A Community of Reliance: Building a Social Enterprise Ecosystem

Powell River is a small community on the Sunshine Coast of B.C., accessible only by air or water and home to just shy of 14,000 people. While the community might be small, they’re making a big impact locally and globally by creating a social enterprise ecosystem through an interconnected collection of projects and activities while providing access to programs for people with developmental disabilities.

A Community Where Everyone Belongs

inclusion powell river is a charitable organization that formed nearly 70 years ago when a group of mothers of children with developmental disabilities sat around a table and discussed a shared concern: keeping their children at home instead of sending them to institutions, which was the common practice at the time. Together, these tenacious parents mapped out a way to attain health services, housing, education, and access to employment for their children. The group soon became a non-profit organization, and today, the organization still serves children and adults with developmental disabilities. It has since branched into other areas of community support, including social housing, seniors programming, inclusive employment, and social economy activities for over 800 community members.

What is Belonging?

“The work we do touches on belonging because belonging is so critical to our well-being,” explained Leni Goggins, Director of Social Economy and Other Cool Stuff at inclusion powell river. “Belonging affects all aspects of our lives. It happens when you enter the education system or when you walk through the doors of a medical facility. It’s where you live and where you work. Employment is a crucial part of how we belong within a society, which might be paid work, volunteer work, and unpaid work, like caring for each other and our elders and children. My focus is on employment and how it fits into the social economy: an economy that centres on well-being.”

Working Together

qATHET Inclusive Manufacturing (qIM) set out to become a successful model of inclusion in employment within the manufacturing industry, creating a space for people with and without disabilities to work together. In the local language of the Tla’amin First Nation, qathet means ‘people working together.’

“qATHET Inclusive Manufacturing started as an 18-month research pilot project,” said Leni. “We applied this model of inclusive employment based on best practices for employing people with disabilities, and then we tested that model to see how it could work at an organizational level, looking at how managers might deploy the model, identifying the key critical interventions, and learning what it’s like for people with disabilities to work within that model. We also reviewed the residual effects within the community. The learnings developed through the qIM pilot are now available to any employer who wants to use some or all of the elements of our model.”

OneLight: Kindling Togetherness

OneLight is an inclusive social enterprise employment project committed to employing people with diverse abilities. Formed through the qIM employment project, the operation builds and sells innovative fire starters constructed from recycled materials such as wax, untreated lumber, and paper rolls.

OneLight’s inclusive employment model integrates five elements:

  1. Inclusive Culture: creating conditions where everyone can belong.
  2. Natural Supports: emphasizing a culture where coworkers support each other.
  3. Training: providing on-the-job and team training.
  4. Flexible scheduling and task modification: where work is fit to individual needs.
  5. Equitable duties and compensation: everyone is paid fairly and has equal access to diverse jobs.

“Victoria Foundation was OneLight’s first funder over six years ago,” said Leni. “A trust-based grant allowed us to hire people with disabilities to help us with marketing and communications and fund a very inclusive branding session where we involved self-advocates, staff, and community members to brand our social enterprise.”

“The vast majority of research participants who are employees at OneLight said they feel accepted and respected, and enjoy a sense of belonging.”

–  Phase one report, qATHET Inclusive Manufacturing Pilot Project

Kindred Rebuild

In November of 2022, inclusion powell river launched Kindred Rebuild to sell new and used building supplies, furniture, some appliances, and electronics. The revenue generated from the donated materials is used to support OneLight and other employment initiatives in the community. “This is still a fledgling project, and we’re learning how our community can support this kind of business,” shared Leni. “We’re finding out what is needed to contribute to waste reduction and the circular economy mindset. Rebuild is a way to repurpose construction waste, using or reusing construction materials as much as possible before they end up in the landfill. It’s also an inclusive employment setting where we employ people with and without disabilities to work together.”

Diversa Collective

The third project inclusion powell river is incubating is Diversa Collective, a media production company owned and operated by people with disabilities. “They make short videos, host video dance parties, and they have a YouTube channel in development where people with disabilities can access the videos and present their own materials, too,” said Leni. “After two years, the goal is to transfer the company to these entrepreneurs. To help them succeed, we are ensuring they have all the resources needed to launch a business.”

Inclusion for the Rest of the Province

Leni is also working on a new research project, peripherally supported by the Victoria Foundation, examining other communities in B.C. to observe how they are developing models and approaches to inclusive employment. The New Inclusive Economy project will have the final report available soon, highlighting the work and opportunities available to employers and organizations throughout the province while helping people with barriers to employment find meaningful and sustainable work so they can experience belonging, too.

“We’re working hard in the space of social enterprise and entrepreneurship to create jobs and employment for people with disabilities so they can be part of the economy and have access to work, regardless of their ability.”

– Leni Goggins, Director of Social Economy and Other Cool Stuff, inclusion powell river

An Invitation to Inclusion

The next step towards building and improving a social enterprise ecosystem is to bring people experiencing disabilities to the table so they can help identify the types of businesses these communities should have and the services that can be offered. “It’s important today to have those big picture, long-term ideas in mind and to start working on the businesses of the future,” said Leni. “We need to look beyond the businesses that succeed now and start planning for the ones we will need twenty years down the road because our world is changing very quickly.”