THE QUESTION made a great conversation starter on its own: Can a grand dinner party bringing together the right people spark a conversation that could change the world? Last November, World Accord International Development Agency in Waterloo, Ontario, decided to find out.

From its tiny office, World Accord hired event designer and “change agent” Denise Wamsley to organize an exclusive dinner with David Suzuki to celebrate the philanthropic organization’s 31st anniversary. The meal at Kitchener’s Borealis restaurant was just one course in a long menu of opportunities.

In a bid to connect World Accord with the region’s ecologically minded non-governmental- organizations, and to connect those NGOs with the wider population, Wamsley created the “Passport to Sustainability Tour,” with two prizes: tickets- to the Suzuki dinner sitting next to the guest of honour, or a trip to Honduras to help build a school with World Accord. To win, entrants had to visit at least four of 31 partner organizations, including cafes, book stores, local farms and Alternatives.

I don’t often brave big box country in the south end of Kitchener-Waterloo, but finding Borealis there gave unexpected comfort. The restaurant occupies a 120-year-old schoolhouse. Planet-friendly renovations have created an earthy ambiance, and photos of the previous scholarly occupants take pride of place on the walls. I felt the conviction of youth – I couldn’t take my eyes off the people in those photos. I wanted this event to make them proud.

The dining room was filled with local sustainability leaders and promoters. At my table were Bob Desautels, the hosting owner of Borealis restaurant, Steve Morrison from The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (holy mouthful!), University of Waterloo environment student Josh Joseph, United Way of Kitchener-Waterloo CEO Jan Varner, and World Accord executive director David Barth. Immediately, I knew I’d want to talk to them all again after this meal.

During the first course I learned that Varner didn’t like too much fresh horseradish (the rest of hers landed in my shabu-shabu). I also learned that the United Way has a remarkable new approach to granting. Instead of funding the same organizations every year, United Way K-W now funds individuals and informal groups as well as NGOs.

I had hardly finished my second course – beet carpaccio – and I was ready to drop everything and help Josh Joseph create a bike-share system for the region. “In early November, business people, politicians and engineers told us they support the idea,” he told me. The next step would be implementation meetings with a committee of stakeholders. They are likely on the road to success, considering the now 500-member Grand River Car Share also started as a student-driven project.

I had a pretty good idea how my other dinner partners supported sustainability, but was no less impressed by their efforts. Desautels is on a steady path towards a zero-carbon footprint at his group of eateries- (target date: 2017), and as close to 100 per cent local food as a mainstream restaurant can get (aiming for 95 per cent by 2017). Morrison’s union co-sponsored the gathering, which makes perfect sense: The organization trains and represents the thousands of people who construct LEED-certified buildings, a new craft with precise requirements.

As we dug into roast beef, then lingered over dessert – organic beer float with brownie – World Accord’s Barth was riding a “wave of euphoria.” Strong connections were made with the community, and benefits were already unfolding. Says Barth: “Expectations for the evening were certainly surpassed.”

In a rousing speech, the sage Suzook brought home the point of the event. “This is your opportunity to connect with one another, learn and share with one another,” he said. I know that I was inspired – by more than Suzuki and my tablemates. We didn’t solve the world’s ills, but I know I have a rich tapestry of local allies with stories and solutions to share, and collaborative energy to make our community its sustainable best. It’s a journey, and World Accord’s dinner was a great step along the path.

The Take Away

Take a problem or concern in your community. Think of the different strengths and offerings of those around you. Bring that group together for open discussion. Keep your goal in focus, but keep your mind open and your approach nimble. There is a magic. Go ahead – try this at home.

Marcia Ruby is the publisher emerita and creative director of Alternatives Journal.

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