Focusing on the Real Issue: Poverty

This story was written for Vancouver Foundation.

When we call the problem of food insecurity ‘hunger’, we take focus away from the real issue: poverty.

Foodbank use in B.C. rose more than 32.5 percent from 2008 to 2016. Yet B.C. remains the only Canadian province without a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy.

Gordon Neighbourhood House aims to shift the collective mindset on poverty reduction – away from charity, toward social justice.

More than a third of people in Vancouver’s West End are low income, and food insecure – meaning they can’t reliably afford enough healthy food to eat.

Mostly society has responded to food insecurity with charity, even though we know this doesn’t create lasting change. Charitable approaches solve short-term needs, but don’t fundamentally fix the underlying problem.

The West End’s Gordon Neighbourhood House is helping to change the approach. It operates from the fundamental beliefs that everyone has a right to good food, and the only way to eliminate hunger is to address the root causes of poverty.

Creating a safe, dignified place to eat, shop and socialize

The West End Community Food Hub is a partnership between Gordon Neighbourhood House and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. It offers a subsidized fresh produce stand, hot soup prepared by the Rainbow Soup Social, smoothies from Golden Choice Market, coffee, cooking demonstrations, computer access, drop-ins with Coast Mental Health, and free books from the Vancouver Public Library.

The Community Food Hub is part of an innovative, three-part model to address food insecurity in the West End. First, the neighbourhood house provides emergency access to food in a dignified environment. Second, it educates people in the community about producing and preparing their own food. And third, it advocates for change in systems that create poverty in our society.

Two years in, the model is working, and the organization is ready to deepen its capabilities in all three areas.

It also seeks to get community members more directly involved in advocacy. Too often we assume that people living in poverty lack the capacity to play leadership roles, and advocate on their own behalf.

Recognizing and supporting the true capabilities of people facing poverty

People who are materially poor face extreme biases and discrimination – their abilities are often greatly underestimated. This can lead to social isolation even in a densely populated area like the West End.

Gordon Neighbourhood House believes community members can best advocate for themselves if they have the right support. New funding will allow the organization to train more local advocates.

As a civic leader in food justice work, Gordon Neighbourhood House envisions the West End as a vibrant community where everyone is empowered to play an active role in society.

Longer term, the organization aims to reduce the stigma of poverty, and create a more resilient community in the West End. In partnership with other stakeholders, the organization intends to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy with legislated targets and timelines.

Upstream, Downstream

This story was written for Vancouver Foundation.

Nature doesn’t operate in silos like humans do. Our industrial activities have a combined effect on habitats – sometimes creating disastrous results for communities and wildlife alike. Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) has a plan to fix this with a project led by First Nations. The initiative brings together experts from industry, conservation, government and academia to assess the big picture impact of industry in B.C.’s Peace region.

The Peace region in northeast B.C. is a hotbed of industrial activity, with a burgeoning fracking industry, multiple pipeline projects, coal mines, extensive forestry and road-building. It’s also home to more than 60,000 people including First Nations communities, plus an iconic array of wildlife and natural habitat.

Taken individually, each of the industrial initiatives could have huge effects on the community and ecosystem…but taken together they present an extraordinary threat to the region. The pace of development is faster than in Alberta’s tar sands, and only 4.2% of the land is protected.

Y2Y proposed to pilot test an innovative type of community planning for the Peace region’s Murray River watershed, led by First Nations. The aim is to connect a diverse set of people to look at the cumulative effect of industry, and figure out an overall plan to protect the environmental, cultural and economic health of the region.

Rising Above Traditional Decision Models

Y2Y’s view is that if we want to take an honest look at the impact of industry, we need to rise above traditional decision models, and get people with divergent views to make decisions as a region, rather than as isolated entities.

To do this, Y2Y is facilitating a Cumulative Effects Assessment (CEA) to examine the projected consequences of industry on the overall community, First Nations’ ways of life and the local ecosystem.

Treaty 8 First Nations Lead the Way

The project is led by three Treaty 8 First Nations: Saulteau First Nations, West Moberly First Nations and MacLeod Lake Indian Band. The plan is to conduct 10 working group meetings and 4 to 5 community workshops.

The primary outcome will be a framework for the Murray River region that provides guidance for land-use, reflecting the combined wisdom of the participants. The framework will be rooted in First Nations Treaty rights and values, supporting responsible industry in balance with people and nature.

The University of Northern British Columbia will provide a forum for publication and dissemination of the research produced.

The project will provide a forward-thinking model and best practices for similar projects worldwide.

Bringing Stories of Indigenous and Refugee Youth to B.C. Classrooms

This story was written for Vancouver Foundation.

Indigenous, migrant, and refugee youth in B.C. have been displaced not only from their geographic homelands, but also from their ancestral, cultural, and spiritual roots.

Their schoolmates and teachers often have little or no understanding of what it’s like to be forcibly uprooted from everything you know, and how that pain continues to be felt for generations.

Young people with a personal or family history of displacement can struggle to feel a sense of dignity and self-worth, as school curriculum mostly overlooks their realities.

DisPLACEment is a media arts program that brings together Indigenous and newcomer youth to create short videos that explore the causes and consequences of displacement and resettlement. The program aims to dispel myths and challenge systematic racism. 

It is designed to spark dialogue, increase awareness, and infuse the education system with thought-provoking content that illuminates the realities of these populations.

Designed for classroom use, the videos will be packaged with lesson plans and activities. In addition to peer facilitated workshops delivered in the Vancouver area, the materials will be available online by donation for teachers, support workers and community groups.

Not only do youth get to tell their personal stories, they also build a roster of hard and soft skills including facilitation, critical thinking, self-advocacy, scriptwriting, interviewing, filming and post-production.

In the fall of 2017, the program kicked off with 21 youth participants. They envisioned and created a total of eight videos with the mentorship of local filmmakers during a 12-day media production event.

The DisPLACEment videos were premiered to an audience of 200 people at Yáynewas Chet: In Solidarity, an event hosted by Fresh Voices in downtown Vancouver in December 2017. 

So far, the DisPLACEment videos have been viewed by more than 600 people at various workshops and events.

They were seen by a group of emerging newcomer poets at a spoken-word retreat held by One Mic Educators near Toronto. Inspired by the visions and voices of their peers, the videos prompted hours of animated conversation and the creation of poems.

It is anticipated that 200 educators will use them in the 2018/2019 school year, delivering the content to approximately 4,000 people.

A Vancouver teacher, Ciera DeSilva, has already developed a presentation featuring the videos, called Decolonizing Traditionally British Curriculum to Empower Indigenous and Immigrant Students in B.C., which she presented to 60 educators from independent schools.

The DisPLACEment program is offered by Access to Media Education Society (AMES), an organization that nurtures the next generation of creative change-makers. AMES helps marginalized youth use media arts to create personal and social change.

The organization has developed more than 40 community-based media programs for youth that have faced various forms of oppression. Its programs have reached more than 70,000 students and educators across B.C.

Is Your Story Working? Take the Assessment

Photo from Flickr by Virtual Eyesee

Photo from Flickr by Virtual Eyesee

All too often people throw some language together to describe their organization. Then they build a website and call it a day.

How's that language workin' for ya?

Your brand story is more than just words on a page. It's more than a collection of thoughts you want to convey.

To really work some magic, your story needs to be told in the simplest, snappiest, most compelling way possible. Most crucially, it needs to be told from the perspective of your audience.

Let me pose 5 questions. Be brutally honest with yourself.

1) Are your execs singing from the same song sheet? (Or do people get a different story depending who they talk to?)

2) Does your website story clearly, boldly differentiate you from others in the market?

3) Can you verbalize (right now, without thinking) the most crucial thing every potential donor, client or customer needs to know? Bonus point if you believe your entire exec team would agree with you.

4) At networking events, are people intrigued when you tell them what you do?

5) With your previous responses in mind, are you supremely confident your story is exciting to people outside your organization?

If you answered 'no' to any of these questions, it's probably time to take a new crack at your brand story.

Rediscovering Humanity

Here's an article I wrote about the most exciting session I attended at the Dalai Lama Center's Heart-Mind conference. The speaker was Linda Lantieri, an expert in mindfulness for kids and a woman on a mission to revolutionize the education system.

The full article is below. It was originally published here


Linda Lantieri

Holy smokes, Linda Lantieri is a ball of fire. Hearing her speak made me want to back my bags and move to New York to support her work.

Among her many riveting tales, an anecdote about 1992 stood out for me. 1992 was the year of the first U.S. school shooting - the first time a student shot and killed another kid. 

It happened in New York, Linda’s hometown, and she immediately received a call asking for her help on-site to support the kids and teachers. When that call arrived, she was shocked not only to learn about the shooting, but also to discover it had happened at her alma mater.

The year rings in my head: 1992.

In the grand scheme of things, 1992 was a millisecond ago. How did we go from having no school shootings to several school massacres in just over 20 years? What happened in those 20 years that changed schools so drastically?

From the perspective of mindfulness in daily life (or lack thereof) a lot changed in those 20 years. The mid-nineties marked the explosion of real-time news coverage, kick-started by CNN’s relentless coverage of Nicole Simpson’s murder and OJ Simpson’s trial. 

We used to be a society that read a paper once a day and maybe caught the nightly news. Quickly we became a society where news was constant and urgent – information being hurled at us moment by moment, until we shut off the TV.

Then the Internet happened. And by happened, I mean exploded into our lives and minds like an atom bomb. The ‘immediacy’ of TV now seemed laughable. We no longer needed to rely on journalists for information – we could check Google, Facebook or Twitter. We could consult a gazillion blogs. A hungry or bored mind could spend hours and hours a day consuming content.

Add to this the full blossoming of video games as immersive and intensive experiences, stimulating young minds in a totally new way.

I’m definitely not attempting to draw a causal relationship between this media revolution and the emergence of fatal violence in schools. I’m simply saying, a lot has happened. People have busier minds, including kids. And it seems to me that busy minds create stressed people who may be less capable of dealing with some of the raw stuff life throws at us.

We’re making big strides in giving kids tools to cope with all of the new stimuli that are hitting them, but those strides haven’t kept pace with the speed of media.

Mindfulness may not be a solution to ending school violence, but it can likely help. Kids that have tools for coping with media stimuli, emotions and interpersonal conflict are more prepared to cope with life.

They’re more likely to see the humanity in others by discovering it in themselves. And at the very least, that’s a great start.


Refresh Your Brain

I had the huge honour of attending the Dalai Lama Center's Heart-Mind conference and I wrote two articles for their blog about my experience.

Below is a piece I wrote in response to a presentation by the renown Dr. Cliff Saron, an expert on how mindfulness affects the brain. It was originally published here.


Dr. Cliff Saron

In a world where we are bombarded with texts, tweets and up-to-the-nanosecond news, why aren’t we totally alarmed at our decreasing ability and opportunity to focus peacefully on one thing at a time?

All of this incessant communication and stimuli is tricking us into thinking we’re highly productive. But here’s what I think. Our minds are busy, yes. But productive? Not nearly as much as we think.

Dr. Clifford Saron’s presentation cited research that shows people perform better at tasks after interacting with nature. Quieting the mind refreshes the brain. Not a shocker really, but what do we do about it? How do we make sure kids (and teachers, parents – and all adults) can regularly hit the refresh button on their brains?

I’ve been practicing meditation daily for several years, and I’m mid-way through an intensive two-year meditation teachers’ program in Vancouver. I’m a focus group of one, and I certainly don’t claim that my views are scientifically proven. But I’ll share my experience.

When it comes to refreshing the brain, meditation is like nature (Clifford’s research supports this).

You know that calm, still state that you experience when you really settle into a view of vast, open ocean? Or that feeling of oneness and openness that you get standing on top of a mountain peak or staring up at a rural, starlit sky? Yeah, meditation’s like that.

Not all the time, mind you. Sometimes it’s simply an exercise in letting the frantic mind simmer down. But that’s ok too because it still refreshes the brain, even when you don’t think it’s happening.

Frequently saying ‘no’ to stimuli and turning inward brings clarity. Ease. A bigger perspective.

I’ve been a news junkie, an iPhone addict, a social media strategist and a PR maven. I know a busy brain. It’s my hope that we create a world where the next set of adults at the helm have calm, clear, compassionate minds. I think we’ll all be better for it.


Recent Work: VitalityLink


This summer I had the distinct pleasure of working on a brand strategy for a lovely team of people at a start-up venture called VitalityLink.

Katryn Harris is the CEO and I could listen to her talk all day about her vision for giving people easy access to alternative healthcare.

Now I should start by saying I’m a huge fan of alternative healing.  I believe there’s a lot more to the human body than traditional medicine alone addresses. Because of this, the VitalityLink story is right up my alley.

Katryn and her team have zeroed in on a significant problem: tons of people want to try alternative healing but they don’t know where to begin. They don’t know a Reiki master from a naturopath and they don’t have the time to figure it out.

VitalityLink aims to be a one-stop shop for learning about your options and finding practitioners right in your neighborhood. It’s in inception phase right now and as I write this Katryn is in the Silicon Valley devising the next stage of her strategy.

I collaborated with the amazing Katrina Carroll-Foster on the brand strategy and hopefully in the coming months you will start to see it coming to life online.


Recent Work: Seventh Generation


I've been buying Seventh Generation products for years so I was pretty darn excited when I got the call (thank you Katrina and Brian!) to write some social media content for two of their Facebook campaigns.

You know Seventh Generation, right? Maybe you’ve bought their toilet paper, laundry detergent or baby wipes. It’s a Vermont-based company that makes earth-friendly products.

What you may not know is how they got their name. It comes from an ancient Iroquois law that says, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” 

Considering many companies tend to think quarter to quarter, it’s both astonishing and courageous that the team at Seventh Generation is considering their impact hundreds of years into the future. HUNDREDS OF YEARS.

Now that’s what corporate responsibility looks like. {Hat tip}.