Maytree blog

Focusing on relationships is the foundation for radical change

Published on 05/10/2016

If you affect relationships at the local level, you are working for global change.
– Frances Westley, J.W. McConnell Chair in social innovation, University of Waterloo

It isn’t just a sound bite. The reason it was tweeted and retweeted dozens of times after Frances Westley’s keynote address at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute (CCI 2016) is that it resonated.

It’s all about relationships. The message was reinforced over and over again, by Frances Westley, by Severn Suzuki, by Steve Patrick and by the 230 people who gathered during the week of September 26 at CCI 2016 to build relationships, learn together and reaffirm fundamental truths about our collective work of effecting positive change in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, the conference wasn’t about patting each other on the back and singing kumbaya (though there certainly was some of that). Equal time, however, was spent wrestling with difficult issues. There were heated exchanges about privilege, race, class and the environment — at some stages there were even tears. We didn’t agree on everything, nor did we want to. Another statement from Frances Westley’s keynote that resonated was that conflict sparks creativity — and the discussions were certainly creative!

I admit to going into this intensive five-day conference with a certain amount of trepidation, but I left feeling hopeful and inspired. I just spent the week with 230 other people who get that relationships matter. That whatever we do, whatever scale we work on, whatever issues we are passionate about, if we focus on how we work with people, before we consider what we are going to do with them or for them, we are in fact changing the world for the better. To do this, we have to remember that it is more important to nurture a meaningful relationship than it is to be right.

In one conversation I had with a doctor working to improve access to care, I saw both the frustration and elation cross his face when, as if a lightbulb was going off, he said “it seems everything comes back to empathy.”

The practice of perspective empathy means that we are able to respect a persons’ or a peoples’ right to be angry or frustrated; it means working through where we differ, accepting and embracing those differences while at the same time focusing on our shared humanity.

These ideas are not soft, “touchy feely,” extras of our work. Focusing on relationships is the foundation for radical change, and indeed, some of the most difficult work that we will ever do.

When Severn Suzuki asked a Haida elder what we need to do to save the planet, she, after some time replied, “respect.” If, as we walk in the world, we were all to place priority on authentic and respectful relationships, then environmental and human degradation would find no fertile ground on which to grow. Instead, mutual understanding, equity, and the earth would flourish.

Respectful relationships can bring about radical change and nurturing them is some of the hardest work we will ever do. This week I was inspired by 230 people up for the challenge and there are thousands of us out there. We are doing the difficult work of social change by focusing on relationships. We are, as Liz Weaver so beautifully put it, disrupting with empathy.

Anne Gloger is Principal of the Centre for Connected Communities and East Scarborough Storefront.


Relationships matter, and nurturing them is some of the hardest work that we do.