What is social innovation, anyway? Social infrastructure? Movement building? Going into my fellowship, these were all questions that I had full confidence I would learn the answers to. I was to support the RECODE program, and my job description included stakeholder engagement, event planning, communications, and programmatic tasks such as report-writing or project management. Easy enough, right?
With a strong social justice, community and direct service background, I was excited for this new world of social innovation and philanthropy. In hindsight, however, I was not fully prepared to adjust to the frameworks, tools, relationships, and ways of thinking about social transformation.
At the end of my first day of work, McConnell’s Vice President asked me to summarize what I had learned that day. Despite being no stranger to intern or summer student positions, this question struck me as unique. It wasn’t task-oriented or project-oriented. Whether I fully realized it then or not, it set the tone for my fellowship.
In the spirit of learning, below are key lessons from my fellowship.
There were many times when I felt like I wasn’t doing enough at McConnell. Based on my direct service background, I was eager to see impacts on the ground, but felt confined to working from 30,000 feet in the air. After being confronted by the tensions between social innovation and social justice communities, I felt my personal social justice orientation was also in direct conflict with my professional life. I believed that it would be impossible to thrive at McConnell unless I found a way to reconcile the two communities of practice.
Moreover, I was very performance- and results-oriented. After all, I was fresh out of university, GPAs, and class rankings. No matter what relationships I made during my undergraduate, or what exciting research I carried out, my grade point average was the ultimate measure of success. At work, this outlook translated into a hypersensitivity to how I was perceived by my colleagues and organization, and whether or not I was attaining my professional development goals. Are my contributions insightful? Am I a helpful colleague? Am I networking properly? Am I producing work quickly enough?
These thoughts hindered my growth and results – I soon felt overwhelmed and unmotivated. I couldn’t fully be present during gatherings and in projects because I was preoccupied with saying or doing the wrong thing. Therefore, my solution was to get through the easier tasks, as I believed I could not offer much in terms of content.
Somewhere during the second half of the Fellowship, this completely changed. This was driven by a few serendipitous events and realizations:
1. Sometimes, just having a seat at the table is enough.
At Indigenous-centered events, for example, it was a powerful experience to represent McConnell (a major Canadian funder in reconciliation) as a racialized youth and ally. I believe that there was a shared experience of colonialism and exploitation (though by no means are those experiences identical) that helped to build a foundation of trust and solidarity with many of the indigenous attendees I met. It was experiences like these that affirmed the importance of the Fellowship, but also the importance of someone with my lived experiences having access to this position and organization.
2. Taking a relationships-first approach to collaboration and partnerships is key to bridge-building.
I intuitively see people by their social locations and the accompanying power dynamics in interpersonal settings. For example: I identify as a woman of colour from a newcomer family with a university degree, and these identities affect how I interact with others and vice versa. While I strongly believe the practice of recognizing power and privilege is necessary for true collaboration, it does not suffice, especially when conflicts arise.
On the other hand, a relationship-first approach views people with their personal experiences, preferences, and modes of operating in the forefront. Successfully creating mutual and meaningful relationships with others therefore requires the recognition that people show their commitment or appreciation in different ways (take any of the five languages of love, for example). Once I started to consciously build relationships instead of transactions, I was more connected to those around me, and less defensive if I felt my values were under attack. In fact, the times I felt my values were compromised decreased significantly. Eventually, collaboration came easier.
3. Focusing on one’s own performance versus moving the work forward brings drastically different results.
Bolstered by the affirmations that came from the first two lessons, and as the end of my Fellowship quickly approached, I became more invested in seeing my various projects and programs succeed beyond my tenure. I shifted my energy from worrying about how I appeared, or if I were well-liked by my colleagues, to advancing the work. I saw myself and my work as a piece of a larger network or movement, which allowed me to fret less about my performance or interpersonal dynamics. Following this shift, the skills, relationships or deliverables I was so concentrated on building in the first half of the fellowship came more naturally.
As I transition into the next chapter of my career, I’m grateful to a) the support system at McConnell for pushing me to take advantage of learning opportunities, and b) myself for (eventually) being receptive to take on the challenges the fellowship brought. Of course, with all of this self-reflection, I also identified lessons I have yet to learn, such as demonstrating more consistency between how I act on a day-to-day basis and how I react to a crisis. As I take a final look back over the past year, I am surprised to see how much I transformed professionally and personally. My mentor said to me in my first month: “You’ll overestimate how much you can get done in six months and underestimate how much you’ll accomplish in two years.” I didn’t think much of the saying at the time, but I can say with confidence one year later that she was right.