Social change by design: An interview with Linh Nguyen

Guiding me through the new Student Learning Centre at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Linh Nguyen turns to me and says, “Let’s go to the beach.”

The Beach, as it turns out, is not outside. It is the aptly named sixth floor of the innovative eight-story building, where every floor has been uniquely designed to encourage more productive and positive student experiences. With colourful tiered seating that slopes towards a sweeping floor-to-ceiling window highlighted with splashes of blue, the Beach is meant to be a place for students to relax, connect, and interact with one another.

Linh has taken me here to show me an example of “behavioural design.” Grounded in the belief that people and place are interwoven, the approach aims to create physical spaces that can make you feel and act in positive ways. Seeing this idea as an opportunity to influence social change, in early 2014 Linh founded the Bodhi Collective, a group of Gen Y creatives that wants to use physical space as a vehicle for social good.

While in Toronto, I had the chance to talk with Linh about the Bodhi Collective, and their work to create social change through design.

Can you tell us a little about the Bodhi Collective?

LN: We’re a creative firm designing environments to change behaviour for social good.

Unhealthy habits are a pattern that demands disruptive change. We’ve stopped assuming that our decisions are always rational – we’re humans! So how do we do this? We believe art, design, and the space around us can catalyze this shift because our philosophy is grounded in belief that people and place are infinitely related.

What compelled you to start the Bodhi Collective?

LN: My ‘aha’ moment was so similar to yours, Joe!

Thinking about our challenges in building a sustainable future, it was easy to realize our shortcomings as vulnerable, raw individuals. We falter and occasionally give in, even those with strong, social convictions. How do we bridge this gap? What’s missing?

This realization, I knew, was more than raising awareness for a green, clean future. To spark this critical mass, we need more. The Bodhi Collective was founded to fill this need. Negative human behaviour sits at the root of our greatest challenges and it’s the physical space around us that has the ability to change this.

Bodhi Collective team members working on a project to convert an empty pond into an urban oasis with natural greenery and crafted flowers made from upcycled materials
Bodhi Collective team members working on a project to convert an empty pond into an urban oasis with natural greenery and crafted flowers made from upcycled materials

 

You use the term “behavioural design” to describe the work you do. If you had to explain it to your grandmother, how would you describe behavioural design?

LN: Behavioural design understands how the space around us can influence our emotions, actions, and experiences. We take this belief and build it into tangible form: it’s architecture meets a real human touch.

We’re creating spaces that can make you feel and act in positive ways and we’re doing this using a co-creative approach. We’re designing an environment with the user as part of the design process – we’re doing this with you.

Let’s hear about one of your success stories. Can you share a recent example of a space the Bodhi Collective has transformed?

LN: From an open space, bare studio…to an immersive art installation with colour, lights, and clouds.

Art Can Change is an installation co-created with Madeleine Co that asks What Can Art Do For You? The piece began in Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design, a converted 19th century warehouse that was transformed for Creative Catalyst, a symposium on art and social innovation. Art Can Change redesigned the second floor into a space with meaning.

The installation posed the idea of using art to confront our fears. It provided an experience: users were greeted by a large yellow wall that prompted each individual to answer the question ‘Art Can Change ___’ digitally on a screen. The natural flow then took individuals to another participatory exercise that asked three questions ‘Are you an artist?’, ‘What are your greatest fears?’ and ‘What can art do for you?’ Answers were displayed anonymously on an 18-foot wall that ended with an artificially crafted cloud of origami paper, LED lights, and changing colours that responded to each new answer.

This was a piece that brought together a community of people believing in the opportunity for art to create better possible futures. It was intended to start an open conversation followed by an act to spark this change. This has a focus on social sustainability: how we’re able to build community, increase our well-being, and quality of life through art and design.

The Bodhi Collective transformed an open, bare studio into an immersive art installation, called Art Can Change
The Bodhi Collective transformed an open, bare studio into an immersive art installation, called Art Can Change

 

How do you think your work has impacted others in your community?

LN: Our work is intended to provide immersive experiences and change behaviour through design. Social change can be sexy, exciting, and real – that’s the deep-rooted impression we aim to leave in every engagement piece we design.

For example, our first project is anchored in environmental sustainability and takes a simple idea that tackles a complex problem. Increasing stair usage at Ryerson University began as a design experiment. What if we re-engineered this space to make the decision to take the stairs easier? We proposed the idea of placing ‘prompts’ to do this: floor tiles carving a path to the stairwell doors that lit up in a rainbow of colours and an art piece that subtly directed your line of vision to the doors. Once we captured interest and had people in the stairwell, it then became an immersive experience. We brought the outdoors in with a vertical garden, rainforest mural and seating area that doubled as a phone charging station. This change of space is designed to make taking the stairs natural, exciting, and enjoyable – ingredients that transforms a high-impact experience into a newly adopted behavioural pattern.

We hope to apply this concept in a number of applications, from increasing recycling practices to making healthier food options.

Transforming a mundane stairwell at Ryerson University into an experience that makes taking the stairs exciting and fun
Transforming a mundane stairwell at Ryerson University into an experience that makes taking the stairs exciting and fun

 

Imagine for a moment that you could wave a magic wand and instantaneously transform a neighbourhood in Toronto into the picture-perfect urban space. What would it look like? 

LN: This neighbourhood would be empathetic to the needs of its residents. It would be a space that is co-creative in nature and encourages human interaction – a fuse between beauty and function, while contributing to a positive environmental impact. There would be a variety of functional attributes and services to enhance day-to-day living (residential, commercial, mixed-uses); laneways for multi-modal transportation (pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers); social activities, community involvement, safety and security; and  emotional attraction: laughter, energy, optimism, and purpose.

From a big-picture perspective, what do you think it will take to shift human behaviour to a more positive, sustainable path?

LN: It needs to be more than raising awareness and educating. These efforts need to be complimented by our natural and built environments that catalyze change in sustainable, meaningful ways. We need spaces that are conducive to positive behaviour.

Finally, what advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?

LN: Talk about it, share it, and be in love with it. Everything else will fall into place.

Linh Nguyen is the founder of the Bodhi Collective, a creative firm that designs environments to change behaviour for social good. Her passion also extends into politics, where she is the Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Ontario and serves as a Shadow Cabinet critic on youth-related policy.

Oppression to opportunity: An interview with Michael Redhead Champagne

Michael Redhead Champagne, aka the North End MC, was born and raised in the North End of Winnipeg, an inner-city neighbourhood with a history of poverty and violence. Growing up, Michael witnessed firsthand the drawing power of gangs on youth in his neighbourhood. So at the age of 23, he decided to do something about it.

In 2010, Michael created AYO! Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, an “anti-gang” that encourages Aboriginal youth to embrace their unique gifts in order to create new opportunities in the community. One of his most notable accomplishments is “Meet Me At The Bell Tower,” a weekly gathering that brings North Enders together to connect, share, and learn from each other.

While in Winnipeg, I had the chance to speak with Michael about Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, and what he’s learned from his work as a community-builder.

Michael, can you tell us about Aboriginal Youth Opportunities?

MRC: Aboriginal Youth Opportunities is a volunteer youth movement in Winnipeg’s North End. We are a group of helpers committed to breaking stereotypes and creating opportunity for our peers. As young Indigenous leaders, it is important for us to share teachings we have learned, as well as encourage others in the broader community to pay attention to the examples of Aboriginal youth.

What compelled you to start AYO?

MRC: In Spring 2010, I came together with other young leaders who I had known and volunteered with for many years outside of formal organizations. Indigenous youth voices are often minimized or tokenized in established institutions. To have our voices heard, I imagined a group of people who would lead by example to help our neighbours and our community on a regular basis.

What motivated me to take action was the immense amount of potential that is present in Indigenous youth. We also had a place (Circle of Life Thunderbird House) where we felt safe and had access to Indigenous grandmothers and the many teachings that we had not yet learned.

Michael Redhead Champagne in his hometown of Winnipeg
Michael Redhead Champagne in his hometown of Winnipeg

 

I’ve heard you describe AYO as an anti-gang. What does that mean to you?

MRC: We began as an anti-gang and, over time, developed into the youth movement we are today. Our beginnings as an anti-gang are rooted in the fact that gangs were highly effective at attracting teenagers in our community. We recognized that if we wanted to engage young people as successfully as street gangs we needed to replace the allure of crime with something more attractive. That “something else” was an opportunity to be a leader, a student, and to have a place to belong – a family.

One thing I admire about your message is its positivity. You encourage Aboriginal youth to embrace their unique gifts in order to create new opportunities. Can you tell us one of your favourite success stories?

MRC: I am reminded of a young lady from “Meet Me At The Bell Tower” who shared her struggles with depression. We encouraged this young lady to reach out to her parents and teachers for help, and she kept us updated every week. She shared her struggles of having her mom believe her, and having to explain to others what she was feeling inside. You can imagine how proud we were when she told us that her mom was helping her to address her feelings. She also shared her ideas for a community awareness campaign intended to remove the stigma that can prevent people with mental health challenges from asking for help. It is a beautiful illustration of what can happen when we listen to our young people and encourage them to help themselves. Their immediate natural reaction will be to help those around them too.

You have gone public about your own experiences growing up in the North End of Winnipeg. Can you tell us a little about your personal journey?

MRC: It all began when I was ten years old. At the time, it was difficult for me to speak up, but it would have been more difficult to remain silent. Reflecting on my personal journey, I saw a common thread and that was how stereotypes enabled oppression to continue. With that thought in mind, it seems logical that if we break down stereotypes we can get to the root of oppression. Once we know each other and we know each other’s humanity, we can work together to create a solution to oppression.

Michael Redhead Champagne, ready to take on the world
Michael Redhead Champagne, ready to take on the world

 

How has sharing your own story impacted others in your community?

MRC: Sharing my story seems to have encouraged others to share theirs. I believe strongly that people don’t learn from the words you say to them; they learn from the examples they see around them. That’s why my example is my message, more so than my words.

If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all your work in your community?

MRC: A single strand of sweetgrass is weak, but many strands together in a braid is strong.

Breaking stereotypes is not easy. What advice would you give to someone who is being oppressed or bullied because of a stereotype?

MRC: First, recognize the  source of the stereotype. Second, don’t behave that way to people in your own life. Third, connect to the highest possible level to eliminate the source of the stereotype not only for yourself, but for everyone who comes after you. Finally, provide a realistic and possible alternative to the oppression, which is usually an opportunity. The most meaningful opportunities are when people can share their gifts with others.

 

Starting a movement is hard work. What recommendations do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?

MRC: My go-to approach is based on traditional teachings about the Medicine Wheel. Here’s how the Medicine Wheel can help move your idea forward:

  • SPIRIT. Start with expressing your idea in words to those who you think will understand. Share your idea with safe people so it can be nurtured, supported and cared for. The back-and-forth communication will help you better express the true spirit  of your idea with others.
  • BODY. Write it down. This gives your idea a body and you can proceed to share it with a wider range of people. You can also write down goals, intended outcomes, and potential helpers. Dream big when you write it down; being realistic comes later. This is a stage of constructive criticism. People may disagree with parts of your idea, so be ready to be challenged and write down criticisms too. Don’t take any of it personally.
  • HEART. This is where you learn to express your emotional reasons for moving your idea forward. This is where you identify helpers – people who are willing to volunteer their time and gifts to achieve the outcomes of your idea. Aim high and select those who (like you) believe the world needs the idea.
  • MIND. Finally, it’s time to make an action plan. Bring your helpers together and lay out your first steps. Everyone should get a job that is suited to their needs. Focus on those who show up, not on those who don’t.

A lifelong North Ender, Michael Redhead Champagne is the founder of AYO! Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, a youth movement that has been breaking stereotypes and creating opportunities since 2010. He is a community organizer and public speaker who travels across Canada sharing teachings, acronyms and strategies with youth, leaders and educators. Visit Michael’s website for more information.

Having more with less: An interview with Julie Phillips

The devastating Alberta floods in 2013 displaced over one hundred thousand people throughout the region. Calgary resident, Julie Phillips, was one of those affected.

The flooding forced Julie to find a new home because the place she was planning to move into was uninhabitable. Thankfully, one of her friends, Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz, kindly offered up a room in his apartment. The only problem: there was room for Julie, but not for her stuff. Forced to downsize, Julie had to give away the bulk of her possessions.

The experience left her shaken, but also put her on a new trajectory. Less than a month later, Julie would take downsizing to a whole new level, and she would do it on her own terms. Together with Geoffrey, she decided to try living a year without buying anything. They called their project the Buy Nothing Year.

I recently had the chance to talk with Julie about her radical life experiment in minimalism, and what she learned from the experience.

Can you tell us about Buy Nothing Year and how it came about?

JP: Buy Nothing Year was a “one-year life experiment in not buying sh*t.” Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz and I started it in 2013, when I moved in with him after the place I was planning to move into was damaged in the Calgary flood. Geoffrey kindly offered me his spare bedroom, but he did not have the space for me to bring any of my other furniture or belongings. In a matter of days, I gave most of it away to friends and folks who were affected by the flood. I had a small meltdown about two weeks after I moved in when I came home from a trip to find Geoffrey had taken a pile of my things to Salvation Army. Even though I said I was okay parting with the stuff, I felt panicked from letting so much go.

That prompted us to start questioning why we hold on to so much stuff, and why we place so much value on material things. During one of our first nights together as new roommates, over a bottle of wine, we came up with the idea to go a year without buying anything.

We looked around our place and realized we could probably do with a little minimizing, but could we really go a whole year with only what we had? We wanted to see the effects it would have on us personally and socially, and it was an opportunity to put our values of sustainability into practice.

We didn’t do a big spend before the project. Instead, we just started… “Start before you’re ready” and “Shoot, ready, aim” were two of our favourite expressions at the time, and we watched Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk on “The art of asking.”

Geoffrey, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology, designed our social experiment using a therapeutic technique called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT), which acknowledges that we would make mistakes, but could still stick to the program. For the first three months, we cut out spending on material goods, such as furniture, clothes, and house wares. Then, starting at the three-month mark, we cut out all services like eating out, coffees, haircuts, dry cleaning, and transportation (bus passes and gasoline).

For the final month of the project, we intended to cut out all food purchases, but by the time we reached that point we decided to scrap that aspect. Our garden hadn’t started growing and we didn’t want to dumpster dive. We also felt that the project already had so many components – consumerism, personal finances, saving, minimalism, environmentalism – that to go without food purchases might change the tone of the project. We realized that a month without purchasing food could be its own distinct experiment, so we decided not to do it.

Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz started Buy Nothing Year to test-drive the benefits of minimalism (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)
Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz started Buy Nothing Year to test-drive the benefits of minimalism (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)

 

What was your working definition for “buying nothing”? Did you impose any rules, or have any exceptions as part of your experiment?

JP: Through the whole project, the only things we paid for were food from grocery stores, rent and utilities (including cell phone and Internet). We made our own cleaning products and laundry detergent, but found dish soap hard to make. It was always streaky, didn’t bubble and didn’t seem to clean our dishes; so we purchased dish soap.

What products were the most challenging for you to give up?

JP: For me, it was most challenging after the three-month mark when we cut out services. I didn’t realize how much my social and professional lives were based on going out for drinks, coffees, shows, and meals. It was hard for me to shift my lifestyle away from these types of experiences. As I started to change my habits, though, I noticed how much money I was saving, which made it easier to stick with it.

It was also hard to give up my car. I like being busy and doing a lot in a day. Not being able to drive really limited what I was able to do and where I was able to go. I had to slow down. It was also hard not to travel. I ended up taking a trip to see a friend in Seattle after one of her family members died during the project. Those were the types of things that we couldn’t anticipate before we started the project.

I also learned that any time I spent in a mall made me want to spend, so I just stopped going into them. I still stay out of malls, even though the project ended almost a year ago.

I’m curious, what was the very first thing you purchased when the year was over?

JP: An electric tea kettle for my grandmother. She wanted a white one so it matched the other appliances.

Doing such a radical social experiment must have been a life-altering experience. What were some of the biggest life lessons you learned along the way?

JP: In many ways, I felt like I was re-learning values my parents instilled in me from my childhood: to appreciate what you have, to not spend mindlessly, to fix something if it’s broken. I grew up with a prairie mentality of conserving food and money. I remember buying my first clock radio as a kid with allowance money and agonizing over the decision for weeks. I wanted to buy something useful, but it still felt indulgent. As I got older, I just started buying things as I needed and wanted them. This project felt like a process of remembering things I already knew, but somehow had forgotten.

We’re surrounded by so many powerful marketing messages and invitations to spend. One of the biggest thing I learned was just how privileged many of us are in Canada, that one of our problems is we have too much. It was really a reminder to be grateful and appreciate what I already have. It made me feel resourceful. I think I’m a happier person compared to when I started the project because I’m no longer comparing myself to other people or telling myself I’ll be happy “once I get a new haircut, a new pair of shoes, go for a vacation, etc.” It was a very personal, introspective experience.

I also learned better financial management skills. I track my finances now. Geoffrey taught me to “reconcile my accounts” monthly. It’s given me more confidence and it is freeing. I’ve learned to live very lightly, so I have space, time and money to do the things I have always wanted to do.

When I was at a point of absolute minimalism, I discovered it was the people who made my world. Support from friends and strangers who contacted us to offer skills, resources, time, encouragement; time with Geoffrey and meals with friends and family. Those are still my most positive, important moments and memories from the project, and they continue in my life now.

Sharing meals helped Julie and Geoffrey build a stronger, closer friendship (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)
Sharing meals helped Julie and Geoffrey build a stronger, closer friendship (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)

 

How do you think sharing your story has impacted others in your community?

JP: We had many opportunities to speak at community events, like Pecha Kucha Night Calgary, Nerd Nite Calgary, and Calgary Mini Maker Faire. We blogged and had an online presence through social media, which connected us with people from around the world. It was wonderful to see how far our project spread. Even though the project is finished, people are still interested in it.

We heard stories from people who had to stop buying things for personal or financial reasons, and from people who have started their own versions of the project. I have seen the impact on people who started minimizing, making space in their homes and lives, giving things away and learning to do and make things for themselves. I think it’s a really empowering movement that helps people to increase their satisfaction levels, while also making communities stronger.

Learning to be happy with less, minimizing and resisting consumerism are habits that do more than just teach us better money management skills. They also help to diminish the power that marketing messages have on our sense of self-worth. And they encourage people to connect and share with each other, and I think that helps to strengthen communities.

Minimalism encourages people to connect and share with each other, which promotes personal happiness and strengthens communities (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)
Minimalism encourages people to connect and share with each other, which promotes personal happiness and strengthens communities (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)

 

Can you tell us a little about the work you’ve done to help promote the minimalism philosophy?

JP: We have done a lot of public speaking and interviews with media, which is how many people have heard of our project. We both volunteered our time during Buy Nothing Year with various community festivals and events. We met a lot of people who were interested in what we were doing. In Calgary, our project was really regarded with curiosity because it is such a consumer-driven city (more than other prairie cities).

As well, we have both taken the philosophy of Buy Nothing Year into our day jobs. I work with arts and community associations, such as Slow Food Calgary and the Alberta Media Production Industries Association, and my new minimalist perspective really influences the work I do with these organizations. I’ve also noticed that since the project, I am more mindful of the types of organizations I get involved with. It’s very important to me that our values align. There are minimalist chapters in many cities, but I haven’t been involved with these.

Going cold-turkey on consumerism is not for everyone. However, it’s fair to say that most of us could benefit from scaling back at least a little bit. How would you sell someone on the idea of adopting a minimalistic mindset?

JP: I can speak to the benefits I personally experienced from doing the project. I feel more self-aware, more financially responsible, and better equipped to make ethical purchasing choices. I’m now more resistant to marketing messages and my self-confidence is no longer linked to consuming. I feel healthier because I’m walking and cycling a lot more. I’m saving money by not paying for parking and doing free activities with friends.

Adopting a minimalist lifestyle has given me the freedom and flexibility to spend only when I see fit, without feeling pressured by other people. Learning to build things and fix things for yourself is really empowering too. There are so many great how-to videos on YouTube.

From a more global perspective, I’ve learned to ask more questions about how products are being made. Who is manufacturing them? Where do they come from? What are the living and working conditions there? We hear there are people living on less than a dollar a day in many parts of the world. Increasingly, I have difficulty being okay with that. Colin Beavan (No Impact Man), who became a great mentor during our project, once said something along the lines of, “If you don’t come out of a project like this as an activist or having a spiritual experience, you have no soul.” I agree; doing this experiment has been transformational.

Learning to make and fix things for yourself is empowering and builds a sense of self-reliance (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)
Learning to make and fix things for yourself is empowering and builds a sense of self-reliance (Photo by Kevin Jesuino, @kevinjesuino)

 

Disconnecting from consumerism is not easy. What tips would you give someone considering a more minimalistic lifestyle?

JP: Start slow. Maybe one drawer at a time if you’re minimizing in your home, or “buy nothing” one day a week if you’re trying to spend less money. Doing it with someone else is really helpful and keeps you on track. I couldn’t have done it without Geoffrey. Having a plan or a goal in mind can be useful too. Also, paying attention to the things that feel good can be incredibly motivating. Through our blog and media interviews, as well as talking with each other, Geoffrey and I were constantly reflecting on what the experience did to us. I expect it will be different for everyone, depending on their goals or desired outcomes. Our project was rooted in inquiry and discovery; we had no idea what we wanted to take away from it. That made the project a lot of fun, but also scary at times.

I would also recommend talking to people in your life who you think live minimally and ask and observe what they do. There are lots of great websites, blogs and e-newsletters about minimalism. We continue to post a lot of articles to the Buy Nothing Year Facebook page. I found that it helps to read not only about practical tools for minimizing, but also the social and environmental effects of over-consumption. While a lot of these impacts are systemic and the responsibility of industry to change on a large-scale, changing our personal habits is also part of the path to a sustainable future.

What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for their own social change project, and wants to make it a reality?

JP: Start it! Start today. It’s going to change and shift as you go along, and that’s all part of the journey. Start before you’re ready. Just talking to people about it is enough to start putting it into motion. I think everyone should do a life experiment at least once. You’ll develop so much resilience, and it will inspire the people around you. This is where true change comes from – inspiring each other to be better.

Julie Phillips is a connector, storyteller, consultant and volunteer, especially in the arts. Her work centres around active citizenship and digital media. Visit www.julieish.com for more information.