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Before Buzzwords, We Had Change Agents

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Transformational approach, holistic approach, social enterprise -- today it's become trendy to throw around buzzwords about social change. Fortunately, the buzzwords have a concrete meaning thanks to innovators in the not-for-profit world who implemented the approaches in the first place -- long before the jargon existed. These are the original change agents.

Change agents are catalysts for social change. They tackle health and social issues head-on by listening and responding to those who often don't have a voice.

In my previous article, I shared a change agent's innovative approach of establishing a 'pop-up' clinic to help Syrian refugees. In addition to healthcare, the refugees received referrals to address any number of needs like clothing, housing, education, and jobs.

Connecting vulnerable people to supports is a key aspect of how change agents help those most in need to move forward. Which brings me to Steve Cordes who has worked at Youth Opportunities Unlimited, known as YOU, in London, Ontario for over 30 years and he is now YOU's Executive Director.

I consider Mr. Cordes the pioneer of change agents because he was a forerunner regarding many of the approaches to social change that are broadly adopted today like the transformational approach, holistic approach, and social enterprises.

Transformational approach in action

To make positive change, the transformational approach creates a vision of the ideal future. This vision acts as a road map to guide what changes are necessary to get there.

At YOU, transformation can mean numerous things because, as Mr. Cordes explains, "We are here to help anyone who is 16 to 30 years old. Some may just want help finding summer employment, however, most are at risk. They may be homeless, dealing with substance abuse issues, be pregnant or have a young child."

In terms of transforming lives, Mr. Cordes explains, "Although it may sound corny, ultimately what YOU does is help youth establish dreams and then support them to pursue their dreams. For most of these young people, having a dream is a foreign concept, they haven't had the luxury of dreaming."

Developing a dream, let alone pursuing it, requires the right head space--one that is not solely focused on basic survival. YOU begins the transformation by ensuring health, safety, and shelter.

For example, YOU's Cornerstone Housing Program provides temporary and permanent accommodation that is affordable and safe. In addition, staff members help the young people create short and long-term goals.

"With the essentials covered, then the real transformation can begin," explains Mr. Cordes. "The concept of establishing a dream can take hold. They come to realize that they can redefine themselves or grow into who they really are."

Success stories include young people who overcome addiction and others who learn to manage mental health issues. They go on to lead stable lives including continuing their education and getting jobs. Many who are homeless are able to leave the streets behind and break the cycle of poverty through support like housing, education, and job training.

Holistic approach in action

A holistic approach considers all aspects of the person. As Mr. Cordes explains, "By looking at each person as an individual we are able to more effectively set them up for success because we help address their specific issues, needs, and wants."

Mr. Cordes elaborates, "Taking a holistic approach also helps foster independence, because no matter what areas we are helping them with, we provide a hand-up, not a handout. They are taking control of their lives and have responsibilities."

In addition, Mr. Cordes conveys that an important part of being holistic is using an integrated service model, which means getting youth involved while always trying to engage with the community.

For example, each month YOU partners with a local guest chef who prepares a three-course meal at the YOU Made It Café--a restaurant operated by the young people. These fundraising events help youth learn concrete skills while at the same time providing an opportunity for the community to interact with them in a positive way.

Social enterprise in action

A social enterprise is an organization or initiative with the goal of both making money and making an impact by contributing to the greater good. The revenue goes directly back into the organization so that it is self-sustaining.

The Canadian Social Enterprise Sector Survey Project conducts surveys that highlight the size, scope, and impact of social enterprises in Canada. Findings include that in "2013 and 2014, 1,350 of more than 7,000 confirmed social enterprises across Canada reported at least $1.19 billion in revenues, including over $828 million in sales. They paid at least $442 million in wages and salaries to 31,000 employees, of whom 76% were mission-focused employees. Social enterprises across Canada also trained 116,000 people, provided services to over 5.48 million individuals, and involved 116,000 volunteers."

Experts predict that social enterprise will continue to grow. There is increased pressure on businesses to act responsibly, and a growing need for innovative ways to help people. In addition, social enterprise represents an effective model for on-the-job training.
For example, youth working at our social enterprises like the YOU Made It Café, recycling facility, woodshop, and preserves area, develop skills that will be relevant for future jobs," Mr. Cordes describes. "They also gain confidence and self-esteem."

Whatever the terminology, it's clear that the approaches used by this change maker is paving the way for a brighter future.

Sarah Saso is Managing Director of Social Innovation at Green Shield Canada (GSC). The Social Innovation team supports GSC's mission--to make health care accessible to all Canadians--by building community capacity, strengthening public policy, and advancing knowledge in the health care field. The Change Agent series aims to shine a light on the people and the organizations committed to creating innovative solutions that improve access to better health for marginalized Canadians and drive big picture change in Canadian health care.

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