"You need to face the Bear. You need to be the bear."

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“What do I do if I run into a bear out there?” Julian calmly looks at me and replies, “Well, first, you say thank you.” 


This was a pretty key question on my mind in June 2015, as we settled into The Banff Centre just before the launch of this brand new program on social innovation. That’s right – I wasn’t actually worried about the content that we’d present on system thinking, working in massive complexity, theories of change, leading for social innovation. I wasn’t imagining how all this would come alive through nature-based experiences, exploration of artistic practice or the integration of indigenous ways of knowing the world. Nope. The thing that was suddenly uppermost on my mind was bears. Big bears. Wild bears.

It was bear season in Banff and for the last couple of days there had been stories circulating about grizzlies walking through town, bears right on The Banff Centre campus. We’d discussed the pros and cons of providing bear spray to our program participants, and ensured that everyone got the official flyer on how to avoid, react, survive bears and other wildlife that are a fact of life, especially at this time of year, at this learning centre in the middle of Canada’s oldest national park.

Bears live here. I now realized this and I also realized that this city dweller doesn’t know nearly enough about bears and specifically about what people should do around bears. What do I do if I run into a bear out there? I SAY THANK YOU TO THE BEAR?! I stared back at Julian, both confused and irritated. What’s that supposed to mean? I need facts! I need information! I need someone to just tell me what to do!

It wasn’t long before I saw a lot of the social innovation residency participants show up with the same need for answers – not about the reality of living with bears but about how to see impact on the problems to which they’ve been dedicating their lives. They basically wanted us to just give them the facts. Transfer a bunch of information from us to them. Just tell them what to do because each was more than willing to then go back out there and do it. Most of them would do anything to see the change that they’re working for in the world.  They are passionate. And they are impatient. And sometimes, they are afraid; afraid that it’s impossible, that it’s too late, that they will make mistakes, and that they’re not enough. So they want answers. And they want them now.

But it’s not as simple as that. Because the work, the kind of change they’re seeking, well, it’s not simple either. So first, we say to them, you need to stop ,think, and open up to deeply knowing the power you hold, the reality of the situation, and the gift that is in these great challenges before you. You need to face the bear.  You need to be the bear.

Bears are big and wild, unpredictable and powerful. Just like so many of the urgent problems these social innovators face everyday. The ones they worry will chase and batter them and their children and grandchildren unless we succeed in our efforts to transform who we are, how we treat each other, and how we view our place and role on this planet. 

Bears are also ancient symbols of supreme strength and fearlessness.  Traditional stories tell us that the Bear Spirit guides us in our exploration of the caves and caverns of our work and life. It also encourages us to take quiet journeys of retreat and reflection, a time of ‘hibernation’, in order to learn to be still, to know our deepest selves, and to strive to become comfortable and confident with who we are and what we are meant to do when we return to the world.

Bear energy infuses this most unusual and important program that is Getting to Maybe: A Social Innovation Residency. We want to create a time for retreat from the unending work and the unrelenting busy-ness. We hope to offer meaningful support and learning on this four week journey to discover new knowledge, strategy, understandings, awareness and a rejuvenated sense of calling for the path ahead. The people who show up for this program clearly embody the symbolic spirit of the bear; strong, humble, courageous people seeking wisdom and renewal before they head back out to catalyze change in the world.

So, I did run into bears out there; bear energy and spirit were everywhere during the program. I witnessed the wild and powerful problems that were shared but also the wild and powerful insights that emerged. All that matched only by the wild and powerful learners, innovators, teachers, mentors, colleagues, and friends.

What a privilege. Thank you.

Cheryl Rose holds a graduate degree in Capacity Development and Extension Studies, and she presents and coaches on strategy development for social innovation as well as enhancing individual and organizational resilience.  In 2007, she was invited to be one of the principal directors for the national Social Innovation Generation (SiG) partnership and accepted a role as the Associate Director of the Waterloo Institute on Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR). Recently, she was appointed a McConnell Foundation Senior Fellow.