Leading Real Change – Annabel Slaight

We are all very much aware of the complex and massively dynamic employment market in which we’re currently operating. You know, it’s called the era of the millennial, where players are simultaneously multitasking in numerous occupations, really operating from smorgasbord of revenue generating opportunities. It has come a long way since I began my career in the single path career orientation. Well baby boomers like myself look on with a healthy degree of puzzlement. The question is, what is it actually happening to those of us, who have ridden the market and are now wondering what is next? The generation before us has no such issues. Turning 65 was a gateway into retirement. You know those types of pot of golf, and odd jobs around the home, and traveling and just generally find new ways to make the days feel bright. Well, in the case of my guest this week, Annabel Slaight, she had conquered the publishing world as the creator and publisher of Owl Magazine, Books and TV Series. By the time she retired, she had established a legacy in terms of the novel approaches that can be used to ignite children in their families with the fascination of the outdoors in the wilderness. Her innovations became the Launchpad for what we now experience in children’s educational entertainment. Okay, let’s stay for Annabel’s successful career check. Now, it’s time to retire, making a way for the younger generation. Hold on there. Does that mean that once we’ve experience success as we want to find it, we’re ready to write softly into the hazy days of retirement? I don’t think so and Annabel Slaight did not think so, and yet she had no idea how she would answer this question. Until she accidentally uncovered a path that would not only put pressure on everything she had learned, but would demand a vastly different approach to leading than she’d ever imagined. When Annabel and her husband moved to a small town on Lake Simcoe—one of Canada’s Lakes— to enjoy their fruits of their past accomplishments, neither would’ve predicted that they would now experience a life busier and more demanding than what they had experienced in their formidable careers. If you had told Annabel that she would co-create an organization called “Ladies of the Lake” that would raise 400,000 dollars with an artfully produced calendar of naked women—such as herself— as a means to raise awareness of Lake Simcoe, she would’ve given us one of her hearty laughs. With no professional experience or training in community engagement, fundraising or spearheading scientific interventions, Annabel and her evergrowing band of highly diverse water warriors went where no other people had gone. They made it their mission to transform an extremely unhealthy lake and watershed into a significant body of water that would return to being drinkable, swimmable and fishable. Along the way, Annabel and her evergrowing collection of incredibly talented people, helped raise 33,000,000 dollars from the federal government to undertake highly innovative approaches to transforming abandoned and often forgotten landscapes and waterscapes into vital public spaces. Their ticket to success is an unusual yet highly successful approach to engaging citizens along with experts in real time changes to their landscape and their water sources. I was curious to spend time with Annabel, who now is the Founding Chair of the Ontario Water Centre. To find out more how women who lead can transition from a formidable career into an undefined and yet framed social issue, through which they continue to evolve their leadership skills and their ability to truly make a difference, let’s listen to Annabel.

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Lesley:  So, Annabel, I can’t thank you enough for taking this time to chat with me about what I can find as a very exciting life. And I just want to point out I have a quote here about you, and it says, “Annabel has always had the vision to see things others overlook, the creativeness to seek out solutions to issues facing all of us, the passion to deliver results and the tenacity to get things done.”


Annabel:  Whoa! Goodness me. That’s a bit embarrassing.


Lesley:  Well, you know, I want to start with that very first thing which is “had the vision to see things that others haven’t been able to see.” This was something that start quite early in your life, didn’t it?


Annabel: Well I don’t know, I think it probably did. For example, when I was a little kid, I used to do things like circus in the backyard to raise money for the Star Fresh Air Fund. And we started a little street newspaper when I was eight that all the heat street news, all the news that’s fit to print and some that isn’t.


Lesley:  Well that’s catchy for a little startup newspaper.


Annabel:  Well I think I must’ve had a help from someone because it’s a takeoff on the New York Times motto, and I don’t think I was reading the New York Times when I was eight.


Lesley:  So you actually, somehow had help.


Annabel: Yeah. Well you will never do anything without help. I mean one person can do nothing.


Lesley:  Well that’s I think what I found fascinating as I was reading about all of the various chapters of your entrepreneurial history, is that you’ve been really amazing at how you’ve attracted partners to come in at early stages. I mean, I think it’s one thing to have partners join you when something is demonstrating its fullness. But when it’s buying into something that yet has to be seen, how do you go about finding those partners before this vision has really been articulated and then holding on to them?


Annabel:  Well it sounds like a kind of profound question, but I think that much of it has to do with finding people that you really get along with and that good kind of bounce off each other in some fun ways. I mean, I need to have fun, and laugh and enjoy what I’m doing, and it only works when you find people that like to do the same thing. You know, laughter and kidding around while you imagine things is a really great way to have a relationship with people when you’re trying to envision something or trying to make something happen. Every serious is not me.


Lesley:  Well I think that would’ve had to be a fair amount of laughter when you were one of the first in Canada to initiate the Calendar of Ladies of the Lake. Why don’t you describe this magnificent pinup that got…as an outstanding fundraiser without even realizing what it was about to produce. How did that idea come?


Annabel: Well, one of the people that I know was trying to run a little program to help people reduce fertilizer use on their lawns. It was called “The WAVE – healthy yards, healthy waters” and we needed to raise money to help this idea along. And another friend of mine, and I happen to have seen the calendar girls movie, and we said, “Oh maybe there’s an idea there.” We put it way away for about six months, until I actually heard about a group of women who had raised 85,000 dollars with the calendar. And I said, “Maybe we could do that.” I mean, fortunately, I have some contacts in the publishing business because most of my life has been spent as the co-founder of OWL Magazine, and books and television. And so we found a photographer, and he said, “If you’re going to do this, it’s a calendar. It’s October now and you’re not going to get another chance, so we better start doing it this week.” So we organized one photograph on a beautiful river with the person in a yellow kayak and the leaves are just fabulous. So with that one picture, we then gathered other people who got interested in this. And you know, as ideas evolve, everybody adds their own piece. When one of the people that got interested in this, this was just a sort of friends, of friends, of friends. And she said, “It’s not worth trying to do this to make 35 or 40,000 dollars. You know, let’s just go big and see we can make a hundred.” And so that became a goal, and in turn we did the rest of the calendar. It just touched a nerve; it was beautiful first of all. The photographer just had the ability to make everybody feel relaxed and happy, and that’s what made it special. You know, people didn’t look nervous without their clothes on, they looked comfortable. You could wear a bathing suit that would show more. So in the end we earned 250,000 dollars, and the calendar also sparked the federal government to say “People really do care about this life. There’s something happening here.” And they put in cleanup fund worth 18 million dollars which was then topped up to 30 million. And it was instrumental in getting the province to say this is something that is really important. Lake Simcoe is a little lake. It’s part of the great lakes but it’s sort of like a little living laboratory, just small enough to deal with but big enough to be an example for other places. So, they put in a Lake Simcoe Protection Act and a Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and assigned 22 million dollars to that. Millions and millions of dollars are not going to fix the lake. It takes much more than that but what start.


Lesley:  A start that was unexpected in terms of just people having fun with the idea, getting the right type of photographer, getting people into their space where they cannot wear clothes in the Canadian environment. It’s a little bit harder to do in the Canadian Northern environment than it would be in the South but it is a beautiful calendar. Is there any intention to repeat it, or is that the one time show?


Annabel:  Well we did another one two years later, and that one actually had a first nation’s names. So, each of the images had to do with a celebration of something like the moon, like the wind, and it was a little more esoteric but beautiful. And then that one, the government gave money to produce some Lake Simcoe action cards went along with that. So they gave background and ideas for people to things they could do to help the lake. So every one of these things sort of sounds like they just happened and they were easy, every one of them took a lot of work. And every one of them had serious partners and a lot of people who put a lot of effort into it but it was worth it.


Lesley:  Yeah. I’d say it’s worth it. Look at how much evolution has been happening on that lake since that idea was sparked. So, you did mention OWL Magazine and OWL Television. Let’s go back to that for a moment because I think many Canadians will immediately know what we’re talking about. Where did the inspiration for OWL Magazine come from?


Annabel: Well, part to starting owl… I mean I was always interested in journalism, I think they mentioned that I started the street newspaper as a kid. But I didn’t sort of head straight there because my dad said, “What are you going to do when you grow up? You should either be a nurse or a teacher, because if you don’t get married you need to have something that’s a safe job.” And I didn’t really want to be a nurse, and I thought, “Well I could be a teacher, I guess.” So I taught school for a few years, and that was fascinating in Vancouver and in London, England. And one of the things that I did notice when I was teaching school that kids didn’t know I have a very strong sense of their own country. This is Canadian kids. They draw US flags. Because the media is so strong from the United States, it comes into Canada and media shapes everybody.


Lesley:  And as children, we don’t realize the imprinting that’s happening to us. We can’t discern that and so we just absorb.


Annabel:  Yeah absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with that but Canada is a different country. And so, when there was a magazine that was folding called “Beyond Naturalist,” and I was working with some people that time of publishing company, having given up school teaching to go back into publishing. And the idea came up that maybe we could more flea a Naturalist Magazine into something that really was of kids as supposed as supposed to for kids. So, we’re always our partner in the creation of that magazine. And that was why it looked very different than any other magazine anyone ever saw.


Lesley:  Well, I subscribed to it for my kids, because it was of kids. It was like, the moment that they would open that up, they related to what was taking place. You know, experiments to their own lens point, as supposed to a teaching tool. That was a brilliant transition in terms of how to relate to the audience.


Annabel: Yeah. And they need things like the mighty mights, who were kids who could shrink into any small size they wondered and ride on the head of the bee. You know, these were all ideas that were sparked by the way kids look at their world.


Lesley:  And that’s really how –in some respect— you’ve continued into your work. It’s how others can look into this world with imagination and some sense of mystery, and yes the science is there. Let’s go back to Lake Simcoe. The science is there that it’s dying and that there are tremendous amounts of things that have been playing out for decades. But unless we look at it through a mystical, magical kind of lens, we will miss what is there to play with that will attract us to want to play more.


Annabel:  Yes. Well, and your sister who I have worked with very closely has come up with some wonderful ideas and expressions. And one of them say the Lake is dying, that’s a word we tend not to use because as Hilary said and I think this is pretty wise, “We just need to stop herding it so that it can heal itself.”


Lesley:  Oh gosh, she would really get mad at me. That statement, you’re absolutely right. Well then, here’s another question I had because what you’ve done is that you’ve taken the Ladies of the Lake Calendar. You’ve initiated it into millions of dollars of funding. You’ve gone ahead and done other projects obviously with these funded amounts, which is the ones that you think have got some real potential to shift public perception?


Annabel: Well I think the whole buzz with almost everything we did shifted public perception. One of the things that we did was Splash Floating Water Festival which would be in different locations, but basically it was to allow people to connect with fully in ways that they might not have seen it before. Alive with music, first nation’s dancing, looking at the lake and being by the lake and a full moon. I mean, there’s just a bunch of ideas like that which was the Splash Festival. We’re not doing that right now because these festivals are really hard to fund but that’s okay. We’ve got lots other things on our plate. We’ve done our first book for kids called “Do Fish Fart?”


Lesley:  I love this book. I have a copy of this book. Where did that title come from?


Annabel:  Well it came from kids and I really thank that they’re asking all the questions in the book. We gathered close to 3000 questions from kids in schools that took about a year. And I think there was a story about two little guys who were putting their questions on sticky notes around the room, and I think that they were fooling around a bit and put this question there and they got into trouble for doing that. So in telling the story to people about the two little guys who wrote “Do fish fart?” gone into trouble, everybody started to say, “That’s so funny! You should make it a title.” And so we did some focus groups with people and we kept a title like that, and absolutely everybody loves it. It was funny. It was the one thing that was supposed to be… it turned out to be sort of main note.


Lesley:  Out of the mouths of babes as they say.


Annabel: We’ve also done a project called “Rewilding Lake Simcoe.” And rewilding is a wonderful way to take the vibes and the hearts of what people want for their own lives and their own environments, and use that vibe to reconstruct shoreline areas that also help the lake as well as our wonderful places for people. And that was a big project in many locations, and a lot of the building is just getting done this year. Planning has taken an age and has been very informative, but as the building stand we’re starting to see these things actually come to being. It looked different than some of the usual parks in public spaces. They have something about them that is indescribable.


Lesley:  Well they’ve been really designed, I think the whole thing about with the collaboration of citizens and people who do care. And so, I think that’s where I want to go next is, how do people show up? How do you get them to show up? This engagement piece is a mystery for many, many initiatives. And yet, you have some type of magnetic core here that drain people into these spaces.


Annabel:  Well it’s not very difficult actually because it’s sort of like that gold kid’s game where you speak to one person in beside you, and then a story goes around and around the table and it comes back. So you start with people that you know, you gas then to ask people that they know. You know, you gather the people that are naturally interested and it’s not complicated. You know, the other project we’re doing of course has huge implicates to sort of future is that the town of Georgina, which is a place where we live, has leased us a farm and has been in the same family for a 180 years beside the lake. And we are turning this farm into plains where food, people, land and water connect, and people can see the connections between those things. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “You know, you’re called the Ontario Water Center. What is an Ontario Water Center doing with a farm?” And the connections between what you do on the land and how that impact on the lake is not commonly understood. The connection of food and water is not commonly understood. I mean, people know a lot of stuff these days, but what they don’t seem to know a lot about is the connections between stuff. And I think that this is a place where we’re not going to tell them about those connections. This is a place for them to experience those connections, and feel them, and go away with a different sense of themselves as part of the whole world, part of the environment not having to look after it like the boss looks after the workers. You’re part of it, so you’ll look after it because it’s part of your family.


Lesley:  Well, you know, the microcosm that you create, I mean I think very much about how this country was founded on farmsteads that were all connected to water—rivers and lakes—and that’s how we built this country was on farming in those exact environments. And when you’re inside of them and you watch the ecosystem play between them, you become so amazed. I have anyway on my farm so amazed that the intricacies of these relationships but you have to be there on it and witness it. Just come in and out, in and out, and there’s something about really standing tall for four seasons to really see what the play of that is. And so this farm is going to be used for entrepreneurial farming.


Annabel: We’re using very old, very new kind of agriculture there called “Regenerative Agriculture.” And where Generatively Agriculture is you’re living it in better condition than what you founded in, and it has a lot to do with making the soil very, very strong obviously not using chemicals. And there’s a branch of Regenerative Agriculture called “SPIN Farming” which stands for Small Plot Intensive Farming. And that means very, very tightly packed planting. And using the land wisely, using water wisely in any way that you’re getting tremendous yields. So, with this SPIN Farming, half acre of pot can earn up to 50 thousand dollars.


Lesley:  Oh my heavens, so really very much an economical play.


Annabel:  So the idea is, is that the farm is going to be self-sustaining. And in fact if things go right, the farm and other farms like it, we actually don’t envision focusing everything in on this one place. We’ve seen doing being able to be replicated, in other places and get other working people in the same way. The farm will actually be a source of money to help people continue to learn to connect with the water and care for it, and ways that benefit their own lives and the economy at the same time.


Lesley:  And to this type of initiative generations to come, because the more that we can create regenerative soil, the more that we’re able to know that we’re going to keep that for security purposes.


Annabel: So back to your question about how people come to this, really what happens I think is people bring their own imaginations to ideas like this. I mean, just the other day, there was some people who have a little stitch and snitch or something. Stitch and bitch, I think it is – quilting group.


Lesley:  Yeah that would be stitch and bitch. I think that’s probably it.


Annabel:  And so they came up with the idea that maybe they could make a quilt that would help raise money for the farm, because we’ve got a capital campaign underway. This farm has not been touched too much for a long time, so that the whole farmhouse has to be repaired. The barn, we’re going to get kids to reimagine what the barn should be like, but there’s a lot of work. People are stepping forward in their own ways large and small. We have the Mayor of Toronto has agreed to be the honorary chair of our fundraising campaign.


Lesley:  Well, I know that that’s not an easy request to make and get secured. So, Annabel, you are still at your old good connections of people and imagination.


Annabel: Well, it’s better he grew up on Lake Simcoe when he was a kid…


Lesley:  …people that are tied to this spaces in places through memory that means a lot to them, and that’s exciting for them and for you. So my very last question, if I’m a woman out there and I have started to see things that are possible within my community but there’s no infra structure of an established group or the leadership is not clear about where it might come from, what’s your advice to how that particular individual could mobilize into this vision?


Annabel:  Well, I think it really has to do with not being alone. I think you got to at least get one or two people who are interested in this because more than one brain is way better than one brain. Even two or three people starting to talk about something, and then they talk to some more people, and then they talk to some more people and it’s amazing what to turn up with. But, I do not think that anyone can really sort of say, “I really want to do this and I’m going to do it.” I think it has to be, at least in my own experience, “Everything is better if it’s a collaboration.”


Lesley:  Yep, I could not agree with you more. That’s been my experience in my life. And somehow, you know, we were talking before about how our dream finds us, as supposed to us finding our dream. And the same thing happens with people that share that dream to find us if we’re open and have a lot of fun. I don’t to track people with boring meetings that just go way too long and nobody really speaks anything interesting.


Annabel: I mean, there’s a lot of that goes on. A lot of people spend a lot of time in boring meetings and maybe that’s good for them. But I think I really do believe that no matter how serious the cause that you’re dealing with, it never does very much harm to look at people straight in the eye and laugh hard.


Lesley: Well, you know what, on that note I’m saying thank you very much, Annabel.


Annabel:  Thank you! Good to talk to you.


Lesley:  Great talking to you.


Annabel: Good luck with your show, okay.


Lesley:  Thank you.


It’s about how we attract others to us who we have fun with, who we can fool around with, who we can laugh and with whom we can imagine. I often think that we put so much effort into a collaboration and engagement experiences with using text books of citizen engagement, which frankly are left with desolate reports sitting on bureaucrat’s file folders never to go anywhere. There is a magic to how we can gain the insight and the excitement of people when we can involve them in transforming those areas in our communities that are abandoned and long forgotten about into vital and meaningful public spaces. Yes indeed, I thank that no matter where these pilots are taking place, and what the magic is of how they’re engaging people we have so much to learn but connect to. So do take a look at the Ontario Water Centre website, it’s at www.O-N-T-A-R-I-O-W-A-T-E-R-C-E-N-T-R-E-dot-C-A, where you’ll see the initiatives that are coming to life with the leadership that Annabel has provided, along with the mighty forces of incredibly talented others. You know where you can find me, Lesleysouthwicktrask.com, womenwholead.co, and Women Who Lead Radio Show on Facebook. You know this is your show and I’m your host, Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you next time.

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