Networks and Curators

Submitted by Derek Alton on November 7, 2013 - 10:38pm
A conversation with a group of community leaders in Vancouver

One thing I love to do is bring inspiring people to sip coffee and have great conversation. Yesterday, I had the great opportunity to meet with three of Vancouver’s big community champions: Alisdair Smith, Al Etmanski and Gord Tulloch at Solly’s Bagelry. 


Alisdair is a reverend at Christ Church Cathedral and also an active community builder.  He is currently part of a team working to organize the 2014 Connecting for Community Conference to be held in Vancouver.

Al has been a major community builder for a long time.  He helped found PLAN, an organization that focuses on working with families who have a child with a developmental disability to build communities of support.  Currently, Al is exploring the topic of belonging and how we can think innovatively about growing belonging.

Gord is the ball of energy behind PosAbilities, a not-for-profit that focuses on building inclusive communities.  Gord is also creatively exploring how we can stimulate conversations to build community in Vancouver.

During the conversation Alisdair referenced the work by Ragoye Tabrizi at Simon Fraser University on social networks.  Her research points to the most successful networks combining in-person face time with online interaction.  I found this insight to be interesting.  My assumption has always been that online is good but face to face interraction is always better.  Al said that this research resonated with his own experiences.  When they created a private online community as part of PLAN, it just took off.  In our own work with Tamarack, we have also tried to marry the two pieces, creating face-to-face events and then fostering on-going dialogue with online learning communities.  A web presence also allows you to clearly present and articulate the nature of your community.

A mutual friend of many in this group, and a great inspiration for me, is John McKnight.  John talks about how the most basic social unit is the association.  In our conversation, Al questioned that, maybe it is something even less formal than that.  Is it the network?  And is the network replacing the family in many people’s lives as the core social group?  Alisdair shared about how friends of his from the LGBT community who had felt rejected by their biological family were forming a new family through their network and getting together for holidays and special occasions.

I talked with them about the 1000 Conversations campaign and Al questioned our use of the term campaign.  Campaign implies that there is a clear and defined destination where as with what we are doing, we are really exploring and are not certain with where we will end up.  We are sifting, smelling, observing, looking for patterns.  I think he is right so what do we call this initiative?


Al also introduced the idea of Curators as a social mobilizing force.  I hope to get Al to share an article about it with us but here is a quick summary of the concept as I understand it from this conversation.

Curators sit outside of any organization so they are not tied to the needs, expectations and measurables that come from being part of an organization.  Instead, they work to hold a space so everyone realizes they are part of this big amorphous blob.  They work to shine the light on others and connect the dots, inviting groups to come together.  It is based on a shift in thinking from scarcity to abundance.

So, a curator, according to

So, a curator, according to Al's definition is a third party individual who uses this neutral postion to positively influence the direction of an organization and also works to connect people?

Still trying to figure it out

It stems from systems thinking and the realization that to create positive change requires multiple stakeholders from different sectors to come together around a common vision.  I think what Al is articulating is something that is already happening in communities everywhere.  

There is always that person in a community who serves as a catalyst for change.  They convene a space where they bring multiple stakeholders together around an issue just to see what happens when they are all in a room together.  They push for common ground and common understanding around a complex issue.

I am still trying to figure out how this role is different then a backbone organization.  i do know that Tim Brodhead is pushing for the investment in people instead of projects, orgnaizations and ideas.  This is the kind of person that he would want to invest in.

An example is my friend Dave Meslin in Toronto.  He is passionate activist about civic engagement and brialliantly creative.  He just goes an organizes different project and itiatives from a social enterprise that helps people take downt their fences to City Idol a game show designed to help people run for city council.  He is constantly creating and doing things that help foster community and civic engagement in Toronto.  Things happen around him, he draws people in because they are interested in the same thing and then creates space for them to be creative around it.  None of these projects really make him any money but they create a huge positive impact on the community.  As a result someone created a community investment fund so people could make monthly donations to pay for Dave to keep doing what he was doing.  This is the kind of person that Tim Brodhead would encourage investment in.  And I think to a certain extend Dave is an example of a Curator around civic engagmenet in Toronto.

TOo be honest though I am still trying ot figure the concept out.  I hope Al, writes an article about this concept to flush it out some more.