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Transforming the Non-Profit Community in Edmonton: An Introductory Conversation with Three Willful Women

ᑖᓂᓯ and hello from ᐊᒥᐢᑲᐧᒋᕀ ᐋᐧᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ or Edmonton,

When we were asked to write a blog about transformation for ECVO, we thought that rather than start with the daunting and limiting challenge that a blank page often presents, we would continue in the spirit of the work so far and spend time visiting instead. We came together one cold spring evening on a porch and sat with blankets around an ineffective but persevering heat lamp. “Can we talk about our subjectivities?”, Lisa asked. An easy starter question to get us going.

And so, we talked about our subjectivities and the emotionality inherent in the work of transformation. The simultaneous grandiosity and simplicity of it, the sense of struggle and responsibility, of knowing there is no end point (and there should not be), and the continuous cycles of energy generation and deflation. It is this focus on emotionality and its enduring presence in the work where we begin.

Although it may feel like a strange place to start, to pretend that transformation is not personal, emotional work would be to undermine everything it should be built on. As Opaskwayak Cree scholar Shawn Wilson states, “We cannot be separated from our work and nor should our writing be separated from ourselves.”

In doing this work, we — three thirty-something women whose opportunities and perspectives are varyingly affected by race, class, and (hetero)sexism — have experienced a series of responses that, in an isolated moment, can feel tiring, but over weeks become a substantial amount of labour. Over a lifetime these same responses penetrate the fibre of a person’s being, making it hard to know where you begin and end; the long-term societal shaping of minds, bodies, and spirits that must be painstakingly undone even as it is still happening.

It is gendered, of course. But it also intersects with settler colonialism, capitalism, racism, homophobia, ableism, sanism, (hetero)patriarchy, and other structures that affect the ways we relate to one another and shape our lived experiences. Structures that influence who gets to speak and with what consequences.

She who dares to speak (out).

Sara Ahmed (2017) talks about the ways women become labelled as ‘willful’ when we name problems, when we are not persuaded by the reasoning of others, when we do not make the happiness of others our cause.

“The costs of willfulness as a diagnosis are high; I think we know this. And from our own experience of these costs, we also learn how power works: how power works through will, not simply against will. You might become willing to avoid the costs of being willful” (p. 75).

In naming these aspects of the work and taking a moment to question (our ‘questionable’ beings), we not only hope to make visible the invisible labour required by those who dare speak out, we are also declaring ourselves unapologetically willful; as not yet, and hopeful never to be, at the point of entirely avoiding the costs of being willful.

“Although it may feel like a strange place to start, to pretend that transformation is not personal, emotional work would be to undermine everything it should be built on.

A Willful Framework

It is from this point of willfulness that we share some of the ideas in Transforming the Non-Profit Community in Edmonton: Myths, Trends and Areas for Change, introduce the pedagogical framework that has guided us in this work, and describe some of the elements we have collectively identified as helpful to any attempts at transformation.

Two-Eyed Seeing

Although it isn’t reflected in the initial document, Transforming the Non-Profit Community in Edmonton (an indication of our own ongoing learning), two-eyed seeing has become an epistemological lens that has informed our process. Two-eyed seeing is the ability to draw on and combine Indigenous and Eurocentric knowledges to uniquely approach a particular task or challenge (Bartlett, Marshall & Marshall, 2012). We have chosen to draw on these combined worldviews to guide the conversations we have about this work and provide ideas about the ways we wish the sector to transform. This weaving of ideas and worldviews also guided the conversations that were the foundation for this blog. What follows, therefore, are a few necessarily incomplete ideas that draw on the ways Indigenous knowledges (predominantly those of the nêhiyawak) and Eurocentric knowledges might come together to support the transformation of Edmonton’s non-profit community.

Prefigurative Politics

Early on in this work, we recognized the dangers of viewing transformation as a future-oriented practice — as something that may happen in the future — rather than one that is entirely grounded in the present and already occurring. This concept presents a space for possibility. That is, if the future is a continual construction of the present, it can immediately and always be constructed differently.

The concept of prefigurative politics can help us to understand that any future political gains or social change occur in the everyday through seemingly mundane practices (Tornber, 2021). A focus on process (what we do now) should therefore be prioritized above a focus on outcome (what may occur in the future). In this sense, we are already and always participating in the construction of the future through our present ways of doing. And for this metamorphosis to be anything other than what currently exists, we must choose to participate with intention in the (already and always occurring) formation of the present.

A Critical Examination of the Past

To understand the present, an examination of the past is fundamental. Previous events and the stories around them create and animate our present, and serve to maintain existing power structures by positioning them as ‘normal’ (Foucault, 1977, 1980, 2003). Looking to the past can therefore help ground and guide us in the present.

Octavia Butler (2000) encourages us to “use our past and present behaviours as guides to the kind of world we seem to be creating….To study history is to study humanity. And to try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet” (p. 166). Learning the non-profit sector alphabet will therefore be essential to any transformation work.

Alternative Languages

Language — and the ways we tell stories about “what is” and “why” — plays a large role in shaping our everyday practices, with power operating through words in ways that materialize in ourselves, in our work, and in our personal lives. As a language that consists mainly of verbs rather than nouns, nêhiyawêwin can inform our thinking about transformation because it presents the world as always in motion, as animate, as a continuous process of being and becoming.

It is with this collection of ideas that we introduce Transforming the Non-Profit Community in Edmonton to the wider community and invite you to join us in the messiness of transformation — a process that will require a collective and continuous effort to imagine how our everyday practices could be different. We hope that you not only engage with the ideas in the document, but use it to imagine and create new forms and methods of participation, decision making, leadership, and resource distribution. It is only by altering our everyday processes that we can construct alternative futures.

Coming Together to Construct Alternative Futures

In the final part of our conversation on the porch, we talked about the exchange of energy that can occur in this work; the laughter and a sense of shared experience in coming together with other people. To create more spaces where these connections can occur, kinship and relationships must be central to the process of transformation, guided by ceremony and intentionality. Sara Ahmed (2017) has described these intentional connections in the following way:

“Loving connections are live connections, electric connections. A charge can be what you receive from proximity to others who have themselves received that charge. Proximity can be what you struggle for; separation, what you fight against. In other words, the charge itself can be a connection: a way of relating to others similarly charged. The language can be our lead: if willfulness is an electric current, it can pass through each of us, switching us on. Willfulness can be a spark. We can be lit up by it” (p. 82).

Drawing on our own willfulness as a tool, we are committed to creating more spaces where alternative futures can be imagined and realized, and in which we can foster loving, live, and electric connections with others who also feel this charge. Our ability to invent new futures — futures where we can fully be and become — depends on this commitment.

ᑭᔭ ᑕᒥᐢᑲᑎᓇᐊᐧᐤ / The flame of our spirits recognize the flame of yours.

Bethan, Jacquelyn, and Lisa

Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bartlett, C., Marshall, M., & Marshall, A. (2002). Two-eyed seeing and other lessons learned within a co-learning journey of bringing together Indigenous and mainstream knowleges and ways of knowing. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2, 331-340.

Butler, O. (2000). A few rules for predicting the future. Essence, 31(1), 165-167.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.).

New York: Vintage Books, Random House Inc.

Foucault, M. (1980). Two Lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Michel Foucault power/knowledge: Selected interviews & other writings 1972-1977 (pp. 78-108). New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (2003). The subject and power. In P. Rabinow & N. Rose (Eds.), The essential Foucault: Selections from essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (pp. 126-144). New York: The New Press.

Törnberg, A. (2021). Prefigurative politics and social change: a typology drawing on transition studies, Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 22(1), 83-107.

Wilson, S. (2007). What is an Indigenist research paradigm? Canadian Journal of Native Education, 30(2), 193-195.

Bethan Kingsley is a co-founder of In Situ Change Strategies and a Research Associate at the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families (CUP) at the University of Alberta.

Jacquelyn Cardinal is saāwithiniwak from Sucker Creek Cree First Nation and Managing Director at Naheyawin.

Lisa Tink works as part of the Strategy and Innovation Team at the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations and is also a co-founder of In Situ Change Strategies.