Hob-nobbing at Hollyhock's Social Change Institute
It's an eight hour trip from the Hollyhock learning centre on Cortes Island back to Vancouver, with three ferries and a bit of driving, but it's taken me a good week to get back to my routine at Pivot and catch up on sleep. I returned from the amazing Social Change Institute (info here and here) on the beautiful coastal Hollyhock site on Cortes from June 6-10th. SCI's recipe for success is to put together about 100 "seasoned and emerging" leaders in social change movements, outline some workshops and other programs for sharing and developing tools for success, add a touch of recreation and meditation, mix in a heap of delicious food and plenty of social activity and then stew in a hot tub overlooking the ocean for five days. The result? Connections, directions, possibilities.
I went to SCI without many expectations. I browsed the list of participants and made mental notes about who I might want to chat with. Then, I packed up my motorcycle and camping gear and took off. The agenda for SCI is packed, starting with meditation at 6am, then yoga at 7am, breakfast at 8am, and conference activities paced throughout the day from 9am until 10pm or so. Then, the fun begins with music on the beach or hot tubbing (the networking continues). (Note to self - next year actually get up in time to make at least one of the yoga classes). The food at Hollyhock is unparalleled - organic, pesco-vegetarian, beautiful, delicious. And, plenty of it. My favourite food memory, however, didn't come from the hands of the talented kitchen staff, but rather on our last night. We gatherered on the small bluff overlooking the beach to feast on fresh and grilled oysters harvested that morning, while drinking wine and beer. At some point, our oyster artisans put out onto the beach the salmon carcasses from the previous night's bounty and told us to watch. One by one, bald eagles swooped down to collect the salmon in their talons. That's entertainment Gulf Islands style.
[Photo by Susan Smitten]
Okay, I'd better write a bit about the conference itself. Highlights of the SCI material for me were the three case studies and Tzeporah Berman's keynote address. The format for the case studies is simple: a person sits in the "hot seat" and talks about their organization, including a problem that they wish for the group to advise on, usually some new strategic direction the group is considering or some organizational structure change. Next, a three-person expert panel asks clarifying questions to the person, followed by the same from the audience. Then, the panel gives some advice to the person in the hot seat, followed by advice from the audience. Finally, the hot-sitter makes the final comments about the advice he/she has recieved. This year, the case studies were brought by Claudia Li of Shark Truth, Jeremy Osborn of 350.org, and David Eby of BC Civil Liberties Association. Each presented a unique take on organization challenges at different phases of growth and size. I was blown away by the quality of the expert advice given by the panel and some in the audience, who seemed to clue in on the roots of the issues facing these organizations.
The phenomenal and inspriring Tzeporah Berman gave a keynote address on Friday. She had the room mesmerized as she described her personal journey from defending trees in the Clayoquot Sound to becoming one of the foremost voices globally for climate change policy. She plugged her new book - This Crazy Time - a bit, and based on some of the stories she told, it's a must read. You can see a short glimpse of Tzeporah's keynote here. Other amazing individuals at the SCI this year were Judy Rebick and Ugandan hip-hop artist Silas Balabyekkubo.
I'm a lawyer at Pivot, and at Pivot we take the pretty unusual tactic of using the law for social change. I knew going into SCI that this was a fairly unique strategy in Canada, but wasn't really prepared for being so out-gunned at the SCI. My sense is that the community organizers, activists, and supporters of activists who were at the SCI (mostly enviro NGOs) were having some difficulty seeing law reform and litigation as good strategies for achieving their goals of a more just and equitable society. That's surprising to me given the importance to US environmental causes of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. In Canada, we've seen dramatic social change come about through the courts, including same-sex marriage, abortion rights protection, the right to harm reduction services such as supervised injection, and the right to die with dignity. In the end, whether we want to see better climate change policy or access to life-saving harm-reduction measures, it's the law that needs to change in one form or another in order for that to happen and for the change to be meaningful and long-lasting.
So, maybe the most profound take-away I have from my time drinking beer while stewing in the hot tub with some fascinating people or eating oysters watching the eagles hunt their "prey" is that there's work to be done to bridge the gap between traditional community activism and reform through legal action. Just saying, I think there's a lot we might be able to do for each other.