The Quest for Meaningful Work

Make money and change the world. Simple, right?

By Alla Guelber | illustration by Stephanie Chan

It’s a delightfully warm day in late September 2009. My friend and mentor Karen Kun and I are in an airport bar in Toronto, catching up and hashing out ideas before I board my plane and return to Calgary. I had just attended the IMPACT! The Co-operators Youth Conference for Sustainability Leadership, a four-day gathering for 180 students across Canada.

This conversation was the metaphoric equivalent of a cherry on top of the dripping gooey sundae that was my summer, with layer upon layer of inspiring conversations, eye-opening experiences and lofty aspirations melding together in one delicious taste of opportunity for the future. I could hardly contain my excitement.

I’ve grasped at the illusive ideal of meaningful work for years. Since adolescence, I’ve dealt with a chronic illness and chronic pain. Even though my health has improved significantly, I’ve always known the typical nine-to-five office lifestyle wouldn’t work for me.

Back in 2007, I thought I was ready to enter Calgary’s then-booming job market. What I soon found was that, despite my qualifications (a degree in public relations, several internships in environmental communications, and tons of volunteer experience – including co-founding a campus sustainability initiative), the kind of flexible, satisfying, reasonably well-paying – and also world-changing – work, didn’t really exist. It wasn’t just me. The cool jobs I was looking for haven’t been invented yet.

“Canada is lacking in social innovation,” says Kun. She then starts to list off the kind of organizations in Europe that we can look to for inspiration, including KaosPilot, a Danish social change school focused on personal growth and enterprise, and Knowmads, a Dutch school inspired by the same concept.

As the publisher of Corporate Knights magazine, Kun is constantly on the lookout for examples of “clean capitalism,” The magazine she runs aims to humanize the marketplace, showcasing leaders and innovators in the field, and compiling information to compare and contrast who’s who in the CSR zoo (through the annual Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada and the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World).

Kun also co-founded Waterlution in 2003, a non-profit best known for organizing a national series of dialogue-based weekend workshops for young professionals on water issues, and now gearing up for a Canadian Water Innovation Lab in October 2010.

“I think people need to be challenged more by having the tough conversations,” Kun says. “And we’re just not doing enough of that here in Canada. We haven’t come to terms with the urgency of shifting our economy.”

The Need for Change
Growing up in this increasingly complex world under the shadow of climate change, globalization, and growing awareness that thinking globally and acting locally extends into the world of work, we, the emerging force of generation Y, are looking for more. We want to align our values with the way we make a living. We want to know that the result of our daily toil will leave the Earth a little more just and a little less hot while making ourselves a whole lot happier.

Not only is the quest for meaningful work a tall order in a world where economic growth is often equated with environmental destruction, but the existing political and financial mechanisms in Canada (political, financial) are falling behind other nations.

The report Social Innovation in Canada: An Update, acknowledges the sometimes nebulous, yet powerful potential embodied within social innovation: “At the highest level, the goal of social innovation is to address the social challenges the world faces through innovative means. These challenges can be as large-scale as fighting global climate change and reducing poverty or as small-scale as creating a community garden.”

The report, published by Canadian Policy Research Networks, shows how Canada is falling behind other developed nations such as the United Kingdom, the U.S.A. and Australia in encouraging social innovation. It states: “Canada has missed opportunities to encourage SI [social innovation] by failing to develop adequate models for public support, engagement and funding.”

Cataloguing the Transition

Peter Blanchard founded in 2000 and in 2001 for that very reason. Frustrated and burnt-out from trying to make it in the “mainstream” economy, he wanted meaningful work that made a difference.

“I came to realize that there’s such an amazing, long list of alternatives that for the most part I wasn’t aware of, and I felt called to use my skills [in computers and communications] to spread the word,” he says. He saw how Canadians were creating change from the ground up, even if government and industry are only now starting to catch on.

Nearly a decade later, the combined sites Blanchard runs are getting upward of half a million hits a day. In addition to the most comprehensive green jobs listings in Canada, they also offer all kinds of detailed information on alternatives within the green economy, such as a guide on creating your own green job, the permaculture gateway, and the guide to ecovillages.

The Meaningful Work Retreat

Returning to Calgary after my richly layered and exciting summer, my head was swimming with conflicting thoughts, ideas for new possibilities, and questions about what to do next.

I am constantly frustrated by Alberta’s lagging desire to promote a clean energy future and avoid the most severe threats of climate change, reboot our economy and move forward. But I am also part of a burgeoning community, young and old, spanning all sectors and professional disciplines – in my own city, and across Canada – tired of waiting for the dinosaur pace of public policy to catch up with reality.

So what can I do for a living that is environmentally sustainable, socially just, spiritually fulfilling – and actually pays?

I have some ideas, but I don’t have the full answer yet. However, I am quite certain that part of my role is to connect the change-makers with those who are craving change and don’t know where to start.

As this magazine goes live, I’ll be at a hostel in Kananaskis Country at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, hosting a two-day retreat called Meaningful Work: Green Jobs + Social Innovation.

The genesis of this workshop was a combination of prior experience and good timing: training by Kun to organize experiential Waterlution workshops, a curriculum design course in my MA program that forced me to get my ideas on paper, and support from my colleagues at Alberta Acts on Climate Change. A lucky break in the form of two grants from the Co-operators’ IMPACT! Alumni fund and the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation was the last push to make it happen.

Two dozen participants will come together to be inspired by success stories from guest ecopreneurs and fellow participants. We will brainstorm action plans for creating our own meaningful work, whether it means starting businesses, non-profit projects or shifting existing organizations from the inside.

There’s no single roadmap for the shift to a cleaner, greener world. We are creating the future as we go along. Aligning what we do to make a living with the urgency of changing the world is the surest way to make tangible, long-lasting change.

Putting on this workshop is part of my own response to the urgency I feel in transitioning our society and economy. By bringing people together to envision a better future, learning from inspiring professionals and each other, and sharing skills and knowledge, we can start moving on creating the kind of meaningful work that will take care of people and the planet.

For more information visit

Alla Guelber is a graduate student in the MA – Environmental Education and Communications at Royal Roads University and an outreach co-ordinator at Alberta Acts on Climate Change.

2 Responses to The Quest for Meaningful Work

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