Transformation: The Story of Creating EBW
Site Animation: Making it Real
“You can keep pedaling for a long time, but sometimes you just need to push.”
—Seana Irvine, chief operating officer, Evergreen
Taking on a bold new project begins with a first step. As the momentum builds, a path starts to emerge. Sometimes you know where you are stepping and other times you just have to close your eyes and make the leap.
For a period of time, as the project moved through the design and planning stages and with fundraising set in motion, the programming itself was in a holding pattern. To get past the inertia, Evergreen began hosting activities at the site. “We had to start showing people this was real,” says Seana Irvine, who led the program development for Evergreen Brick Works. “You can plan yourself into oblivion, but it’s important to know when to act. We had to get ourselves in the public eye. After four years of talking behind the scenes, building a network, raising funds, working through approvals and advancing the designs, the buzz on the street about Evergreen Brick Works, in the words of our fundraising consultant, was that it was ‘the best project that never happened.’”
In 2007, Evergreen launched some pilot activities with the potential for high visibility—a farmers’ market and a native plant sale. “The leap into the farmers’ market was simply a leap. It wasn’t a planned or highly refined strategic move,” says Geoff Cape. The idea was to let people begin to experience for themselves what the site had to offer, and to test some program ideas, such as heritage festivals, hosting visiting summer camps and leading walks and talks.
The odds for hosting a viable farmers’ market were not necessarily in Evergreen’s favour. “The head of Farmers’ Markets Ontario told us it would never work,” says Geoff. “They said it was the wrong location and that we had no experience.” This may have been true, but nonetheless we felt it was time to act.
“We pulled the plant nursery and farmers’ market together in six weeks,” says Seana. “We brought in an experienced farmers’ market manager—an energetic woman named Elizabeth Harris who had the experience and the networks we needed for a quick start. Then we called on our friends for favours and pulled all hands on deck. We were down there painting at midnight, and doing all that kind of stuff that creates a fun but frantic energy.”
By starting small—with one piece of the program strategy—Evergreen also understood that this was a great chance to learn along the way. Geoff remembers thinking: “We’ll figure it out as we go. How difficult can it be?”
This kind of fearlessness is what makes creative projects happen. According to David House, who was hired by Evergreen to lead the development of the site, this bold quality sets social innovators like Evergreen apart. “Evergreeners have two really prominent skill sets,” he says. “Firstly they don’t know what they don’t know, so they aren’t intimidated or afraid of stuff. And they never give up. The combination of these two qualities means you can do some pretty insane and amazing things.”
Taking some calculated risks also means that making mistakes is part of the process. The key, of course, is to acknowledge and learn from each mistake, so that adjustments can be made and the path rebuilt.
In this case, Evergreen made a safe landing. On the day of the first farmers’ market, the vendors sold out within a couple of hours. And the customers kept coming. By the end of the first season, the Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market was ranked #1 on the National Post’s top 30 things to do in Toronto that summer.
Getting the site on the public’s radar was a key move, says David House. “It was a burned-out combination of industrial buildings with nothing going for it, not even a particularly good parking lot. But Evergreen put a farmers’ market in every Saturday morning and we had 2,000 to 3,000 people coming between 8am and 1pm. That put this place on the map. Without it, I think it would have been a much harder sell to the financial sources and levels of government and all those players who helped do it.”
“Engineers without Borders does something really cool. They release a failure report. They have begun to understand the value of reflecting on their failures. You used to be punished for adverse events, but now people actually publicize it and try to learn from it.”
— Allyson Hewitt, Advisor, Social Innovation
and Director, Social Entrepreneurship, MaRS