Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Celebrating Leadership, Activism 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 29 / 13

Zack Gross

We live in an age of dwindling budgets and cynicism about politics and leadership. 

People feel that they are paying more and getting less, whether it is through their taxes or at the store for products. 

Stress is rising. 

The news seems to be all bad news – natural and human-made disasters, killings and conflict.  The gap between the wealthy and not-so-wealthy in our society is growing – and the same is happening on a global basis, between the so-called developed and underdeveloped worlds.
Amidst all of this, on the back pages of our newspapers and on our electronic media during time-slots when no one is watching or listening, there are stories of leadership and active citizenship.  So-called “ordinary” people are making extraordinary contributions to their communities every day and, hopefully, changing our world for the better.  Much of this happens through the non-profit sector where organizations take on the role of providing low-cost or no-cost healthcare, food banking, immigrant welcoming, addiction servicing, youth serving, poverty alleviating and more.

Many people carry a heavy load in trying to serve their communities.  While I don’t agree with all politicians, I will admit that the majority of them work very hard and take a lot of flak for their efforts. 

The same is true of community volunteers as our population is not of one mind on priorities.  If you put time and effort into supporting a global cause, someone will ask why you don’t support a local one – and vice versa.  If you volunteer at a rink, someone will want to know why you favour sports over the arts – and vice versa.  And so it goes  . . .

Martin Itzkow is the brains behind many research projects and policy initiatives related to the voluntary sector and active citizenship.  His consultancy, Defying Gravity Coaching, was created to help build the capacity of people and organizations working to better our communities and world.  However, more so, Itzkow wants to help people enhance their understanding, energy and commitment to make that contribution by helping them “get to the bottom” of what motivates them. 

We might think that when people try to “change the world” or “better their community,” the key thing is to know what the issues are “out there.”  However, what Itzkow argues is that our true motivation goes much deeper than that.  He says:  “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go out and do that!  Because the world needs people who have come alive.”  What he wants to do is open us up to identifying what is that nugget that drives us.

As a life and organizational coach, Itzkow believes that people are too busy and overwhelmed with day-to-day activities and struggles.  He wants them to find time to slow down and reflect and ask themselves questions – to listen to themselves and listen to others, to focus on what matters, to visualize their task and how to go about it sustainably. 

The Dalai Lama backs him up on this, saying that the most effective community activists are those who work from knowledge of their own strengths. 

Another person who thinks deeply about activism is former Brandon environmentalist and mayoralty candidate, Dave Kattenburg, now living in Winnipeg and working part-time in academia and part-time in the media

Kattenburg has initiated a project to highlight the community activist contributions of working people across Canada.  He wants to capture images of these people in their workplaces and in their neighbourhoods as they add value to what life affords local people.  These are not people who crave the limelight or a hefty payout, but rather are creative, generous and unpretentious.

Communities want to celebrate the effort made by local people to improve their communities.  Canada marked National Volunteer Week, April 21st to 27th, with a variety of events across the country.  In Manitoba, aside from smaller events in the various regions, a Gala was held in Winnipeg to award the Lieutenant-Governor’s, Premier’s and Winnipeg Mayor’s Voluntary Service Awards, along with others by the media and business.  While these events recognize the philanthropic contributions of those with means, they also emphasize the efforts of people who have overcome economic, health and other challenges to rise to the occasion of leadership and engagement in their communities.

In a world of seemingly insurmountable problems – climate change, terrorism, addictions and poverty – one might feel “disempowered.”  It is instructive to think about what the world would look like without the voluntary efforts of its ordinary citizens, but also without the non-profit sector that offers so many programs, such as training, recreation and social services. 

To that end, I’ll quote the Dalai Lama again:  “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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