Innovator Profile: Elaine Su

Innovator Profiles highlight extraordinary community members that are making a difference.

“I thought, maybe I can do something about that.”


Elaine Su, a Radius Fellow of the RADIUS SFU Fellowship Program, is doing something about ‘that’. Elaine is part of a movement for community-based education initiatives. She has already founded two community-based education initiatives for children, Big Tinkers and the Hidden Well Foundation, and is working on her third – founding a brand new school called Compass Community School.

Elaine’s vision for her students is for them to have more learning opportunities. Compass Community School is an ecological, community-based, and inquiry-driven school that plans to teach in an outside of the box way. She wants to bring her students to the outdoors and foster an ecological awareness and sense of attachment, in a way that forms ties to the community. Elaine’s goal is to bring in community experts to share their interests and work with the students, as well as have them volunteer and take pride in their communities.

At the heart of Elaine’s vision for her students are worries and issues that she experienced while being an educator at both public and private schools. While teaching she noticed how often educators tended to work “in isolation” and that there were lots of needs that were not being met. The needs that she describes include financial needs, a lack of diversity in learning opportunities, and a lack of diversity in assessment methods.

She also noticed that it was not just her who was feeling frustrated. Elaine describes a moment in a school staff room where she thought, “maybe I can do something about that.” She says that she was listening to all of the conversations going on around her in the staff room and almost all of them were negative. They were talking about how hard it was, how little support they had, how troublesome a student was being, or how troubling a student’s situation was, and how unsupported they felt. Rather than putting her time and energy into negativity, Elaine decided that she wanted to work with hope and positivity and do something wonderful instead. “If not now, when? If I don’t do it now, will I turn into a horrible, angry person with no hope to balance it out?” She didn’t want to see herself sitting in a staff room being the one complaining in the future.

It was then that she began to travel down a path towards Big Tinkers, Hidden Well Foundation, and eventually to her very own Compass Community School. So far, the path hasn’t been an easy one and despite her previous experience in creating initiatives, there was nothing that could have prepared her for the challenges she could face in creating her own school. The obstacles she has to face include a multiple levels of bureaucratic red tape, finding a space, and finding alternative forms of responsible funding.

Finding motivation is never hard, though, for Elaine. She says that the wonderful people on her board and the wonderful people she has met on her journey are what keep her motivated despite the challenges. She cites her once-a-week meetings at RADIUS are basically a support group for her frustrations. As well “I have the great privilege that my day-in day-out job is teaching 5 year olds, so my life can only be so bad.”

Eventually, though, Elaine has dreams that her school won’t have to exist. The end goal is to show that with a very limited supply of resources, that schools can provide students with different learning opportunities without the standard assessment method. Until then, she hopes that her students will find their place as part of a nurturing, sustainable, and caring community. Elaine wants students from her school to meet students from other schools and to have their parents meet and begin a dialogue on what is school and what is a community? “I just want to encourage people to know that other was are possible.”

For fellow and future innovators Elaine’s advice is to “talk to everybody and anybody you can get your hands on. Find anyone who has even remote experience with what you are trying to do and take them out to coffee and let them talk. Really humble yourself and learn from them.”