CSI Toronto: Animating the Centre for Social Innovation

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I work as a Community Animator at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a shared office and events space in Toronto. Although we do rent out our boardrooms, our main operations are in leasing out space to social mission organizations/individuals to create a community of people working -- often collaboratively -- to make positive change.

Workspaces like the CSI are a growing trend as people recognize the many benefits that are associated with it; benefits like sharing expenses, networking and collaborating across sectors and being a part of a dynamic workspace.

What exactly does a Community Animator do?

As a Community Animator, I work with hundreds of tenants every day. They are activists, artists, social entrepreneurs and nonprofits. And very few of them know what I actually do. I think most people see me as a regular office manager and/or receptionist. Not completely unjustified, as a good portion of my job goes to fixing everything from grumpy printers to scraped up biking knees to clogged toilets. But here’s the kicker -- that's just part of my job. There's more, it's just harder to see.

So what's the 'more' that makes me a Community Animator? The 'more' is facilitating the space to create and expand a strong community.  The daily tasks -- the printer, the toilet, the knees -- are really a way for the Community Animator to have conversations with community members. And the real magic is in the conversations themselves. These unstructured, day-to-day interactions allow me to gather information to connect people, create events/programs to engage the community, and maintain an incredible workplace experience for everyone.

I’ve connected people to everything from volunteers to graphic designers to grant databases; we’ve had events/programs on everything from conversations on the impact of current politics on social innovation to yoga to accounting for self-employed persons.

It’s an amazing job, with many interesting conversations and opportunities to learn. But, for a very long time, even though I was constantly surrounded by people, I often felt isolated and alone, because so very few people truly understood what I do. The job can also get extremely overwhelming with the constant flow of people and their collective need for your attention. The emotional, mental, and physical demands of the job were starting to burn me out.

The Netherlands hosts international meeting of animators

That all changed when last December I went to the first ever International Hub Host Gathering in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Within Europe (and growing quickly to other parts of the world), there is a network called the Hub Network. It’s a network of shared spaces very similar to CSI.  Each shared space of the Hub Network is referred to as a ‘Hub’ and their Community Animators are called 'Hosts.' The Hubs are all a part of one organization, while the Centre has no other locations.

The major difference between them and us has been that they have chosen to expand quickly and globally, while we’ve chosen to stay local to Toronto. That has brought about some differences in how we’ve grown -- for example, CSI has incubated projects while they have more documentation for replication -- but overall, we share more similarities than differences.

The point of the gathering was to bring all the ‘Hosts’ together so that we could meet, share and support each other as well as come up with solutions to make all of our 'Hubs' a better place. It was successful in this respect, but what I think made it special was the feeling of relief that I and 22 other Hosts (all from different Hubs) felt at meeting people who understood us -- just simply understood us. I felt incredibly revived and I could see that it had the same effect on everyone else.

Connecting with ‘long-lost’ friends

The entire gathering felt just like one long conversation with a long-lost friend. From those conversations, we mapped out solutions to some of the problems that had been brought up. We all recognized Host support and sustainability as key concerns.

The job is a demanding one, and requires a lot from those who are given the opportunity to do it. I looked around and saw many of the Hosts looking tired and drained. It seemed that the average burnout of a Host was around two years. Many hosts at that time seemed to have gone on a break, slowed down in their activities and perhaps even left.

The job of ‘Community Animator/Hub Host’ is a relatively new one, and there is still a lack of knowledge about what it actually means. One thing we've realized, collectively, is that we need each other's support. Feeling connected to others like us is the most effective way to stop burn out.

We also need to continue to have open, honest conversations with our managers about how to make and keep 'hosting' a sustainable job. I was very lucky in this respect. The addition of one more Community Animator on the floor has made this job much easier and I feel that it has contributed heavily to the current health of my job.

Why is Host sustainability so incredibly important for the health of Hubs? Community animation is the soul, the root for our spaces; without the 'Community Animators/Hosts,' a shared workspace is just a shared workspace.

It is through the work of community animation that the shared workspace becomes a vibrant community that can support the goals and missions of the many organizations/individuals that seek to do good in the world. 

For more information on the Centre for Social Innovation, please visit our website at www.socialinnovation.ca.

Yumi Hotta's a recent graduate with a degree in Professional Writing and a certificate in Non-Profit Management. While in university, she was also heavily involved in an on-campus organization focused on events and community building.

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