From 2018 to 2022, Vicki Stroich served as the Partner and Engagement Director for Alberta Ecotrust. Vicki played a tremendous role as a member of the Leadership Team responsible for building relationships with all of our key stakeholders in industry, government, and civil society. This included leading the design and delivery of the annual Environmental Gathering, Navigating the Future, and many other projects at Alberta Ecotrust. Vicki’s experience of transitioning from a leadership role in the arts and culture sector to the environmental community meant she brought a unique perspective to our work. As she departed her role at Alberta Ecotrust this summer, we asked her to share her journey with the community of people she had been working so closely with over the past four years.
What is the value of following your passions and curiosity outside your comfort zone?
“But will they even consider hiring someone from arts and culture?”
In the summer of 2018 I was speaking with a friend of mine as I contemplated applying for a new position at Alberta Ecotrust, an environmental organization I admired.
At this moment in my life I was ready for something new after over sixteen years working at Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) where my work had focused on developing new plays with artists from across Canada, and leading the company as Executive Director, through one of Calgary’s periodic economic downturns. As a person deeply interested in systems change, my leadership role at ATP allowed me to learn extensively about the systems at work in nonprofit arts and culture organizations. I worked hard to question assumptions and move forward positive change while simultaneously maintaining the organizational structures I was working to transform. I was tired. My mind, body and heart were tired. I needed to renew myself with a new challenge and a new set of questions that I was passionately curious about.
But where do you begin when you have worked within one system your entire career? What do you do with a set of skills and experiences that seem very specific? And, as an artist, how do you let go of the internalized perception that your talents aren’t as “valuable” as the work others do because they don’t seem as “practical?”
I have always cared about the environment. My passion only grew in my adulthood as I discovered a love of surfing and hiking. But even though I was growing more and more concerned about ecological issues, my work in the theatre was so consuming that I didn’t get much of a chance to contribute or help solve environmental challenges. Leaving my role at Alberta Theatre Projects, I decided that I would love to work in the environmental nonprofit sector…one day.
I was certain I would need to retrain and get a Masters degree in something-other-than-theatre to entirely reframe my professional experiences and prove that I had transferable skills. I perceived some barrier between sectors, a doorway between two worlds, requiring some sort of unknown key to unlock.
During this transition period I received an invitation to participate in a pilot project called Artist As Changemaker (AAC), a program created by Calgary Arts Development and Mount Royal University’s Trico Changemaker Studio. The program brings a cohort of artists from different disciplines together to learn about social innovation and changemaking, and explore how the experiences and skills of artists can contribute to social and environmental change. Through this program, I began to learn how to translate my expertise in fostering collaborative creative processes, and helping to define and refine narratives, into terms other changemakers would recognize. The program also showed me how valuable my work and skills as an artist could be to individuals and organizations working towards positive change outside of the arts sector.
When I discovered the job posting for Alberta Ecotrust’s Engagement Director I recognized my skills in the position description, but I was still unsure if I could translate my strengths well in my application, or if my arts and culture background would be welcome. But with a great passion for Alberta Ecotrust’s mission, some encouragement from my friend and the renewed confidence from the Artist As Changemaker program, I applied.
As I started the role at Alberta Ecotrust I immediately learned about the many impactful environmental organizations in Alberta and was fortunate to meet the many dedicated and creative individuals working in the sector. I was surprised to learn how curious they were about my background as an artist, and just how eager these organizations were to work with creative professionals.
My former colleagues in the arts also got in touch when they heard about my new job. They expressed how deeply concerned they were becoming about climate change. The network of artists wanting to engage in environmental work and meet community organizers started to surface, and I could see the connections that were possible between the two communities.
The move into environmental work that I originally thought was a sector swap eventually allowed me to become a sector connector. This realization came at a time of heightened interest in how the arts might help contribute to environmental changemaking, and how new narratives and engaging our imaginations may help us understand climate change in new ways. There was also much ongoing discussion of how the arts sector could increase its own sustainability. Since I followed my curiosity and applied for the role at Alberta Ecotrust, I have had the good fortune to participate in many of these forums and speak at many events about the vital weaving of art and environment.
I was fortunate Alberta Ecotrust is an organization with a background in social innovation and changemaking that recognizes the value of bringing people from a diverse range of expertise and lived experience together to help solve problems. The complexity of the environmental and social challenges we face will need everyone working towards solutions - testing, iterating, scaling, and communicating promising ideas to make change happen. No one can do this work alone. We need each other. We need to come together to look at the challenges with fresh eyes, ask new questions, apply different tools and strengthen relationships outside our comfort zones so we can better understand the larger impact of both the challenges and possible solutions.
Challenges, like plants, need cross pollination. They need people who are bringing knowledge perspectives and lived experience from different areas to catalyze new growth.
Many of us have spent a lot of time, energy and, likely, money developing our areas of expertise. Through this investment, we become confident in what we know and what we do well. Often we find ourselves pursuing those skills as a career. This drive towards specialization and defining ourselves by our professional roles is a potent part of how our society operates. This means we usually focus on a similar set of questions or challenges throughout our careers. Unbeknownst to ourselves, what we know and do well could be deeply necessary to shift the momentum in a changemaking process focused on another set of questions or challenges.
If we want to become changemaking pollinators and apply ourselves to new challenges, we can! But it can be hard to know where to start. The process of stepping outside what we know and what we are used to can also be intimidating. I started the process by asking myself a few questions:
What challenges am I most concerned about? Where do I most want to make an impact?
How do I understand what strengths, skills or experiences I am bringing to changemaking? How would I describe them?
Who is doing changemaking work that I admire in the community? How do I connect with them to learn more about their work and the processes that support it?
What, if anything, do I fear about reaching outside my comfort zone and trying something new? What kind of impact am I hoping to have? How open am I to following the pathways that open up, even if they are unexpected?
I am privileged that my journey led me to a full time position at Alberta Ecotrust. But the changemaking pollinator journey might lead you in many different directions - volunteer work, participation in a social lab or focus group, educational opportunities, or, like me, a new pathway in my career.
This new pathway weaving art and the environment has taken me even further than I imagined. This past spring, I started a new position as Artistic and Environmental Programs Manager at Caravan Farm Theatre in the North Okanagan. This role is not only new to me and to the organization, but new in the nonprofit sector. To our knowledge it is one of the first roles that focuses on where environment and art meet. This unique position supports the company as it creates and performs relevant pieces of theatre on 80 acres of land for the surrounding community, improves its sustainability and stewards this land on the unceded, traditional territories of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and Secwépemc Nation.
This role and the many new ideas and relationships that may grow from it is a form of changemaking that is emergent. I am honoured to be helping create this new pathway. And I am lucky I get to watch the bees do their work moving from flower to flower in our garden as a constant reminder to keep looking for new perspectives that will ensure the success of the changes we are growing here.