Creating Change: Lessons, Skills, and Advice


Lessons learned

Praising the dedication of long-term volunteers, Sr. Kathrine reinforced her belief that social change could only be accomplished with the help of many:

What I learned most of all was to call on people – to present the need, and say, Is there anything we can do? Can you do something? Have you any ideas? And then for me to step back and let them go ahead and do it. I'm not the boss; I'm just there to ask how I could help them do what they saw needed to be done. I learned to encourage other people to use the gifts they had, to be behind them and to give them support in whatever way I could. But, initially, to ask for their help.

The lessons she summarized from decades of activism:

Skills to sharpen

  • Don't try to do everything at once; identify one specific and immediate need.
  • Consult with other people and enlist their help.
  • Know your own strengths and weaknesses – and especially your own motivation.
  • Listen to and respect the opinions of others.
  • Encourage others to exercise their expertise and knowledge.
  • Build activist roles and relationships "The need is there, so get people to do something about it. Address the need as best you can. Talk to people and see. Ask what are we going to do about this? So I see the need and ask people to help. Then a lot of people will come and run with it." Sr. Kathrine did not see herself as a visionary so much as the person who could identify urgent needs within the community from firsthand involvement and observation, and then call others together to consider solutions. In this respect, she felt it was her voice that was key to her activism – the capacity to speak for those who were not always able to raise their own voices. She agreed that her role was that of a catalyst. She traced facilities such as The Gathering Place and the Emmaus House Food Bank to her decision many years before to act on what she saw of people's lives, and especially when she "listened to women, their stories and heartbreak". The sense of helplessness she experienced was rooted in her knowledge that on her own, she could do nothing—and in this helplessness she realized the fundamental insight of her lifelong activism: "But what about approaching other people and talking about what I saw so that others would take it up? Other people were a lot more competent than I was."
  • Maintain a sense of humour Given the social problems Sr. Kathrine faced at close distance, humour might have seemed like a luxury. However, she told a story about herself that concerned an embarrassing moment with some relish: "We were having a rehearsal on the stage but people were already coming in for that evening's concert and the hall was half full. We were practising the second movement of the Brahms Requiem where the penultimate note is a long note sustained over a couple of measures, and under the sustained note, the piano accompaniment moves down the scale. We practised and practised, but I couldn't get the choir to come in exactly… finally, a bit exasperated, I said, 'Stop, listen to me, this is how you do it.' So Sister played it again and I sang it—wrong! Of course they all burst out laughing—and so did I. It was really funny, and before all these people, too. So much for my expertise!" If you can't laugh at yourself, Sr. Kathrine maintained, "you're in a sorry state".
  • Sr. Kathrine believed that the capacity for effective social change depended on learning and refining various interconnecting skills:
    • The ability to work well with others.
    • Acquisition of knowledge: take time to learn as much as possible about a given situation.
    • Remember that people are important – not just situations.
    • Never lose sight of the human dimension.
    • Act with – rather than act for.
    • Rally enthusiasm and energy, along with gentleness.
    • Good organizational ability.
    These skills must build on a fulcrum of recognizing and respecting the ability and talents of others, operating on the premise that "alone, one can do nothing, but together we can do everything". And above all, she said, the ability to work with others depends on being able "to share, laugh, and cry with others – to love others is essential".

    Advice to younger activists

    1. Get to know the people you hope to serve by joining some volunteer organization.
    2. Ask the advice of others with more experienced in the field – there’s a wealth of knowledge out there.
    3. Become familiar with civic or church organizations involved in different facets of social work.