabilities in Burnaby and the greater Vancouver area, shared with us their vision for continually improving BACI’s ability to support a “good life” for the people they serve, even amidst increases in demand and cuts in government funding.

We began working with BACI in 2013, first identifying key tensions and opportunities, and then setting a course for BACI’s “growing internally strong,” in Tanya’s words. Presently, the central focus of the engagement is to propagate “learning loops,” a practice and toolkit that regularly engages all employees in creatively and incrementally improving BACI’s services and operations.

The challenge is interesting, subtle, and rewarding. People with disabilities are highly individual, so BACI must continually adjust its services to meet varying and emergent needs, while also complying with government regulations and managing hundreds of employees. It is an incredible task.

We are living in fascinating times for democracy in Brazil and Latin America. Across the continent, democracies, though still relatively young, are increasingly taking root and taken for granted. Yet the nature, quality, and culture of these democracies are still very much in formation. It is possible that, in the coming decades, several Latin American countries will experiment with new forms of democracy that will inspire other countries in the region and the world. This is a phenomenon worth paying attention to.

In Brazil, more than a quarter century after the adoption of the Citizen Constitution after the end of the military dictatorship in 1988, the generation now graduating from universities was born in a democracy. These individuals and the larger population today have wide access to new means of communication, new channels for social participation, and new models of organizing. In 2013, former senator Marina Silva applied to run in the 2014 elections through a new political party called “The Network” (her petition was denied). In the same year, a breathtaking series of public demonstrations took place. Hundreds of thousands of people protested to express their dissatisfaction with the performance of government on issues of public transport, education, and health as well as with government priorities and corruption in relation to the 2014 World Cup. In a country that has tended, at least in the past three decades, to have a complacent civic culture, these demonstrations led some observers to comment that a “giant had awoken”. Brazilians increasingly want to know and claim their rights.

From the Toolkit

A post-learning journey sensing exercise

The main purpose of this exercise is to practice redirecting and bringing the key different stakeholder perspectives and needs observed on a learning journey into the room. The voices of the stakeholders blend together to create a sense of the whole field.

This exercise was originally shared with Reos by Andrew Sullivan

It is a simple tool that works well at the end of a course, learning journey, or workshop, as it provides a final wrap-up and positive energy. It can also be used as a warm-up for collective creative tasks such as initiative generation.

Have participants sit in a circle. Invite them to pair up with the person next to them. Have everyone take out a loose sheet of paper and draw the following configuration of lines on it (demonstrate on a flip chart): 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1 line.

Reos is a social enterprise that helps businesses, governments, and civil society organisations address complex social challenges.

We convene, design and facilitate multi-stakeholder partnerships and initiatives on issues such as employment, health, food, energy, the environment, security, and peace.

Our approach is systemic, creative, and participative.

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Telling new stories enables us to create new futures. Political leaders in the Americas are beginning to tell new stories about the problems of illicit drugs, and this is enabling them to begin to find new and more effective ways to address these problems.

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