About the Author

Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson has a longstanding interest in learning and communication for social change. She has worked for two decades as a facilitator, instructor, researcher, and instructional designer, and holds a Ph.D. in education. As a student of Buddhism, Mary is fascinated by the Boddhisatvas — metaphorical enlightened beings who embody wisdom, compassion, and practice. She sees the combination of wisdom, compassion, and practice as central to learning, and central to our collective efforts to live in harmony on our finite planet. An active participant in her Gabriola Island, BC community, Mary lives with her partner, her 92-year-old mother, and several critters. She and her partner are simultaneously caring for her mom, restoring a ramshackle island home, developing a permaculture food forest, and building an engineless catamaran.

Books by this Author


Embracing Hope, Taking Action, and Transforming the World
tagged : social, buddhist
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"Where are we going? And what am I doing in this handbasket?"

(A favourite refrigerator magnet)

Our world seems beset by crises. For us, climate change is the defining issue of our time – but we know many intelligent people who point to the refugee crisis, war, poverty, human rights atrocities, pollution of all sorts and the ongoing struggle against totalitarianism as the primary problem we all face. And although this is an exhausting list, it is not an exhaustive one.

Even if we don't feel like we're all going to hell in a handbasket, it is easy to feel despair in the face of these vast, interlocking problems.

We began this book because we were looking for reasons to choose hope over despair. We find these reasons in the stories of transformation and learning that we share here, and in the idea of transformational learning as a way of moving through the crises that surround us.

What we have realized is that neither hope nor despair are sufficient, and neither are they entirely relevant. Both hope and despair are emotions that are focused on the future, rather than the present. The process of building a society that is based on compassion and care for the earth and all its beings, human and otherwise, is not something that can happen only in the future. It can and must happen now. Fortunately, for the sake of our collective future well-being, it is happening now. In this book, we explore the stories and experiences of individuals who are living as if the world is changing into that compassionate and caring society, and by so doing, are changing the world.

In exploring these people's stories, we are not advocating a response to climate change or any of the other issues that stop with the personal; what we are advocating is an acknowledgement of the central importance of personal change and learning in changing our world. Because all changes are initiated by people – be they individual, community, corporate or broader changes – all change is, in part, personal change. The people we write about here have found ways to maintain hope while acknowledging despair, and to build lives based on integrity and concern for the earth and its inhabitants. As they have done this, they have begun to challenge and change the stories and structures that support the world as it is, and perhaps change other people's stories, too.

We are writing from Canada's Gulf Islands and many of the stories we share come from the Gulf Islands too. We are located in the southwest corner of British Columbia, just north of the San Juan Islands in the United States of America. However, while the majority of stories are from the islands they could happen anywhere. They are tales of ordinary people embracing hope, taking action, and transforming the world.

We start with a story about eggs. In our second chapter, we talk about transformation – what we mean by it, and how it comes about. The third chapter talks about ways we learn. In the fourth chapter, we discuss how transformation and learning can come together to create value-driven change at the individual, community, and societal level. We then hear from people as they tell their stories of transformation. We hear how change has happened through people's experiences with food, shelter, waste, energy, transportation, and economics. Each story chapter is introduced with a quick overview of the issue addressed in various ways in the stories. The stories are followed by our reflections. Two final chapters close out the book. The first of these provides a discussion about the path forward, and the final chapter is a guidebook for anyone, anywhere who wants to be part of co-creating a new society.


Ch 3: The How of Change

From personal transformation to societal change

So far, we've been writing about individual transformation. We've talked about the ways in which transformation can begin – deconstructing societal stories, understanding multiple realities, and acting on our integrity through free will. We've talked about how change can be learned – with the analytical mind, compassion, and practical hands-on doing. Now we would like to turn our attention to the connections between this individual change and broader, societal change.

How does individual learning and transformation shift into "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens" changing the world? We'll be looking to Anna and her network of changemakers as we explore how networks, nodes, and iterative learning as well as the phases of change, provide some insight into this question. We'll also take a look into the scary world of corporate globalization and how the relationship between local and global shines a light on the 'how' of societal change.




Does social change happen as the cumulative result of many instances of personal transformation? Does it happen when societal structures change, requiring a new response? As we have worked through these stories, we've come to see it as a "both, and," rather than an "either/or" process. The process of change is a process of learning, and we learn in many different ways. We can and do learn from the way our society is organized; as we learn new ways of living, the individual changes we make change the social structures we co-create.

Let's take a moment to look at how Anna's story sheds a light on the iterative nature of change. The starting point was Anna reaching the point of knowing that the local farm-fresh eggs she served at the farmers' market were healthier than chicken-factory inspected eggs. She arrived at that point through personal transformation – an ability to see a different story than the official story.

Those around Anna learned from her and/or went through their own personal transformation to arrive at the same values and beliefs. This group, together with media, may have influenced anyone listening to the story on the radio or reading it in the news. Due in part to the heightened media attention and public support for Anna's position, this group managed to persuade the Health Authority officials to change the regulations. Once the regulations had been changed, more people had the opportunity to eat uninspected local farm fresh eggs; and as more people choose to buy eggs from small local farmers, then that action shifts from being a rare occurance to acceptable to desireable and mainstream. This small group of islanders demonstrating how a net of interconnections is part of a creating a cultural shift in society.


Living Net


Let's go back to the concept of Indra's net and create a picture in our head – let's imagine threads linking each of us to all the direct connections that we have to other people and to the earth. One thread could represent our next door neighbour and another could represent the relationship between ourselves and the food we had for breakfast. Still others could represent each of the people on our street and another the air that we are breathing. Let's then imagine all of those threads linking to their connections. The thread to our breakfast food eventually links to the soil that produced it, and to the farmers. The threads connecting us to our neighbour are now linked through them to others in their life. We are part of a living net.

Nodes are the places where two threads meet in the network. These are symbolized by jewels or pearls in Indra's net, and each one reflects all the others. If we are open to learning, this is where magic happens, where we can experience a different story, one that transforms the way we understand and act in the world. As learning and personal transformation occurs at a place of connection, then that is communicated out through the threads linking us to others, to our neighbours, to our community, to the world.

The threads transfer that new societal story or way of thinking to others. A thread can be the internet, a film, a book, a community gathering, a potluck dinner, art or a song. It can be words, actions, visual, tactile, or auditory. As that new societal story becomes part of our way of seeing the world then we start to envision or dream ways in which the society around us could be more consistent with that new story. How does change happen? It happens through dreaming the possibilities, then actions taken by small groups of people as epitomized by Anna and described by Margaret Mead's well known quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

The How of Change


We're going to describe the process of social change as if it is was linear. Really, though, the process will likely include elements of frustration, excitement, a sense of two steps forward and one back, and a labyrinth or spiral rather than a straight line. So, let's walk through the phases:

1) Personal transformation occurs. People learn a different societal story and see the possibility of a better world. Martin Luther King Junior's famous speech, "I have a dream", epitomizes this step.

2) People see the many possibilities that they can be part of, individually and with others, to make local change happen. And they start working on making those happen. By local we don't just mean geographically, we also mean your personal networks: your cousins in Phoenix or Newfoundland or Australia; your work colleagues in Italy and China; your online connections stretching throughout the world.

3) Other people and organizations may have intents or purposes that are consistent with their societal story, however they are at cross purposes with the possibilities you (and others) have envisioned. This phase can include either visceral disagreement or and/or compassionate understanding for each other's intent and a desire to come to agreement on how to achieve both intents.

4) Parallel with stage 3 is the spiral or labrynth. An idea may spark and happen right away because people around see the need, the regulations don't get in the way, and the resources are available to make it happen. However, the majority of stories in this book describe a spiral of activity as cross-purposes, regulations, or lack of information or understanding on the part of the initiatiors or community members result in time and the need for patience.

5) That local change then interconnects with other local changes. There is the possibility of the interconnected living web of change described above.

6) The shifting of threads, and the corresponding shifts of many more threads in the living net changes culture and starts to finally change government regulations and actions as the majority of the population demand change from governments.

Phase one has been described in the Transformation and Learning chapters. As a way of understanding phase two let's think of our society as a house described as a fixer upper. We walk around the house and we see possibilities. We see the possibility of a beautiful hardwood floor under the ugly orange carpet. We see the possibility of sunlight streaming into the kitchen and dining room if a wall gets torn down. We also see the possibility of electrical malfunction when we look in the electrical panel. We have a dream of turning this fixer upper into a dream house, but we need to take that next step and actually do it.

Possibilities arise from our dream of a better world and out of our imagination. If we can imagine what the world looks like in our 'I have a dream' statement then possibilities and actions will come to us naturally. And the possibilities are endless. In the following pages you will hear about people who 'had a dream'. They all dove in and worked hard to turn those dreams and possibilities into reality. They saw the potential and they also so the challenges within that possibility – the work needed to make it actually happen.

Phase 3 tends to happen throughout the social change process. Many of us have been part of small groups of thoughtful concerned citizens implementing possibilities and we have come across the equivalent of unexpected rot in the wall of that fixer upper. It could be a difference of opinion between those in the group – two or three different ways of doing something – two or three different possibilities. It could be that someone wants to use the space in a different way than we are looking at for the 'shelter', 'bus depot', fill in a possibility.... Perhaps they want to use it for child care space. All good intentions and good possibilities. This is where the concept of endless possibilities can be an interesting challenge. Sitting down with others and looking at the different possibilities requires a reflection on the initial dreams and a curiosity about the other possibilities that are being presented.

This is the point at which we need to meet the challenge of endless possibilities with compassion for each other and each others' ideas. We need to look at what the possibilities are for meeting each of the dreams and the values inherent in those varying dreams. We may not come to agreement immediately, we may never come to agreement or we could come to agreement several months or years down the line.

If we can't come to agreement we need to look at other ways to achieve the dream. For example, we may have a dream of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through reducing single passenger car use. So, we decide to create a public bus service. But there is strong resistance to the idea. We could consider putting car stops (see transportation chapter) in instead. If opinions do change in the future we can use those as combination bus/car stops.

This same pattern repeats itself in communities, in regions, in provinces and states, in countries, and across countries. Intents differ and conflicts occur if those involved can't find a way to meet both intents. On an individual basis, it could be two differing opinions about what type of fence to build between neighbours. On a community basis, it could be whether or not to allow secondary suites. On a regional basis, it could be the protection of watersheds versus a company's right to dump it's debris in the path of that watershed.

On a global basis, there are people whose intent is profit at all costs, while others' intent is to stop actions creating climate change before those changes destroy the world's inhabitants. We have all been witness to the clash of these two intents.


Resistance to Change


Understanding that resistance to change is a natural human reaction helps us as we walk the labyrinth of social change. Picture a scene in which an activist is standing in front of a large crowd. She yells, "Are we against government corruption? The crowd roars back, "YES!!!" She then asks, "Are we against oil sands and pipelines? The crowd roars back, "YES!!!" Finally, she shouts, "Are we for Change? The crowd roars back, "NO!!!" We can laugh with the cartoonist, and we can also learn some realities about social change from it.

First, we tend to be resistant to change. After all we don't know what real change will bring to our lives and we have likely become fairly comfortable in the status quo. What will we have to give up if there is real change? And really, it isn't us that should change - it is government and corporations!

So, we want government to change and to make those changes. So much easier to point the finger at them then it is for us to make the change happen ourselves! After all, those changes are big – surely they are too big for us to make much of a difference.

Unfortunately, governments rarely make changes unless the politicians know that a substantial portion of the population agree with that change. And if an industry or corporation is against the change then they are even more unwilling due to the potential negative media generated from that indus ry.

We might also find ourselves wondering what can we do in the face of the universal and cultural shifts required? Our realm of influence, whether individually or collectively as small groups, isn't that far reaching.

What we can do is engage in possibilities for change in those areas we can influence. Rather than resist change, or fear change, or be angry at government for not making changes, we can have fun and look for possibilities that we can be part of implementing.

The fourth phase in social change is the linking of various actions into the living net – the metaphor of Indra's net as described above. This step includes the affect of a threads shifting and changing other threads, creating a multitude of shifts, an accumulation of local action produces the corresponding changes to regulations and support from government. Let's look at some examples that have happened in the not too distant past.

· The increased accessibility of buildings for people with disabilities.

· The local food movement and the increased availability of local food in our stores and restaurants.

· The legal rights available to gay and lesbian couples

· And we can't forget the changes to the rights of black Americans that were 'dreamt of' in Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech.

Instead of being discouraged about the global networks linking capitalist enterprises we need to remember that we are part of networks across the globe that connect people and institutions sharing information, knowledge, and lessons learned, aimed at social justice and harmony with the environment. These influences create a convergence of transformative spaces - not hierarchical but rather an accumulation of localisms. Paul Hawkins described this as the largest movement the world has ever seen.


Globalization and local spaces


But what about globalization! What about the multinational corporations that have lobbied for laws that give them power over media and government, over the control of information flows! When we speak of globalization we talk about it as an all-encompassing oppression. Global capitalism or other forms of globalization are treated as if they came from elsewhere, not from local spaces. Let's rethink global, see where and how it is located in our daily interactions and acknowledge how local interactions in other parts of the world construct our purchases of everything from olive oil from Italy to shoes made in China. Doreen Massey describes how every decision related to a global or transcontinental exchange is carried out in local places and "urge[s] a politics which takes account of, and addresses, the local production of the neoliberal capitalist global".

We can trace what we call global capitalism to local spaces around the world. Let's trace the story of a bottle of wine from Chile... So, we start with a vineyard in Chile – the social relations occurring between people picking the grapes, then between the people turning the grapes into wine- both local. However these local spaces are constructing the global - The wine is bottled and shipped (people carefully packing it). Through processes of ordering and financing, also carried out from local places, the bottle arrives at an Italian restaurant in the suburbs of Vancouver – and a family celebrating the birthday of their 90 year old father/grandfather share a glass of wine together. All of these places contain social relations – personal interactions in which corporate globalization is localized.

Imagine a change in one of the local spaces. Pesticides are no longer used on the grapes. The workers no longer have to deal with the harmful impact on their health. Soil that was degraded by pesticides will now rejuvenate. The family in Vancouver will now be drinking a healthier wine. All of this due to one change in one of the local spaces involved in this global transaction.

What can we learn from this? Rather than glorifying the local and demonizing the global what we need to ask is what is happening in a local space and does it flow from a corporate agenda or a compassionate agenda. Often it is a combination of both. The farmers' market is a prime example – regulations created by government and corporate entities exist side by side with local produce being served at a farmers' market. When we begin to understand that global is created in the local, we can see that there is, in that space, an opportunity to change the way in which the global is configured.

Just as an accumulation of localisms are created through the actions of multinational corporations, it is possible to increase the percent of life-sustaining ways of being into those localisms. We can also create our own accumulation of life sustaining localisms. Egg potlucks and sandwiches made from local farm fresh eggs at farmer's markets are just the start.


What are the Shifts in those alternative localisms?


Together with those we interact with in our homes and local communities and beyond, we create our world through this process of changing and being changed. We hear the objections. "What about the influence of corporations? What about systemic inequality built into the system? What about capitalism?" We do not argue that these large forces are unimportant; they are important. Our argument is that resistance to such planet-damaging forces is not something that can be done only as resistance. It is not enough to protest; we need to build a life-supporting social order. As we build that new way of being, we will collectively influence the social structures we inhabit. The process is one of iteration, not revolution, even though the changes we seek are revolutionary. Working together, as those whose stories we share here are working together, we will build the basis for a new, life-supporting system to replace the old.

This interrelationship between "the changer and the changed" and the ongoing pattern of changes it reflects is not a new idea, and neither is the idea that this is how positive change in the direction of a life-sustaining world will occur. Joanna Macy and others have written about what they call "the Great Turning" – a shift away from actions that contribute to climate change and towards those that can reduce it.

Macy writes about three dimensions of change that this great turning requires: actions to prevent further damage to the earth and all its beings; analysis of structural causes behind the damage and the creation of alternatives; and finally a shift in consciousness, bringing with it new values to support alternatives. We see the possibilities (and indeed the inevitability) for learning and individual transformation in all three.

In the following chapters, we hear from storytellers how the iterative nature of change, the living net and the phases of change play out in local communities and influence the broader culture. We start each chapter with an overview of the issue and the intersperse the stories with our reflections. We begin to understand how local is a component of global and we witness evidence of Macy's three dimensions of change and the transformation and learning embedded in that change.

On to the stories!

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Changemakers (EPUB)

Changemakers (EPUB)

Embracing Hope, Taking Action, and Transforming the World
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Changemakers (PDF)

Changemakers (PDF)

Embracing Hope, Taking Action, and Transforming the World
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My Life with Raptors and Other Dinosaurs
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