There's a small, W-shaped island sandwiched between the densely wooded coastline of mainland British Columbia and the equally picturesque Vancouver Island. It seems an unlikely place to find a hundred or so leading social entrepreneurs, environmentalists, community organizers, and NGOs gathered under the same roof, or at least, around the same sprawling organic garden. After all, it takes a long, winding drive, three ferries, and multiple hours—or one slightly hair-raising direct flight in an amphibious plane—to get to Cortes Island from the nearest major city.
The end destination is Hollyhock, a retreat and learning center that has been a hub of Canadian progressivism for decades. "Hollyhock exists to inspire, nourish, and support people who are making the world better," the slogan goes. It was established in 1982 by a disparate group of artists, psychologists, and ex-Greenpeace members, including Rex Weyler, a co-founder of Greenpeace International. The property had originally been home to the influential Cold Mountain Institute, but had fallen out of use after the founder's death.
"It was like a stray dog, you know?" Weyler told me. "It needed someone to come along and take care of it."
Since then, Hollyhock has regularly hosted gatherings and conferences that attract some of the brightest minds working in the region's business, nonprofit, and activist sectors. This year, the organizers of the Social Change Institute hauled me up north to check out its 4-day program, which includes in-depth case studies of nonprofit organizational structure, keynote talks from thinkers and activists, and plenty of opportunity for intimate conversation with folks a more presumptuous conference would term "thought leaders."
"I'd like to say something to those of you coming here for the first time," said Mike Rowlands, an entrepreneur with Junxion Strategy and repeat Hollyhock visitor, says, leaning forward from the audience on the first day's gathering. We're sitting, shoeless, in a half circle in a sort of log cabin/spirit lodge hybrid. "Pace yourself. And be gentle with each other. It's easy to leave here feeling on the edge of yourself." Nodding all around.
Before we proceed, allow me to offer up a brief cross-section of the attendees that sequester themselves in the Canadian wilderness for nearly a week, brainstorming new and improved ways to make the world a better place:
-Steve Anderson, co-founder of OpenMedia.ca, Canada's leading pro-internet freedom watchdog
-Tzeporah Berman, leading Canadian environmentalist with two decades of far-flung activism under her belt
-Andrea Reimer, City councillor of Vancouver, staunch advocate for the Greenest City 2020 initiative
-Jessy Tolkan, former executive director for the U.S. Energy Action Coalition
-Cara Pike, director of Climate Access and co-convener of the Social Change Institute
-Jamie Biggar, co-founder of LeadNow, Canada's answer to MoveOn.org
-Claudia Li, founder of Shark Truth, a nonprofit fighting to get shark fin soup off the menu in Vancouver
-Jeremy Osborn, operations manager of 350.org, the US-based climate powerhouse
-Judy Rebick, one of Canada's leading feminist and political thinkers/writers
You get the picture. There are some big brains in those fog-swept woods. And there are dozens and dozens more, but a bulleted list can only go on for so long. It’s heavily skewed towards Canadians, with many of the attendees working in Vancouver and around B.C. Many of these folks stay in small, single-room cabins (like yours truly) and many camp out. A couple live on the island.
Like any conference, there's a jam-packed agenda, and attendees file in and out of dining halls, auditoriums, and breakout sessions. Unlike any other conference, everyone's quarantined to the same remote island area, those auditoriums are wooden spirit lodges—shoes off before you enter—and everybody talks to everybody. It's an intense setting, to be sure, and that sets it apart.
In fact, the greatest thrust of the Social Change Institute seems simply to be to get these ambitious social change-makers (to employ the jargon of our times) in the same rooms, chatting. Sharing ideas, casually becoming more intimately aware of one another's work, making partnerships.
"It's very easy to exist in a contained group of allies," said Kevin Millsip, the founder of NextUp, an organization that incubates youth activists and social entrepreneurs. "So coming here, you're exposed to people with a different take. I feel like I leave every time with a new parter or ally. And I'm having conversations with people here that would normally happen over a series of weeks and months."
For this very reason, Hollyhock has attracted the ire of the Canadian conservatives, whose national party currently holds a majority. One of its top priorities is expanding the Alberta tar sands, and building a series of pipelines to pump it out, including the Keystone XL here in the U.S. So, Stephen Harper's government has undertaken a strategy that's rather predictable to those of us who live in the sates—painting environmentalists and other progressives opposed to the project as 'radicals' or 'extremists.'
And so, Hollyhock and its conferences seem to pose a convenient straw man for the right and its oil industry allies. Canada's prominent conservative paper, the National Post, ran a cover story a couple years ago that attempted to paint Hollyhock and the Social Change Institute as a many-tentacled network backed by nefarious foreign funders, intent on manipulating Canadian politics.
Reading that story now, it's hard to stifle laughter. Its overbearingly conspiratorial tone insists that you should be afraid, very afraid of this ne'er-do-welling cohort—and sure, if you talk to many of the folks at SCI independently, some are pretty pissed that Harper's government is trying to ram through an omnibus bill that would pave the way for the oil industry and roll back myriad environmental protections. But there was no anti-conservative political strategizing in these sessions, no plotting to overthrow Harper, nada.
Instead, there was a lot constructive criticism on how to build stronger campaigns around specific issues (climate, shark fin soup, gay rights), lengthy group discussions about issues like ageism, spirited conversations about ecology held in hot tubs, and one hell of an oyster barbecue. Cower, Harper—your end is nigh.
If there were a chief engineer of the entire experience, that’d be Joel Solomon, Hollyhock's board chair (his wife, Dana, is CEO). He's the nefarious 'foreign-funder' (he was born in Tennessee, and his father was a prominent shopping mall developer) that the right flaps about. He’s an affable, exuberant middle-aged man with short, salt and pepper hair—far from a scheming leftwing puppet master, Solomon is more interested in ensuring that the caliber of discussion stays high, and that attendees can satisfactorily relax. And he’s proud of what Hollyhock stands for.
“It's lifelong learning for everyday leaders,” he wrote me in an email, “rooted on magnificent oceanside land that has hosted generations of conscious care for the good of the whole.”
And it seems to be working.
"We doubled attendance from last year," Cara Pike, one of SCI's organizers, said. "There's a huge demand for this kind of community." It's easy to see why—beachside retreat, safe, respectful environment, hot tubs, meditation sessions, massage therapy, good food, interesting company, and a feel-good altruistic bent propelling the discussion.
“It’s like summer camp for adults with a purpose,” Millsip said. And I’m told time and again that SCI helps the flock of do-gooders “avoid burnout.” In that vein, SCI seeks to answer a question Pike posed to me: "How do you actually live a life while trying to build a new resilient, livable, sustainable system and not get depressed about things like climate change?"
What she means is, there are too many mounting issues, too many seemingly un-winnable wars, too much going wrong every day. SCI gives Canada’s activists and entrepreneurs an opportunity to recharge, regroup—and to move the conversation forward. As Solomon says, “The SCI model reignites pragmatic, interconnected optimism.”