We Don’t Need a New Messiah

August 24, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedMichael Toye is Executive Director of the Canadian Community Economic Development NetworkAs part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Michael about connecting the movement, developing a new narrative, and more:

Interview with Michael Toye (edited transcript)
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
In my time with the Canadian CED network, the time I felt most engaged and effective was probably a decade ago when I was responsible for organizing our national conferences and members would travel across the country to get together.  Some hadn’t seen each other since the previous conference.  It was a time for reconnection, homecoming, new connections being made, serious learning, and challenges as we developed the new governance structures for our networks.  When we ask our members what had the most impact among all the aspects of our work, and they most often refer to our national conferences.
Usually on the last day of our 3 day national conference and things were "on the rails" – all of the hard work done – I would finally get to relax a bit – wouldn’t get to sleep yet, but the stress would fall away and I could take some pride and joy in what had been accomplished, the connections made and ideas shared.  Almost always some almost post-partum… emptiness after the conference, related to what is happening following the conference—how do we move forward? Connecting to practitioners on the ground was always most inspiring for me, and I was effective doing my job as part of organizing a national network, and engaged because I wasn’t just on my phone or at my computer, but actually able to embrace old friends and people I admire, look them in the eyes, and share a smile.
What is most alive in your work right now?
I was going to say our website… But it’s probably the virtual connections between our members.  Since we’ve stopped doing national conferences (they are expensive; Canada is a big country like the US, with fewer people).  Even though we tried to make it affordable, it was not possible for all our members to attend.  Since we’ve stopped doing conferences, the primary means of communicating with our members is virtually:  the website, electronic newsletters, social media, and some in-person gatherings.  We’ve invested what time and money we can into improving our electronic communications with our members – my big dream is to improve our database with member’s interests and needs and opportunities…customizing our online membership to deliver the kinds of resources and information our members need, and profile their work to reach a broader audience.
Last fall the NEC or someone did the mapping project – mapping activities for New Economy Week. Up until a few months ago all our membership was done offline and no one knew whether their membership was up to date.  Now we’re moving membership online, and will have a map so people can search for different organizations involved in a certain activity or geographic location, with contact info and logos available for members in the database.  Seems simple but unfortunately hardly anything is simple in reality, it would be great to give that to our members in Canada on a bilingual platform.
The main features on our website are a national events calendar, a resource toolkit organized into 25 subject areas, and a jobs posting.  What I’d like to do for our members is to identify their interests – our movement is very diverse, from food security to local finance to employment training – to be able to tailor jobs, resources, etc. and provide notifications to people based on what their interests are.  The weakness is that knowledge of our movement is mostly in the heads of CCEDNet staff or experienced movement leaders – we need to make it public and peer-to-peer, to support and facilitate networking.
In December of last year, we had around 350 members, some individuals, some larger organizations like co-op network.  They are apples & oranges – some are big and very representative, some are small local groups.  We haven’t done a very good job of estimating the reach of our members – but it’s small.  We’re a country of 33 million people.  When you look at our potential marketplace of orgs working on local socioeconomic development, I suspect it’s a small percentage.  It has to do with the language we use, etc. – we have to do a better job of communicating to a larger audience.
We started to produce a few more videos to communicate what we do, because my parents still don’t understand! We’re getting to a stage where we’re willing to be a bit less ambiguous. There’s a spectrum of what people [and organizations] who understand what we mean by "CED" differently, from a reformist perspectives (like getting people a job/tinker with the system) to a framing that’s more about transforming the system (fundamental change, increasing economic democracy, etc.).  Over the years we’ve tended to be ambiguous about what we mean, but our members tend to be more progressive toward systemic change.  So in the future I think we will come out as being more clearly progressive.
We need to tell a new story, find a new narrative, one that will resonate with a broader swath of the population.
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
a)    What has been catalyzed in the world?
This question relies on the notion of change – what’s it going to take to make the types of changes we seek?  That’s the underlying issue for me – it comes down to behavior.  How are we going to help people change their behaviors?  In yesterday’s Earth Day telesummit, Randy Hayes spoke about a "True Cost Economy."  Better cost accounting, so that we measure genuine progress, real well-being measurements, rather than GDP.
If what we pay at the store incorporates real costs, this is a direct feedback mechanism to change people’s behavior.  I think that is a real way to change the way we invest our time and our money in our lives.  [It provides] a very practical baseline.  The "stick," if you will.
The "carrot" would be the adoption of the "New Story" explaining why investing in sustainable development, early childhood education and development, local community development, etc. may cost a bit more in the short term, but [has potential for] tremendous long-term payoffs.  I think this "new story" would be accepted if we had better evidence of the true costs of our current economy.
So one piece is the story, the second piece is incorporating those costs in a real concrete way.
I have to get out of my head (this is why Neo is on my Pinterest board) the expectation of a "Great Man" of the 20th century — someone who is going to save the world for us.  A favorite piece of graffiti from Montreal is someone spray-painted "What we need is a new Messiah," someone to solve our problems for us.  But a strategy that is probably more desirable and more likely to succeed is to establish some common ground as a movement – we all have different audiences, different voices, who we need to speak to and grow our respective audiences.
The truth is there will be many stories, leaders, voices.  Multiplicity is an advantage.  At CCEDNet, we’ll have a small part to play: nurturing and growing a community development audience, promoting preventative investments at the local level, supporting other organizations working on true-cost accounting, making connections, popularizing the new story, etc.
"Neo" is a reflection of my tendency to want to have one big (simple) answer.
b)   Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of this work over those next five years.  Tell us how that happened.
I don’t know enough about US dynamics to say what specific added value NEC could best bring, but the root of the question once again is the issue of change: what do we need to have to make the changes we seek?
3 spheres we need(ed) to affect:
  • political–organize and influence, not only established political systems, but by "moving the goal posts" by shifting public demands about what is desirable/popular, which leads to the second element…
  • popular–mindset/consciousness about what is possible and needs to be done. Get into mainstream vehicles (films, tv, books, press, usual vehicles to influence public opinion) may be grandiose because that’s expensive, so also do hacking via alternative social media etc. to have popular influence.
  • decision-makers or influencers outside of politics, figureheads, celebrities, business leaders to act as champions and reach out to respective worlds to share our ideas
So those are what I see as 3 key spheres that NEC catalyzed to arrive at the change we saw by 2019: political, popular/mainstream, influencers/decision-makers outside of politics.
We shouldn’t ignore the mechanics of coalition-building, which will make us more influential as a whole.

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Michael Toye

Michael Toye is Executive Director of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network.

Tags: collective narratives, Weaving the Movement