At odds or an opportunity? Exploring the tension between the social justice and social innovation narratives

This is the seventh article in our series about social innovation. The series is published as a collaboration between The Philanthropist and McConnell Foundation.

In 2013, the team at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Community Service invited me to join them as the inaugural John C. Eaton Chair of Social Innovation. The faculty has deep social justice roots and it created the position just as Ryerson became Canada’s first Ashoka Changemaker Campus. I stepped into a maelstrom of academic tension linked to two ways of thinking about social change: social justice and social innovation had become competing narratives at the university. Despite years of social justice work, I found myself understood as a posterchild for neoliberalism.

I have always understood social innovation to be an adaptive rather than a competing practice. Over more than a decade of financing large provincial projects at the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF), I helped to fund many organizational transitions: more entrepreneurial ways of resourcing; a sharper focus on social outcome; new approaches, or the development of networks, that create the opportunity for whole system change. Neither funder nor civic organization advanced these shifts to conform to a political agenda, but rather to learn and adapt to current political and funding realities and to use the new capacity for connection created by the internet.

To ease my own confusion at Ryerson, and because I know polarization often disguises something interesting shifting at the tension point, I went exploring. I generated conversations with colleagues and students. Then, others working in the social sector facing the same issue began to find me, and the conversation expanded. These were not easy discussions; people often noted a sense of hurt or betrayal. And, as always in sector conversations, it is hard to infer the big picture of practice shift in a social movement from the particular work in which we are engaged – a bit like peering at the small view of the world through the wrong end of a telescope.

Fundamentally, how we organize for social change evolves over time. In the long frame of civic organizing for public benefit in Canada, are the differences between social justice and social innovation really irreconcilable? Or, as I have come to understand it, is the tension a signal of the emergence of something different? Perhaps innovating social justice organizations and social innovation organizations that have taken up equity and inclusion are the harbingers of a new terrain. Maybe these are the examples we should be highlighting as social change practice shifts.

As an organizer who had spent decades doing social justice work, social innovation arrived on my horizon about 2003 while I was working as a funder at OTF. This was several years after social justice-inspired protest helped to defeat the “common sense revolution” of the neoliberal Harris government in Ontario (Clark, 2008). It was the first year of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, with its focus on cross-sector solutions to global problems (Phillis et al, 2008), and a few years before research from Imagine Canada (Hall et al: 2005) enabled us to think about the Canadian social sector in a broader global context.

At OTF, we could see that non-profit organizations that had survived draconian cuts to core funding were beginning to function in new ways. A few years later we noticed that OTF’s system of portfolio management by sector no longer made sense. Arts and sports organizations were taking on youth homelessness, social services were becoming more entrepreneurial and moving into collaboration with unusual partners, and business was offering more viable financial contributions. Social innovation wasn’t really a “thing” yet. It felt like a huge sea change in how social change work was financed, and unusual partnerships became a new normal.

Social justice organizing in Canada, on the other hand, has deep historical roots in an earlier era of big government built through the 1960s and ‘70s. Citizen organizing in this frame was influential in creating the national agenda of equity and inclusion that now differentiates us from our neighbours to the south. It was also influential in the immense growth of third-party non-profit-government partnerships to deliver social services to support individuals, mitigate harm, and promote inclusion through the 1970s and ‘80s. Many of these organizations suffered from financial cuts or constraints in the 1990s and the decades that followed (Elson, 2011).

In the long view, we might see that in post-colonial Canada we have moved through different eras of civic engagement, each based on a distinct set of assumptions leading to different strategies and ways of organizing for social benefit: charity, labour organizing, social justice, and now, social innovation. In pre-colonial days, Indigenous colleagues describe rich traditions of sharing as a way of providing for those in need (including colonial settlers). At least five eras, each shaped by the politics of the day and a particular set of assumptions about the relationships between the social sector, government, and commerce describe citizen efforts to organize for public good.

While this is certainly a broad historical sweep, my intention is to highlight the long view of shift points in civic organizing. New patterns of social change practice evolve and, when they do, they do not displace the former, but rather coexist in an increasingly engaged landscape of social democracy. The equation is additive, each era increasing the complexity and offering new frameworks and organizing practices that shape how we work. The constant in Canada is that we organize for public benefit as part of our DNA, creating a culture that produces the second largest civic organizing structure on the globe (Hall et al, 2005).

Both social justice and social innovation theorists speak of periodic eras or shift times. Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the early text of the social justice movement, describes social history as a series of epochs, “characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubt, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites.” The main story of this present epoch is that of “domination — which implies its opposite, the theme of liberation, as the objective to be achieved” (2005, p.101). This powerful framework built the capacity for power analysis and grassroots action from the new wave of feminism in the late ‘50s to the increasingly diverse representations of intersectionality today.

Freire also taught many of us to think in an either/or binary about our practices: good guys and bad guys, fear of tainted money from corporations, of profit motivation, and a tendency to political correctness. A moral compass and an enclave of like-minded colleagues are important in social organizing, helping us stay strong and see the forest for the trees. They can also, over time, lead social organizers to adhere to a set of frameworks that prevent exploration of new types of work. Young social justice activists are beginning to call out their colleagues on this issue (Lee, 2017a;2017b). They are part of the largest demographic shift in leadership that the social sector has experienced in recent decades (McIsaac et al, 2013).

I was first introduced to the idea of dichotomy as a way of thinking as a young woman studying the origins of the social justice movement in the 1990s. I appreciated the certainty – humanization and dehumanization – and how the political opposites of liberation and oppression led to patterns of practice: the good fight for liberation, resistance to oppression, and public processes of demonstration and mitigation. It was only much later in the LGBTQ movement and my own coming of age that I began to see how black and white categorizations disguise a wealth of experience and potential in the space between. Dichotomous thinking may bring a temporary hard-edged moral clarity to our thinking, but the beauty, the invention, the prize is hidden in the space between. Imagine social justice practice that fosters invention, or social innovation practice that advances equity. In reality, between social justice and social innovation, cross-over examples abound in the constantly mobile patterns of civic organizing practice in this country.

Maayan Ziv is a cross-over organizer. A young person living with disability, she has been working on the traditional social justice terrain of accessibility from inside one of Ryerson’s social innovation zones. She has developed a highly successful app that enables people with disabilities to crowd source information about access to public buildings. In a video in the Rideau Hall Foundation’s My Giving Moment series, she speaks about applying social innovation thinking to a social justice problem traditionally approached on campus with advocacy and protest.

“There have been barriers for centuries,” she says. “There has been a certain kind of repetitive approach to how we . . . solve these problems, but [there is something] in the nature of creating a conversation and just literally doing it. There is a lot you can do without fighting – that pushing against. Accessibility is traditionally associated with an institutional tone and we want to move away from this. [It] can be sexy, and it can be fun, it needs to be fun, and if it isn’t then we won’t see the engagement that we need to see. With a different tone we are able to inspire people to be a part of what we’ve started.”

Another example is Adil Dhalla, executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto. He is deliberately experimenting in the middle place. He brings CSI’s focus on innovation to crafting events and processes that support the emergence of a more collaborative and inclusive Toronto. From educational events on being an ally to the Toronto for Everyone festival, Dhalla blends the intentions of social justice and the practices of social innovation.

Meanwhile, UNICEF Canada, recognized for its global efforts toward equity for children, is using social innovation labs and design methodology to collaboratively develop measures of wellbeing for Canadian children (UNICEF, 2017).

In my conversations at Ryerson and in the sector I came to see “this or that” conversations about social innovation and social justice often set the two in opposition and limit the potential for exploration of the space in between. One of the contributions of social innovation theory to social change organizing is the focus on systems theory and complexity, processes that watch for the patterns rather than the detail, and deliberately promote the engagement of difference. When we create conversations that respectfully explore similarities and differences in how citizens are organizing for social benefit, and factor in the impact of political shifts on our organizing environments, it becomes possible to see the creative and emergent practices at the juncture of the tension.

The tension between social justice and social innovation organizers fits Glenda Eoyang’s profile of a “sticky issue”: one that is too complex to solve and hangs around for a long time (Eoyang & Holladay, 2013). Eoyang is founder of the Human Systems Dynamic Institute and she suggests that to move constructively through this kind of issue, we need to look for patterns: “similarities, difference and connections that have meaning across space and time” (HSD Institute). This allows us to home in on the relationship between components and spot the patterns that hold a social system in stasis.

Scott Kelso and David Engstrøm’s work on complementary pairs takes this idea a little further. Taking inspiration from quantum physics, which requires us to understand a wave and a particle as potentially the same, they suggest a complementary, rather than mutually exclusive and contradictory, naming of similarities and differences. As Freire taught us to see aspects of our social world in opposing frames, the authors suggest that we can find a new understanding by seeing them as pairs in relationship to one another. Indicated by a tilde (~), suggesting not equivalence or opposition, but relationship, we can learn to see the relationship between two aspects of very different social organizing practices (Kelso & Engstrøm, 2006). Simply put, imagine two images: an open and then a closed door. Together, the two tell us much more about the capacity and function of a door than either image alone.

To understand complex systems, like movements of citizens organizing for public good, the authors suggest: “The dynamics of complementary pairs is where the action is” (Ibid, p. 8). In social justice terms oppression~liberation invites us to a deeper conversation about what liberation tells us about oppression. Social justice~social innovation could tell us more about emerging social organizing practice. Complementary conversation, the authors suggest “breathes life back into the dichotomy by representing opposing tendencies . . . as a dynamic which can be tilted in either direction” (ibid: p. xv). In this tilting, what might we see emerging at the juncture of two practices for social change?

Dimensions of complementarity between social justice and social innovation

I first tried out the social justice~social innovation framework in conversation with members of Studio Y, a program for young systems change leaders at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, after conflict arose in their work. Following many similar conversations, I present some thematic pairs here, with a very brief explanation, to invite readers to try this framework. Borrowing from social innovation practice, I have used an asset frame (rather than a critical frame) to be inclusive and to keep the conversation from becoming pejorative. Try it your way and see what happens. This list is not exhaustive. If it triggers other pairs for exploration, the conversation is working, and I encourage you to keep the discussion going. This is a process and we will learn by doing.

Age and stage: established and entrenched ~ new and fluid

One obvious dimension of difference is the long history of social justice work and the relatively short story of social innovation practice. The rich theory-building of the social justice movement and often profound analysis of power relations offers more rigour in thought than social innovators have had time to muster. Young social justice leaders have mentors, teachers, and a history. Conversely, social innovation is new, and with just a couple of decades of existence, is still inventing itself. It also spans an incredibly large sphere of influence and a multitude of definitions. Leadership is primarily held by young people who have grown up in the fluid and global world of internet relations, less bound by institutional allegiance, political correctness, and traditions of social good production. Deeply committed to social and ecological goals, they often prefer to mentor one another.

Call to action: equity, justice, and inclusion ~ social problem solving

Social justice employs a well-honed frame on equity and justice as the goal of practice. Social innovators, on the other hand, prize solution-finding for social problems. They are less concerned with measures of equity and more focused on the production and experimental prototyping of new interventions. The scale of their work is far-reaching and often not bound by traditional organizational relationships. The product may serve social inclusion but without the deeper analysis. A social justice critique is that they can also inadvertently do harm, perhaps reinforcing an existing system of injustice while demonstrating improvement in the lives of a few.

Practice paradigm: resistance ~ invention

A social innovation lab is not a helpful pattern of practice in a response to the current repressive politics in the United States. There we see a highly effective resurgence of resistance politics. On the other hand, a design-centred approach is creating an innovation revolution in some traditional health and social service processes, such as infection and disease control and harm reduction. Many social entrepreneurs experimenting with innovative approaches do, in fact, improve lives. Two processes with different purposes are not mutually exclusive. They can be tangential. Where do social justice actions and services open space for innovation? How does a deeper assessment of justice in innovation foster a deeper understanding of impact?

Thinking model: critical thinking ~ asset-based thinking

Freire’s description of critical pedagogy recognizes the connections between individuals’ experience of “social problems” and the social/political contexts in which they live (Freire, 2005). This style of thinking has created a deeply skeptical approach to systems of power.  Social innovation thinkers, on the other hand, tend to take more of an asset-based and opportunistic frame. Cooperrider’s appreciative inquiry process is about the “co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them” (AI Commons). It aims to locate and amplify what is working in a system rather than identifying problems or needs as flaws to be resisted or corrected. As a system of thinking, appreciative inquiry tends to generate hope and opportunity, and less critical analysis.

Result orientation: access to justice and equity ~ improved social outcome

Depending on where you sit on the social justice spectrum of liberal or radical reform, the outcome of social justice work can range from social service to support equity to outright restructuring. Never a pure divide, this pair is often used inside social justice work as a touchstone to strategy in keeping with the broad goals of a social movement. Social innovators tend to aim for tangible measures of improved social outcome.

Relations of power: influencing government ~ partnering with business

The social justice movement began in an era of big government and it holds tightly to this ideal. In Canada, social change organizers saw government as an ally and financial partner in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in building a pluralist and inclusive society. Alternatively, we also saw public resistance to wrong-headed policy or leadership as a key practice for influence. Social innovation on the other hand, was born in an era of tightening government financial contributions to civil society and its champions have much lower expectations of government as ally, sometimes skipping that conversation altogether. A young social innovation academic studying social finance recently pointed out that he has never known a period not characterized by government fiscal restraint. It was out of this acceptance of a different relationship with government that we saw the genesis of social finance as a solution to the lack of capital for social good (Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, 2010).

Approach to language: nuanced and power aware ~ loose and constantly changing

Language in social innovation is ambiguous and fluid. It is also highly inclusionary – if you are in the room. Social justice organizers, on the other hand, have made a science of precision in language. This has brought enormous clarity to social movements and issue identification, but it is also limiting. I recently sat in a university committee meeting where the topic was the climbing rate of student suicide attempts. Social solutions did not make the agenda, we rather spoke about “madness” as a politicized concept – rich discussions, but the meeting ended without a plan. In switching frames to a social innovation lab context, the conversations may have yielded a dozen strategies to prototype, but less insight into the nuances of power.

Who is at the table: intentional inclusion ~ whoever shows up

Social justice has promoted specific kinds of inclusion, creating avenues and practices for marginal voice and participation. The price can be enclaves of like-thinkers bound by a web of political correctness that privilege tight networks of those who have worked together before and can claim solidarity. This view of relationships can enable deep thinking and ensure fast turnout in response to social issues, such as a public march, but it can also foster a narrow sorting of public actors as “good guys” and “bad guys.” Social innovation activities, on the other hand, are often criticized, even inside social innovation circles, for fostering mainstream participation, activity located in white and middle-class enclaves. They tend to be characterized by loose and informal networks – often the source of synergy, but without the opportunity for a deeper social analysis or conversation about power and privilege.

Partnership: trusted allies ~ generative relationships

One of my most thoughtful conversations during this process was about trust in social organizing and a fear of being co-opted: a strategy, meant to create change, ends up serving the status quo. In the long frame of social organizing it is hard to predict impact and there is always the risk of unintended consequence. One of the ways we mitigate that risk is through our choice of partnerships. Who do we take money from, whose network do we leverage, how far into our circle do we bring the opposition? In the current fiscal climate, partnerships are the leverage points for capital. Social innovation organizers are adept at resource relationships with dominant systems players (governments or corporations), which can see them seduced into relationships of privilege that co-opt strategy. Where social justice seeks allies with common values, sometimes going to great lengths to articulate commonality, social innovation practices are often deliberate about creating working relationships amongst very different types of organizations or individuals. This strategy fosters a deliberate exchange to generate new – sometimes called “generative” – relationships (Lane & Maxwell, 1995; Zimmerman & Hayday, 2003).

The “so what?”: working between two narratives in a shift time

The organizers of Spark Canadian Social Innovation Exchange invited me to workshop this way of engaging in the social justice/social innovation conversation at their 2017 event. Conference planners were deliberate about including social justice organizers and highlighting voices of diverse young activists, a disruption in the usual patterns of social innovation meet-ups. I had the opportunity to co-facilitate with Nadia Duguay of the Montreal-based organization Exeko, which routinely uses theatre in its social justice training work. So we did theatre: arbitrarily dividing participants into social justice or social innovation groups, regardless of their real organizing affiliation, and invited them to voice critique of the other. And they did, heckling back and forth in a hysterically funny display, the laughter and anonymity revealing critique, but also releasing tension and softening rancour. Then, in small groups, participants went deeper, selecting one of the complementary pairs to provide structure to the conversation and begin to imagine what hybrid practice might offer.

As I worked to the deadline for this paper, I paused to coach on a change project focused on social housing and space for making art. Well beyond the conceptual stage, the project is engaging political interest at a time of public housing failure in Toronto. Organizers are not preoccupied with social movement identity. Their focus is on an idea and the people who will benefit. As the conversation unfolded, I could hear elements of both justice and innovation practice and noticed that often the shift points required in their work came at the junctures. How could a laser clear focus on vision and a value proposition help to ethically manage the interests of unusual financial partners? They noted that focus on equity requires genuine and ongoing engagement in the work, and that community-building is about weaving together existing networks. They had overlooked critical relationships at the margins of their network in the rush to meet funder requirements – relationships that held them accountable to their purpose.

This coaching session brought me back to the uncomfortable tension between narratives at Ryerson. I realize that conscious fluency in both, attained through many (often difficult) conversations, now makes my work stronger. I wish this also for the many others who engaged with me in similar difficult moments in their work. This is a generative moment with the potential to build social organizing practice that has stronger impact than when we work from either narrative alone. What if we could convene conversations around the country looking at our experience of what is the same and different between social justice and social innovation? What if we could loosen our organizing assumptions a little and make room for something we cannot imagine from our current state of play – a little more invention in social justice, a little more justice in social innovation? What if this is already happening and we just need to notice it and then amplify the process?


I want to acknowledge the many people who have had conversations with me on the topic of the intersection between social justice and social innovation over the last couple of years. Most particularly I would like to acknowledge Marsha Sfeir, long-time friend and social justice advocate; Jon McPhedran Waitzer, Jean Sauvé Public Leadership Fellow, particularly for our conversations on trust in organizing relationships. Melanie Panitch, current Chair of Social Innovation at Ryerson University, Adil Dallah, Executive Director, Centre for Social Innovation, Darcy Riddell, Director of Strategic Leaning at the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, Aleeya Velji, fellow at ABSI Connect, Liz Rykert, mentor on in things complex, and the very many people with change the world projects that I have had the privilege of coaching.



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