Creating Change: Lessons, Skills and Advice



  • People have very different perspectives on the same situation, so find out as much as you can about all perspectives relevant to an issue.
  • The author Anaïs Nin once wrote, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Take time to listen to others and understand where they are coming from so you can find a common thread to use for consensus-building. If people are speaking from different poles and across each other, it will be rough going.
  • If you build your networks in a positive, collaborative way, you can be oppositional without being confrontational. "No-one has ever questioned my conviction or sincerity or felt personally attacked because I try to bring people on board with me."
  • A good change agent has a high tolerance for chaos and uncertainty. You have to be willing to trust the process to the point that you will just step off the cliff. You sometimes have to take a risk and trust that something is happening even though it looks like a wrong thing is happening. If you're doing your work and feeding into the process, you may have to sit back at times and wait for the gears to mesh.
  • Using good process sets an example for those who are watching—even when they disagree or feign a lack of interest. At some point down the road, your modeling might help them.
  • It doesn't take much courage to speak your mind clearly when you have nothing to lose. "I have learned that I can come right out and say something that is based on my experience and not be afraid to take that risk because I'm ninety-nine percent certain that I'm right."
  • It's important to be respectful of everybody you come into contact with, to engage them on common ground, because you never know where they will turn up again.
  • Learn about the dynamics of a community or group you're working with. Sometimes you don't get anywhere and have no idea why, but there might be a hidden factor that will become clear when you have more exposure to their culture.
  • To win people's confidence, extend your trust to them because no one will trust you if you don't trust them, a lesson reinforced by a young woman who worked as a rural housing coordinator for the New Brunswick Aboriginal People's Council. Her advice was, "When you go into a marginalized community, get out of your truck but don't lock the door. Then you make sure the people notice that you don't lock the door and you leave things in there. If you trust them, then they will trust you." That was a very important lesson that Sue always took to heart. She never lost anything.
  • Cooperation, collaboration and inclusion are more effective than confrontation—although there are times when confrontation is necessary.
  • Networks are a critical resource for success because relationships are at the root of all social action.
  • The goal is to empower people by respecting them and providing opportunities to take responsibility.
I wish I had learned earlier that the government isn't always right and not to put so much faith in government ability to respond to what needs to be done. For a long time, I was really trusting that government was on my side when it wasn't. That's a huge issue in the non-profit sector. We've been telling all these politicians and bureaucrats that the sector doesn't believe them, the sector doesn't trust them because the non-profits have been beaten around so many times.


  • Learn how to strategize. You must figure out what's going to work for any given situation because there are a lot of ways to approach activism. You can be head-on confrontational, or you can muddle around the edges, or you can infiltrate and try to change from within. Or you can just try to come out the other side by doing something totally different. You have to be able to use different tools and strategies at different times.
  • Balance is the key. Don't be too extreme in your techniques or your position. Always oppose the issue and not the person. Don't make it a personal thing—you don't want to close any doors that may be there for you down the road.
  • Non-judgmental listening and observing the community are key skills. Be your own community anthropologist to find out how the community works and where it does not work so well.
  • Respect the validity of every perspective. Learn how to build consensus.
  • Develop patience. Stay with it and watch for the openings. Sometimes you can't figure a way to move it forward so you have to park it for a time until opportunity knocks again. Sometimes the best action is no action.
  • Cultivate open-mindedness and trust.
  • Practice flexibility of mind and a tolerance for chaos. "You start with a goal and you never know when there will be a change. You don't know when you're going to have to shift your ground or try something new. You'll have to engage in bobbing and weaving and trying this and bouncing off that, and when that happens you just have to shift gears and go in a different direction."
  • Develop a willingness to let go—and that can be hard.
  • Skills for managing an asset-based approach to community development via mapping and building on strengths.


It's like conducting an orchestra where different parts come in at different times to make the whole piece melodic.
  • Question assumptions and stereotypes.
  • Lead from behind—empower the group by giving them responsibility as soon as they are ready for it.
  • Do your homework first by gathering as many perspectives as you can on the issue and then try to pull them all together.
  • Networking is the most important thing you can do. Getting to know people before you need them is a good strategy. People appreciate it if you're honest with them. That doesn't mean that you have to like each other so much as know who you are and what you're representing.
  • As a change agent or activist, you have to be able to give up power. And that's a hard thing because you may think you know how to do it better yourself. Let people try and learn from their own actions. Taking responsibility is empowering and that's what is needed to get real change, going back to the principles of Moses Coady (founder of the Antigonish Movement).
  • Inclusion means not leaving anyone out on the basis of geography or perspectives or origin. The more diversity and perspectives on an issue, the richer the solution.
It's like a cobweb, trying to weave all the strands together to form a strong structure.