Women Who Lead – Changing The Way People Think: Hilary Van Welter

“Change Management.” Now there’s a term I don’t and frankly have a disastrous reaction too. I mean how do you plan, organize, implement and control something as sophisticated, complex and organic as human nature? I prefer to see it as change artistry and that art is based on the elegant design that we find in the universe, that we find in nature, that we find in the cellular structure of our body. I mean, if we want to understand change though we need to understand how cells show up, disappear, evolve, change. And when we understand those types of processes, do we start to become sophisticated enough to design initiatives in which people naturally mobilize themselves to a different state of being? This takes incredible talent and that is the talent of my guest this week, Hilary Van Welter. She is the CEO of Ascentia, which is an organization specializing in social innovation. Here again is a term that we use a lot. But what it means in Hilary’s case is how do you take people who are uninvolved, apathetic, disenfranchised, maybe incredibly negative, or simply absolutely stumped by how they’re going to solve a problem that themes beyond them. How do you get them to come into a space and then how do you help them uncover a new way of seeing that problem and with that a new way of understanding what’s possible? And most importantly, how do you find the action that people are inspired to take? Well, that is indeed her specialty. So let’s listen in to the interview that I have with her about one of the pieces of work in which she has truly aspired to greatness. Please, just to note that I do used a quote at the beginning of this show, and it is attributed to Bruce Lee. Now let’s listen to Hilary.

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Lesley:  In 2015, Hilary, you were published in the Queens & McGill University collaboration under Policy Studies, which means this was really significantly researched information about water as a social opportunity.  And I just want to read the quote that you started your chapter off with which I think really speaks the story of your story. “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Be water, my friend.” Why did you select that quote to start off your chapter on Water as an Opportunity for Social Engagement?


Hilary: Well, I think it goes back to actually experiences that you and I had growing up which was water was much very much part of our lives, and we lived by the water for some very formative years. We spent our summers on the water. And water for me represented not just 75% water and something in the toilet and something in the tap, but actually an essence of who we are, and memory and wonderful spirit of water. So, when I was asked to actually begin the process of engaging the community in York region which is a very large region in just north of the Greater Toronto.


Lesley:  And I understand it’s going to double its population within the next 20 years.


Hilary: Absolutely. By 2031, it’s going to be doubling its population, and it’s made up of a very wide range of municipalities from mark Montreal right down to the smaller communities such as King City and the other on the north of the shores of Lake Simcoe to Georgina, very different cities, very different habitat, rural, as well as urban, as well as suburban.


Lesley:  And for our listeners who aren’t as aware much of Canada, this is very near Toronto.


Hilary: Yes. This is north of the GTA.


Lesley:  Yeah and GTA standing for “General Toronto Area.”


Hilary: Right. Sorry about that.


Lesley:  No, no, it’s used everywhere here.


Hilary: So, part of what when I was asked to design and conduct the engagement to develop a long term water conservation strategy for York Region for the next 40 years…


Lesley:  Now would that be of the use of water and how it was merely used or what would a water strategy be?


Hilary: A water strategy was actually water usage, water treatment, everything that you think about a community uses water for. And York Region being the municipality that actually does not have access to Lake Ontario which is the large body of water that Toronto draws from, we have to access water in this region through a large pipe. And so there was a lot of consideration in terms of when you’re going to start calling in considerable more water because of population increases, what were some of the strategies that needed to be considered now for the time when the population does double? And recognizing that in Canada there is an assumption that we have plenty of water, we have access to as much water as we’ll ever need and it’s limitless.


Lesley:  And that is actually an inaccurate assessment.


Hilary: It’s a myth. One of the most interesting things I found out when I was doing research for the strategy was that we actually most of our rivers run north, and yet most of the people live in the south. So, good deal of the water that comes precipitation another forms of water we don’t have access to because it’s running to the north. We also live in the area close to the great lakes which are the lakes that are shared by both the United States and Canada, and there’s a great draw on both of those lakes by two different countries. So water as we know in the world is becoming a very political dynamic as much as it is a life requirement.


Lesley:  I think and probably around the world is becoming one of the most significant political hotbeds. And just before you go on, who have the smarts to realize that this had to be looked at?


Hilary: Well, I worked with a wonderful woman in York Region who is actually responsible for education and outreach. And she went looking at what the future of the strategy needed to be recognized that it required a different type of lens to be able to get people engaged in the conversation in a different way. And it was the first time that the municipality had actually gone out and conducted engagement with people prior to the policy being written. But in fact the policy was very much shaped by what the public was contained back in with in terms of what they wanted water to be in their lives as well as their relationship to water.


Lesley:  So, both of us know and I’m sure large percentage of our audience knows that community engagement is a buzz term. It’s been around for now almost 20 years. Everybody says that’s a critical part of their strategic development, and we also know that percentage of people that you get out is very difficult to get. And the other thing is, is that most policy makers say, “Well we already knew that” or, “This is nothing new.”  So, your challenge was not only to get people out and to know that their voice would matter because people often don’t think their voice is going to matter. It’s already a done deal somewhere in a dark room somewhere, but also to have them engage in a different type of conversation. So can you give me two bullet points? One on how did you get them in the room, and secondly how did you shift the perspective of the group to look at it in a different way?


Hilary: Well, working with the woman as I was working with—Tracy Kerrigan—was very, very open to listening to a different way. We knew we had to change the narrative around water, and we knew we had to change the context around water because people were just thinking of it in terms of I guess I said pipes and then the toilets. So what we did was I created a series of water cafes, and the very first one was on the role of water in spirituality. And we brought together representatives from first nations. We brought representatives from the Hindu communities, from a range of different religious and spiritual orders.


Lesley:  So it seems to me just on that is that those types of communities have an automatic relationship with water. It’s seen as one of the core elements of the earth and core elements of how they practice. So, smart to go first to a community where you knew you already would have some form of connection.


Hilary: What we knew for and I deliberately created the first one that way so that we actually have the conversation about the role of water in our lives not just in going down our throats, but what it meant for in terms of ritual, what it meant in terms of awareness around who we are. And the most magical part was standing in a large circle outside the regional building, and having a smudging a ceremony with our first nations. And people who had never experienced the first nations ritual before as smudging ceremony, as a cleansing ceremony, in a blessing ceremony and giving thanks to the creator for all of the elements but we ask for a special blessing around water. That opened up a conversation that was very different than if you sit in a room talking about what water means to you. Another one was when we brought together developers, builders as well as community members to look at the issues that suburbia is facing, and suburban sprawl. There’s a wonderful publication called “Superrbia” that I had been using in a program that I was teaching, and it was a great publication around how do you make changes within suburbia rather than tearing it all up which is not possible, or feasible, or actually required. And what type of changes do you make in order to start to reknit the community?


Lesley:  Well, I just want to go say that because suburbia as much as we think of it as a community and as much as people think. Well, when I moved to suburbia only to get to know my neighbors, there’s an awful lot of isolation inside the suburbia. And I think, “How did you find getting people out of their homes and out of the developer’s office? What was the attraction that they had for coming and talking about water in their lives?”


Hilary: Well we didn’t talk about water. What we did was, we said, “What kind of community would you like to live in?” And we started with the idea that there was a great possibility of taking fences down for an example in backyards. The original creator of suburbia actually had bylaws in his communities where fences were not allowed, and the whole purpose of backyards was to be able to share in each other’s child rearing and child care. We forget about that and we forget about the fact that driveways only became major features of the home. They were actually used for a lot of other activities in original suburbia. They were used for hopscotch. They were used for sporting for play areas and there were very much play areas. And you’ve often see the cars in the side of the streets so that the kids could actually play an extended part of the playground in their yard. So, these were all things that had been designed in original suburban designs to be able to create a sense of community and interconnection of community, but because of our lifestyles and, our works styles, and commuting, and all the other things that that have happened, and dogs and privacy, our society has changed dramatically. But there’s also some really interesting examples in this book that we looked at which is for an example when a house came out for sale on a street, in one community, the community bought the house and they retrofitted it to become a community house. So, it had a very large kitchen, it had bedrooms, it had office space so that people on the street could… they were co-owners and would book-in to be able to use the house.  So if you had guests coming and you didn’t have enough room in your house, well there were bedrooms available. If you wanted an office outside of your house, it was there. If you needed having a party, you have a large kitchen to work with.


Lesley:  So there’s already a sense of shared space in that life style, in that way of being part of a community. So now you will roll the camera forward a number of decades, and you have these isolated pods that are sitting inside the community. And, I guess what you found a thirst for getting a different kind of community than these isolated pods to emerge.


Hilary: Well we did but the example I just gave of the house was a very recent one. There were people had recently bought a house on the street and turned it into a community. It was one that was maybe five years ago. And so we shared these types of examples and there was absolutely a thirst. And then we would ask, “If this is the kind of community that you want to live in, what role can water play in helping you find this type of connection?” And so, water can play a very interesting role in bringing people together, and we had a range of different ideas. One was that the community would come together and create rain gardens that were very similar on each other’s lawns that would start to create an aesthetic on the street that would start to make a feel of connection. They were also using ditches where the water runs as different elements to knit the community together, so streetscaping in a way that allowed the community to start feeling a more of a connection. But one of the most interesting things that happened to that particular water café was that we had…


Lesley:  This is to clarify “café” you’re using is a term where people sit at tables and they have a conversation and that they get recorded, and then people move to another table and people share.


Hilary: It was a little bit less formal than that.


Lesley:  Yeah. But it’s a movement of dialogue around the room.


Hilary: Yeah. It was a workshop. It was a more fluid conversation and just kept the example of it. We had a professor there who was giving quite a long dissertation. He was a guest. He was a participant like everybody. And at the table that he was at, along dissertation about the population increase and what the demands were going to be placed on the region. And we had a 12-year-old who was also at the same table, and she turned to her mother and said, “I don’t understand a thing that man just said. What did he say?” And there was embarrassment, and silence and whatever else. And then another participant said, “What he’s saying is no new water. We can’t have any more new water. We have to use what we’ve got.” And no new water became the goal of the long-term water conservation strategy which meant that by 2031, that there could be no more water used then as what’s used today which would mean extensive innovation, which would mean extensive conservation and a shift in the mindset of the people. So no new water became the rallying cry that came from a 12-year-old asking what a professor was really trying to say.


Lesley:  My goodness. So I think we’ve all experienced that and that’s the wisdom of the youth is powerful and a very core part of the nature of your work. But now, I’d like to focus on how did you go about implementing?

Hilary: So, what we ended up doing was we collected again a lot of ideas. From another café we rent for example was an exploration from cross-cultural perspective around what did it mean to be in these communities. And again, the isolation in the different cultural dynamics that were at play and how could water be a vehicle of weaving together cultures that now are living in very separate types of environments. We collected a range of ideas, and then we curated them, and we put them on cards, and we allocated them to different categories. And then we invited a hundred people, who would participate in these cafes to come, and we created five buckets and these buckets were for time periods. So, the cards are all laid out.  People went and chose the cards of action that truly resonated with them, and then they dropped it in a bucket that represented a time-frame. So should this be done within the next five years? Should this be done in five to ten years? Should this be done in ten to twenty years?


Lesley:  And just to clarify, the beauty of your work is that it’s physically put into a real bucket. So often facilitators, strategists use the metaphoric terms with sticky notes and things of this nature. But the physicality of having to stand in front of these real buckets and then throw it in as according to your own particular perspective of time is a very powerful intelligence that gets activated.


Hilary: And so for example, you had 350 cards showing up in zero to five years, and you had six cards in 20 and beyond, because people’s idea about what would needed to happen there was an urgency. And then we ask people to go and congregate into the time period, the bucket area that they felt they truly resonated around. And to create a sort and cluster, and create a sense of strategy of what was that group saying was of urgency and how could that be handled in the time period that their bucket that was designated as, and they came up with some of the most phenomenal interpretation. So you’d have the same idea in four different buckets, but it was interpreted in a different way because of the timeframe and what was fitting with. So the other action that was sitting with, so how did you cluster these various ideas together so they became doable, they became a strategy not a tactical action that somebody would take? And this form, the core, not meanwhile, there had been other work obviously going on. This was the public engagement part. There are scientists and city planners had been done by and technical experts with water that understood water rates, that understood a lot of the infrastructure requirements. All of that best practices that were being used around the world, all of that had been going on in parallel with this work, and then it became the work of the region to pull together and integrate this. And so what ended that happening was that a plan was created in which the region could identify specific things that it had responsibility and accountability to do but there were many things that it didn’t have the authority for. And so what was created was what’s called the people’s plan, which was the larger type of action needed to happen. And that’s what is also being implemented at the same time the region is implementing what it was responsible for. But there’s other non-government groups, and community groups and others who picked up on the other parts of the strategy that were outside of the region’s jurisdiction and have been mobilizing those.


Lesley:  So, what always interests me is when I hear others who haven’t participated in these kinds of events say, “How can a hundred people represent a million that will become two million?” And the reality is, is that the right people show up for the right reasons at the right time. And if you don’t believe in that philosophy, you can’t do this work. And so what’s powerful about what you’re saying is that this work was so well-designed in concert with all these other streams of intelligence that the buying was very feasible for the political bodies, governmental bodies than non-governmental associations and the community itself. So, it speaks to how groups do have the intelligence to represent all facets of a community.


Hilary: Yeah. And again, part of the beauty of this was when the region published the results, it was a fascinating concept that the fact that water in York Region was going to become the communicator of change especially climate change and was going to be the messenger of innovation. And so, water took on a role in the region that wasn’t just coming in your pipes, in your toilets and gray water systems. It was very much around how water was a leader and has an opportunity to be a vehicle of real significant change, and that’s continued on in the work that I’ve done since then.


Lesley:  So, no more new water became a master cry for an absolute requirement to think about this way of living, this way of coming together, this way of making the community work in a totally, socially innovative way.


Hilary: So, what it says what this reimagining a new future for York Region through water, in the policy it says, “Water is always been a connector, drawn people and communities together. As a source of life, water flows throughout all significant issues. It is a messenger of climate change, a co-creator of energy. And in York Region, it is an agent of innovation and change.” It’s a very different role for water because normally what you’ll look at what all the institutions when they ask for about water issues, they’re relegated to the bottom of the pile because they’re only water, the element of water. They don’t represent anything more than that.  


Lesley:  So, can you give me an example of one of the actions that have been triggered and are now are alive in the community?


Hilary: Well a lot of it has to do with communities taking a much better look at what’s going on with storm water for an example. And storm water is of course in rainfall we have major events in Canada with both rain and fogs. And being able to have systems that can take care of that water and work with that water so that it actually is cleansed and filtered and just doesn’t run to the sewer system, is something that communities are starting to look at because it’s a heavy expense to deal with storm water. And so for the snows that we’ve had in the last number of years, I mean that’s been a massive expense and treating that water is expensive. So, for an example York Region has invested quite heavily in looking at various ways in which landscaping can be done in a way that actually does water retention that does water filtration. And they have a whole certification program, no contractors, who understand this work in a much better way. There’s a lot more community involvement and understanding what water is, its role. We were involved in helping to develop water campaign in which we created a series of symbols about the different values of water, water as a historian for an example because water holds memory. Water holds knowledge.


Lesley:  Now when you say that, can you give the audience an example of that?


Hilary: So, water is a very social thing. Water is H20. It’s a bond, it has to have at least two particles in order for it to be water and it has to bond together. And so, being social, it has this molecular structure that allows it to be life-changing and life-restorative. We have found out through the many new sciences that are available now, as well as this was discovered in 1900 but it’s now been reconfirmed with recent science that water changes as molecular structure continually. And if you put a flower for an example in a fozz of water and you check it under a microscope, you will see that flower replicated in every single step of water molecule.


Lesley:  Well, you know, it’s that and I’m blocking on the name, Emoto, it’s the photographer who actually reflects water with different feelings. And we’re going to post those during the time of this interview airing because it’s so powerful how different emotions are reflected in the molecular design of the water.


Hilary: Well what’s interesting again with the new scientists are showing is that water can be put through all kinds of chemical changes in order to take the pollutants out. But until it loses its memory of being polluted, it will not restructure itself back to its highest molecular structure.


Lesley:  So how does it get its memory change?


Hilary: Nature does this naturally. It puts it into a vortex. It literally got to hit something. It’s got to go through that vortex at a fast pace. It’s like a waterfall. Think of a waterfall as the best water treatment center you could ever have, and that’s what it’s probably one of the most magical things. So it needs to go into a vortex, it needs to have movement, and then the other thing needs to have color and sound.


Lesley:  Well, you know, this is absolutely fascinating. So, as we come to the end of the interview, what is the action that a community is doing or a voice that got heard that is the most memorable to you about this strategy?


Hilary: I think the most fundamental one was people waking up to the fact that water actually has a role in their lives that they weren’t even aware of. It’s something that we take for granted. And if you start to understand how water play such a significant role in your life spiritually, as well as physically, as well as emotionally, you start to look at other elements and start to see them with different lenses. So as you shift your lens around water, it can also help you shift your lens around many different things.


Lesley:  Well, I’m going to direct the group in my closing to the book that water as a social opportunity where it can be found, it’s a powerful set of policy frameworks that I think we could definitely be benefitted by. And finally, Hilary inspires us to put on our party hats, pull up our sleeves and be a part of reimagining a new future of water by remembering that we, just as water, are part of the same system and the solutions we are seeking are embedded in this symbiotic relationship. Those are the words of Hilary Van Welter and we couldn’t sign off from this interview with any better ones. I want to thank you for spending this great time together.


Hilary: Thank you.


It fascinates me how we tend to use myths in our planning. We tend to go with a common popular view on information as presented to us by all different sources without really understanding what we’re looking at in that data, and therefore starting to build solutions that may have absolutely no possibility. Take for example that Canada is ranked number three in the world for its water supply, and it’s said to be able to have 6.5% of the world supply. But as Hilary said, most of our water runs north into the arctic and subarctic. And so, that means that the water is largely unavailable for the large recent for  our population that lives in the southern part on the border between Canada and the US. In fact, only 2.6 is what we have in terms of the world supply. That’s a far cry from the 6.5 that everybody talks about and yet those are the facts. And that’s what I mean about when we look at a subject matter in order to work with the future, we have to be very careful about what facts we’re using. But as Hilary also says, we have to change the context in which we see it. We have to reframe what we’re looking at through a different lens in order to see the situation differently, and therefore start to realize solutions that may have never come before. In the same way that I mentioned in the previous show, we took a group, many groups over many years into the situation where they were asked to draw their organization as if it were a town. That’s a different reframing of how to see a particular subject matter. Hilary and her work with water works with many different lenses so that people are not restricted to seeing it as simply movement of substance in toilets and in sewers. Yes indeed reframe and therefore we can refresh what’s possible. Now, I wanted to just make one correction, GTA stands for Greater Toronto Area. To find out more about Hilary and her amazing work, please check out ascentia.ca that’s A-S-C-E-N-T-I-A-dot-C-A, and of course to find out more about me lesleysouthwicktrask.com, womenwholead.co and Facebook “Women Who Lead Radio Show.” Don’t forget, this is your show and I am your host Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you Next time.

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