Thinking Like a Movement: A Conversation with Al Etmanski

May 11th, 2016

Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. His latest book, Impact, outlines six patterns that help spread social innovation. BC Healthy Communities (BCHC) Executive Director, Jodi Mucha, spoke with Etmanski about resilience, noticing patterns and making mistakes.

Jodi Mucha: Can you tell us about your role?

Al Etmanski: If I boiled it down, I have deliberately stepped out of formal institutional ties and now describe myself as long time community organizer, social entrepreneur and (laugh) wanna-be writer.

Over the years, I’ve launched a number of successful organizations, initiatives, campaigns, social enterprises, funds and conversations across Canada that hopefully have been proved justice and quality for people in Canada. 

I’ve also worked internationally with people with disabilities and with families with disabilities. PLAN has been my pathway for doing this work and it's now in over 40 locations. I’m no longer formally involved however, I still do things for them and I’m currently working with families in Brazil, Japan and Poland (and I do this work specifically through my first book [Safe and Secure].

"A Healthy Community is a community that has confidence in its problem solving capacity. You don’t want the issues of today to be the end of it."

JM: How do you help build healthier communities?

AE: This is a really important question. A Healthy Community is a community that has confidence in its problem solving capacity. You don’t want the issues of today to be the end of it - they just unearth another set of challenges. A Healthy Community is a resilient community.

JM: How does excelling at pattern-recognition an important tool for changemakers?

AE: Pattern recognition is extremely important for those in it for the long term. Patterns are a way of incorporating into your work the unexpected and acknowledging that every surprise sheds light on what is going on versus an irritant in a pre-determined strategy. 

It's important to look at what is the difference between my strategy, my relationships, the environments I’m in, and beginning to see the links and patterns between them all — pulling in relationships and connections, rather than just focus on the strategy. A really good example of this is looking at and learning from First Nations — the traditions aspect of their culture.

"Patterns are a way of incorporating into your work the unexpected and acknowledging that every surprise sheds light on what is going on versus an irritant in a pre-determined strategy."

JM: What prompted you to write Impact - Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation?

AE: We had been given this amazing opportunity by McConnell Foundation, they had liked our work at PLAN and they had asked myself and my wife, Vickie [Cammack] to be involved in one of the very first projects on scaling. Through our work, Vickie and I had made a lot of mistakes around scaling, we felt like imposters. 

During this time everyone was excited, new organizations were popping up, there was a lot of interest from funders. We felt that we were not making the difference we wanted to in our work. At the same time the McConnell Foundation felt the same way— they were funding a lot of progressive projects (environmental, social, etc).

All these projects were successful but not moving the dial. The team at McConnell asked to second us (for two years) to explore social innovation. We thought about it, applied it to our own work— we had to make sense of what we were learning — we did retreats, workshops, etc. The findings and summaries led to developing the book. I essentially ended up writing our story (which was the difference between short term and long term impact). The book includes the learning and the stories of how Canadians are confronted with this challenge.

"Create a culture that is not stale face and be a culture that is willing to accept your mistakes; that’s critical."

 JM: What has increased your wisdom as you travel on the road to healthier communities?

AE: (Laugh). First, not being afraid to fail and next, learning from our mistakes. If you can, create a culture that is not stale face and be a culture that is willing to accept your mistakes; that’s critical. 

Ultimately it’s about being who you are. Pay attention to spirit. With this kind of work, one works beyond what’s expected, beyond job descriptions—the work is like moral oxygen— we need really clean air to breathe to be physically healthy, we also need clean moral oxygen to be spiritually healthy. I haven’t seen any other group that can set the table for the range of folks/sectors that you do and bring them together to share strategies, actions and policies.

The Island Forum was a beautiful demonstration of this. [Etmanski was the keynote speaker at the 2016 Island Region Healthy Communities Forum, facilitated by BCHC in Parksville.] I really see this event as an attempt to nurture spirit, which is really important. I recommend you do more of this. Healthy Communities recognizes there IS capacity and BCHC nurtures it—that includes music, good food, art, beauty.

The other thing that strikes me about BCHC is that it’s not only an organization, its also a movement. When we realized at PLAN that we were more than an organization and were actually part of a movement we had to take a really close look at that. 

"The challenge is not to create a new movement, however, but to come to terms with the movements you are already involved with and recognize what contribution you make."

The challenge is not to create a new movement, however, but to come to terms with the movements you are already involved with and recognize what contribution you make. There are many ways of having making a difference and I am really impressed with the work of BCHC and the quality of experience you provided in Parksville. Keep up the good work!

Follow Etmanski's work at: aletmanski.com.

Bookmark and Share