Potential Can Be Exponential: A Lifetime of Activism by Keenan Wellar

I was raised by parents that I would consider to be “classic activists.” They are still very much alive, but have thankfully slowed down a bit in retirement. My childhood memories include Barry and Marjorie Wellar standing tall in opposition to unethical development projects, successfully lobbying with others to stop the spraying of pesticides in public parks, and fighting for public transit and pedestrian safety, to name just a few of their passions.

I grew up in a house littered with newspaper cutouts, and a dining room table full of petitions, with community association representatives or even political candidates dropping by to seek endorsements or on occasion, to express their anger.

Like many teenagers do, I distanced myself from the passions of my parents, although the entire time I secretly admired their focus and determination about issues that they could easily ignore. They made an intentional decision to worry about the fate of others, and this became a part of my own core being.

My own activist engine ignited when I was about 20 years old, looking for an interesting part-time job while attending the University of Ottawa, or “uOttawa” as the t-shirts say nowadays. I stumbled upon an advertisement to work part-time with young people with “developmental challenges” and quite frankly, I thought this was a reference to economically disadvantaged families, and I applied for the job on that basis, as I had some relevant summer camp experience.

Well, a long story short, it turned out the job was actually about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism. Perhaps channeling my genetic predisposition for activism, I came up with some decent messaging, and got the job. And that’s when my life changed, right from the first evening.

Many of the young people attending the social program were in my very same generation, and I was wondering why we had never met. And then the cognitive dissonance quickly turned into shock and dismay, as I realized the answer was a word I thought belonged only in history books: segregation!

I had never met any of these individuals because they had been segregated – they from me, and I from them – in “special needs” schools as children, and in group homes, day programs, and sheltered workshops as adults. I experienced a variety of negative emotions about this, including guilt. After all, not even knowing about social ills in society means you are a part of the problem! But now that I did know, what was I going to do about it?

LivePlayWork.ca
Caroline is another individual with the organization from the very beginning, she’s one of my favourites because she’s older than I am…not by much. I was happy to celebrate her 50th birthday last year.

I put these thoughts on the back burner for a while to focus on my education and my own economic and social survival. But even after graduation, and even after attaining all the trappings of adulthood including a Project Manager position with an Information Technology firm, this issue of segregation continued to nag at me, and I realized: “This is not going away.”

Sharing this with my future wife Julie Kingstone is how it all got off the ground. She had the experience of an incredible activist mentor, Dr. Dan Offord, a worldwide legend in both academic research and practical solutions for addressing social inequities. Having worked with Dr. Dan at Christie Lake Camp for many years before his passing, Julie helped focus my thoughts on what our community would look like if the situation for people with intellectual disabilities was to change for the better. The answer, of course, was that a better future would mean seeing people with intellectual disabilities everywhere I went – in schools, in workplaces, in neighbourhoods, and in any sort of community venue like churches, gyms, theatres, and so on.

Some 22 years later, this core proposition is still what guides me in my daily work at LiveWorkPlay.ca, which has grown into a leading-edge charitable organization with a team of 25 staff, more than 150 volunteers, and over 100 community-partners in the public, private, and non-profit sector. After more than 200 media interviews about 50 conference presentations, I’ve learned how to deliver a message with increasing competence, but I have also learned to challenge the underlying assumptions about the progress of any social change movement. Women “got the vote” in Canada about 100 years ago, but the United Nations chastised Canada in 2015 for our significant ongoing gender wage gap.

And so too it goes in pursuing social inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. There is legislative progress, social policy progress, and certainly observable results in the community. But with some critical insight, leaders in the field understand that this is no longer about advocating for a “presence” in the community, it’s about much more: it’s about contributing and being valued. It’s about building social capital and reducing dependency on paid resources.

In the practical sense this has meant supporting people to have a home of their own, a job, friends (and romantic relationships too!) and enjoyable activities to do with those friends. But the deep dive is understanding what it means to be included in a neighbourhood, or a workplace, or a club – and what it looks like and feels like to be valued by others.

As I think of young people today who want to take their activism down a similar path from thought to action, I believe the challenges are much the same. That’s not just an old guy engaging in wishful thinking, as I’ve enjoyed being a part of the Carleton University mentorship program for the past three years (I did my MA at Carleton) and I see brilliant and motivated students trying to navigate the desire to make a difference while facing many challenging and familiar realities. This includes the prospect of joining organizational structures that they fear will crush them with unfamiliar processes, versus the freedom of “starting something” of their own. While the latter certainly holds a lot of appeal, this is easier said than done when they are in many ways just starting their life as an adult, and facing real and imagined pressures to “settle into a career.”

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National Volunteer Week in 2012 we got help from the Governor General to celebrate our longest-serving volunteer Pennie Styan (middle) with one of our most influential board chairpersons, Cecelia Taylor (right).

There is no right answer to this, but generally, I encourage exploring existing movements and organizations to see if there might be an opening for a contribution. In recent years, the concept of “disruption” has been all the rage, and being the son of Barry and Marjorie, I’m certainly not one to easily accept the status quo or quietly walk away from a battle that needs fighting. I won’t lay claim to having “wisdom” as I think that’s a quality only other people can assign to a person, but I will say that I have had plenty of time and experience to think about how hard it is to build the long-term capacity that is necessary to pursuing enduring social change.

If you are always in a struggle to have enough time and money to function, the purity of your passions is unlikely to be enough to sustain even the most passionate activist over the long-term.

But if there really is a need to create something new rather than influence or modify what already exists, one of the biggest pitfalls (and I have spent some time in those pits myself) is to convince yourself that only you know what is right, and that other people couldn’t possibly have some good ideas too!

The somewhat dramatic success of LiveWorkPlay in recent years required Julie and I to challenge ourselves to “get out of the way” and encourage not only the strengthening of internal leadership, but to also invite and support partnerships with individuals and organizations in all sectors.

This willingness to consider mutually beneficial outcomes with others sounds logical, but partnerships can be painfully difficult, and we’ve had some pretty disastrous experiences. In most cases, things fall apart because of the false assumption that partnerships will bring about savings of time or money. Most likely they won’t, and so it is important to be strategic and to set reasonable expectations for determining whether a partnership is working, and to be comfortable in bringing them to an end when they simply aren’t delivering the expected benefits.

On the upside, the potential can be exponential. Who better than employers to lead on promoting inclusive hiring practices? And yet, for many years our only interaction with employers was a social services sales pitch to encourage hiring of people with intellectual disabilities. I know what you are thinking, and you are correct: it was not very effective.

When we changed our perspective, and started thinking of employers as partners in a mutually beneficial relationship, it became more about their business needs. We took an interest in their workplace environment, their bottom line, and pressures we might help alleviate, and doors started opening. The results have been nothing short of mind-blowing. While we used to be very excited about developing 5-10 jobs a year, we are now routinely talking about 100 jobs!

It’s also meant recognizing talent and putting it to work where it can be most effective. Again, this is easier said than done, but recognizing that staff members evolve along with the organization is very important. In many smaller organizations, there might not be a significant traditional hierarchy available for formal advancement, but there will always be new roles and opportunities that emerge. Finding the right person at the right time has often been a catalyst for major improvements to our outcomes.


The second LiveWorkPlay New Year’s Eve party back in 1999. I have helped host a NYE party every year since 1998. Shelby Penny (left) and Ryan McBride (right) are still a part of LiveWorkPlay. We’ve all grown up together!

On a final note, as an early adopter I get asked a lot about “social media” in non-profit communications. My advice on this usually surprises people, as it’s not about “tools” or some sort of strategy I have mapped out in a binder. They key to our social media success is that we have good stories to tell, and it all starts there. Do you believe in your mission? Are you measuring your progress so you know that how you spend your time and money is advancing your mission and making your community a better place?

If you are answering YES to these questions, then how to go about telling those stories can be learned by reading blogs on the subject and joining online discussion communities. But there aren’t any tools, theories, or strategies that can take an ill-formed mission with lousy results and turn it into social media success. At least, not in a sustainable way, or in a way that allows decent people to sleep at night.

We have news worth sharing every single day, and sometimes, multiple newsworthy items on the same day. My ability to share them in an expedient and engaging way is certainly a talent of sorts, but I don’t think this is at all uncommon. I think the most important work I have done to ensure we have an effective communications strategy is to make sure we are having an impact in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, their families, and the community at large.

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Right up to the minute – that’s May 11 with Daniel Pinsonneault and staff member Wendy MacEwan

I do hope to see many of our best and brightest young workers choosing to make their mark in the evolving non-profit sector. At a time when one can “start a cause” with the push of a few buttons, it’s important to understand that those who are able to make a meaningful long term impact will be those who are engaged in an authentic social change process. They will challenge not only the conditions in their community, but will constantly examine their own role in the social change process.

I leave you with the timeless words of Mahatma Gandhi:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

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Keenan Wellar LiveWorkPlay.ca

Keenan Wellar co-founded the LiveWorkPlay organization in 1995, and has served as the Co-Leader and Director of Communications since 1997. LiveWorkPlay helps the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live, work, and play as valued citizens. From a startup with just two staff, LiveWorkPlay has grown to a staff of 25 with more than 150 volunteers and more than 100 community partners.

Mr. Wellar has undergraduate degrees in history and education from uOttawa, is a certified Ontario teacher, and completed a Masters of Applied Linguistics and Discourse studies at Carleton University. He holds a Professional Certificate in Non-Profit Marketing from the Sprott School of Business and is a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer.

He was recognized with an individual United Way Ottawa Community Builder Award in 2010, and LiveWorkPlay itself was celebrated as a Community Builder of the Year in 2013 and served as Focus Area Champion for the Employment of People with Disabilities from 2012-2015.

An internet pioneer and early adopter of social media, Keenan accepted the Community Living Ontario Social Media Award in 2014. You will find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to name just a few of his favourite platforms.

An active community volunteer, in recent years Mr. Wellar has been focused on his roots in education, joining the Algonquin College Developmental Service Worker Advisory in 2016, and is now into his third year in the Carleton University mentorship program. He is active as an advocate in various local, national, and international movements supporting the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, and has made over 200 media appearances on this subject.

In his personal life, he is an enthusiastic Ottawa RedBlacks fan, a passion he shares with his wife Julie, along with a love for kayaking and photography.

3 thoughts

  1. Excellent article Keenan. Great to get a glimpse of your life growing up and how influential your parents were on your future passion.

    Congratulations!

    Maurice

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