It’s Not All High-Fives: Balancing the Positive and Constructive at IMPACT!

IMPACT! Sustainability Champions Training, Guelph, ON, March 2015

If you have ever watched the Monty Python Argument sketch, you may think back on all of the people who appeared to thrive on opposition and arguing for arguments sake. While simply being contrarian can be maddening for most, so can the other extreme where discussions are dominated by overwhelming agreement, or “groupthink”. The most recent IMPACT! Sustainability Champions Training, a collaborative project of The Natural Step Canada and The Co-operators, brought together over 45 individuals to explore opportunities in sustainability and social entrepreneurship. While IMPACT! created some very positive experiences for the attendees, did it balance this positive group dynamic with critical and constructive feedback?

The workshop created a safe space in which the young leaders, aged 19 to 30 years old, could share their ideas. Such a space was grounded in collaboration and respect so that participants felt free to partake in the weekend activities. In this regard IMPACT! was hugely successful. There was definitely a positive vibe of camaraderie and fellowship amongst all of the facilitators, speakers, and youth attendees.

The weekend had the feeling of a retreat, where participants not only shared ideas but gathered in celebration of those ideas. Depending on the individual, this can be a very positive experience, especially if one is looking for affirmation and support where little is offered outside of this space. One participant from Northern Ontario felt overwhelmed by the positive reception she received for her ideas in social entrepreneurship - feedback she said was harder to come by back at home. Another participant shared that she had struggled with pursuing her ideas in sustainability for mental health reasons but that the event had encouraged her to re-focus her efforts on developing her own energy management consultancy.  As for myself, I can't say that I will ever adopt “twinkling fingers” instead of clapping hands at future meetings or conferences, but I found that the world café, open space, and appreciative enquiry discussions were well executed and created opportunities for all to participate and share in the experience.

What I found interesting was that many of the attendees (myself included) wanted to pursue projects in sustainable agriculture or food-growing systems. Many of them also revealed, however, that like me, they felt that they needed more experience in these areas. As such, were there opportunities for these participants to receive critical feedback on their ideas? Did they benefit from some industry experience and guidance at the workshop? Similarly, some individuals had ideas in energy efficiency and transportation. Were they able to get feedback on the feasibility of their ideas in the wider marketplace? In other words, were the facilitators able to support the positive atmosphere with some benchmarking and/or platforms in which to critically assess or grow ideas?

I found that all of the participants I spoke with felt that they had received a great deal of constructive feedback and advice on the feasibility of their ideas. In this regard, The Natural Step Canada and The Co-operators had set up roundtable and smaller group discussions for participants to not only connect with industry professionals and facilitators, but to network with each other. For example, I spoke with one individual who works on a biodynamic farm just outside of Guelph - insight and experience that I will undoubtedly revisit as I develop my own business plan. In turn, I was able to offer some advice on lifecycle analysis to compliment her interests in tracking downstream waste production and disposal in the farm's supply chain. Similarly, the aspiring energy management consultant was able to connect with and gain some valuable insight from a fellow participant and mechanical engineer that works for an energy auditing firm. Other participants started their own local support and resource groups, while one youth simply felt that just by talking through her ideas she was able to get a clearer image of her vision and goals. In addition to facilitating connections to mentors, the IMPACT! online messaging board (which links participants to all IMPACT! alumni across Canada) and the program's Facebook page will help participants maintain and grow these networks as they work through their business and marketing plans in the upcoming months.

In summary, the weekend presented a unique and well-balanced blend of reaffirming messages and ways in which participants could critically share ideas and learn from each other's experiences. Industry experts, knowledgeable facilitators, and quite frankly some pretty savvy participants were able to bring constructive and critical feedback to each other in a nurturing and supportive manner. It is always inspiring to observe those individuals that are not just looking for jobs but creating opportunities while in pursuit of their passions in the environment and social welfare. It is equally inspiring to witness organizations like The Natural Step Canada and The Co-operators show youth how they can harness these energies to become successful leaders in sustainability. I look forward to following up on these stories and their progress in the coming weeks and hopefully sharing a story or two with you!

Written by Cathy Crawley, IMPACT! Sustainability Champions Training Attendee and Storyteller, Student at Conestoga College

To learn more about the IMPACT! Sustainability Champions Training and to apply for an upcoming session, please visit The next session is happening in Sudbury, from May 1st to 3rd. Apply today to take your sustainability journey to the next level!