Brenna Atnikov

Changing the Social Story: A Perspective on Leadership

There’s a lightness in her step and a sparkle in her eyes these days. It’s the height of summer, and Brenna Atnikov is buzzing with energy and excitement as her foray into self-employment gains momentum.

Back in the spring of 2012, Brenna, a native Calgarian with more than a decade of experience in various aspects of community building both locally and internationally, took a giant leap forward. She launched Raven Conversations, a consulting company that “formed out of a deep belief in the power of dialogue to catalyze transformative change.”

For our initial interview on a rainy day in mid-April as she is still considering her options, our conversation jumps around as we catch up and explore the underlying values and ideas that lead each of us to our shared passion for “hosting conversations that matter”, a tagline we eagerly borrow from the Art of Hosting community as a shorthand for the type of work that we both do in creating systemic change through dialogue.

Fast forward to June, and we’re hosting a BrandJAM in her living room, a spin-off of the LifeJAM group coaching model with ten of her close friends, colleagues and mentors to come up with a fitting brand for her new company. Now she’s hit the ground running. There’s no looking back.

After in-depth brainstorming with her “JAMMERS” as well as her communications consultant Dax Justin at ztarfish, she chooses the Raven as her symbol. Brenna’s name literally means ‘raven with long dark hair”, and the bird has associations with Aboriginal meanings such as transformation, healing and revealing magic and wisdom. This is a fitting metaphor, appealing to Brenna’s passion for showcasing the undervalued power of dialogue in creating possibilities for change.

Brenna facilitates an organizational planning session for the Old Y for Community Organizations.

On her new website, Margaret Wheatley’s quote, “Whatever the problem, community is the answer,” perfectly captures Brenna’s modus operanti.

Creating a theory of change

Brenna points to the first day of classes in her undergraduate program (BA in Human and Social Development) when an instructor announced, “Over the next four years, you’re going to be asked, ‘What is your personal theory about how change happens’? It’s up to you to figure that out. If you don’t think people can change, you’re in the wrong field. This is about changing people’s lives, so if you don’t think that can happen, you should probably leave.”

This notion has stuck with Brenna throughout her career, and she’s able to put her ideas into action more than ever as an independent consultant focused on working toward positive community change with a broad range of clients.

“I’d like to be able to look back and identify places where my involvement meant something; something is going to be better at the end of it…It’s about being able to connect to the bigger picture,” she says. “Meaningful work for me is definitely being in a learning community. Exposed to new ideas and new information and new skills. It’s work I can be proud of and that helps me increase the community of people I have around me with like-minded ideas.”

JAMMERs at Brenna’s BrandJAM brainstorm creative ideas for a business name and slogan

Initially, at the time of the 2011 Meaningful Work Retreat, Brenna was invited to speak at the Meaningful Work Retreat in her capacity as the manager of Thrive, Calgary’s Community Economic Development Network.

“In the fall [of 2011], I started thinking that with Thrive, I learned everything I could learn, and I was really proud of what I had accomplished. I was thinking it would be time to start looking for something new,” she says.

After two months of work with another organization, she decided to take the leap into self-employment.

Personal processes in gaining clarity

“Given my skills, my parents really wanted me to be a lawyer. My dad was saying, if you care about the world, why can’t you be a lawyer?” Brenna says. “But, part of me always felt that there was something missing. Sort of the traditional or conventional approach about making my money didn’t feel right but I didn’t know what it was. I had this sense of unease.”

Her posture shifts and her hand gestures become more animated as she starts to share the moment something clicked and she found a new way of viewing her career and calling.

“And then I took a class in popular and adult education in grad school (Brenna completed her Masters in Social Work). I always say that this class gave me the language to talk about what I care about.”

We spend some time talking about Calgary and how it’s a difficult place to be a ‘change-maker’, but the community is strong and supportive:

“When I came back to Calgary in 2007 after my grad research in Ghana, I had been coming and going to Calgary for 5 years. At that point, I felt like I didn’t really have a community anywhere so at that point I decided that I was really going to live here and live like I intended to say and see what that might do. Asking myself, with my limited amount of time, where do I want to put it? What do I want to join and be a part of? And what kinds of things do I need to leave behind? Some things don’t quite have the impact I want to have, so I don’t want to put my time into them.”

“So for me, the way of figuring out meaningful work, is figuring out what I am most curious about, and then, participating in activity and work that helps me figure out the answers to those questions. I am fundamentally interested in the conditions that enable other people to create change. The conditions that enable people to feel like they’ve got something worth contributing. And I think that’s why I’m so interested in facilitation and participatory processes. I use those things to test out my own theories of how people can contribute to change.”

Shifting the Social Story
“We’re living in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; there’s a lot of the story of ‘go make your money and then you can do something meaningful’,” she says. “The contribution of the Meaningful Work Project is to change that social story about how and where and when we contribute to our society.”

An inspiring and energetic local leader, Brenna’s enthusiasm for dialogue-based learning permeates all of her work. She is constantly learning and spreading that knowledge. To wrap up, she points me to a quote by Christina Baldwin from her book Storycatcher. “This is the best definition of leadership I’ve ever come across,” she says.

“All societies develop a circumscribed territory of what is articulated. As socialized citizens, we live within this territory. We agree to talk about certain things and not talk about other things. Or we agree to talk about certain things only in a certain way. These agreements create a social story. Social story stresses how we belong and who belongs. Because the desire to fit in is a universal human trait, someone who breaks the trance of social story does so at great risk, and sometimes great reward. We call this leadership.”

Brenna’s advice for seekers of meaningful work

  1. Build your own theory of how change happens. Whether that’s individual change, or social change, or systems change. Use your work, your volunteer time  and your reading – what really is your ongoing learning journey – to help you further refine that theory. Find ways to test it out. And if you prove yourself wrong, that’s good research. And then keep refining.
  2. Stay intentional about building a personal network and Communities of Practice.
  3. Find a language to express what you believe in.
  4. Be authentic and live your values. If you say one thing and do the other, people notice.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.

Additional Resources:

  1. Brene Brown TED Talk On Vulnerability.
  2. Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher: Making Sense of our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story.
  3. Deborah Frieze’s video explaining systemic change and the “Two Loops” model: http://www.deborahfrieze.com/events/two-loops-video/