Walking distance from Vancouver’s scenic downtown is an area known as the Downtown Eastside (DTES), a low income area of the city where the realities of inequality are faced on a daily basis. These realities include the fact that more than 65% of the area’s residents are low income, relying on income assistance, old age pension, informal and volunteer work to survive.
Also, in the midst of a national overdose crisis, many DTES residents face serious mental health and addictions challenges resulting in one of the highest concentrations of health and social services in North America. The lesser told story of the DTES, however, is one of innovation and strength of community. It relates the strengths of the DTES as a neighbourhood of extremely resourceful individuals who are innovating every day as a way to make ends meet, a population with a long history of community activism, and an area with one of the most mature clusters of non-profit social enterprises anywhere in the world.
The Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab), an initiative of Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU, was initiated as a platform to explore and build a more vibrant and inclusive local economy in Vancouver’s DTES by engaging local residents, nonprofits, and policy makers. Kiri Bird has been the manager of the Local Economic Development Lab since its inception in late 2014. What follows is an interview with Kiri about the work of the lab and the importance of meaningful collaboration to address systemic issues of sustainability and social inclusion.
Kiri, can you tell us a little bit about why LEDlab was created?
LEDlab was built to address the community’s desire to innovate with constrained resources by bringing actual human capital (in the form of paid full-time graduate student project coordinators) to advance community-driven ideas, while using a cohort model to build trust and identify opportunities to work collaboratively towards shared objectives. Our issue and system mapping, and research also contribute to helping the system better define and address its core challenges.
How did LEDlab get started on delivering this mandate?
Drawing on Ecotrust Canada’s 20 years of on-the- ground community development practice, we worked to understand the local community’s priorities for economic development and innovation.
We spoke with activists, community organizers, social enterprise and community economic development leaders for four months to understand if and how we might add value to an already innovative and quite crowded space.
Good ideas are often sitting on the side of someone’s desk, and collaboration is just another thing to do on an already full plate.
We learned a vision for the local economy had in many ways been set by the recently adopted Local Area Plan and Healthy City Strategy, but that new resources, skills, and energy would be beneficial to closing the implementation gap and bringing the community vision to life. More importantly, we learned that good ideas are often sitting on the side of someone’s desk, and collaboration is just another thing to add to an already full plate.
What does the DTES teach us about social inclusion?
What I have come to learn about the DTES is that the challenges and issues that show up on the face of this infamous neighbourhood start way far outside of the neighbourhood boundaries. The gap between rich and poor is widening in many countries across the world, but certainly in the US, UK, and Canada. Seeing the DTES not as a place with too many conflicting challenges to wrap your head around but as symptomatic of a larger issue with our economic system, I know the DTES has something to teach us. Social enterprises in the DTES reach out to and expressly create opportunities for the most hard to employ individuals. They recognize there is no one size fits all model for our economy.
How do you decide what projects to work on in the LEDlab?
LEDlab is firmly led by community. To us this means something very specific: we think of innovation happening ‘in the community.’ not ‘in the lab.’ Anyone who has worked in a community setting understands that no new initiative starts with a ‘clean slate.’ There are people, living together, with relationships, politics, histories. The community is constantly bubbling with new ideas and the leadership to move them forward. We don’t see our role so much as a facilitator of a process in which ideas take shape, but rather we embed ourselves within existing community networks and group processes, and as ideas are formed, we work with those ideas and community leaders to test, build, and scale new and innovative community-led solutions.
What can you tell us about the importance of collaborative leadership for social inclusion?
I think we’re arriving at a time in Canada and in the world where polarities are starting to rear their heads. Collaborative leadership, I think, recognizes there are many voices and perspectives, and holds those paradoxes, while trying to focus on shared values and vision. I’m not sure if collaborative leadership is as important to social inclusion as social inclusion is to collaborative leadership. Who’s not at the table is just as important as who is. Any collaborative leadership initiative should strive for equity and inclusion. It’s hard work to include the voices of marginalized people in policy and planning decision-making, but it’s good work and we can all do more.
In your experience what makes for meaningful collaboration to address systemic issues?
Meaningful collaboration is all about win-win. I try to picture a stakeholder map and think about the value proposition for each person to be at the table. But I think the key to collaborative leadership is a strong backbone organization that supports administration and operations of the collective. I don’t think the onus should be on the network to organize themselves. If your overarching goal is systems change, the backbone organization is also in a great position to have a strong understanding of the systems-level dynamics at play and should be able to reflect that back to the network.
What is one key takeaway for those who want to work collaboratively to address systemic issues of sustainability and social inclusion in today’s cities?
Anne Gloger, the Executive Director of the East Scarborough Storefront and a new personal mentor, defines emergence as when opportunity meets momentum. I love that definition in the context of community-based work, because while it’s true there will be political changes, or regulatory changes, or new pots of money that will appear and pull opportunities forward, you also need to have a constant focus on the existing capacity within the system to advance new ideas. So there’s a balancing act of capacity building, and system sensing that needs to happen every step of the way. A rigorous learning and evaluation process has been really helpful for LEDlab—and shout out to our Developmental Evaluator, Steve Williams, who has been invaluable to this work.
Who’s not at the table is just as important as who is – so any collaborative leadership initiative should strive for equity and inclusion.
I guess the final thought is that it really takes so many people working together, who trust each other, who know each other personally, to advance work that is this complex. Not only is LEDlab standing on the shoulders of giants, but we also have an incredible team of people / partners (formal and informal) as well as mentors and advisors that help us to check our assumptions, validate our reflections, and share the load of advancing new solutions. We’re only playing one small part in a much broader movement.
At Junxion, we know a shared vision and a commitment to productive collaboration are essential if we’re to address systemic issues, locally and globally.. We’re always looking for successful work to examine, so we continue to learn. We’re inspired by the work of LEDlab and their approach to collaborating with residents, non profits and policy makers in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Whose collaboration work inspires you?
Learn more about Ecotrust Canada
Learn more about RADIUS SFU
Katja Macura is a Senior Consultant with Junxion and has extensive experience supporting leaders and entrepreneurs as they develop values-driven projects, organizations, and brands.