Expectations Matter

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. Colette offered these closing remarks at Ownership Matters: Public Policies for Scaling Community Ownership in Victoria, BC on Thursday, May 2, 2024. She is pictured here (left to right) with Neil McInroy (Democracy Collaborative) and Sean Geobey (University of Waterloo).

I appreciate this opportunity to think aloud with you about this day and the way ahead. Since leaving home early yesterday morning, I’ve been thinking about expectations – mine, yours and ours.

I expected to have a long day of travel with a transfer in Vancouver on Wednesday. That flight was unexpectedly delayed and I ended up on a direct flight to Victoria, giving me more time to take in this incredibly beautiful place – so different from my own downtown Toronto neighbourhood. I ran along the water for 11 km. My longest run ever.

As I ran, I took in the stories told through monuments and murals, totems near the legislature, and make-shift sculptures on the beach. And I thought a lot about this community’s wealth – where it comes from, how it has been shared or hoarded over the centuries, and what we know now is possible when we choose to think about ownership differently.

I was reminded how important conferences like this one are. They help us see what’s possible. They invite us to deepen and extend that sense of possibility. And they get us to think aloud about the opportunities and challenges that stretch us beyond comfort zones and perceived limitations.

The way I see it, the problem has never been that we can’t imagine new ways to solve income, wealth and even democratic inequality. The problem is that we’ve let our collective expectations sink dangerously low. I read an alarming statistic recently that more people can imagine a climate catastrophe destroying the planet than they can imagine changing the rules of capitalism. 

This moment is calling all of us to expect more. Much more. More of ourselves. More from tax dollars and corporate dividends. More for people whose interests are the last to be considered and who are the first to be harmed by decisions about the economy.

Raising expectations has never been more urgent. 


— Neil talked about the polycrisis that holds the potential to transform systems and structures that do not serve our collective interests. 

— Sean, Rob and Kristi told stories of businesses committed to workplace democracy – good examples of what’s working.

— Jon talked about the concentration of capital and the deconstruction of monopolies. 

— Heather introduced the concept of systems hijacking to help us think about change.

— Julia, Sean and Lorin’s academic research highlighted how communities and firms are reimagining and investing in diverse ownership models for bigger benefits.

— Gary, Audrey and Mary told us that an active concern for people and the natural world must move to the centre of local economies. The current economic model is causing severe harm and poses too great a risk to our collective wellbeing.

— Bryn, Alex and Simon shared points of light in their policy research that can inspire and guide systemic changes.

A big thank you to all the presenters and panelists for your stimulating contributions to this day.

From a decade of doing this kind of work at the Atkinson Foundation, I’ve learned when I expect more I should also expect to be surprised. This work rarely plays out according to plan or in tight alignment with KPIs and other metrics. The gap between theory and practice is at times painfully wide.

The process of community wealth building always takes much longer than anticipated. But outcomes are often much better than we could have imagined at the start. It’s complex work. It calls for more patience and persistence than we usually expect of ourselves or each other. But there can be no doubt of its intrinsic value. And that’s what makes it worth our collective effort.

My co-workers and I are witnesses to the amazing ripple effect of grassroots organizing around public policies to guide infrastructure development and social procurement practices in anchor institutions in the GTA and Ontario. Inside city governments, universities, hospitals and community-based organizations. In boardrooms where business decisions are made and in union halls. In church basements and coffee shops. And even in casinos! This ripple effect is as much about civic engagement and democratic agency as it is about material benefits for people getting by on low incomes.

Only now – ten years in – is it clearer how all of this can be harnessed to permanently change our culture, and the logic of institutions and systems, from the blind acceptance of generational poverty to a bold expectation of community wealth.

Just last Saturday, I attended the launch of the Little Jamaica Land Trust. Little Jamaica is a beloved Black neighbourhood in Toronto. A large public transit project is having a negative impact on commercial rents and real estate and driving gentrification, and displacing long-time residents and their businesses.

For two years, local business owners have been in conversation about community ownership and land trusts with a grassroots group called Black Urbanism Toronto. In an encouraging act of solidarity, four local land trusts and two Black-led, Nova Scotian land trusts shared stories about their pathways to community ownership with the Mayor, local politicians, and other civic leaders at the launch.

Different strategies take hold for different reasons in different places, but the fact remains that many more people who have been denied decent work and decent lives in the old economic system are getting organized to push for a new one. And their neighbours are joining them – people just like us who work in community, academe, government, business, labour, philanthropy, and other sectors. The base is getting bigger and stronger every day.

In every place and situation, this work begins with an invitation from someone who can no longer conspire with forces that diminish them and weaken their community – a person who is ready to use whatever power they possess to affect change.

The invitation is then extended to another person who may care about the same things and may be ready to act – or may not – but we never know until we ask. And so the movement grows, one person and one conversation at a time, in a multiplicity of locations simultaneously.

I have the words of an American social change theorist, Meg Wheatley, pinned to the bulletin board in my office to remind me how to get started and keep going.

Meg describes it this way: “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask ‘what’s possible?’ not ‘what’s wrong?’ Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.”

Thanks to Heather, Kristi and the rest of the Royal Roads and Scale Institute team, we’ve talked with people we know, and people we haven’t had the chance to know until now. I bet we’ve all been intrigued by what we’ve heard. I, for one, have been surprised more than once in less than 24 hours. All good signs that we’re making progress.

So, whatever you’re planning to do tonight, I hope you’ll take some time to remember who first invited you into this important conversation and to think about who you’ll reach out to when you get home. Please share your recollections and next steps with your dinner companions. If you’re on your own, take a minute to write them down. And do keep having conversations that matter where you’re planted.

On behalf of everyone here, thank you. Thank you for expecting more. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for bringing your considerable knowledge, insight and imagination to our shared task. And thank you for being an active owner of this great, hopeful and often surprising project called “community.”