In 2019, Yasushi (John) Okhi channeled his years of experience in housing, urban design, and civil service into founding Green Violin, a non-profit organization focused on sustainable housing and community development. Along with Rose Cello Affordable Housing Society and the Prairie Sky Property Management Corporation, Green Violin rounds out his vision for a trio of sustainability-oriented organizations.
He’s a tireless innovator with a big heart and a keen eye that’s always scanning the urban landscape for opportunities to gain new expertise and put it to work for the benefit of others.
One such opportunity came up this past spring, when Yasushi enrolled in the Edmonton CDC’s Social Enterprise Bootcamp, an intensive workshop series designed to prepare participants to mobilize plans for socially-beneficial businesses.
Not surprisingly, Yasushi is also a keen and generous conversationalist; we had the pleasure of his company in a recent online interview:
Over the past few years, I’ve been inspired by the activity going on around me in my home neighbourhood of McCauley. Compared with other places I’ve lived, there seem to be a lot of spontaneous volunteer efforts here: People are always cleaning up parks and alleyways, or just doing other little things here and there to help the neighbourhood.
It occurred to me that if this is something that individual neighbours are naturally inclined to do, maybe this type of work could be done on a larger scale by an organized group. I began to wonder: How do we mobilize neighbours to do this work?
I have known [SE Bootcamp instructor] Anna Bubel for awhile; she led one of the workshop sessions in the formative days of the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab. I had always kept in touch with her, and at one point she told me about this new thing she was doing called “Social Enterprise Bootcamp.”
The more we talked about it, the more I started to think that maybe a social enterprise could be the framework within which we could do good work for the community in McCauley.
That was the starting point; I’ve learned a LOT since.
I’m a bit of an urbanist; I like communities, I like neighbourhoods, I like walkability, I like architecture—all those things about living in an urban environment, enjoying all it has to offer, and trying to maintain the well-being of that environment. Within that framework are two pet causes for me.
The first is tidiness— I don’t necessarily mean “cleanliness,” because I like a “rough-and-tumble” neighbourhood feel. But I’m put off by things like garbage cans being knocked over, bus stops being shattered, or broken fences.Tidiness is something that really affects the enjoyability of a neighbourhood. It goes back to that “broken windows” concept: if you fix broken windows on an abandoned building, then there’s less inclination toward deterioration. It’s a matter of good karma.
My second motivation is neighbourhood safety; I’ve always personally been fairly cavalier in this regard in that I always feel safe even when I’m possibly not in a safe environment. But I’m also aware of unsafe situations, at the same time: property theft, cars being broken into, gang activity, drug houses…. I go through that all the time in my neighbourhood. It’s annoying, and I would rather not have to deal with it.
I think tidiness and safety both tie in to the larger issue of social connectedness, and that in turn relates to housing: Secure housing disincentivizes desperate measures. It keeps theft and civil unrest and rowdiness down to a more manageable level.
Following my experience in Social Enterprise Bootcamp, I’ve had a lot of conversations with [Edmonton CDC Executive Director] Mark Holmgren; we always start by talking about housing, but he reminds me to think about what people do after they attain affordable housing. And I think Social Enterprise may offer an opportunity to give people not just a home, but an activity and a purpose.
So right now I’m trying to incorporate social enterprise elements into my work with Green Violin.
One idea I had was to create a labour force dedicated to the demolition of houses. During a recent trip to Mexico, I noticed that there was a lot of manual labour going on that wasn’t replaced by bobcats and excavators and backhoes. I started to think: What if we can demolish a house by hand and salvage materials in a more meaningful and careful manner?
It would provide people with employment, and besides, it’s more sustainable—It’s not shovelfuls of house going into a dumpster; it’s picking through it by hand and rescuing the window frames and the wires and the doorknobs.
I’m also inspired by a fellow in my neighbourhood who regularly goes to a local mini-park to pick up garbage and pick weeds. He’s been at it for a year, and he’s totally cleaned up this tiny corner of Giovanni Caboto park; It’s a pleasant place to walk through now!
I think it’s possible to do what he’s doing on a grander scale—that is, I could start a Hire-A-Handyman neighbourhood resource, whereby I would provide the tools and the labourers would be paid for services like fixing fences, building tool sheds, or tidying up yards.
My third idea involves the apartment complex I’m building in the Parkdale neighbourhood.
Before we even start building, we’re doing a pop-up “Pocket Park” concept: While the lot is vacant, we’re going to create a community space with a seating area, maybe a fire pit, a playground area, and a place where parents can take their kids and then go have a cup of coffee in a seated bench area… maybe a skating area in the winter, communal garden in the summer, and a pumpkin patch in the fall.
I want that “community” feeling to extend into the building once the apartments are built. On the ground floor of the apartment building, we included in the design a communal kitchen area and eating area (like a coffee shop) where the residents can gather like they did on the vacant lot.
Where the social enterprise idea comes in is that low-income residents from the building (like seniors and at-risk youth) can work in the communal kitchen to earn money to subsidize their rent. We’re going to use vegetables rescued from local food operations to make soup that we deliver in the neighbourhood.
Right now I’m looking at buying a food truck with a 1000-litre, double-walled, steam-jacketed kettle on it. The truck will deliver a humongous vat of soup prepared in the kitchen to various neighbourhood locations where people bring their own pots to fill up at the food truck.
That enterprise, I hope, will be up and running in two years time; next year is all about rezoning and getting the development permit; the year after is construction, so by Fall of 2022 we should have the kitchen up and running with residents working at it.
Absolutely, 100%! I don’t know how much I would have floundered without it.
There’s an old saying “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I was ready to learn, which was a good thing, because it took a lot of discipline to sustain me over the 10 weeks of thinking about my concepts and working through the homework.
It turns out that there’s a lot of legwork and research and number-crunching to be done between the concept and implementation stages.
Bootcamp has also been a place where I’ve been able to evolve ideas that fit right in with what we at Green Violin want to do, and to flesh out the philosophy of Green Violin as well.
“Read the literature.”
It was surprising to me how much has been written about social enterprise! I didn’t know there’s so much research and so many case studies and templates available. To anybody wanting to start a social enterprise, search the literature. Collect materials. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that can catapult you further than if you start at square one all by yourself.
And the SE bootcamp is like a library for this stuff. Seriously—it’s like the difference between trying to find a certain book at a garage sale versus searching for one in a library. The Bootcamp is such a rich collection of information.
I would also say to an aspiring social entrepreneur to keep in mind that it’s going to be a long road. It’s not a quick-win. It’s weeks of thinking and prototyping and testing and failing along the way. Keep in mind your idea is going to morph and evolve. You have to go into it prepared to be flexible so you can figure it out as you go along.
Do you have an idea for a business that will bring about positive social, cultural, or environmental change?
Please email us if you’d like to receive updates about future offerings of Edmonton CDC’s Social Enterprise Bootcamp!