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Recollections from Leading Locally: Grassroots Responses to COVID-19

May 15, 2020

Sakshi Taneja
Events and Marketing Assistant, SFU Public Square

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the fabric of our lives. On one hand, it is exposing and aggravating existing inequalities, but on the other, it is an opportunity for change. With many of our existing systems disrupted, it is a critical time for us to think of ways to rebuild these systems more equitably.

This was the inspiration for Distant, Not Disengaged, a collaborative weekly event series SFU Public Square is hosting in partnership with CityHive and the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. During these 75-minute online events, we hear from a few special guests, followed by an audience Q&A, and then break away into smaller facilitated groups to connect with each other and share our opinions. We end the event together with a few key takeaways, calls to action or words of inspiration.

On April 23, around 100 of us came together online for the second Distant, Not Disengaged event, Leading Locally: Grassroots Responses to COVID-19. During this time, we are seeing communities come together in innovative ways to support those that our systems have failed. And thus, for this event, we asked: How can we further support our neighbours? What can we learn from these community innovations? What do they reveal about systemic inequalities? And how do we build upon these collective actions to ensure our social infrastructure and safety net are more effective and inclusive in the days and months ahead?

We were joined by an amazing panel of grassroots workers:

  • Steven Johnston is the executive director of Community Impact Real Estate, a social enterprise aimed at providing affordable services and creating employment opportunities for residents of Vancouver’s inner city.
  • Christina Lee works on special projects at the hua foundation and is currently working with the Chinatown Cares collaborative project, which delivers culturally appropriate grocery staples to seniors and at-risk community members in Chinatown.
  • Wilson Liang is a community ambassador for LinkVan, a service that provides people in Chinatown and the DTES with digital access to resources and essential information they need in plain language.
  • Kate Hodgson and Yolanda Clatworthy are two of the organizers of Coming Together Vancouver, a Facebook group that has grown into a web app that matches people offering help with people requesting help, while foregrounding accessibility, safety and privacy.

The following is not an exhaustive summary but a recollection of the broad strokes of this conversation.

Inequities exposed by COVID-19

Steven Johnston started us off by grounding us in the reality of the Downtown Eastside during the pandemic. He told us that the situation in the DTES has gone beyond a pandemic-related health crisis to become a much broader public health crisis. The government response has been inadequate and falls far shorter than the need. “I am angry,” he said, remembering the recent death of a newborn baby found in a portable toilet in the DTES. He recalled the words of Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, about this incident – “This is not the story of a woman who failed, but a woman who was failed” – and called on the audience to message their elected leaders to do more.

The DTES community has long been failed by existing systems. Steven identified a few areas of inequity in the DTES that COVID-19 has exposed and made more prominent:

  • We need to expand our definition of “expertise.” The government response privileges those with certain types of knowledge and expertise – such as from university degrees. This narrow understanding of expertise marginalizes contributions from DTES residents and others with lived experience.
  • Additionally, peers in the DTES are increasingly asked to do work in the community that municipal and provincial staff deem too dangerous to do themselves. Steven asked: is it equitable to ask peers to pick up garbage and do security work in the DTES when city sanitation staff and police won’t?

Food justice and dignity

Christina Lee took us through the origin story of Chinatown Cares. This collaborative project was born out of a need identified by the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, which does regular check-ins with seniors, and found that “seniors are feeling quite apprehensive to leave their homes due to the increased risk to them.” Thus, the collaborative wanted to make sure that these seniors have access to fresh food.

Christina underlined food justice – the access to healthy and sustainable food options regardless of factors like income, race or gender identity – as the guiding principle behind the project. “Dignity is a huge part of food justice as well,” Christina pointed out. It’s not just about having access to fresh food, but having access to food that makes people feel like themselves. Cultural identity is deeply connected to food, and the Chinatown Care Packages honour this connection as they seek input from seniors and provide them with food that makes them feel comfortable and at home.

We are stronger when we are together

“I used to be a very in-person person, but with COVID, I feel and experience what others in the neighbourhood are feeling and experiencing,” said Wilson Liang. Before the pandemic, Wilson used to perform regular in-person check-ins with people in Chinatown as a community ambassador with LinkVan. But as we all participate in physical distancing, he now does his check-ins over the phone, connecting seniors with support and providing them with a listening ear.

Applying a digital lens to COVID-19, however, Wilson identified some shortcomings of technology for maintaining connection in this community. Not all seniors have access to phones, and a vast majority used to depend on the free WiFi available in now-closed community centres to stay connected. Cut off from easy access to digital technology, these seniors are more isolated than ever, while also facing increased discrimination and racism.

Wilson ended by recalling a memory from his childhood: his mother gave him a chopstick and asked him to break it. It was easy. Then she gave him two chopsticks joined together. It was much harder to break them – they are stronger when they are together. “We need to be like those chopsticks,” Wilson said. “We are stronger when we are together.”

The political in mutual aid networks

We do not suffer from the effects of COVID-19 equally. This pandemic has disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations and deepened existing inequalities. Like Steven, Kate Hodgson and Yolanda Clatworthy also feel that the government response is inadequate when it comes to marginalized and vulnerable communities. Consequently, Coming Together Vancouver grew organically and spontaneously out of a desire to create mutual aid networks that support these underserved communities.

The media has described the work of Coming Together Vancouver as “random acts of kindness,” but Kate and Yolanda reminded us that mutual aid networks are fundamentally political. They highlight the definition from Big Door Brigade: “Mutual aid is when people get together to meet each other’s basic survival needs with a shared understanding that the systems we live under are not going to meet our needs.” Coming Together Vancouver isn’t about “random” acts of kindness, but about social solidarity – building an infrastructure that doesn’t leave anyone behind, and shifting the narrative to one in which we all matter.

Kate and Yolanda reminded us that social movements have been working towards things like free public transport, increased accessibility, workers’ rights and disability justice for years. The response to COVID-19 has shown that these things are possible – so how can we shape a new reality where they aren’t retracted afterwards?

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With these community initiatives, questions raised and inequities identified buzzing in the air, we moved into breakout rooms. In small groups, people connected with each other around a few guiding questions. Each group discussed the community innovations they have witnessed or participated in; the unmet community needs that still exist; and the things that are giving them hope and inspiration to build a more equitable future together.

Calls to Action

We ended the event with calls to action from each of our panelists, each echoing a need for people to support community initiatives.

  • Kate and Yolanda asked for support moderating the Coming Together Vancouver Facebook group to ensure it remains a safe space for all. They also encouraged people to donate to their survival fund and to sign up to create a neighbourhood pod.
  • Wilson called for more collaboration and resource-sharing between groups and community initiatives.
  • For a short-term call to action, Christina directed people to the GoFundMe page for Chinatown Cares – it has met its fundraising goal but provides a solidarity list of other movements that people can support. But for the long term, Christina urged people to reassess which parts of the system they value and don’t value. “We are only as strong as our most vulnerable,” Christina said – so how can we support them in an equitable way that maintains their agency and dignity?
  • Steven identified a need for clean clothes, underwear and socks, as many thrift stores and laundry services are closed right now. He directed people to donate new, clean items to Atira.

This event showed that communities are coming together in innovative ways to support the most vulnerable among us, but there is a long way to go and there are many things we can do to provide support. As Wilson said, “We are stronger when we are together.”

Additional Resources

These are some of the initiatives and resources mentioned by guests and participants during the event. Whether you need support or have support to offer, here are some places to start:

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