Chicken Soup Friends (or, why we built the RADIUS Fellowship Program)

Jenn McRae built and piloted the RADIUS Fellowships in Radical Doing program, which wrapped up its second annual cohort this summer under the leadership of RADIUS Lead Educator Tamara Connell. Here, Jenn tells the origin story behind the Fellows program, and shares some of what we’ve learned so far. Feature image above and last three images by Fellow and pro photographer Jackie Dives.
It was a Friday night. I was at home, lying on the couch watching an episode of who knows what through barely open eyes. I was exhausted. Around 3am that morning, I’d gotten in a cab and taken myself to the Emergency Room. I was, the ER doctor told me, having a gallbladder attack (nice ring to it, eh?). Everything turned out just fine but I had to cancel some meetings on Friday and get some rest.
The knock on my front door startled me from my barely conscious state on the couch. When I peaked through the window before answering, I saw Charles, my (then) boss and friend standing there with something in his hands. When our eyes met through the window, he gave me a big grin and a little wave. I opened the door, and he said “I just wanted to make sure you are ok. And I made you some chicken soup so you feel better.”
I think I just stood and stared at him. I could feel a whole complex gaggle of emotions welling up in my throat. On the verge of tears, I stammered out some underwhelming version of “thanks” and invited him in. He gave me another hug and said he could not stay and told me to call if I needed anything.

Paul Born’s Deepening Community, our “Chicken Soup Friends”


February 2015 opening retreat for the first Fellows cohort on Bowen Island

Many months later, when I had moved on to work at RADIUS, Charles gifted me with a book by Paul Born called Deepening Community. Born posits  that deep communities — the kind where you trust one another and share stories, spend time together regularly, commit mutual acts of caring that lead to strong bonds and greater collective resiliency —  are the kinds of communities that enable us to do the difficult work of building a better world together.  Charles and I came to call the kinds of friendships and connections Born describes “Chicken Soup Friends.”
At that time, I was building RADIUS’ first leadership program for young changemakers. Born’s framework became central to my thinking in this endeavour. I’d even go so far as to say my ultimate goal was to build a network of Chicken Soup Friends. Now, you can’t really tell a funder “I want to build you a cohort of chicken soup friends!” and leave it at that. So we went deep on the research on social isolation, network theory, the livelihoods and career trajectories of impact-oriented young people, and gaps in the higher education system. We framed the program like this:
The RADIUS Fellowship program will bring together the next generation of untamed social entrepreneurs and innovators from SFU and the Lower Mainland who have demonstrated remarkable accomplishment in their pursuits and a relentless dedication to creating impact in all they do. Intended to identify, profile, support and catalyze these emerging Radical Doers, the Fellowships will provide the community, mentorship and tools needed to create deep social impact and pursue work with purpose.

What’s this got to do with Social Impact?

What we were really up to though was an experiment in deep community building, in ‘networking networks’. But why? Why are Chicken Soup Friends so valuable and what do they have to do with social impact?
I could write you a long listicle about the dozens of reasons why these kinds of deep social bonds are crucial to doing social change work, why they are so important that I would frame an entire program around the generation of deep community, but it really comes down to one big reason: connections like these make us resilient.
IMG_20150221_170401To be resilient means to be able to bounce back, to move fluidly with changing conditions. And doing social change work demands resiliency. It is work that can be both deeply stressful and intensely joyful. No predetermined path exists. It requires constant growth and learning, finding edges and pushing past them. It is about so much more than hustle. It’s largely about our hearts.  It can even break our hearts. We feel injustice, inequality, and the myriad other problems changemakers are driven to work on. It is that felt sense that moves us to action and can take us to our breaking points.
Our connections, our Chicken Soup Friends, are a fundamental ingredient in building resiliency. They are what help us to bounce back when it feels like too much, when we would rather give up and walk away. They immunize us against feeling alone. They are bridges to collective impact. They generate the trust, the empathy, and the safety needed to take bold leaps. They are the connections to jobs, solutions to problems, and that single introduction that changes the course of an entire project. They are the connections that make our communities stronger and allow us to, as Paul Born says, do the difficult work of building a better world together.
While all of this might seem intuitive, few programs are launched with a core theory of change focused on forming deep connections and fostering resiliency in participants. One leading light is the Barr Foundation Fellowships in Boston. We learned a great deal from them in evaluating the pilot RADIUS Fellowship. Here’s how Barr put it:
“People, not organizations, are the agents of positive change. People advocate and act for greater justice, equity, peace, and sustainability. People activate powerful networks and collaborate to benefit whole communities. Yet, we have not focused enough on how best to support these change agents – at least not in all the right ways. While much attention is paid to things like talent pipelines, performance metrics, and career ladders, the leadership discussion does not typically address how to help dedicated change agents rejuvenate and connect with peers in ways that deepen their individual and collective impact. [So we are testing] the hypothesis that recognizing talented leaders and investing in their personal growth and connections with one another will result in individual, collective, and city transformation.”
In their eight years, the Barr Fellowship has had some tremendous outcomes. Trust among social change leaders in Boston has become a “currency for social change”. New large scale initiatives are emerging with Barr Fellows at the core, initiatives that they report would not have been possible without the relationships built by the fellowships. They are, in the words of one Barr Foundation employee, “…transform[ing] the DNA of our sector in Boston. In so doing, we can carry forward Martin Luther King’s wisdom that ‘love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation’”

Networking Networks: Learnings from the first RADIUS Fellows cohort

The RADIUS fellowships are now in year two. It remains to be seen if they will have similar systems-level impact as is occurring in Boston. Here is what we do know after just that first year though.
We changed the structure of the cohort’s networks and multiplied the organizations they are connected to. On average, fellows reported connection to 45 new organizations by the program’s end. Not only did their connections to each other deepen and change, but their connections to existing networks, and in turn the structure of those existing networks (networking networks!), changed too.
RADIUS Fellows are actively collaborating with each other. At the program’s conclusion in summer 2015, 74% of fellows reported active, new collaborations with other fellows.
In exit interviews, 100% of fellows spontaneously reported that the most valuable thing they got from the program was the relationships they made with other fellows. Perhaps most importantly, they became friends and have remained friends. They’ve taken trips together, they call each other for help, they invite each other to parties, and they are collaborating on projects. They helped to select this year’s cohort and come out to open socials with the 2016 fellows.

The Soup’s on the Stove: Building the deep community of young impact leaders BC needs

Fellows 2016 - 4Fellows 2016 - 8Fellows 2016 - 2Community. Friends. Networks. Today more than ever these can seem like hollow abstract concepts, especially when we are intent on measuring them by digital volume: one thousand Facebook friends and three thousand Twitter followers does not necessarily a community make. Even with the remarkable, non-local instant connectivity the internet has offered us, humans remain deeply social creatures with a need for meaningful, local, in-person, face-to-face interaction. Contrary to dominant social narratives that elevate the rugged individual and lone entrepreneurial hero, we are more successful together. Collaboration and cooperation are one of our longest standing and most successful evolutionary strategies and they’re making a fascinating comeback, perhaps driven partially by the severe evolutionary moment we find ourselves in.
As the grand challenges we face intensify and more and more young people take up the mantle of participating in the Great Turning — Joanna Macey’s term for the “the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization” — in response, building social infrastructure that generates connection, resiliency and collaboration may be more important than ever. Founding the RADIUS Fellowships was our small contribution toward these ends. Similar to Boston’s Barr Fellowships, RADIUS is attempting to amplify the collective impact that is possible through deep community and investing in the development of high potential youth. I can’t wait to see where we are ten years from now as each successive cohort of fellows connects to each other and those that preceded them, weaving their potential and shaping the future of our region. Metaphorically and literally, chicken soup is bubbling away on the stove.  

After her tenure at RADIUS, Jenn worked with CityStudio Vancouver to develop a Master’s degree in Civic Innovation and Systems Leadership. She is currently working to support and grow SFU’s Community Economic Development programs. She can be reached at jenniferangela.mcrae[at] and would love to hear from you.
RADIUS thanks the SFU Sustainability Office and RECODE for their support of the Fellows program.