The Toronto Summer Institute is a unique learning opportunity offered by the Inclusion Network. Members of the LiveWorkPlay staff team first took part in 2015, and this year Community Connectors Rebecca Coxon and Wendy MacEwan were joined by Volunteer Coordinator Alex Darling for the 2018 experience (July 14-19). It was their first time at TSI, and although to varying degrees all three were familiar with the ideas and concepts being discussed, as well as many of the thought leaders present, this was an opportunity for a really deep dive into “Building A Bigger We” (this year’s theme).
Each member of the LiveWorkPlay delegation was asked to share some of what they learned and experienced. Below is just a brief selection. They will also be sharing a more detailed summary with the entire team.
Not everyone can participate in every learning opportunity, but through sharing and discussions, everyone can benefit. Most importantly, we must work hard to ensure that learning is not an isolated activity that is done at sessions and conferences.
We are on a journey together with individuals, families, and community partners (individuals and organizations), and are always growing and learning – sometimes with the help of events like TSI that can offer new experiences and insights.
One of the earliest conversations referenced the “price of learning” and reminded us that no matter how much experience or level of expertise we have, there is always room to learn and space for growth. The price of learning was introduced in the framework of three different arenas: the comfort zone, the danger zone and the stretch zone.
TSI combines conversations with actions, and I took the opportunity to stretch myself with a public speaking opportunity, which required experiencing some discomfort (anxiety about public speaking) which was necessary if I was to engage others in a conversation that interested me. I was excited to experience more about the topic (the perception of people with disabilities in societies structured differently than ours) and the only way to achieve that was to make the invitation.
My proposal was well received by the group and ten delegates attended the breakout. We had a great conversation, and the connection between the experience of stretching myself and the role I have in my work was as obvious as it is important: just because you are not “the best” at a certain skill or activity does not mean you are in a “deficit” position by using it or doing it.
People we support at LiveWorkPlay have often had the experience of being discouraged from doing things “they are not good at.” Not only can they never learn and improve if not supported to try, but maybe the other assets they bring to the situation are more important than how well they execute a specific skill. For example, I might never see public speaking as an asset or gift that I can offer, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a vehicle for sharing my other strengths. I think this is a perspective that can really help anyone in human services to be a better support to others and help them find ways to have positive experiences in the stretch zone.
One of the most impactful sessions for me was the conversation with Juultje Holla about the limited understanding of “abuse” which too often gets reduced to “physical or sexual.” Juultje talked about her research in the Netherlands (focused on women’s experience in institutions) and how exploitation, neglect, and restrictions of freedom are serious forms of abuse that we do not understand well enough, and that systems constructs often set the stage for these types of abuse to become normalized in our practices.
I thought about all of this in terms of my own work in welcoming volunteers at LiveWorkPlay, and the limited way that abuse is discussed, and realized that most “abuse prevention” is framed in this way. Listening, building trust, taking people seriously, believing in them, not giving up, and being patient are ways of addressing marginalization and abuse. Although we certainly talk about this as critical elements in any healthy relationship, I think I need to work on explaining how it is all the more important for people with disabilities, who are much more likely than others to have ongoing and significant experience of these forms of abuse.
John McKnight’s discussion about loneliness, deficits, and assets. We certainly talk about this a lot at LiveWorkPlay – how people with intellectual disabilities have files a mile high with assessments that talk about their deficits – but where’s the mile high paperwork that lists their assets? John addressed with at the community level, and how as a society we tend to explore the deficits of communities and how to fix them, and spend very little (or no time at all) exploring the untapped assets of those same communities and how activating those assets is often much more effective than focusing on everything that isn’t working.
I recognized that my work in getting to know volunteers and members needs to go deeper, because I am probably missing out on opportunities for helping facilitate meaningful connections, not only within the LiveWorkPlay community, but in the surrounding community. The more I understand about individual gifts and assets the more opportunities and connections I can facilitate with other individuals and groups, including those that haven’t even met us – yet!
It’s a bit hard to explain, but the TSI experience is about much more than speakers and topics, it is the diversity of the attendees (age, culture, disability, more) and how food, music, and art are part and parcel of the welcoming atmosphere and the easy flow of meaningful conversations.
One of my favourite John McKnight maxims is that “everything moves at the speed of trust.” This is so important for those of us with the honour and responsibility of supporting people in their daily lives. I also embraced the idea that if we are not being surprised by people or experiences, we probably aren’t learning anything. In my work it could be the individual I am helping who is surprised by something they experience (maybe trying something new and enjoying it) or it could be an individual or group in the community that is surprised by a contribution that someone I am supporting makes by having the opportunity to use their gifts.
There were a lot of important discussion about loneliness (perhaps the biggest quality of life issue of our times), being welcoming and hospitable, and in particular how to include those who are not yet a part of a particular community. This is a where my gift of starting conversations and being welcoming can help make a difference.
I was very struck by John’s point that so much of the “coming together” in today’s world is done in reaction to a problem that needs fixing. This is certainly important, but we are missing out on so much by not coming together around the positives in our community and how to expand our individual and collective assets. I think at LiveWorkPlay we very much focus our practices and messages around assets, and a challenge to consider is how to bring that approach to our community in ways that contribute to broader social change.