Communicating the Work of Outreach and Communications
Communication is Sharing
Just over a year ago, I began a half-time role with the L’Arche Canada Outreach and Communications team. I came with a deep sense of call to communicate, or share with others, all that I have been discovering in L’Arche for over 30 years. Within weeks, I was questioning if I could take on a role that was changing rapidly. Then I had an experience that reminded me what outreach and communication is all about.
In May 2016, I went with Mel, a long-time L’Arche companion, to speak at the Danforth Jewish Circle about inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities. I was thrilled that he was willing to go as he guarded his weekend down time. It helped that we had met earlier that week with Amy from the accessibility committee and Rabbi Miriam. In addition, Mel, who prayed often for unity between people of different faiths, was happy that this Jewish congregation meets in an active United Church in our neighbourhood.
By the time we got into the sanctuary up dark, uneven stairs, Mel was tired out. (Accessibility renovations began soon after.) The plan was to share about our life in community then a few words on inclusion. We had done this many times before. Sometimes, Mel could be a little ornery but with gentle coaxing he would move into a natural flow of stories that were in turn funny and heartfelt, silly and soulful. But this morning, he had no pep and nothing to add as I began speaking. So I ditched my notes and reached out. “Mel, you seem a little tired.” He responded, “I don’t know what’s going on with me these days.” With that little connection, Mel began to open up, and we shared a number of stories, in turn funny and heartfelt, silly and soulful. As he was speaking, I looked out and realized that something magical was happening; the small congregation had come right into the story with us. Our vulnerability, mutual care and delight had created a connection with them. It was clear that they had known the secret to welcoming a person with intellectual disabilities all along –to listen with respect, to be patient, kind, and open to the other as a friend and a companion on the journey. A bond was created in the sharing.
A year of transition
I relied on this experience as I committed to a team in a time of great change. Beth Porter, who wrote, edited and led development of a wide range of publications and educational resources for over 16 years had retired and was working on her final project, a teachers’ guides to accompany the wonderful video “Pareil pas pareil.” The Foundation, in whose offices Beth had worked, was under new direction with Dean Levitt retiring from the Board and Gary Sim taking on the role of CEO. And my friend John O’Donnell had left the role of Director of Outreach and Communications after 3 years where he had steered the “with” campaign amongst many projects. The big project of the moment was the creation of a new platform for larche.ca with increased capacity that would eventually integrate the members’ site (larche commons) and the recruitment site that was launched in the summer of 2016. It was a time of change, loss, and new direction – and it wasn’t easy.
In the midst of all these changes, there was a reaffirmation of the strategic directions for Outreach and Communications. These directions had been named and approved in a major Communications review in 2010. The fundamentals include:
- Primary focus on the wider cause of the L’Arche mission to promote the gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities, together, creating “a more human society.” We accomplish this through public dialogue with partners; sharing our wisdom and learning and that of our partners online; an emphasis on storytelling in words, pictures and creative media; and through educational resources.
- Secondary focus on marketing L’Arche in partnership with the foundation, the recruitment team and the regions/communities. Storytelling marketing is key to promoting L’Arche as well as promoting the cause, so we need to build our capacity to tell stories well that connect to the hearts of target audiences including current and potential donors, volunteers, assistants, and other partners in the mission. The 50th anniversary of L’Arche in Canada is an opportunity to make L’Arche better known.
- Internal communications that not only share information, but also engage all internal stakeholders in the project of renewing the ways we live L’Arche Core values, mission and mandate. This is key to building stronger collaboration with the communities and their networks.
If this plan was not ambitious enough, we chose to experiment with a new team structure. Instead of replacing a full-time director and part-time writer/editor/ resource developer, both Manu (Jean-Emmanuel Allard), our long-time communications consultant, and I would go to 4 days a week and join Bernard Lebleu, our visual communications designer and IT department who would remain at 4 days a week (creating the new International website on his 5th day). Manu and I would both produce content and develop and implement the communications plan. Eventually, I was asked to lead the team. Even though I am the beginner and Manu and Bernard have a great deal of knowledge and experience, I have L’Arche in my bones and know the organization – its strengths and weaknesses – well. Working with two very different, yet equally passionate and creative men can be exhausting as well as inspiring. (I’m sure the same has been said of me.) Perhaps, my friendship with Mel prepared me for this role.
The seas get rougher
We went into September with an ambitious plan and much enthusiasm. But things were about to become even more challenging. It was clear that the daily workload on Bernard remained high even as he was developing three websites. We were able to move the time-consuming job of email support to Bill Ing who was able to make fixes in our system and provide ongoing supports. Bernard had begun discussion about renewing the Foundation website and then shifted focus to the major project of putting Servant Leadership training modules online. Cleaning up larche.ca and getting the intranet completed just had to wait and are only now moving forward.
Crisis communication also became a priority as testimonials were published of sexual abuse in France in the 1970s and 80s. We received this as an important call for increased openness, engagement with the world, and reaffirmation of our core values and the practices that uphold them. It was both time consuming and emotionally draining, but we are grateful for this call to mobilize our members in a common cause of renewing the mission.
At the same time, the L’Arche Canada Leaders engaged in a process with an organization called Innoweave to look at ways we can have increased and more unified impact. This process was particularly challenging for Outreach and Communications that has such a broad mandate to impact Canadian society. These questions dovetailed with ones from the Foundation about how we can best have measureable impact in Canada with our limited resources and with the strategic investment of current and potential donors. We are still working on this area that is fundamental for moving forward together.
The good news
While some things have been moving more slowly then planned and others have been accelerated, our year of change and experimentation is showing some good results:
- Roundtables at the World Social Forum and following in Gatineau and Montreal are a model for increased public dialogue with partners. With Lori in the Growth Initiative, I am meeting with potential partners in English speaking Canada to look at future collaborations.
- A reflection group helped produced a paper for the federal government’s consultation on proposed legislation, members in different provinces participated in public meetings, and a small delegation met with the Hon Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities in Ottawa.
- A consultation with communities is engaging them in the choices we need to make about where L’Arche Canada should focus our energy for greater impact. We will work with them, the foundation, external consultants and L’Arche international to name key messages and better define L’Arche.
- We have begun a reflection on how we tell stories in L’Arche; what makes a good story; and the skills needed for more people to engage storytelling in a variety of media.
- The website and intranet will be fully online soon – and always a work in progress. We are developing more online content and creative ways to share messages on our core values through social media.
In the next few months, we will refocus our outreach and communications work, and work with the foundation on obtaining the resources we need for major projects for increased impact. With all of L’Arche in Canada, we will reflect more deeply on how we live our core values, share them with others, and continue to renew L’Arche for the next generation. We are preparing for the era when Jean Vanier will no longer be the primary voice and connector for L’Arche; we will be inspired by his way, yet make it new in todays’ context. We know that the voices of persons with intellectual disabilities will be central to this work. And it won’t be easy.
In it all, I remain inspired by my buddy Mel who died a month after we shared together last May. He was an ordinary guy who lived with extraordinary joy and compassion. He brought people together – from his family and L’Arche, his beloved horse riding, the daily bread food bank, and several Jewish communities (including Rabbi Miriam, our new friend, who walked with us through the final passages of his journey as a Jewish man). He found his voice in L’Arche and used it not only to name his dreams, but also to speak up for the poor and the rejected, and for peace and tolerance. Like Mel, we all must hear our call, discover our gifts and find our voices to work together for a better world.