I Asked My Mom What She Thinks About Social Innovation

Me (left) and my mom, Connie Marcoccia (right) pose for a photo taken on an Android smartphone by fellow Gen Y'er, Shilpa Nayak.

I Asked My Mom What She Thinks About Social Innovation

Let’s face it: the social innovation space can sometimes get pretty abstract and littered with jargon. We’re all just so excited about how we’re exploring innovative ways to tackle tough social problems and finding sustainable solutions to catalyze social good in this social change space, so we get caught up in a language that means something to us but nothing to my mother.

I was graced with the gift of having my mom in town during a Gen Why Media Bring Your Boomers event on May 28, part of Social Innovation Week in Vancouver. Gen Why hosts these periodic cultural events to inspire intergenerational dialogue.

What a great opportunity to invite my mom into this nebulous world I traverse as an idealistic Gen Y’er. It was an opportunity to whip out the reality measuring stick: What does social innovation mean to my mother? My mother, who grew up in a small town in southern Italy in the 60s, who carried a traditional way of life with her when her family moved to Toronto about 40 years ago. Working modest office jobs in the legal field and local churches since, the “social change space” is something quite foreign to my mom. But she said she’d come for the ride.

  Gen Why Media creative director Tara Mahoney (left) hosts a panel discussion with Sarah Schulman of InWithForward (middle) and April Rinne of Collaborative Lab (right) at May 28 event, Bring Your Boomers #6: The Power of Culture.

Creative director of Gen Why Media, Tara Mahoney, convened a high level discussion about social innovation with Sarah Schulman of InWithForward and April Rinne of Collaborative Lab at Backstage Lounge on Granville Island. She asked questions ranging from what makes culture meaningful to people, to what shifts are emerging in capitalism?

When I asked my mom what stood out to her most, she said it was the need to find more effective ways of helping people who become homeless or socially isolated.

Sarah alluded to this when she talked about Dwayne. While recently working in Toronto, she met Dwayne — a homeless man who often stands outside the Tim Horton’s by a drop-in centre at Queen and Bathurst in downtown Toronto. He drinks two bottles of Listerine per day and has a bunch of labels attached to him. Meeting him affirmed for Sarah why she does the work she does. With her team at InWithForward, Sarah embeds herself in communities and writes ethnographies about the people and systems at play in them. The team is currently living in a social housing complex in Burnaby, BC, working to co-create potential solutions for systemic problems in the community. They’ll be there for this development phase until the end of June.

Things got real for my mom when she heard about Dwayne. Since my mom lives in Toronto, she could picture the downtown street corner Dwayne occupies. It also surfaced her own experiences with people grappling with addictions, mental health issues and employment barriers who often come into the church office she works at asking for help. Sometimes she gives them money. Sometimes she sends them away. It’s an ongoing issue she’s not sure how to deal with.

I asked my mom: “What do you think about the idea of social innovators being the ones who go in to shift systems and cultures to solve these ongoing problems?”

“Well, there has to be something in it for them too; they’re not just going to go in and do the work if there isn’t something in it for them,” she replied.

Tara raised this issue — the question of how power intersects with innovation. It’s one of the things Sarah is most uncomfortable with about social innovation, she said during the panel discussion. Who are we to be shifting culture and changing people’s reference points? We’re taking power rather than distributing it if we’re defining problems and owning solutions. I wonder if this was an elephant in the room at Social Innovation Week.

I think there is a lot of work being done in the social innovation space that is both inspiring and impactful. Gatherings like Social Innovation Week create opportunities to meet like-minded people, build a support network and relish in how good it feels to eat local, sustainably grown food at a gathering with other people who care about similar issues. But I also think a culture of innovation can’t ever get too comfortable with itself. It’s implicit in the word innovation.

The topic of inclusion is certainly discussed at the invite-only Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Global Gathering and probably at the $700 FUEL conference too. I know that organizers of Social Innovation Week worked hard to shape a full week of events, including free ones, because of some of these barriers. But are they enough to ensure that “innovators” aren’t just talking to other “innovators?”

Following the panel discussion, my mom and I had a refreshing discussion with Jonas Piet, a service designer at InWithForward.

We talked about InWithForward’s iterative design approach to storytelling and the ethnographies they’re writing as part of the process to develop new services and supports in the community. There was something refreshing about this conversation, but it didn’t just come from hearing about the work they’re doing in community. Jonas mentioned an open house the team was holding a couple of days later at the apartment they live and work from in Burnaby. It was sort of a “guerilla” social innovation week event, meant to demonstrate what words like “ethnography” “co-design” and “social labs” mean in practice. The description reads: “We believe social change doesn’t happen in conference rooms with PowerPoint presentations and only social innovator types!”

But the most refreshing part came from something much more subtle. I noticed Jonas picking up on my mom’s quiet unease — being out of her comfort zone in a different city at a social innovation event where she knew two people in the room and even less about the field. He made multiple efforts to ensure that we didn’t dive too deeply into jargon-y chatter and tried to include her in the conversation, inviting her reflections on the event. It warmed my heart. It also reminded me of one of the best definitions of social innovation I’ve heard to date: Shut up and listen to the people who are closest to the issue. (Credit to Colleen McCormick, director of strategic partnerships with BC Government, for that one).

Related Stories:
Inclusivity 101: Would This Appeal to Your Mother?
Culture of Critique Next Step in Social Innovation

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