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In the Lead: Melanie Goodchild

Photo by Alisha Townsend/Grand Magazine

Earlier this month, we commemorated International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9), which shines a light on the unique indigenous cultures and languages around the globe. To help celebrate, we are highlighting the work of indigenous activist Melanie Goodchild. Melanie is a Senior Indigenous Research Fellow, Ambassador and Suncor Fellow at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, founder of Turtle Island Institute, and an IWF Fellow alumna. She is a member of the Anishinaabe community, and utilizes that background to inform her research around sustainability and systems thinking.

At the IWF World Leadership Conference in Toronto, Melanie will speak on a panel about entrepreneurship, economic development and social innovation. Here, we asked her about using indigenous knowledge to combat climate change, how the IWF Fellows Program influenced her professional journey, and what it takes to join a group called the Iron Butt Association.

Tell us about your journey to understand your own Indigenous background. What have you since learned about First Nation cultures that you wish were better understood by the greater public?

I am Anishinaabe (Ojibway/Chippewa) and both of my parents were forced to attend Indian residential schools. My father went to Residential School and my mom went to Indian Day School. These schools were designed to assimilate children and to destroy traditional Indigenous cultures. Children were forbidden to speak their ancestral languages. All four of my grandparents spoke Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway language) but I do not speak it fluently. Instead, I was taught English because my parents are residential school survivors. This year, 2019, is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. We are trying to save our languages because they feature coded knowledge, teachings about our theory of knowledge and nature of being. In addition to pursuing ceremonial life learning from elders, I began learning our language when I was 13 years old. When I introduce myself, I speak Anishinaabemowin, I say my spirit names, my clan and where I am from. I wish the general public understood that Indigenous cultures around the world offer the gift of holistic thinking.

You have become a significant Indigenous voice in conversations about climate change. How can we best utilize the history, knowledge and talents of our First Nations to combat this threat?

Indigenous knowledge makes important contributions to understanding the catastrophe of climate change. In my language, there is no word for nature, or ecology or environment. Instead we say gidaakiiminan. This is a word that means everything in creation: the sun, the moon, the stars, the plants, the animals, the elements, the water and the humans – your sacred place in creation. There is no separation of humanity from nature. Holistic thinking is the best way for humanity to understand the systemic causes of the climate crisis.

The relationships you formed while part of our Fellows Program eventually led to opportunities like collaborating with NASA. How else has the Fellows Program prepared you for your professional journey?

Melanie (left) with her Fellows Program mentor, Ruth Ann Harnisch

The IWF Fellows Program was transformative for me personally and professionally. The program is designed to propel leaders into the next level of their profession. I entered the program from the social sector and was determined to make the most of the opportunity. I enjoyed our time at Harvard Business School and at INSEAD because I could apply those lessons to my work in scaling social innovations. After I completed the Fellows Program, I left my full-time job at a national NGO in Canada to start Turtle Island Institute, an Indigenous social innovation think and do tank. We don’t focus on social enterprise as much as we focus on supporting change-making initiatives across all sectors. I met my colleague from NASA during the Fellows Program, and I worked with her on bridging knowledge between NASA and Native American communities. My work with NASA would never have occurred without the Fellows Program.

I now collaborate with a variety of organizations, institutions and philanthropic foundations on creating holistic approaches to large-scale, transformative change. My mentor in the Fellows Program was a philanthropist who was very generous with her time, her money and her knowledge. Our time together helped me understand more about fundraising for non-profits, like Turtle Island Institute.

A new wave of social advocacy is currently sweeping the globe, led mostly by young people and especially women. What guidance would you give these future leaders to ensure they are making the most of this opportunity?

My advice is to take a systemic approach to learning, not a conventional approach using compartmentalized knowledge systems. Labels, professional designations and titles can restrict possibilities. Early on, supporters wished to define me and my new institute, but I broke free from those labels and said “No, we are much more than that.” I am not an environmentalist or a feminist or an Indigenous activist or a social innovator only, I am all of those and more. I might not have accepted an invitation to be an IWF Fellow if I viewed it as strictly a corporate leadership program. Instead, I decided to get everything I could out of the experience, so I could do good in our communities, which are some of the most marginalized and poorest in North America. Systems thinking helps you understand that there are deep-rooted, systemic or structural causes to problems that cannot be easily defined or solved. Be open-minded and explore opportunities to see whole systems. A system achieves a purpose, and you need to understand the dynamics of that system to transform it.

A very cool fact: You are a member of the Iron Butt Association after riding your motorcycle over 1,600 kilometers in 24 hours. What spurred you to take on this crazy challenge?

In 2011, I had just bought my new Harley-Davidson, an upgrade from an 883cc Sportster, to a Street Glide with 1584cc’s. My bike is called Red Rocket, because it’s fire engine red and I blast off like a rocket when I ride! I was turning 40 years old that year and wanted to do something special. I decided to do the entry-level ride for the Iron Butt Association: 1,000 miles in 24 hours. From door to door, I rode about 1,200 miles in 27 hours. That ride earned me a “world’s toughest riders” license plate and patch for my vest. I also marked the achievement with a biker tattoo. On my left arm is ink of me as a skeleton with a cowboy hat, hair blowing in the wind, that says “Never say die” because that’s the IBA motto. I’m proud of finishing that long, hard ride.

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In the Lead: Melanie Goodchild
In the Lead: Melanie Goodchild
International Women's Forum