Am Johal from SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement talks about creating dynamic spaces for public dialogue, and how studying under Philosophers Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben taught him the true meaning of la dolce vita.
Tracy: You work at SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement in the university's Woodward's Cultural Unit. Tell me a bit about your background leading up to finding yourself in the position.
I first started doing work in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in 1998 with a small Liberal Arts program for residents called Humanities 101 through UBC that I developed with a friend of mine, Allison Dunnet. I was working my first job at a university, managing the phone room in the basement of a building that did fundraising from alumni. I had a huge student loan, and the evening hours were such that I totally hated my job. So I got together with Allison, who now works in the planning department at the City of Vancouver, and we started the project at the Or Gallery before it moved out to UBC. We had applied for a small grant of about $15,000 to cover the cost of food, bus passes, that kind of thing, and we modelled it off of a program in New York. In the first year, it was totally volunteer run. The Or Gallery was at 112 West Hastings, so that's literally right across the street from where I'm working now.
From there, I worked in politics, non-profits, and community organizing, human rights work abroad - so when SFU made the decision to move into the Woodwards complex, I didn't really think that much of it. I knew that the development was going on and I had worked with Jim Green for a while in the late '90s prior to when he became a city councillor. I remember having a glass of bourbon with him at the provincial government office way back in the day when the building was first bought from the developer – prior to the City of Vancouver purchasing it from the province a few years later. So it had always been playing about in the background – there of course was the very important squat that happened there in 2002 as well. This was a very polarizing project; it was in the public consciousness for a really long time. So when SFU decided to move there and start a community process, people wanted to push them to do even more on the community side, and so the position that I’m currently in was created. I wasn't necessarily looking to come to SFU, but a number of people contacted me to say this would be something great for me to jump into to help knit some of those things together.
Talk a bit more about why it was so polarizing and how you tackled that polarization.
There was a huge amount of polarization related to gentrification. The area has immense history and politicization in regards to the communities that are rooted there. For some people this is a model of mixed-use development, for other people this is the beachhead of gentrification. So I thought, first of all that it was vitally important to fulfill the public mission of the university: that it needs to engage with broader society and with residents of the local neighbourhood, to engage in conversations that widen the public sphere, and to take seriously its responsibility to the public interest. In that sense, rather than create new programs at the university, we decided to work with people who were already rooted in the neighbourhood.
A number of our community partnerships, like Karen Jamieson Dance, were to be involved. Karen Jamieson has been doing dance work out of the Carnegie Centre since the later '90s. We've involved Megaphone Magazine which is a street newspaper that has been doing work within the community for a really long time. Vanessa Richards runs an amazing group of community singers at Woodwards. Project Limelight is a performing arts NGO that works in the neighbourhood with kids from Strathcona and other East Van schools and they use our theater for their annual production By partnering with these types of organizations, we're able to create new programs and projects where people already had those community relationships. I wasn't initially planning to go the route of public conversation or panel discussions, but being [located] where we were--and because the building was such a polarizing project--that unfolded quite naturally. Being at a public university, rather than view this as a polarizing position to be in, we realized that if we could turn it on its head, it was a way to be an exciting opportunity to unearth these conversations that are so full of tension. So I understood that if we were to moderate them in a proper way, we could actually bring up a lot of stuff that was really affecting. The community has a lot to teach the university, quite frankly. We haven’t entirely dealt with the polarization or answered it, but that was never the goal. By providing a platform and acknowledging the context, some really important conversations have taken place.
Can you give me an example of an issue that you thought was critical enough to first hold a public discussion on?
Yes, the first talk that we ever organized was about three or four months in, and surrounded the Supervised Injection Site Insite when it was in front of the Supreme Court [of Canada]. Bud Osborne was there that night, the local poet. He read a couple of poems. Bud passed away a couple years ago, so having that on film is a really, really special gift. What we don't need is a university in a position of power, and the community being something less. The value of the university should be seen alongside the knowledge that already exists in the community. We can value knowledge in a way that doesn't always have to be academic research. When people are sharing their knowledge from the community--frontline drug users and former drug users in the case of the Insite talk--we can actually bring them forward on video and film. Many of those things are captured in academic literature, but those films can become items that students and other people can research and add to the complexity of the story; it brings a whole lot of other things to the equation. There's a lot a community can teach the university.
Through UBC, you offered a Humanities 101 class to residents of the Downtown Eastside so they could engage with the university in an academic fashion as well?
Yes I was involved in the startup of the course in the first year with my friend Allison Dunnet, and the university has funded it since then. I'm not involved with it anymore, but it's in about its 17th year now. It's a non-credit course aimed at making education accessible. It's about studying the liberal arts for the same reasons why anyone else would study them. Why do people go to an art gallery? Why do they go see the opera? The arts in culture--liberal arts--have intrinsic human value to them. So for people who have barriers to attending them, if you can reduce those barriers, you can have all types of positive benefits for people. We see that time and time again. Another example would be the Community Journalism class with Megaphone Magazine that Jackie Wong and Alex Samur teach in now at SFU. It builds community and also brings forward a new type of conversation. Also people become much more comfortable speaking out in the public sphere through this, so it actually has a benefit to democracy in terms of diverse voices engaging in public conversation and speaking from their own perspectives.
In my research on addiction, I'm noticing significant parallels with drug use and easing the fatal-effects of social isolation, paired with the nervous system malfunction from childhood neglect. So to have a place where an individual can go on their own accord, and connect in new and reliable ways that help them break free from old patterns is important. Want to tell me about your experience working within government and The Vancouver Agreement in the DTES in the 1990s?
Yes and we see that all the time. When I started doing work in this neighbourhood, the heroin overdose deaths, HIV, AIDS, and Hepatitis C rates were all driving the debate here. There had been a deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s. Then the purity of the drugs went up. Vancouver is a port city and the challenges in Downtown Eastside grew in a number of ways. So in 1997 when Health Canada declared a public health emergency, there was money what was released to open up new facilities, but many neighbourhood groups and business groups opposed it. One of my first jobs in government was to go to community meetings with the federal government, the city, people like Don McPherson and Nathan Edelson, the health board, and the police around the Vancouver Agreement - all to help get these new sites open through the development permit process.
We met with the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, and other groups that were opposing it, and showing the need for a supervised injection site. At that time in '98, and '99 there may have been 5%-10% support for it. It was very narrow. Today, 70%-75% of people view it as a very practical approach. At that time, the overdose deaths that were happening particularly within the concentration in the Downtown Eastside, matched the research that was coming out of San Francisco, New York, and other places. We knew that people tended to overdose when they were using all on their own, or in single-resident occupancy hotels where there were no phones to call from. There was a critique of first-responders: fire, ambulance, police, etc. The punitive result that would come from calling those first-responders when people were overdosing created another problem. Extreme institutional pressures were making the situation worse. So it was through a heavy amount of social justice organizing by organizations like VANDU and others that places like the Drug-Users Resource Centre opened up.
When I see now that organizations like Gallery Gachet and the Drug Users Resource Center are getting their funding cut, I feel that some of the decisions of the health authority are so ahistorical and have really negative consequences on the ground.
The thing that impresses me about talks at SFU is that in order to change public perception on an issue (which leads to a change in public policy) you have to look at the research. I've brought friends with less-progressive views to talks at SFU Woodward's to listen to yourself, Dr. Carl Hart, Dr. Gabor Maté, Don McPhereson, and Bruce Alexander. A paradigm shift sets in motion when you hear the research.
Absolutely. In fact the reason that I still do the kind of work I do, particularly around public conversation and public dialogue, is that I've seen exactly what you're talking about. But also that it has been transformative for me personally. Specific to the debate around drug policy and harm reduction: I remember in 1998 I saw a poster about a discussion on heroin overdose deaths. It was being put on by Libby Davies, who was the MP at the time. Ann Livingston was there, Bud Osborne was there, Gill Puder who was a member of the Vancouver Police Department [VPD] attended, and many others as well. It was at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre on Hastings Street. We saw not only the localized analysis and response from people like Libby, Bud, Ann, and others, but also a police officer in plain clothes saying first hand that what he is doing on the frontline was not working. He put his support behind harm reduction [methods] and there were members of the VPD in the audience taking notes on him.
When discussing the effectiveness of progressing society in a positive way, often the topic of Capitalism vs Communism comes up. This can quickly turn into a simplistic division of Right vs Left, which to me is ineffective. Do you think we risk living in two entirely different ideological silos with two entirely different economic models, media outlets, and social groups?
I think the question you're asking really relates to this problem of scale in terms of progressive movements. There's a debate around horizontal participatory politics. David Harvey was just discussing this in an interview with an anarchist website: how the Left in general should be building structures and systems that can be resilient over the long term and that can think big. Alain Badiou similarly has been talking about this need for some sort of alternative that's of a scale and a size similar to the Right. The other day in a talk he brought up the notion of how the communist Left likes to talk about the withering away of the State. He said the only people who are actually withering away the State are the Right because in a neoliberal frame they're stripping the State of its ability to carry out redistribution of power. Others like Christian Parenti argue that these kind of horizontal approaches are necessary but at the end of the day, if you want to deal with climate change in a big, large-scale way, you have to be able to influence the State because the State is what can actually function on that large of a scale. So to leave it out of your vision of change is irresponsible.
I'm collaborating with a good friend of mine Matt Hern on a writing project right now about thinking through the problem of development in the age of climate change. We are thinking through the problem through a road trip to Fort Mac and other places to actually meet people there - and so I know for a lot of us, despite deep differences, our politics can overlap quite a bit across difference. I've worked inside of politics; I've worked as a political adviser; I've worked as a bureaucrat. So I'm not, by any means, the kind of person who thinks, "The State is evil", but I do think we need to take a bit of distance from the State in order to influence it in such a way that can help move it in a progressive direction. People need to organize outside the limitations of the state in order to articulate their interests first. It’s an important aspect of community organizing – a word that’s rarely used these days. Everyone likes to use words like ‘social innovation’ ‘design thinking’ and other buzzwords, but I’m old school that way. Bologna is an interesting example of a region that is heavily cooperativized. We need to be sizeable and powerful enough as a movement that the State and the political side of things can also be moved. Those are fundamental questions about whether you believe in the State or not as the site of possibility. "Is it perfect? Is it problematic?" all of those things are obviously legitimate concerns. Things are never going to be entirely infallible, but if you do want policy-level change, then you do want a relationship to the State, no matter who's in power. But the power of social movements comes from being firmly positioned outside of it.
So I don't know if there's a way to fully abandon the labels of Left and Right because there are divisions that are quite fundamental, and often conclusive from long standing world-views. But I do think that there's a lot of value in relationship building. Albert Camus wrote a lot about this. He argued that relationships should be able to transcend ideology. I went to elementary school with people who I probably don't share political views with, but we knew each other from such a young age, and we played marbles or hockey cards and so we could have very amicable conversations still to this day.
I also got tired of being in progressive, leftist circles after being in student union at UBC for a year. So from there I went and completed a commerce degree at Royal Roads University--a business degree--so I hung out with business students for a year. I learned a lot; they were very intelligent people. So today, I'm happy to get into conversation and debate with people who may not share my views. If we are going to move the dial, then it's imperative to build those relationships with people who aren't of like mind, at least seemingly on the surface, and to be open to dialogue and conversation of all types. Because without that, then you are correct - it does become an echo chamber and progression doesn't move very quickly. Some of the most interesting, intellectual conversations I've had, also happen with people who don't share my political views or world-view.
It challenges your own beliefs and opens you up to new ways of thinking.
Yes. I say this to university students all the time – community organizing is one of the last, free interdisciplinary liberal arts educations left in the world. Get out there and support community organizing and organizations – it’s rough out there right now and if you go into it in a humble way and listen to people, you’ll learn a lot more than you will in school. When I get particularly depressed about the state of the world, I like to read Judith Butler.
Being in a job where I'm essentially non-partisan, and to be engaged in any type of public conversation, you have to go to those places that other people are thinking about, not to just program things that exist under a narrow frame. We have to be open. Sometimes that can be a challenge for progressive movements, and some individuals can wind up becoming closed off on how to work, or who they work with, or how they're trying to disseminate what they believe is important. It’s a constantly evolving context. My desire is to move in a more grassroots direction now that we’ve created some elbow room for ourselves as a relatively new office within the confines of a large bureaucratic institution with all the blemishes that that entails – there’s more work to be done.
You mentioned French Philosopher Alain Badiou who you in fact studied under once. He is a renowned philosopher, so I can imagine that experience shaped you. Can you elaborate on that experience and how you grew to view art as a tool for social change in addition to philosophy?
Yes of course, I studied philosophy for a while with Badiou. He argues that art is its own autonomous truth procedure, so it has its own aesthetic sensibility, and it has its own research process. Sometimes it speaks to social justice and political issues, but it doesn't always have to, and it doesn't all the time. In a neighbourhood like the DTES that has had such a deep level of trauma and marginalization, but also incredible community resiliency, the arts have been an incredible way to bring people together, so in that way it can be healing and also express a community perspective.
I've always been interested in theory and philosophy, but I had never studied it in a formal way. So I went to a European graduate school in Switzerland during the summers and had a chance to study with some really amazing people like Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher. He does a lot of work around the state of exception. Jacques Ranciére, who works around aesthetics in politics. I had a seminar with Judith Butler on Walter Benjamin. So it was really fascinating work to be doing and a deep privilege – I’m still paying off the student loans from it! And one of the people who teaches there is Alain Badiou. To understand where Badiou's philosophy comes from, he was the child of a parent who was involved in the French Resistance, so there's some rich history to him. In the early '60s he was studying closely with Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism and then with Louis Althusser, who was much more of a structuralist philosopher, as well as Jacques Lacan, who is a psychoanalyst.
Badiou went on to be very involved in May '68 - a French strain of Maoism at the time--it wasn't Maoist as in a ‘fighting with Mao in China’, but a particularly French strain of Maoism. Badiou is in his late 70s now, so I was really interested in getting to know his philosophical work because he came across as being so politically grounded in his seminars. He speaks a lot on the mathematical side of philosophy and the mathematical equations of social change; he works around this notion of what he calls "The Event", which is a large-scale event that changes whatever came before it. For him May '68 was that type of an event, which in essence was about changing your own subjectivity. One of the great things about him is that he believes that change is always possible. It's never foreclosed. There's also a distinction between knowledge and truth: knowledge is a repetition of factual information, but the truth is something that is created in the world by acting in the world. In this sense, it opens up a speculative philosophy about political possibility.
Part of my work was to essentially take all of this anxiety that we all feel about climate change, the state of our political landscape, what's happening around the world, and the like, and to think about it in this way: change is always possible. I have a psychoanalyst friend Hilda Fernandez, and she has mentioned many times to me before that depression tends to have a relationship with the past, while anxiety is about a relationship to the future.
While we know that government can be used as a force for widespread social progress and change, do you think that our current economic system can be used for positive change as well?
Given we're in the kind of stasis that we're in, everything is on the table. When you see countries like China, if you speak at a high enough level through bureaucracy or at the political level, big decisions can be being made. In an overall sense, things are moving in a negative direction, but those decisions to go with a certain type of technology over another are having huge impacts on the amount of emissions that might be going out. The ways to make change in a localized way is very different in each place. How you make change in China and how you make change here in Canada is going to be very different. I know that it's easy for people to get cynical about it, with carbon capture or pulling stuff out of the air, or geo-engineering and those types of things, but there's a whole consulting class that supports it. If it works, it's great, but for the most part I myself tend to be quite cynical about it. It’s not the technological fix I’m looking for but a different way to live collectively that recognizes the limits of nature. The capitalist system can’t go on as it is. That much is clear.
We have examples like here in Vancouver with Janos Maté who worked with Greenpeace. They were able to secure a patent for all refrigerators that was put in through government policy. They made the patent free, so that's what helped get the CFCs out of refrigerators. So you can say we actually have a localized example where an entrepreneurial person from the non-profit sector was able to take technological innovation and make it broadly available. It had a huge impact with private sector implications. But we're also asking, "What kind of economy, commerce, and type of development do we need to create that will point us towards our future?" There are examples of places like Bologna in Italy that is the most cooperativized region in the world working within a market economy, so they've been forced to innovate. They've reoriented what has traditionally become a capitalist project that is Western-driven in a particular way, and I don't think you just overturn that overnight. A lot of people have a lot to benefit from the current system continuing on as it is. A great example is the real estate market in Vancouver; it could be viewed as completely irrational, but there are developers and the real estate industry among others, including those who are getting rich from the system as it is, who are invested in it continuing on the way it has been going. We are living in a state of regulatory capture by these interests that are taking down the quality of life for the majority of people who live here. Something’s gotta give – we can’t go on living like this. I just got evicted last month like many people in this city have. The relationship between landlords and tenants with the rules as they are, has created a neo-feudal context in this city.
One of the articles that Giorgio Agamben wrote was about this notion of the EU when it was going through its various crises. He discussed the Southern countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece. He suggested that maybe the Southern European nations were perhaps a different culture than Northern Europe, and that we need to get back to this notion of la dolce vita, which is the good life, the sweetness of living. It has a different relationship to time, a different relationship to work and labour, and for many, it's the type of overall enjoyment a human life ought to have. These are very real questions about how we orient ourselves in a collective sense, and how we build that up to a public and political conversation - especially given what's at stake today. There's no shortage of issues, from decolonization, to existing on unceded territories, to environmental concerns over pipeline development. There’s a real need to scale up the discussion of the housing emergency in this city to a robust force that moves policy in its wake – it’s not quite there yet. It’s a full-blown crisis and should be a deep embarrassment to everyone in this city. There’s a better, more just way to live together in the city than the corrupt real estate racket going on in this city.
There will always be new problems that come up, but I think it's important to create the type of spaces where people can be part of a productive conversation that leads to action. So a big part of what we do at SFU is create those welcoming spaces that allow us to talk about these challenges, and then allow that to create its own momentum going forward.
That's a wonderful way to foster the discussion and look at new ways to progress. SFU is doing a stand-up job with you on their team. Thanks for sitting down with me Am, and continue doing what you do. I'll look forward to more SFU and Vancity events.
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