Creating Change: A Kitbag of Experience and Advice


Reflecting on the social character of the 1970's and 1980's, Shannie commented that this was "a very exciting and productive time" when public desire for change was prevalent and those who believed it was possible were ready to engage in the process. At the same time, there were opportunities in the form of new federal initiatives and support from national organizations like Heritage Canada Foundation. So clearly, the social climate and government programs converged to help create a rich seedbed for change.

However, Shannie is forthcoming when analysing those characteristics that have contributed to her own success as an activist operating within this larger context. She sees herself as someone who was, from the start, "hardwired to fix things if something needs fixing".

Her story points to the synergy between activist and opportunities as the primary dynamic of change, and to the openness to continuous learning as intrinsic to success. Fearless and determined when it comes to supporting causes close to her heart, Shannie learned that all of her early efforts in social activism were eminently transferable to everything she undertook, from downtown revitalization and heritage conservation to environmental protection.

In her case, Shannie believes that her role as a politician has provided an important platform for social activism because there are two constituencies to work with, the public; and fellow decision-makers (in her case 10 members of Council). Not only do you need to find ways to get a majority of votes to achieve your objectives – which requires good research, persuasion, and compromise skills – but the support of the public is key, it is the synergy that influences political decisions.

Shannie advises making the effort to understand the position of those you want to convince and motivate to act. Explain the issue in a way that is "accessible and relevant so people can see how it relates to them," she says, and if opponents cast heritage as elitist (as they sometimes do), defend its relevance to their communities of interest. Choosing appropriate communication methods is also important, from the intimacy of small face-to-face meetings to larger group presentations (e.g. service clubs who are often looking for speakers). Strategic use of media is crucial, she counsels, because media has the best reach and issues are their bread and butter; furthermore, media are drawn to "the David and Goliath angle (the small and powerless against the powerful giants)" – and this is often the thematic heart of fights for social justice. She exhorts activists to cultivate their knowledge of what the different media outlets are looking for and create relationships with members sympathetic to your cause.

Shannie says that media interviews will be most valuable if activists prepare the message ahead of time and stick to it. And she advises taking full advantage of "freebies such as press releases, public service announcements, articles, commentaries, and letters to the editor; blogs and group emails… be creative!"

All the stars were aligned – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was adept at recognizing opportunities and marshalling them in support of the objectives at hand. There is very little I won't tackle if I really believe strongly in something.