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Institute for Change Leaders

August 26, 2020

Duncan Pike from Institute for Change Leaders on how the pandemic is underscoring the power of solidarity and storytelling. 

Tell us about the Institute for Change Leaders. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

Our mission at the Institute for Change Leaders is to ensure organizers are continually developing the skills that they need to win social change. The Institute does this by teaching organizing strategies and providing a platform for the growth of a network of organizers.

Our trainings are unique because most student time is spent in small-group settings where students practice specific skills, and receive coaching from experienced organizers. The Institute has already taught over 5,000 students, and cultivated a team of 30+ small group facilitators. We deliver our full curriculum in regular weekend sessions at Ryerson University, and we work with organizations to deliver tailored trainings in their workplaces.

Our curriculum comes from Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor who codified the relationship-building organizational framework we teach after years of organizing with the Civil Rights and United Farm Workers movements. He was a key trainer and organizing strategist behind President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The Institute offers the first accredited Marshall Ganz-based community-organizing course in Canada.

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how Institute for Change Leaders is responding to the crisis?

We experimented with online trainings in 2019, and by early this year we felt quite confident with our ability to meet our own standards of instruction and coaching over video. In that sense we were fortunate that our mission could be carried out online with relatively little disruption. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been obstacles. Relationship-building is at the core of our methodology and approach to achieving social change, and whatever the conveniences of Zoom, it’s possible that nothing can fully replace the spark of face-to-face meetings for developing strong personal connections.

That said, one of our key teachings is the power of personal storytelling to connect over shared values and experiences, and overcome obstacles of time, space, and sketchy internet connections. We’ve made use of this lesson in order to build solidarity within our own community, setting up online mindfulness sessions, organizing-focused books clubs, and drop-in opportunities for alumni, facilitators, volunteers and staff to connect to share their own experiences of the pandemic.

Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. What are your thoughts on this moment in community organizing?

The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing social, racial and economic inequalities, and movements to confront them have taken on a corresponding intensity and urgency. We’ve seen this energy first hand across a number of different issue areas and communities.

In early April, we partnered with the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario (AECEO) to run an online training for over 200 early childhood educators (ECEs) and parents to provide them the skills they need to build power, confidence and solidarity. It was an amazing journey, and privilege to work with such an inspiring, dedicated group of changemakers. 10 days after completing our training, ECEs held a Virtual Rally of 1,500 demanding a reopening plan that ensured quality and safety for all. 21,000 viewed this rally and both levels of government listened. In July, the Government of Canada announced $625 million in federal funding for the child care sector, a promising step in the struggle for decent work for ECEs and the fight for a publicly funded system.

In June we had the pleasure of hosting long-term care (LTC) workers in a handful of connect and share sessions, where LTC workers were able to build solidarity over shared stories and shared laughs. The sessions gave an outlet for workers on the frontlines of dealing with COVID and press surrounding the maltreatment of long-term care residents. They also came up with strategies and tactics on how to fix long term care so seniors can live in dignity, and workers get decent wages with stable, rewarding employment.

And this August we co-hosted a joyful celebration with 200 graduates of the Black Youth Leadership Program, a joint project of ICL and For Youth Initiative (FYI), that worked with youth from across Ontario to develop their leadership skills and confront anti-Black racism in their communities.

The pandemic continues to do enormous damage, and the struggle to shape our post-Covid future will be intense, but it’s difficult not to feel hopeful when working with such amazing groups of activists and organizers.

What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?

The greatest challenge Canadian democracy faces continues to be the domination of our political system by those with the greatest economic power, and the corresponding dispossession and disempowerment of working class, racialized, Indigenous, and historically marginalized peoples. The only solution to this is for the majority of people who are not represented by the political system to organize themselves, develop solidarity and political power, and build bottom-up institutions that work for the many. We hope that our efforts to teach grassroots organizing skills may contribute a small part to this struggle.

Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you?  

ICL is a part of the Leading Change Network, a global community of organizers, educators, and researchers that teach the Ganz methodology for social change. They host regular meet-and-connect sessions with members from around the work to share knowledge, tell stories, and build international solidarity. It’s incredibly inspiring to connect with organizers from other countries, learn about their work, and find areas of common experience. During the last session I spoke with a woman doing work with formerly incarcerated peoples in Oakland, an economic development activist from Nigeria, and a social entrepreneur from Palestine, with whom we are now collaborating on a proposal. Looking beyond your own backyard, and your own country, can be invigorating, and is a reminder that the challenges we face are ultimately global in nature.

Tell us about how Institute for Change Leaders is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?

We are constantly working to expand our training to be more accessible to working class, racialized, and Indigenous communities who have the most to gain from building the skills we teach.

To give one example, most curricula about successful organizing campaigns do not include Indigenous content. To help Indigenize our courses, we chose to highlight a case study of Attawapiskat’s struggle for a new school from 1979 until the new school was built in 2014. This campaign is known as Shannen’s Dream, after the late student leader Shannen Koostachin. We examined how Shannen and her contemporaries engaged students, teachers, and citizens from across Canada to amplify the voice of youth from Attawapiskat, and integrated these lessons into our course material.

The movement’s campaign strategies are a powerful illustration of Ganz’s theories and a stirring example of Indigenous power and leadership. We piloted the new curriculum in Indigenous environments with feedback from participants and specialists in Indigenous studies. We plan to continue to develop case studies highlighting the power communities have when they organize collectively and politically.

Are there specific asks that the Institute for Change Leaders has for the broader sector — things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?

Sustaining the participation, strength and health of this community over the long-term will be an ongoing challenge amid the pandemic, and we would love to hear from others in this sector about how they’re responding.

For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?

Visit our website and our social channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). You can also get in touch by emailing And this fall Olivia Chow will be teaching SSH502: Community Action Research, a three-month credit course at Ryerson University on community leadership, organizing and action. This course teaches hands-on organizing skills so you can inspire your community to take action for social change. This course will be supported by a team of experienced organizers who will provide small group and one to one coaching. Registration is now open.

The Institute for Change Leaders in a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring progressive organizers and community-based organizations are continually developing the skills they need to transform the resources they have into the change they want. We do this through teaching organizing strategies and providing a platform for the growth of a network of organizers.

This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!

Duncan Pike, Communications Director at the Institute for Change Leaders

Duncan Pike is the Communications Director and an instructor with ICL. He is a union activist and the former Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Duncan studied at the University of Toronto, where he earned a Master of Global Affairs. He formerly worked as an Analyst for the UN Development Program in Istanbul and a Policy Analyst for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.