Building Toronto’s Food Infrastructure: A Spotlight on Agent of Change Emma Tamlin

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all. 

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Emma’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities, SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 13: Climate Action

Emma Tamlin’s passion for Emma Tamlin standing in front of Avling Brewery’s Rooftop Gardenfood systems began in childhood. Growing up on a farm, where ingredients for meals could be found 100 metres away from the house, she recognized the importance of healthy, accessible food.

As she grew older, Emma became a fierce advocate for food justice, taking on leadership roles with the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council as the Co-Chair for two years and at Green Roofs for Healthy Cities where she leads green infrastructure policy and rooftop urban agriculture initiatives. 

Most recently, she took part in CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program. It’s designed for young changemakers who want to make an impact, supporting them as they identify their purpose, map out an idea, and build the foundation so they can grow their venture.

When the program started, Emma knew she wanted to create something that combined her passion for sustainable cities and food justice. As a result, Emma started Raised Roots, an urban agriculture operations and consulting company, with two co-founders: Rav Singh, an urban farmer and educator with a passion for food policy and food justice and Amanda Klarer, a sustainable food systems specialist. 

“Our mission is to support property owners in integrating food production into projects but also work to change policy to make it easier for everyone in the city to have access to fresh, nutritious and culturally appropriate food.” 

When we look at the impacts of our existing food systems and the impacts they have on the world, Emma explained, there are three driving factors pointing us in the direction of urban agriculture:

  1. In Canada, the average age of farmers is nearing 60 years old, and there aren’t enough young people joining the profession to replace them. Statistics Canada found that there are more farmers over the age of 70 than under the age of 35, meaning we have under 10 years to figure out who will be producing food when these farmers retire.
  2. The global food system is responsible for up to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly derived from the harvest and transportation process. 
  3. If you look more locally, the Toronto Resilience Strategy shows that we only have three days of fresh food in case of an emergency. When you consider the panic buying that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic, we want to have local food infrastructure in place.

Urban agriculture can strengthen our food supply chain, reduce food miles, make fresh food more accessible and increase our local resilience in the event of an emergency. But food and the power of food systems to facilitate solutions to urban challenges is not being fully realized in Toronto. 

In October 2019, Toronto City Council adopted a food lens framework which sought to mandate city departments to approach their projects and programs with food in mind. Unfortunately, due to COVID19 the food lens framework has yet to be fully implemented. 

Part of Emma’s work through Raised Roots has been advocating for the role of food in various city departments and in development projects. One of her favourite examples of a food systems approach is trees, specifically fruit trees: 

“Fruit trees manage stormwater, purify air, reduce the urban heat island, provide shade. They do all the things regular trees do but they also produce food! And this food can create jobs. A great example of this is in Toronto. There is an organization called Not Far From The Tree (NFFTT). They pick the fruit from the trees around the city on both public and private property and then share the bounty with community partners. In 2020, NFFTT picked over 10,000 lbs of fruits and nuts!”

Emma notes how compared to regular trees, fruit trees provide more services to our city but they are not incentivized in policy. 

“It has been incredibly frustrating talking to people who work at the city who tell me that ‘food security isn’t in their department mandate.’ There is a lack of incentive for policy makers to go out of their way and create new policies without public pressure but as cities work to become more resilient given what we saw happening during COVID-19, trees are an easy place to start. Of course, they are not a silver bullet but most cities have tree programs in place already.”

During the Agents of Change program, Emma learned about challenging biases and testing ideas. At the end of the day, understanding different perspectives, contexts, and viewpoints will help her overcome objections and strengthen her work.

“When you are surrounded by people who also believe the same things [as you], I think it’s really easy to assume that you are right. Sometimes I need to remind myself that not everyone sees things the same way. The program offered me an opportunity to reflect on my own values, biases and reinforced what I already knew which is that it is important to listen to everyone including those with different perspectives to ensure my work actually solves problems”

Looking to the future, Emma is excited to continue building Raised Roots and advocating for edible green infrastructure in municipal policy and land-use planning. “It does not have to be elaborate, it just needs to be supported. There is massive potential for food production in our urban environments that we urgently need to support to increase Toronto’s resilience and equity.”

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada

How shared platforms help grassroots and community-based initiatives grow

Printer, paper cutter, single desks in front of a window, plants, and microwave in the fourth floor lounge in CSI Spadina.

Last year, as we navigated the pandemic, communities came together to take care of one another. They formed grassroots and community-led initiatives, like neighbourhood pods and mutual aid groups. This year, as we continue on a path of recovery, we must ask how we can support these initiatives as they grow and expand their impact.

One solution is shared platforms. Traditionally, organizations who want to grow will incorporate and/or register as a charity. However, incorporation also brings on additional administrative and governance responsibilities, adding to an already-full plate.

In a shared platform model, another organization provides the administrative and governance infrastructure. This frees up time for the newer initiative’s leaders to develop a solid foundation, build, and grow.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) describes it as “an alternative […] that is more accessible, and is more time- and cost effective.”

In Shared Platforms: An Introduction, the ONN outlines why the shared platform model is a critical tool for pandemic recovery:

Almost every nonprofit got started when a community identified a need and did something about it. But it has become harder to start, operate and sustain an organization over time. This is why it is so important for established nonprofits and charities to support emerging grassroots projects through shared platforms. Some of these projects will grow into new organizations, while others will remain small and project-based. All will enrich our communities and allow for innovation and emergence of new ideas and new ways of doing things in our communities.

At CSI, we understand the importance of shared resources. We were built — quite literally — on shared supports for social enterprises, nonprofits, and innovators. We offer shared workspace, to lower the cost of rent; our buildings have shared printing and fax services, to lower the cost of equipment.

We took it one step further when we incubated the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN). We provided insurance, bookkeeping, leadership, accounting, management, and a board of directors. Ultimately, we were responsible for the ONN’s success. This allowed the ONN leadership to figure out what worked (and what didn’t), build a strong foundation, and grow their network. After spending seven years at CSI, they got to a place where they were able to incorporate.

Recently, we built a virtual shared space for social innovators: The Common Platform. It’s a hub for ideas, opportunities, events, and conversations. It’s a place where people who want to make a positive impact can find what they need to succeed. And since we can’t meet, ideate, and innovate in person right now, we hope you’ll join us online!

Six Big Ideas for the Next Economy

Lightbulbs drawn on dusty black chalkboard

At CSI, we believe we need an economy that is regenerative, equitable, and prosperous for all. Since 2012, we’ve been supporting nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, activists, and advocates as we work toward this Next Economy together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the failings of our current systems. Racism, poverty, the climate emergency: every time we look at a problem, we find our economic structure holding us back. If we’re going to make the world better, we need to design an economic system that puts people and planet first.

Luckily, many people and organizations from around the world have the same idea. They’ve been innovating new solutions, championing community-based, circular, participatory, equitable models that prove a Next Economy is possible.

Next Economy Conversations powered by Fiix is an opportunity to meet these leaders and hear about the solutions they have built and implemented. Tonya Surman, CSI CEO and serial social entrepreneur, facilitates the discussion, incorporating questions from the live audience. These conversations help us all learn, reflect, and integrate these ideas into our own efforts to build the Next Economy.

2021 is going to be a year of recovery, and we need big, bold ideas to get us started. We’ve chosen some highlights from each of our past events to cover in this blog, but if you want to fully immerse yourself in their work and optimism, you can watch all our Next Economy Conversations in full here.

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Failing so we can succeed

For our first Next Economy Conversations, we asked Bill Young to join us for a discussion about how he founded Social Capital Partners and why failure is necessary in creating systems-level solutions.

The thing about systems change is: it’s risky.

“Most funders don’t like funding things that aren’t working,” said Bill. “So the tendency is ‘let’s do things that will work.’”

Social Capital Partners is lucky to have independent funding. It means they have the freedom to experiment, to push boundaries, to do things that are inherently really, really hard.

“We flipped the script and said ‘no, we aren’t succeeding unless we are failing,’” Bill explained. “We will fail because we are trying stuff that nobody else is going to try. And that’s our role.”

They’re always aiming for the greatest impact they can have.

“How do we transform this economic landscape in the most powerful, equal way? How do we solve inequality? If we saw that what we were doing wasn’t going to get us there, whether it was branded a success or failure, it didn’t matter to us.

“To us, it’s kind of like a maze. In the centre of the maze is the magic of the biggest impact you could possibly have. To get to the center, you hit a lot of dead ends. You need to hit those to get to the centre. So we never look at failure or success as either failure or success. We look upon it as part of the road map on the way to have the most impact we possibly can have. ‘Is this the route to get there?’ If it isn’t, we change. Success and failure has nothing to do with it.”

Creating community-based solutions

Jeff Cyr of Raven Indigenous Capital Partners joined us in June to discuss what Community-Driven Outcomes Contract (CDOC) are and how they are serving the Indigenous community. This innovative new investment vehicle is changing the game in Canada — connecting social finance with deep-rooted respect for community.

The idea of an Indigenous intermediary came to Jeff a few months after the inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit. His conversations with Indigenous entrepreneurs leading up to, during, and after the summit revealed massive barriers in access to capital.

“What didn’t exist was Indigenous investment vehicles. That’s the problem. We said: ‘We need Indigenous equity. I wonder if we can raise capital from the non-Indigenous world to invest in Indigenous enterprise and prove that this can be done.’”

They did! Raven Capital completed their sixth investment in June 2020. All of their ventures so far are promising — and one in particular sparked the development of a new social finance model for community-based solutions.

In a CDOC, the community in question determines its priorities and how they’re going to get there before they look for capital. It places control into the hands of the beneficiaries, rather than external parties that don’t fully understand the problems they’re trying to solve.

The CDOC itself is basically a pay-for-performance model: private investors upfront the investment and tag a rate of return based on success. The Indigenous social enterprise will work with the band to implement the solution. Once they hit success, the outcomes buyer (the government) pays the private investors back with a rate of return. Raven Capital acts as an intermediary between all three parties.

It’s an intentionally slow, deeply collaborative process.

“We will often say ‘we are now going to be in relationship with each other,’” explained Jeff. “At the end of the day, when things get tough you rely on relationships to see you through. So we spend an inordinate amount of time building relationships and trust.”

Using business as a force for good

B Lab Canada’s Country Manager Kasha Huk joined us in July to talk about using business as a force for good, stakeholder capitalism, and the stringent requirements businesses need to meet to maintain their B Corp Certification.

We often face silos when trying to address systemic inequities: “Nonprofits and governments are creating these policies on one side to do good, and then businesses are doing the work they want to do and donating money toward causes. But they were kind of seen as separate.”

This is where the B Corp comes into play: “The B Corp movement [is] this place where businesses are seeing that [they] can address complex social and environmental issues through their business model.”

Essentially, these are for-profit organizations that want to use their influence for good.

A B Corp (not to be confused with a Benefit Corporation, which is a legal structure) embraces the idea of stakeholder capitalism. They define what’s in the best interest of a company not solely by profit, but by thinking about different stakeholders.

Currently, there are over 260 Canadian B Corps – a number that has grown exponentially in recent years.

“We work with these companies to help them achieve greater impact through the assessment process,” Kasha explained. It’s a lengthy, stringent evaluation that asks businesses to consider all their stakeholders in their operations, and must be completed once every few years to stay certified.

While the B Corp Certification is available only to for-profits, Kasha encourages all organizations to use the free online assessment as a tool to track their improvements over time across five different areas: governance, workers, communities, environment, and customers.

“[The assessment helps you] understand how you’re doing across these areas, and gives you a road map for improvement.”

Measuring success with community capital

We spoke with Buy Social Canada Managing Director David LePage in August about social procurement and the Marketplace Revolution.

In the early 2000s, David realized that while there were lots of employment social enterprises doing great work, there was a stark lack of demand for social enterprises and the people they hire.

“The companies that were saying ‘we want to help’ were [also] like ‘we don’t hire these people,’” David recalled. “But they buy the products and services that hire people into entry-level jobs. So how do we […] create the demand side that says ‘I’m going to buy from the companies that will hire these people’?”

This is the foundation of social procurement theory, which proposes that the purpose of a marketplace is not to create economic value, but to create healthy communities. This means taking into account human, social, physical, and cultural capital along with economic capital – something Buy Social Canada calls “community capital.”

“When we start to measure success in community capital, we start to change the very activity of business,” said David. “So if you aren’t paying a living wage and beyond, if you aren’t environmentally sound, then you aren’t fulfilling your capitals.”

Social procurement is about looking past financial reward as a sole measure of success, and making intentional purchasing decisions that have a positive impact across all capitals.

Government support is imperative to driving this change in how we do business, and can support social enterprise through its procurement decisions.

“The whole policy system is set up to reward big business and financial gain. We need to make accessible the same supports for social enterprises that are available to private businesses,” said David. “We have to shift how we value. It’s not the lowest price, it’s the best value. And the best value is about community capital.”

Rethinking food waste

Marcos Igreja, Genecis’ Associate Director of Engineering and Operations, joined us in October to speak about the circular economy, turning food waste into biodegradable plastic, and the environmental and human costs of the products we use every day.

Genecis takes local food waste and turns it into PHA, a biodegradable plastic whose properties are almost indistinguishable from the traditional PET plastics many manufacturers currently use. It’s an excellent example of a business contributing to a circular economy.

“The circular economy is an economy that knows how to take into account the entire life cycle of any good that is produced,” Marcos explained. “You need to be able to understand everything that came before it – all the labour, all the resources – and what happens after… how it is disposed, where it ends up. Most importantly, you have to be able to connect the two ends back together.”

The startup has already seen interest from clients across multiple industries, from medical equipment (e.g. biodegradable sutures) to household food producers (e.g. packaging). It’s hard not to get excited about their PHA: it’s sustainable, locally-sourced, and most importantly, it minimizes externalized costs.

“When people say that petroleum is cheaper than biofuel or bioplastic, they’re not taking into account costs caused by disposal, the pollution this causes in oceans, greenhouse gas emissions which affect our atmosphere, and all sorts of other political conflicts created through the improper use of those resources,” said Marcos. “In a fair economy, you have to take into account those costs.”

Democratizing control of community resources

In December, SolarShare General Manager Chris Caners sat down for a conversation about democratic control, community-financed projects, and the importance of government support for systems change.

SolarShare is a nonprofit cooperative that owns, finances, and operates 49 solar facilities across Ontario. They’ve raised over $60M with their community financing model, and their values are rooted in giving communities ownership, access, and control over local infrastructure (specifically, a renewable energy source).

“Fundamentally, the thing I’m excited about is the participation and role of community in our day-to-day lives, and in SolarShare’s case, the infrastructure,” said Chris. “The co-op model is a great model. It speaks to me about democratic control.”

It’s a lot harder for a solution’s beneficiaries to get taken advantage of when they are also its owners and key decision-makers.

“It gets a lot better when we have resilience within the community, and are able to [supplement] it with external sources,” said Chris. “For me, democratic control of infrastructure is one path to a better, more equitable future for all of us.”

Chris acknowledged the challenges of scaling community-based solutions right now. We designed a system that rewards only a small group of people. So of course the people who benefit from this system – the ones who currently hold power – aren’t eager to disrupt the status quo.

“Fundamentally, we need to change the way we operate. If we want a better and more equitable future, we need to design it into how our organizations and our laws work,” he said. “There are lots of people doing lots of excellent work, like SolarShare, TREC, and CSI. But in order to make it scale, we need our governments to help.”

What’s Next

We’ve seen some common themes run across our conversations with these leaders: the need to think holistically about how businesses operate and who they impact, the importance of strengthening communities through democratic control, and the need for government policies that support the organizations creating change.

We’re excited to continue these conversations, and we hope you’ll join us on this journey! Our first Next Economy Conversations of 2021 will be with Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, on February 4. Get your tickets!

Further Reading

Still hungry for more? Here are a few full-length recaps from the other conversations we had last year:

Visual learners, we’ve got you too. Watch all the recordings from Next Economy Conversations and Climate Ventures Conversations on YouTube.

A Just Transition for Oil and Gas Workers: A Conversation with Bruce Wilson

Solar panels, wind turbines, and building labelled energy storage in background of sun-lit field.

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. This event series is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures initiative.  

After almost 16 years with Shell, Bruce Wilson felt his life philosophy was diverging more and more from his work at the global energy giant. In 2018, he left to take more urgent action on the climate crisis.

Today, he sits on the Board of Directors at Iron & Earth, deeply involved in paving a path for the just transition to a renewable energy economy. He also founded Thor Hydrogen, an organization focused on the potential of renewable hydrogen to create jobs and decarbonize our energy system.

In early December, Bruce sat down with our Senior Programs Manager Shea Sinnott for a virtual conversation about the challenges faced by oil and gas workers, hydrogen as an energy source, and the complexity of the fossil fuel industry. We’ve highlighted a few key ideas that resonate with us in clips and excerpts below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

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Iron & Earth: By and For Workers

Iron & Earth is a nonprofit organization led by oilsands workers that is building a future in renewable energy for their fellow oilsands workers through training, education, and advocacy.

At their core, they develop and deliver training programs to facilitate the transition of these workers to jobs in renewable energy. They blend classroom learning with hands-on project experience (through partnerships like RenuWell), so that individuals not only understand the technology and theory behind renewable energy, but are also able to put what they learn into practice.

Through community-based sustainable energy projects, Iron & Earth shows that this career transition is both possible and rewarding, and they build support for a just and prosperous transition. To encourage this shift to a green economy, and fast, they’ve prepared a four-point plan that seeks to retrofit and repurpose infrastructure, support and strengthen ecosystems, upskill the workforce, and support oil and gas companies who want to reposition their work.

For years, the federal government has dragged their heels in taking necessary, bold action to address the climate crisis, despite their stated ambitions to be net-zero by 2050. Since our conversation with Bruce, the federal government announced a long-awaited new Climate Action Plan, including a $15B increase in spending, with policies that match their stated ambitions for emissions reduction.

Yet as we discussed with Bruce in December, and still feel today, time will tell. Bruce put it well: “The devil is in the details, and not just in the details, but in the execution of the details. How do we get ‘er done? What do we need to do?”

A Just Transition for Oil & Gas Workers

Bruce contextualized the shift away from fossil fuels: “The ground that was once solid under the oil and gas industry is eroding, to the point that there’s real jeopardy for a lot of people. Add it to the government’s commitments [and] those all begin to amount to writing on the wall.”

He called on the need to act now, and to act while centring the people most impacted by this transition. We need to figure out a way to support those that would lose their jobs as they look for meaningful, fulfilling work in the Next Economy (as we at CSI and others call it).

“We can wait for bad things to happen, for more people to lose their jobs, and for there to be an economic malaise, the likes of which we’ve never seen — or we can take preemptive action now,” said Bruce. “A just transition is about looking at the totality… We need to protect people, we need to train them for new jobs, we need to identify what these jobs are, we need to identify who is disadvantaged by this. And it needs to be from the people, by the people, driven bottom up. We need a series of dialogues that make sure we bring everyone with us.”

Hydrogen: the new natural gas?

As the Founder of Thor Hydrogen, Bruce is a firm believer in renewable/green hydrogen both as an alternative to fossil fuels, and as a way to transition oilsands workers to new roles in the Next Economy. Our moderator, Shea, and a few attendees voiced some skepticism around hydrogen as a renewable energy source.

As Shea noted, not all hydrogen is truly renewable, and many are wary about the buzz and attention it’s getting as a solution. Shea put it bluntly: “Is hydrogen just the new ‘natural gas’?”

Bruce acknowledged this, but explained what makes him so optimistic: “Blue hydrogen is the new natural gas. It’s the new bridge to the future.”

“[But] to me,” he continued, “the beauty of renewable [green] hydrogen is decentralization. It can be a wonderful thing when you’re up in rural or remote regions where you’re not on the electricity grid, where you want energy independence. [Green hydrogen is] regional, and you can build ecosystems around it.”

The differences between blue and green hydrogen stem mainly from their production process. To make blue hydrogen, you strip carbon off of natural gas using steam methane reformation. To make green hydrogen, you pass a current through water (a process called electrolysis) using any kind of renewable energy. As a result, the water molecule (H2O) is split into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. With the exception of the buildout of equipment and the energy required in its production and possibly distribution, green hydrogen is a clean, carbon emissions-free fuel.

At the end of the day, hydrogen is one of many renewable solutions. (This idea came up in a previous conversation with Laura Witt, too!). We have the solutions we need – it’s a matter of implementation and leadership in making it happen.

Should we let the fossil fuel industry die?

People like Bruce illuminate the complexities of the oil and gas industry. Company leadership doesn’t necessarily represent workers, many of whom are a living dichotomy: they care deeply about the environment, but work in oil and gas (for a multitude of reasons).

“The industry is not monolithic,” said Bruce. “It’s not only full of people who are resistant to change, but people who want to make change and who want to understand how they could be part of an energy transition.”

Bruce explained the ecosystem that the industry creates: it’s not just the workers on the “coal face,” so to speak. It’s also the manufacturers, planners, engineers, accountants, and other workers that exist all the way up the supply chain.

“There are communities all around the world built on one resource [like coal], and so we need to break that down. Where that is most important is [in] conversations around a just transition,” said Bruce. “When we talk about who’s included in the just transition, first and foremost, it’s that ecosystem of everybody who makes their living directly from it. But one could argue [it has an international] impact. And intergenerational too. Let’s not forget about when you talk about how you plan for transition, we need to think of generations ahead.”

Therefore, we must understand the fossil fuel industry and those who work in it with nuance. While there’s a mounting call to just let the industry die, as Bruce hinted, we can’t just turn the taps off. Rather, we can plan for a “managed decline”: one that includes a fair transition for those most impacted – including the people whose livelihoods depend on our current energy system – and, most critically, one where no one is left behind.

And, commenting on the pride and deep-rooted culture that many draw from long associations with the oil and gas industry, Bruce said: “Pride is portable. You can bring it with you and apply it to new endeavours.”

Further Reading

Our conversation with Bruce covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a few big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation on YouTube and check out the links below to continue learning:

Our next Climate Ventures Conversations with Seth Klein, public policy expert and author of A Good War, is coming up on February 11. Get your tickets!

CSI Climate Ventures is an incubator, coworking space, and a range of national accelerators that support entrepreneurs and innovators working on climate solutions.

The Evolving Role of Workspace

Two people wearing masks having a conversation at a Team Table in CSI Spadina

A year of remote work has proven that it is, indeed, possible — but it doesn’t spell the end of the office completely. Likely, organizations will adopt a more flexible system that blends the two.

We know that offices work well for some things, and not as well for others. Having immediate access to people (in person!) can do wonders for innovation, collaboration, mentorship, and professional growth. These spontaneous interactions and background conversations are, however, distracting when you want to do deep work.

It makes sense, then, that workspace evolves into a space for community: somewhere like-minded people can learn, grow, and create together.

“We need to be intentional about the communities we are building,” said our CEO Tonya Surman in an interview with The Professional Centre. “Community for community’s sake is lovely. […] The real question is why do we seek communities? I think that coworking spaces are going to have to dig deeply into purpose.”

Tonya speaks about the future of workspace, harbouring community, and how leadership right now is harder than ever. Watch the full interview:

And if you or your organization are currently looking for flexible coworking space, we might have something for you. See our coworking options.

Bringing small businesses to the global stage

Person in a peach-coloured blouse sitting at a wooden desk using a black calculator. The desk is covered with notebooks and printouts with calculations.

A spotlight on Agent of Change Maheshi Wanasundara

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all.

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Maheshi’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth, SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure, and SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities.

Even though she has moved often, Maheshi’s heart remains in her homeland, Sri Lanka.

Fiercely proud of her cultural heritage and determined to share its beauty, she hopes to elevate the profiles of Sri Lanka’s creative artists, innovative thinkers, and sustainable producers while preserving the authenticity of their work.

“There are amazing products and businesses [from Sri Lanka],” said Maheshi. “I want to bring them to the global market and make sure those creators and business owners get the recognition they deserve.”

She’s doing this in the form of Musey, her social enterprise.

Maheshi’s passion brought her to CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program, where she met other young people hungry for change. Over the eight weeks, she began to finetune her purpose as a social entrepreneur, and started to map out her business structure.

“The biggest plus for me was connecting with individuals and hearing their stories. It encouraged me to take a step back and look at my ideas, and figure out how my ambitions matched what I want to do,” she recalled. “I was able to identify how my personal values connected to what I wanted to invest my time and energy in.”

Musey is the culmination of Maheshi’s love for her home country and her newly-gained knowledge of social entrepreneurship. At its essence it’s an online shop, but really, it’s a platform where Sri Lankan small business owners can shine on a global stage. Shoppers will be able to find anything, from health and lifestyle products to furniture and home decor.

All of the young businesses Maheshi collaborates with have to meet three requirements:

  1. They use sustainable material, sourced locally in Sri Lanka;
  2. They are environmentally-friendly and minimize waste; and
  3. They provide opportunities of employment to their community.

Most of these ventures are owned by women or young families.

One of the brands she is working with uses “end-of-roll” materials from large garment factories to make their clothes. In this way, they are saving this fabric from being thrown away, and each piece of clothing will be unique. The brand also provides an opportunity for the women in their neighbourhood to earn some extra income and develop new skills through casual employment.

As Maheshi helps these young entrepreneurs reach and connect to an increasingly-online world, she plans to reinvest profits into the communities of these original artists. Decolonizing wealth is one of her main goals.

“I’m really excited to be a part of their journey, to help lift them to the next level of income or knowledge, and to learn and grow alongside them.”

Next steps for Maheshi involve finding ways to collaborate with the artists. Although she can’t conduct informational interviews in person in Sri Lanka, she’s been continuing her research and connecting with people virtually.

“I want to [gather] information and knowledge in the community and facilitate the sharing of it,” she said.

Currently, Maheshi’s days are filled with work, a newborn, and two beagles. But despite the strangeness and novelty in her life (and the world!) right now, she stays positive: “Being responsible for my daughter makes me a bit more focused and determined. It really helped me see what I want in our future.”

As she continues on her social entrepreneurship journey, Maheshi is constantly on the lookout for people she can learn from. If you have advice for an up-and-coming entrepreneur, or experience bringing businesses to the global market, definitely get in touch!

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada.

Inspiring growth and impact

Backpacker looking up at trees while on a hike in the forest. Photo by Oziel Gomez via Pexels.

A Spotlight on Agent of Change Devesh Tilokani

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all.

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Devesh’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 3: Good Health & Well-being and SDG 4: Quality Education.

Devesh Tilokani, Founder of Progressholic

The Devesh Tilokani you see today is outgoing, friendly, and well-spoken.

He has come a long way in the past five years. In high school, he struggled with social anxiety and self-image, sending him into a spiral of depression.

“The way things were going, [I felt like] whether I was 16 or 60, I might as well not be around,” he explained. “When those sorts of thoughts come into your head, you realize you’ve hit rock bottom. And there was only one way for me: up.”

For Devesh, that meant challenging himself to speak to new people constantly. There’s no harm in trying something out, he thought. If worse comes to worst, I’ll just fail.

Soon enough, saying “hello” to new people became a habit. Devesh’s fear evolved into excitement and genuine curiosity.

“You come across a wide range of people, so you come across a range of responses: some good, some bad,” he explained. “It’s kind of a move into the unknown, which is uncomfortable, but can be really rewarding.”

In 2019, Devesh blended his new love for people with his longtime passion for personal growth into the first iteration of Progressholic: a self-development podcast.

When he joined CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program in 2020, Devesh learned about Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. It’s a tool for identifying your “why” — and how you can achieve it.

“I looked back on my own life. My ‘why’ is to constantly develop myself while reducing human suffering. How can I align Progressholic to that personal vision?”

Reducing human suffering, to Devesh, meant creating a balance of the internal — the self — and the external — society. So during the course of the Agents of Change program, he began to experiment and launch this new iteration of the podcast: one focused on progress of self and society.

Progressholic: dedicated to the progress of self and society

The timing was perfect. As COVID-19 threw our world into chaos, individuals and groups alike developed community responses. Progressholic offered a platform for these folks to share what they’re doing and garner support.

As he was planning for upcoming episodes, Devesh ended up in a breakout room with one of the other Agents of Change participants, Kathy Huang. He told her about his vision, and she ended up connecting him to two or three different COVID-19 response initiatives — who ended up on the podcast!

Devesh described this pivot as existential flexibility: the ability of a leader to initiate a disruption in business strategy to advance a just cause.

“Right now, COVID-19 is happening. [If we bring] on similar guests to speak about a topic that I’m sure would be great, but wouldn’t be relevant to the times we’re in right now, are we really advancing the cause?”

Over the summer, Progressholic highlighted the work of organizations like the neighbourgood and the Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative. The episode with The Home Front doubled as a fundraiser:

“We decided to donate $1 for each listen, and we wanted to hit 100 plays [in 5 days]. We’d never hit 100 plays before, so there was always that doubt, whether we’d be able to hit it or not, but we hit it just two hours before the deadline, and we were able to donate the money. I know it’s a small amount, but more than that, it was raising awareness for an incredible Canadian initiative.”

Since then, Devesh has continued to bring on guests that inspire growth and encourage taking action for impact. If you want to hear tips for self-development and stories about the leaders working hard to change our world, check out Progressholic, streaming anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada

Creating opportunities for youth in Regent Park

Man in white shirt tending to outdoor vegetable garden. Photo by Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash.

A spotlight on Agent of Change Nayeon Kim

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all.

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Nayeon’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth, and SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities.

Nayeon Kim’s voice is measured as she describes the systems that have caused (and perpetuate) poverty, how it has affected our neighbourhoods, and the gaps that need to be closed to truly address this issue. She speaks with confidence and clarity, her wit and determination to make a difference shining through.

Three years ago, Nayeon moved to Regent Park and became more and more involved in the community. The youth in the neighbourhood have always been top-of-mind for her, and she saw a gap in the work happening as part of the Regent Park Revitalization Plan: “While this billion-dollar revitalization has been going on, we haven’t been able to see a lot of jobs coming out, lives changed.”

An idea began to take root in her mind when she identified gaps that could turn into a sustainable economic opportunity in her neighbourhood: youth are struggling to find meaningful jobs in the neighbourhood, and condo buildings have struggled to find reliable and timely landscaping services in Regent Park.

“There is a huge gap, and this is an amazing opportunity, because a lot of young people get into landscaping in summer jobs,” she said.

Nayeon envisions an employment social enterprise (ESE) that would train and hire young people to provide landscaping services for buildings right in their neighbourhood in Regent Park.

For the youth who are facing barriers to employment and currently only being offered precarious employment (like fast food and retail), Nayeon’s ESE would offer more than a summer job: it’s a pathway to a long-term career.

“Landscaping is an area where you can upskill,” explained Nayeon, “which is a really important thing when you think about the future of work. Upskilling through education and experience opens doors for a lot of other opportunities.”

And their responsibilities won’t be limited to trimming trees and cutting grass: Nayeon also sees them getting involved with murals and urban agriculture.

“Food security is a huge issue across the city, especially in neighbourhoods with lower income families,” she said. “So in areas like this, through landscaping, we can think about creating more vegetation, creating community gardens, creating vertical gardens.”

The youth hired through Nayeon’s ESE will be trained and will get to shape and maintain their neighbourhood with their own hands — something that can be massively rewarding.

Community-based solutions like Nayeon’s are powerful. At the end of the day, her ESE won’t be dependent on government funding or a grant: it will actually be a sustainable business that helps create a sustainable economy within the neighbourhood it serves.

Nayeon believes that community solutions must come from residents who have lived expertise and sees the pandemic as an impetus to create systems change.

“I think [the government and social service sector] have come to a place where we recognize the importance of lived experience, but sometimes we stop at the arms-length committee level. We need to go beyond that and put residents in positions of power as partners so we can drive change that will directly impact our neighbourhoods.”

Right now, governments and social service organizations tend to see folks who live in poverty and BIPOC as service recipients. However, it’s important to acknowledge these individuals’ power, resilience, and strength. We must shift our mindset to think of them as leaders and champions who can actively create change in their own neighbourhoods.

“That’s how we create opportunities where we’re enabling residents to contribute in a way that’s going to support their own lives and also support our city.”

Nayeon joined CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program in 2020 to improve her entrepreneurial skills and turn her vision into reality. As Nayeon continues to build her ESE, she’s looking for connections with other entrepreneurs who have built ESEs, and folks who work in housing and development within Regent Park, and a mentor who can help her strengthen her business plan. (Get in touch here!)

And as we inch closer to a post-COVID-19 world, Nayeon reflects on the changes she hopes to see.

“I want our world to be a little bit more equitable and just: a fair place for everyone. So that things you can’t control, like what you look like when you’re born, the family you’re born into — whether that is race, class, gender — don’t become a determinant for how your life is going to turn out,” she said. “Who you are is a barrier in itself, and so many people are falling behind because of it. If that continues, it comes at a cost of people’s lives being lost. […] We can’t afford to do that anymore. […] So I would love our city to be a fair place, a just place, an equitable place, where everyone gets a decent chance at a good life.”

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada.

The Role of Economic Policy in Climate Justice: A Conversation with Marc Lee

Close-up shot of plant in front of window

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. (Formerly Climate Ventures Mornings, we gave this event a new name to welcome speakers and attendees from coast to coast!) This event series is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures initiative.  

Marc Lee is not your average economist. Though classically trained, he became interested in ideas outside the mainstream, finding inspiration in institutional and ecological economics. This becomes clear in his writing, where he blends his background in economics with ideas from sociology and psychology, often arguing against the conventional wisdom.

Today, Marc is a Senior Economist with the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), where his work focuses on the role of policy in climate justice.

On a November afternoon, Marc sat down with our Director of Programs Barnabe Geis for an online conversation about his research, what he’s learned over the years, and the possibilities the future holds. We’ve highlighted a few key ideas that resonate with us in excerpts and clips below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

On This Page

Growth at All Costs

The word “economics” originates from the Greek root oikonomia, which means “management of the household for the benefit of all members.” Yet, in our capitalist economy, we’ve equated economics with growth and the maximization of short-term profits (a term Herman Daly coined as “crematistics”).

Marc called on us to interrogate which industries we’re allowing to grow, who that growth impacts, and how it impacts them:

“Ultimately this is about the growth and amount of resources that are consumed by the top tier of humanity – the top 10% to 15% – and the amount of waste and resource depletion that we collectively impose on the planet, often for frivolous things. Meanwhile, huge portions of human civilization are very poor and don’t benefit from economic growth. So coming back to the idea of what an economy is for… we need to use our collective wealth and intelligence to build an economy to ensure we meet everyone’s basic needs.

A Phantom Fear of Debt

In discussions about policies and programs that will create a more equitable future for all, we are often hindered by what Marc calls a phantom fear of debt: the idea that in the future some group of people will owe too much to another group. What matters is that we deploy resources in the here and now to stabilize incomes and employment.

Public debt is not as scary as some make it out to be. When the Government of Canada issues debt (i.e. borrows), the Bank of Canada is also buying up a lot of debt in the form of outstanding government bonds, effectively becoming the lender. And at the end of the year, the Bank of Canada’s profit reverts back back to… the Government of Canada! This is a process called quantitative easing.

Issuing government debt has a number of benefits: it creates a safe place where Canadians can invest their money, it stimulates spending and injects money back into the economy, and it helps maintain higher levels of employment.

The Price is Right

There’s this idea among economists that if we could just set a carbon tax that reflects all the costs being imposed on third parties, then the market would do its job and get us on the net zero path. But Marc called for caution here, noting that carbon pricing is just one tool in a government’s policy toolbox and that there are many other environmental externalities besides carbon emissions.

Carbon pricing is very difficult to get right because it’s so intensely political – after all, it’s essentially a tax. We’ve made headway with some modest pricing, but politicians are wary of committing to the pricing levels we need to drive the emissions reductions necessary to meet reduction targets. However, if it is done right, it can be a great source of funds for activities that can drive climate action.

Of course, when we focus too much on carbon pricing, we lose out on opportunities to enact change through other methods. Marc expressed the need for clear rules and bans on certain activities detrimental to our environment, as well as big public investments into infrastructure – like high-speed rapid transit and affordable housing – that can act as a foundation for a healthier community.

Bodies in the Street

Much of Marc’s work focuses on government policy and regulation, but he emphasized the importance of grassroots advocacy in the movement for climate justice. Differing approaches can and do work in concert to make change.

He pointed to the Unist’ot’en peoples resistance to development on their traditional lands, which peaked early this year and sparked Indigenous-led protests (and fierce debate) in solidarity all across Canada. Hundreds of Canadians joined in, shutting down ports and stopping traffic – refusing to let the issue go unaddressed.

Marc called on us to keep up the pressure: “We need bodies in the streets to keep politicians focused. If people lead, politicians will follow.”

Further Reading

Our conversation with Marc covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a few big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation on YouTube and check out these links to continue learning:

If you want to hear more bold ideas from the world’s leading climate experts, tune in for our next Climate Ventures Conversations on December 3! We’ll be sitting down for a conversation with Bruce Wilson, who sits on the Board of Directors at Iron & Earth. RSVP here!

CSI’s Climate Ventures is an incubator, coworking space, and a range of national accelerators that support entrepreneurs and innovators working on climate solutions. Learn more at

Community is everything: How FitIn Live brought the best parts of the gym online

Quote from Catherine Chan, FitIn Founder: "Suddenly, the gyms were all shutting down and my thoughts immediately went to: 'what will people do? Gyms are a huge source of community. We're going to lose so much.'"

Think about the people you used to see every day: the bleary-eyed employees on the bus in the morning, the smiling barista at your local cafe, the hard-working colleagues at your office or coworking space. Suddenly, we were forced to stay home — and a whole host of familiar faces became missing from our lives.

Humans are social creatures. We seek and crave connection, to the point where loneliness (or perceived social isolation) can be detrimental to our health.

Catherine Chan, Founder of FitIn and one of CSI’s Online Community Members, knew we had to maintain our sense of community. So she launched FitIn Live, which started off as a virtual gym that sources local instructors to provide all-day fitness and mental health programming.

Since her introduction email to the CSI Listserv in March, Catherine has adapted her products to meet the needs of the community.

Now, individuals can book virtual classes with their friends on the FitIn app. It’s just like going to the gym with your workout buddies.

FitIn Live has been transformed into a platform where small-to-medium businesses can curate custom fitness and wellness programs for their employees. Proceeds will subsidize free classes for individuals who would normally face barriers to fitness and wellness professionals through the Feel Good, Do Good program.

A lot has happened. We caught up with this solopreneur to see what this process was like, from that initial jarring moment in the spring.

More than just a workout

“Suddenly, the gyms were all shutting down. […] My thought immediately went to ‘what will people do?’” recalled Catherine. “Gyms are a huge source of community. Your personal trainer knows your history, your story. They’re there to support you and pep you up. And then you have your crew that you work out with, that you see a couple of times a week. And it’s just like ‘oh no, what’s going to happen to that sense of community? We’re going to lose so much.’”

On the other hand, instructors were left in limbo. Some began teaching classes online, uploading videos on YouTube or doing live sessions on Instagram. But working out alone in your living room is very different from being in the gym, surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals.

“Instagram sessions are very one-sided. You have a hard time conversing, so you’ve lost that sense of community already. And the instructor can’t interact with the client. They can’t help them correct their posture; they can’t pep them up.” explained Catherine. “So that’s what we can do with FitIn. Because they’re right there in the same virtual classroom, [instructors] can go up to the camera and say ‘hey, fix your posture in this way’ and ‘make sure you’re drinking your water.’ They’re able to take care of their viewers better.”

One of Catherine’s goals with FitIn is to support instructors. Many of them, like herself, are solopreneurs, which means that they’re juggling finances, marketing, logistics, and service delivery all on their own! FitIn alleviates the stress of transitioning to a new medium, and provides instructors with a platform to connect with other instructors and build a client base.

Making health and wellness more accessible to everyone

The Feel Good, Do Good program provides free access to fitness and mental wellness classes to underserved communities and frontline workers.

Instructors have generously donated their time to teach these classes, and administrative costs will be offset by proceeds from sales of custom corporate programs. It’s a cycle that works, explained Catherine, because more and more organizations are recognizing the importance of employee wellness:

“Some of those businesses have put aside some money for employee wellness during COVID-19, or they’ve realized that they’ve put this off for a while, and now’s the right time to action this plan! There’s a lot of interest in getting some mental wellness content out to their employees, because everyone is still reeling. Mental health [awareness] is at an all-time high.”

FitIn has partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Building Roots Toronto to bring this program to life. Anyone involved with one of these partners can now sign up through their organization or online on the FitIn Live website.

Catherine hopes her work will empower people to prioritize their health by removing barriers to health and wellness professionals.

“We have such an amazing array of classes and instructors out there. […] I think people know what they want and need, but they struggle to find it. So if I present them with a massive menu board, they can cherry pick [based on their needs],” she said. “It’s giving people power over their health and wellness.”

If you miss that sense of belonging you get at the gym, check out the FitIn app.

If you’re a business who wants to support your employee’s health (literally) and give back to the community, consider creating a custom fitness and wellness plan on FitIn Live.

Last but not least, if you want to join Catherine and a host of other like-minded social entrepreneurs, our Online Community Membership!

Header Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels