Associate Executive Director and Manager of Research and Planning at SPARC BC, Scott Graham on his work with First Call in developing their annual child poverty report card, helping University and Elementary School institutions gain access to local produce, and why long-term relationship building with marginalized peoples is the most effective tool for community justice.
Tracy: You work in the field of community development, which bears meaning to a lot more than just holding a monthly street festival as is often thought. Want to start by telling me a bit more about your work and its approach?
Scott: Yes, my background and orientation is in the field of social justice research and education for community development, so what that means practically speaking is working with leadership in communities whether those are communities of geography like a city, town, or village, or communities of interest and affinity. The latter meaning communities organized around a principle, an ideal, an ethnicity, or a cultural orientation. So I'm often working with groups who want to develop a certain aspect of the community that they identify with. This means learning together; to use the fitting term by urban planning theorist John Friedmann, it means engaging in social learning. Friedmann emphasizes social learning as the pathway by which people come to see each other's strengths, to identify those things that they could work on together and to pinpoint the plans that they want to enact as a group. That's where the development part comes in. Building those plans and enacting those strategies as a collective towards a shared goal. Where that work shows up most prominently for me in the last few years is working with First Nations communities; I work a fair bit with several Gitxsan communities in BC. The power, strength, and vision of many First Nations' leaders - whether they're elected leadership, hereditary leaders, or natural leaders - is inspiring. I always walk away from workshops or meetings with leadership incredibly excited to see the world a little more holistically than I did before.
Do you find there is a lot more awareness today than there was just a decade ago about cultural issues? There seems to be a sense of respect and admiration for those who have been living on this land for centuries. I notice that a lot of my peers understand the deep knowledge in place before colonizers came, and many of us can feel incredibly humbled by it.
I feel that it's about engaging the invitation that is extended to settler community members to start the work of decolonizing ourselves. Unsettling the settlers within. Joining as allies along-side the First Nations that are working towards greater degrees of self-determination despite the deeply racist, unjust, and imperialist histories that really are the histories of the country of Canada. As we stand here, we sit, we meet, we talk - these are of course interactions happening on traditional unceded ancestral territories of Coast Salish nations. There have been thousands and thousands of years of sincere care given to these territories, and within the last 150-200 years it has seen a massive influx of outsiders who've claimed, retained, and exploited these lands for their own purposes, and in the process marginalizing and disenfranchising many First Nations' peoples. To me this all washes up in the discourse around what our role is in contributing to the truth and reconciliation that needs to come to bear on the Canadian state before it can live up to the claims of being this place of peace, order, and good governance.
I hear this often: decolonize your mind, and it's an effective undertaking. There are people of European descent who may care about what's happened under colonization, but are told their opinion on the matter can't be voiced due to their ethnicity, which can create division. Have you ever faced this and if so, what do you say?
The journey of learning our way into the true histories underpinning the Canadian state is deeply unsettling, and to a degree can be paralyzing in terms of taking actions that could contribute toward the greater decolonization project. But there are pathways to working as an ally on the terms that are approved and agreeable to a given First Nation that neighbors the place one calls home. Two easy starting points for me that have been really helpful are, 1) a book by Paulette Regan called Unsettling the Settler Within published by UBC out of Regan's PHD dissertation. It examines the historical moments where there were people who, over the last couple hundred years, acted as allies with Indigenous peoples, and enacted behaviors that were supportive of, and cooperative with, the interests of First Nations' peoples. To me, that book offers some important guidelines. The second is to align with organizations that are doing this work effectively already. To point out one in particular, Reconciliation Canada was the group that organized the historic march that saw tens of thousands of people gathering together, myself included, on the [Vancouver Georgia Street] viaduct to recognize that there are still unresolved issues. The issue of stolen lands still remains, there are broken promises surrounding the murdered and missing women's inquiry, there is still the ongoing extraction of resources without consent. These issues open questions and invite each of us to do something? When commenting on the CBC about the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Calls to Action), Sinclair summed it up: "Read the calls to action, understand them as much as you, select one and see what you can do to make that call to action work."
So to avoid the arrogance of simply bringing a few words to the top-down institutions like we have in Ottawa or Washington, and rather to say, "We're here just to listen, just to hear you,". We should let communities agree on their own level of self-determination.
Precisely, and in addition there are choices that we can make. If we choose to engage in the truth and reconciliation project (and the related work of decolonizing our thinking), then there's a series of other options that open up. Those begin with learning, but the learning ultimately translates into relationship-building, which then forms into action that sees a person committed over a period of time - ideally. A lot of the time when there are injustices that face us, there are quick ways that we can participate and move on, but I have concerns about that modality. It removes from the equation the relationship component of working on something together - as allies in a shared struggle. It is that shared struggle concept that I think is the more difficult pathway, but ultimately the one by which we learn best and we act most effectively on. Otherwise I think we run the risk of dropping insights that we have, or providing cash to things that seem good or making sweeping declarations about what someone else should do. It's that long term, multiple-year, deep commitment that this broader project of decolonization needs. It's the challenge that, at least for me personally, I continue to wrestle through and think through - and try to apply myself toward.
Absolutely. This leads into SPARC BC in terms of talents and skills. You've been there for almost a decade now; what is the organizations mandate? And if you could talk a bit more about it?
Yes I'd be happy to. SPARC is a cool organization that I've been working with for 10 years now, out of that spirit of trying to stick to something over time. The reason for SPARC's existence is to address issues of social justice. Social justice is of course a problematic concept in that it seems to catch too much and hold very little. So what "social justice" means practically for us at SPARC is that we work on improving built-environments so that they're accessible for people with mobility limitations or disabilities; we work on doing research and proposing solutions to the homeless problems that face British Columbia and Canada; we do research and do collaborative advocacy work with First Call around child poverty in particular; we also engage in a lot of food security work in partnership with a range of organizations (including the Woodlands Food Connection, the Bella Coola Agricultural Society, and most recently we've being partnering with Farm to Cafeteria Canada, which seeks to bring local, healthy food into public institution cafeterias.
In working with Farm to Cafeteria Canada, we work with schools (and to a degree with universities) to build the necessary procurement policies that would see regular commitments to making a percentage of their total produce purchases from local food producers or gathers. We work on this because we know that in the case of schools - a lot of children don't have access to healthy food - predominantly because of income challenges faced by the broader household. So, schools become a powerful mechanism for removing barriers to accessing healthy food, but they can also be a powerful engine for purchasing local foods which then revitalizes local food systems. This way, farmers and food harvesters of varying capacity have yet another market that they can bring their goods to - keeping the food and resources circulating in our communities.
Can you give me an example of the success you've seen so far.
The best example of this policy transformation at the school-level with the view of securing access to healthy food for kids that we've been involved in is actually happening in Haida Gwaii. We just finished up a film that tells the story of the learning circle in Haida Gwaii and exhibits the basic ways to bring together farmers, harvesters, school teachers, and principals, Haida elders, dieticians, and other food security activists to gather around the table and learn together; to help create a plan that would see them increase the amount of local, healthy food that they could bring into the schools. They've been so successful that they've managed to build a pantry on Haida Gwaii that will preserve the food they pull out of the sea, out of the forests, and out of the farmer's fields that will then get used in both the hospital and the schools. This multi-sided, multi-sector, community-based, locally-driven initiative is, to me, an efficient way of engaging social justice work.
Absolutely. As you indicated, food decentralization is key: taking our purchasing power back from the big supermarkets and putting it into the hands of local producers, providing jobs and reducing emissions. Having a say and understanding where our food comes from by being able to actually visualize the process of cultivation has a significant impact on appreciation and desire.
I entirely agree with you. I believe very strongly that through local, community-leader driven initiatives like the Learning Circle on Haida Gwaii, we can learn a way of working together that broader provincial and federal policy frameworks can enable (through incentives to scale up those approaches), so that they can be translated into other jurisdictions and other communities. This work on Haida Gwaii offers new hope that community-change is a potent mechanism for transforming the broader policy frameworks that often shape local communities. It is grass roots policy development.
I like this approach because it takes a bit of the mystery out of the way policy is generated. When we make change we have a duty to capture the story properly and tell the story effectively to the people that have policy-making powers; then we can use those communicative tools as mechanisms that shape the policies that come into the future. In that sense we democratize policy-making through the use of community intelligence. It's that linkage that I think holds a great deal of promise. If there are breakdowns and problems in the broader educational and social policy framework, it's got everything to do with the fact that those policy frameworks aren't knitted as tightly as they ought to be to the intelligences of the community that are working on these problems day-in and day-out.
I have to give a ton of shout out to the good folks on Haida Gwaii because they really are blazing a strong trail towards a new way of doing that kind of work, which in smaller communities is especially pertinent. If you scale it up to large complex metropolitan centers like Metro Vancouver, things get a little bit more complicated, but then we go to organizations like Farm Folk City Folk. They're engaged with those issues here at the local level and have slightly different tools, but the same ethos of work. We might exist in big cities, but there are always small groups of people living within them. We can always find those small groups of people who work together, learn together, and come up with action plans. Creating power in the neighborhood and demonstrating self-determination.
I also want to ask you about the Child Poverty Report Card that you put out every year at SPARC BC, with First Call. What is that entail and what is your goal with doing this type of research and accountability checking?
Yes it's an important expression about a deeply problematic--but not inevitable--phenomenon which is child poverty. We know that in the province of British Columbia, one in five kids lives in a household that falls below the poverty line. There are other provinces (notably Quebec) that through government transfers have significantly reduced their child poverty rates, because they have a government with a policy framework that cares about kids. BC communities and families care very deeply about children but regrettably our current provincial government have done very little to address this persistent problem of child poverty.
The work that SPARC undertakes with First Call (which is funded by Vancouver Foundation and United Way of the Lower Mainland) is to produce an annual BC Child Poverty Report Card. The report card includes a whole bunch of key socio-demographic and economic statistics that are accompanied by some maps that show the prevalence of child poverty at the neighborhood level, especially in larger metropolitan area like here in Vancouver. It also works to articulate a set of recommendations that we believe would reduce child poverty rates.
What are some of those recommendations?
I go back to the basic premise that the government is us as a people. As a people and as a government we have the power to continue to call out for a poverty reduction plan that includes targeted transfers of income to lower income families that will help them better provide basic food, shelter, clothing, and school supplies for their children. To me, the government-led solution on child poverty is the best for the simple reason that it is proven to work. How do we know that? Well, look at Quebec. There isn't a lot of guesswork in my mind about what the solution is to child poverty, or how we can make it better. Quebec has shown us the way to do that. We're in a place of being able to learn from them, and to apply those basic kinds of transfers to the particular families living on a low income with children, and in so doing, what we end up investing in is a future. A future that first and foremost benefits the children that presently and increasingly risk being disenfranchised by a increasingly unequal society where too many children are being left behind.
I read a piece in The Guardian a while back saying that motherhood is not the most important job in the world. I've been working on a project looking at addiction and seeing an undeniable cause and effect between how a child is treated in those crucial developmental years, and what happens to them later on. For the people like the author who don't understand why childhood conditions matter, is there anything in your own research that you'd like to touch on regarding those early years?
I think you said it well. It's got everything to do with child vulnerability. Children that are living in economically strained households and especially those that are living on incomes that fall below the low income measure is that they are often more vulnerable to not succeeding in different domains of human development. So, we look at how to measure that, and how we know that that this is the case. We're very fortunate in BC to have UBC and to have the Human Early Learning Partnership or HELP, which has led the Early Development Index (EDI) in our province, which is a standardized test that all kindergarten teachers administer to all kids coming into kindergarten. It tests to see, "Are they ready for school?" and it measures vulnerability on five different domains. One of the things that we see in metro Vancouver in recent waves of data is that the rates of child vulnerability have gotten worse.
What this shows is that we have stubbornly high rates of child poverty and high rates of child vulnerability. In other words, more and more kids are arriving at school not ready to thrive. It is a clear relationship to me that exhibits the cost of doing nothing. The question for us as a public becomes, if that is a cost that we can afford. My simple answer is no. Most people's answer is no. The invitation is to get behind First Call as our provincial voice on the issue of child poverty and support them however we can because we're stronger when we have a unified voice on a serious public policy issue like child poverty. The more we get behind them and push the organizational force that is at play, I think the better the chances are of seeing policy changes that will help children.
You mentioned the importance of having a unified voice. I agree that it’s huge in affecting policy because people are more willing to stand behind a unified message. In your opinion, how should we go about doing our job to assure government funds local, social enterprises and non-profits, versus bail out banks or overspend on defence and industrial complexes?
It's a great question. I have found that reading the news and supporting civil society organizations that are advocating for fairness is a good starting point. I think encouraging our friends to develop policy literacy and advocacy skills is another way to go. If we have skills as a group we can produce knowledge, translate it into policy forums and help shape the parameters of where public funds go. Of course, this has limits and needs to be combined with a voting practice that sees progressive governments in power. At the local level, I have grown really fond of Participatory Budgeting. We recently created a tool kit for local governments that want to empower their residents to help make decisions about public resources. For anyone interested, it is on the SPARC site.
Awesome note to end on. Keep doing all your wonderful work, and congratulations on 50 years!
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