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Advocate of social change. Proponent of collaboration. Entrepreneur. Leader. Visionary. Tonya Surman embodies each descriptor much like she embraces her diverse roles: with passion, commitment and dogged determination. Founding executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation – a dynamic space that catalyzes and supports social innovators and their world-changing ideas, this recently crowned Ashoka Fellow has been creating and leading social ventures for over 20 years.


Suffice it to say, no one was shocked when Tonya was chosen as speaker at TEDxToronto. In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, the second annual conference – taking place on September 30 at the Glenn Gould Studio in downtown Toronto – will feature some of the city’s foremost thought leaders and changemakers. Speaking on the theme, A Call to Action, transforming ideas into tangible action toward effecting change in our communities, no doubt Tonya will feel right at home on the TEDxTO stage.


SEE Change Magazine, a proud media sponsor of TEDxTO, spoke recently with Tonya about this exciting opportunity, her preparation for it, and its significance in her personal and professional life.


TED has been garnering an ever-growing fan base over the years. How would you sum up its appeal and what makes it so impactful today?


For me, TED is like the Coles notes for the new millennium… I rarely have time for a whole book, but it is hard to argue with 18 minutes for a new idea. I also think that the ability to learn across issues and expertise is one of the most outstanding outcomes. It is amazing how many times I find myself watching TED Talks on string theory or brain transformations… the amazing thing is that I see the connections in these presentations in so much of what I do. I think that TED’s format speeds up the process of innovation by specializing on the “periphery” – where the innovations are happening in the cross-pollination of ideas.


Considering your life’s work and passion, where and how does TEDxToronto fit in?


I attended TEDxToronto last year and was just delighted to see the TED format being adapted and adopted at the local level. I think that it provides an opportunity to profile and explore some of the most exciting ideas coming out of Toronto. Last year, I learned about Tower Renewal, the brokenness of unions, and the education system and got inspired by the sesquicentennial…all in a day. And these things are local, making them all that much more actionable.


What does it mean to you to have this opportunity, both personally and professionally?


This is a huge honour…a bit daunting really. I am both excited and in awe that I have been asked to speak. Of course, now the pressure is on to say something intelligent. I am more of a “wing it” kind of person. I guess that the most interesting part of this Talk is the tension between the personal and professional. They say stories are the best way to engage people, but I feel a bit awkward speaking about myself. And professionally, the TED format really pushes you to the idea level. It isn’t about promoting your own organization, but rather, it is about exploring the ideas that lay beneath it. If I am asked to do this, I could head right into the deep end and become completely inaccessible to people. It is a fascinating tightrope to walk, to balance the personal and professional.


Has writing your speech made you reflect on where you are today, how far you’ve come and where your future lies?


Yes, in fact, my whole trip to France this summer, which was supposed to be an escape, turned into a deep thought process with my husband Mark, as we drove from region to region in France discussing all of the different failed and successful collaborations I have been a part of or watched. We really dug into the essence or the transferable takeaways that could be applied to any collaboration.


These moments in time provide such a valuable opportunity to reflect and refine, explore and embrace, and generally apply some discipline to the practitioner’s experience. I am not sure that it will change my future. I am blessed with having the best platform in the world in which to continue to explore how collaboration and innovation can and are changing the world that we live in. It just makes me even more grateful.


How are you preparing for this big moment: what to talk about, what not to talk about, what to wear?


Although I will inevitably struggle with what to wear, I think that the real preparation has been the struggle between ideas and practice – do I tell stories of my practice and what I have seen that works? Do I explore ideas and share theories? It is a call to action…so just what do I want people to be feeling at the end of the talk?


Honestly, at this moment, I have so much to say and so little structure to say it in, that I suspect that I shall ditch the PPT and just wing it. Of course, this will inevitably change as I struggle to find the balance between yin and yang, between structure and flow. But this is my creative process and I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of what I have learned about the wizardry of collaboration for social innovation.


Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

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