Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 140: Community Building & Racial Justice — with Lama Mugabo

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Am Johal, Lama Mugabo

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Melissa Roach  0:02
Hello, I’m Melissa Roach with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Lama Mugabo, a Rwandan-born community organizer and planner, and a co-founder of Building Bridges with Rwanda. He also does community engagement work with Hogan’s Alley Society. Today, he and Am discuss his long legacy of building community and advocating for human rights both locally and internationally. Thanks and I hope you enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:39 
Hello, welcome again to Below the Radar really delighted that you could join us. We're here with a really amazing person, Lama Mugabo. I think of him as a community organizer, planner, international development expert, and does many, many other things. I see his Instagram feed where he's doing lots of gardening as well. There's so many other things he probably does as well that I don't even know about. But welcome, Lama.

Lama Mugabo  1:07 
Thank you very much for inviting me. I'm delighted to be here Below the Radar.

Am Johal  1:13 
You know, we'll get into some of the different types of work that you do. But interestingly, when I met you a few years ago, one of the stories you told me about was that you were one of the kind of managers for an apartment building in the Downtown Eastside in, I think, the 80s or something like this. And a lot of activists in the Downtown Eastside know you from your more recent community organizing work, but your relationship to the neighborhood really goes way back. I'm wondering if you can share that story about your first working in the Downtown Eastside?

Lama Mugabo  1:44 
Yeah, thank you. So what happened was a friend of mine had a cleaning company, and we will go in and clean houses after they've been renovated. So the Ford building at the core of Main and Hastings had just been renovated. They kept the exterior and completely renovated interior. So it was a beautiful building, heritage. And it was all for nonprofit. It was a nonprofit organization that was running it for low income folks. When I started working there, their manager who was working at the time, relapsed into alcoholism. And the woman who was running the Association asked me if I need the job. And I said for sure. So I went on to become the manager of the Ford building. And when I look back, it was probably the best apartment I've ever lived in in Vancouver. Was the top floor, and I had access to the roof we had, could see the North Shore and South Shore. It was really beautiful. So yeah, I was there during Expo 86. And as you can imagine, a lot of activities there. And yeah, so my relationship with Downtown Eastside goes way back. 

Am Johal  3:07 
So, I'm wondering if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit, llama, there's, we'll get into the work that you're doing. But tell us about yourself first.

Lama Mugabo  3:18 
Well, I was born in Rwanda, and grew up as a refugee in neighbouring Burundi, Bujumbura. And when I was in my teens, I was fortunate to get a scholarship from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The high commission at the time was a man called the he was Sadruddin Aga Khan the man of the you know, the Aga Khans, and a very wealthy man. So he took his salary and turned it into a scholarship trust for refugees around the world. So in 1975, I get a call, knock on my door. In fact, we didn't have phones there. And I was invited to apply for this scholarship to go to Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, in Victoria, British Columbia. So, as you can imagine, a random refugee in Bujumbura, what's the likelihood of getting a scholarship for two years to come to one of the most beautiful cities in the world? In fact, a remarkable school. So yeah, that was when I first came to Canada. So I was here for two years, went back and came back in '81 as a landed immigrant that was sponsored to come back and, and settle here. So yes, my Canadian roots go deep.

Am Johal  4:42 
Lama, you later went on to study planning. Is that right?

Lama Mugabo  4:49 
Yes, yes. So basically, at the turn of the century.

Am Johal  4:58 
Sounds like long ago, but for old guys like us it's just like yesterday.

Lama Mugabo  5:03 
Yeah, I went to the UBC School of Planning because I grew up in Bujumbura. I love cities. And my dream was to really help revitalize African cities. And so the two years at UBC were really preparing me to play a role in the reconstruction of Rwanda. My country, as you know, was decimated by genocide in 1984. So after the genocide, people in the diaspora were looking at how can I contribute to the reconstruction of my country. So.

Am Johal  5:39 
And how many years did you spend working in Rwanda after that? I know that you worked both there and also from here, but I am wondering if you can speak a little bit to the work there. Because it is so complex after the intensity of the trauma of a genocide and reconstruction and the real kind of complicated consensuses that emerge, that are so fragile in terms of trying to maintain kind of state-building and institution-building context, even decades after that. It remains really, really fragile in many ways. And so I wonder if you could speak to sort of what were some of the discussions that you were in in terms of thinking through how to do this work in a good way.

Lama Mugabo  6:27 
So what happened was, after I finished my MA, at UBC School of Planning, I got a job with the new Institute for Global Issues at UBC. And we organized a national campaign to raise awareness of what happened in '94. And what Rwandans were doing to rebuild a society after the genocide. So this ten city campaign was very successful. We raised awareness of Canadians of what happened in '94. But what Rwandans were doing, and during those engagement sessions, Canadian said to us, we're sorry that our country looked the other way as innocent lives were lost. And they said, 'what can we do as private citizens to help you rebuild your society?' So I took this to be a call to action, and went on to start an organization called Building Bridges with Rwanda, which was really a metaphor of Canadians who wanted to be part of the reconstruction, to learn the history, to learn the culture, to learn the development story of Rwanda, to come to Rwanda, experience this, and then come back. So I started this organization with friends and colleagues. And in 2008, I left Vancouver, and returned to Rwanda to work and help rebuild the society. So that was really huge for me as a Rwandan-born Canadian who has started this organization and seeing so many people that were coming through the airport. We brought more than 650 volunteers from eight different countries. And Rwandans and international volunteers were working side by side to rebuild the society. Very heartwarming. So one of the things I learned in Rwanda, while I was doing this work, was the importance of food security. Rwanda had started this program, where they were encouraging every household to have a garden, a vegetable garden. This was something that came from our tradition. And but I think, over the years, through colonialism, we lost this. So I hired agriculture students in Rwanda to come and work with me in this village. And we organized training of trainers, workshops, to teach people how to build a household kitchen garden. That was amazing. Because as we did this in a community, we went back to do an evaluation. And this woman was giving us a testimony. She said that her eyes were, her vision was blurry, and she went to the doctors. The doctor asked her when was the last time she had vegetables. She couldn't remember. But he advised her to eat some greens and come back and see her well, the garden we helped her plant, we planted for her, was ready to harvest and she started to eat these greens. And all of a sudden her skin is clearing her eyes, vision is coming back. And I really learned a major lesson that food is medicine, that if we can do this, we can actually reduce the visits to the doctors and really live a happy life. So that was amazing work. So after those seven years I spent in Rwanda, I'm back in Canada, and we have Building Bridges with Rwanda, now based in Vancouver and will be leading reflection tours to Rwanda, to bring Canadians to come and learn about this amazing country that has done remarkable work.

Am Johal  10:13 
This long engagement with Rwanda from your unique vantage point, having been born there. Being in the diaspora and being able to go back to work there, I'm wondering, what are you most excited about related to Rwanda and also what are you most worried about?

Lama Mugabo  10:33 
Mmhmm. Well, I am excited that the 37 years we left, we lived in exile, have been a lesson for us. And we have not only vowed never to go back into refugeehood, in exile, but to build a moral state. And I think the last 27 years have shown that Rwanda is determined not only to lift the country out of poverty but to help Africa do the same. So I'm really encouraged by the termination and the success Rwanda has had. What I'm worried about is foreign interference. I think very often the West has this mighty disposition that they feel they can tell countries that are receiving aid what to do. And we find that really disturbing, because number one, when you tell us what to do, and you force us to, oh, you threatened to reduce aid, not only are you penalizing people, but you're also disrespecting us, because you haven't really taken the time to listen to what we want and how we want to solve our problem. And I think that what we need in Rwanda is more stability. And if we can have another 27 years of stability in Rwanda, we can really do major things. So I'm hopeful and cautious optimistic. 

Am Johal  12:01 
Lama, you, besides doing international work in Rwanda, and you bring a long depth of experience in community development and community engagement, broadly, in the sense of the different communities that you work with. Here in Vancouver, you've had a long association with the Carnegie Action Project, and also with projects like Hogan's Alley. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to your work here in the Downtown Eastside, and also the Hogan's Alley project.

Lama Mugabo  12:32 
Thank you. So when I came back from Rwanda in 2015–16, thereabout. I came back to the Downtown Eastside and I was visiting Carnegie. And I came across the Carnegie Action Project, which was a phenomenon organization, grassroots that was, you know, organizing to fight against gentrification and to fight for social justice, and economic justice. And so we went on to fight for the rights of low income folks to have dignified housing. I think you and I met on a number of occasions. I remember when we brought the UN housing rapporteur for the second time, and he came back and he was blown away that things actually got worse. And ironically, he suggested that Downtown Eastside should ask, apply for foreign aid, to really embarrass Canada, because this is a human right. And I think that when you neglect to invest in housing, then worse things do happen. And we'll see this downtown in Vancouver. I remember during those days, I was also engaging with Raise the Rates, an organization that was fighting to raise welfare rates at the time, a mere $600 a month in one the most expensive cities in Canada. And we said, we did some calculations and realize they should, people on social assistance should be making $1,600 a month. And the government almost went crazy. Said that's too much money. And to my shock, I think people who are living in poverty, when they hear so much anti-government rhetoric, they begin to recite the same things they hear. And I heard people say, Oh, no, don't give money to low income people. $1,600 is a lot of money, it's all gonna go up in smokes and, and then fast forward during the pandemic. They're receiving $2,000 every month. So we're really learning a lot through this COVID-19 pandemic, number one, that social inequities that, you know, food insecurity, housing, social justice — so all these things that we've been talking about in the Downtown Eastside with regards to housing are really coming to fruition because if you don't have housing, you have nothing. And so if any government leaders, whether at the municipal, provincial or federal government wants to listen, housing is where everything starts. When we build housing for people that's dignified, crime rates will go down. We won't have to fight you know, and lose sleep over the issues that we're dealing with today. Yeah, so I met really formidable people who are fighting to make sure that our homes can't wait. Because you see, when you're homeless, your life expectancy is half of what an ordinary person has. So we don't have much time to wait, then when the government gives us 10 years projection, that's really an insult. So I did the work on housing, but also work with like-minded organizations to fight against street checks. Street checks is a policy as we know that it's illegal, it's unnecessary. And it hasn't really been proven that there's any justification for it, other than racial profiling and, and really embarrassing people. So I'm glad that this work also paid off. City of Vancouver, voted unanimously to make street checks history. But we haven't, we're not going to stop at Victoria, Vancouver. We're going to all the 11 municipalities to make sure that this street checks is history.

Am Johal  16:46 
Now, Lama you've had a long involvement in terms of organizing with the Black community here in Vancouver, there have been so many issues raised particularly in the last couple of years, but they build on long histories of racism built into this country. And I'm wondering if you can speak about the Hogan's Alley project, but also other organizing that you're doing with the community now.

Lama Mugabo  17:13 
It's really ironic that I went to school of planning at UBC for two years, and not once did anybody talk about Hogan's Alley displacement. So this is a void. Not only, when I tell people they used to be a Black community, they're shocked. They go 'what? A Black community here in Vancouver?', see it's not taught in schools. It's not written in papers. Nobody knows. It just goes under the radar. So I remember coming back again from Rwanda, meeting with my friend Wayde Compton, and he brought me up to speed on more things, what they were doing. And shortly after that, I joined Hogan's Alley working group of people who were interested in revitalizing this displaced community, that is to house black people. And so that's 2016. We work behind the scenes with the municipality. And our application to revitalize Hogan's Alley was approved in 2018. Between 2018 and 2020, last year, nothing happened. We waited for the MOU, they never showed up. They kept telling us to wait and wait until George Floyd was publicly lynched, all hell broke loose. The whole world started asking questions. Suddenly, people realize that Black Lives Matter is not a slogan, but it's a reality. And that, at the same time, people in the city hall, Vancouver started to see Oh, my God, Black people, we promised Hogan's Alley, we never delivered, oh, my God. And they started calling us saying we're sorry. And, and, but also, it's important to say that during last year of racial reckoning, we saw the generosity of people really embrace us. If you look at our website, Hogan's Alley, society has received a lot of money, almost $800,000. We appreciate these donations. But we also appreciate people who've come out to volunteer for us. And with us, working side by side, we appreciate young people who held a two night to day blockade on the viaducts, to make sure that they remind the world that Hogan's Alley used to be there. And I know that those young people sacrificed by putting their lives on the line. And there's several things they could have been doing in those two nights and two days. We appreciate them. And this is what's going to bring back Hogan's Alley, the solidarity. Also, the understanding that this was a racialized community. It wasn't a Black ghetto. But it was a place where the majority of residents were Black. And we can't wait to bring back this gem in Vancouver and show this city and the world what the ability, the ability of Black people to give back to the community. So things are looking up. We're waiting for the MOU. And I think it's gonna be really exciting to be Black and especially young people who live here now.

Am Johal  20:38 
Lama with the beginning of the pandemic to this period, you know, there's been such a level of disorientation thrown into planning and thinking about community organizing. And as we come out of this at some point, who knows when I'm just wondering what you've been up to, during the pandemic period, and what you see as exciting sites of possibility in terms of community organizing and other areas that you're working on projects.

Lama Mugabo  21:09 
So, when it hit us, in March, we were very confused. I think, when you look back in March last year, people were scared. They didn't know what was going on. And we definitely knew we had to social distance, then the question is what happens to the most vulnerable members in our society? You know, Hogan's Alley Society works with PHS to operate Nora Hendrix Place, temporary modular housing located at the corner of Gore and Union. Prior to COVID, we were doing a number of things with the tenants, organizing public events, doing gardening. And then we stopped, and people said to us, the tenants said to us, where are you? What's happening? What's going on? So fortunately, we got a grant from the Vancouver Foundation. And the idea of activating the garden came out to be a good opportunity for us, number one. Number two, we knew that COVID-19 attacks people whose immunity is deficient, and nutrition is really key. So I started this vegetable garden. We had a garden there. I operated it, really thinking about the work I did in Rwanda, that if we focus on the food we grow, and the food we eat, this will really sustain us over the years. So the whole idea of gardening, nutrition and wellness was important. So we did our work last year, and a community came out to support. Not only, they came and garden with us, but they also supported us financially. So it became a platform where tenants of Nora Hendrix Place, community members work together outside in the sun to grow food. So that was really rewarding. What I see that's hopeful coming out of this pandemic, is that I think we've revitalized our ability to work in solidarity. I realize that Nora Hendrix Place, when we receive surplus of food, we share in the community. When people in our community have more things that they need, they give it to us. So I like that element of community support. The other thing is resources. I think that, one time, there was a grant proposal. And this grant was earmarked to Black-owned businesses. But it was a capital project that I assume we had buildings, we had things, most of us working are under the radar. We work from home to cut down the costs. So we don't have the, so I think the donor did not understand us. And I think again, it's part of COVID brought up this realization that look, you know, people are really hard-up and you need to bring up more resources and build capacity and build the foundation.

Am Johal  24:24 
Yeah, I know that you've been involved in lots of public events related to arts and culture, but also just bringing in new communities in terms of celebrating activists. During Black History Month, a couple years back, you were involved in helping to organize a documentary of a really important organizer, Jack O'Dell, who lived here in Vancouver, but had worked for many decades with Martin Luther King and others. And I know that Jack passed away two years ago, but I'm wondering if you can speak to what he meant to you and to other activists in the city. 

Lama Mugabo  25:00 
Mmhmm, he was a phenomenal man. And I think that we're very privileged to have had him here in Vancouver. And kudos to the filmmaker who made this memorable film, I think, that's going to be remembered and seen for the rest of our lives. That's positive.

Am Johal  25:20 
Rami Katz.

Lama Mugabo  25:21 
Rami, yes. So, I think for me, to see a giant like that in front of me, and thinking about the heavy lifting they did back in the days, and how, back in the day, to be a communist was an insult. He was a threat to the state, and they forced Martin Luther King to get rid of him because of the threat of being a communist. And when I look back now, and I look at the communist project, communist Marxist ideology, and have so many friends who are Marxist, and I think, what a loss that they fear of the unknown made us do terrible things. So Jack O'Dell was also a giant, and I'm glad Rami made the film. And I'm also glad that, you know, the film created opportunity for us to talk about these things. And this is what we do in community engagement. We organize events where people have an opportunity to learn something, to share their ideas. I'm working on Rwanda right now. And I think that people are very interested to hear a positive story out of Africa, because very often, whenever we hear from Africa is horror. And so it's refreshing to hear good news. And yeah, looking forward to post-COVID engagement.

Am Johal  26:48 
Yeah, it's very similar in the Downtown Eastside, the way that it gets framed and sensationalized in mainstream media. The stories that are told oftentimes aren't the positive ones. I really appreciate Megaphone Magazine and what they try to do, Voices of the Street and the Speakers' Bureau in terms of telling stories from a neighborhood perspective, from residents who live here. I'm wondering, Lama, as we come out of this pandemic, what are some of the projects you're looking forward to being involved with as we move into a new phase of organizing, at some point. We're not certainly out of the pandemic yet. But what is it also about the pandemic that you learn from, like, clearly, a lot of the polarizations and inequalities were accelerated or exacerbated, made it more public and visible. Many systems failed us. But many systems also came in their place and did work. Forms of Mutual Aid Foundation responding, but also government's not responding fast enough. And then, eventually, at least from the perspective of the vaccine rollout, it seems to have been done relatively well once it finally came. But wondering your observations in terms of what you saw, and in conversations with other activists on the ground.

Lama Mugabo  28:12 
So one thing we've learned during this pandemic, is that there's a threat, there's a threat right now that, as rich countries continue to vaccinate their populations, at the expense of people in the south, who are not being vaccinated, it will cease to be a pandemic, that worries the world, but will become an endemic to poor countries. That's  a fear. So out of this concern, Rwandan President called for Africa to start manufacturing its own vaccines. See, in the past, Africa has always been waiting, looking to India, to China, to us to Europe, to give them vaccines. And with this time, when they came knocking on the door, India said, uh uh, I'm busy. I got to take care of my own people. China said sorry, I don't got none. And so what happens to Africa? Why do we always have to wait for foreign aid? Doesn't it make sense to manufacture vaccines locally? So that call to action really resonated with a lot of people. And very shortly, we're going to begin to see manufacturing plants in Africa. Three countries have been mentioned, South Africa, which already has infrastructure, Rwanda, which has an amazing public health policy and remarkable infrastructure so far, and Senegal, out in West Africa. So those countries will begin to do the heavy lifting. And thank God that has happened. The other thing I've learned is that we really have to become self-sufficient. I think this business of waiting for foreign aid is not going to cut it. So Africans have to learn how to trade within themselves and be self-sufficient. Most importantly, the work that we're doing next year and as the pandemic begins to ease is to lead reflection tours Rwanda, so that people can really learn about this amazing country. And we want to also organize biannual conferences in Vancouver so that people who've been to these reflection tours can come and be part of a conversation. These biannual conferences, we want them to be unique and that we just don't want people to come and present papers and talk. But we want people to come and do something together, write a book, make a film, write a, you know, do something practical, as a legacy. So this work is being done by the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement at Simon Fraser University, and Building Bridges with Rwanda. We have a project within the development office called Remember Rwanda 25 Legacy Project, and really excited to work with Simon Fraser University, MA alumnus, and continue to build the capacity and raise awareness of Rwanda in Canada.

Am Johal  31:27 
Lama, is there anything you'd like to add?

Lama Mugabo  31:31 
Well, I just want to say thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this very important conversation. I think that COVID-19 has opened our eyes. And I think we have learned that we need more solidarity than less. And that collaboration instead of competition is very key. So, onward we go.

Am Johal  31:56 
Lama, thank you so much for joining us and bringing your stories from your work internationally and locally and drawing the connections between that work and solidarity being something that we need to all labor towards. Together. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lama Mugabo  32:15 
My pleasure. Buh-bye

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Melissa Roach  32:19
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Lama Mugabo. Head to the links in the show notes to learn more about Lama’s work and the various projects he’s involved with. 

And make sure you check in later this week when we release our next special series, Women, Work, More, hosted by Alyha Bardi, an SFU sociology and labour studies student, who’s also my colleague here at SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks again, and catch you next time on Below the Radar!

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 02, 2021

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