Embracing our Context
We begin the work of the LEDlab by acknowledging that we are standing on the traditional and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. This is important not only because of our shared history as Canadians, but also because recent surveys undertaken by our partners, Downtown Eastside (DTES) Street Market and the City of Vancouver, indicate that 57% of individuals practicing survival vending are Aboriginal. Recognizing where we are and who makes up the community in which we aim to work is a fundamental starting point for our engagement.
We also acknowledge that the DTES currently has one of the highest concentrations of service delivery organizations in North America. To add our voice to those already engaged requires holding deep respect for the good work that is, and that has been, already happening here.
From advocacy groups to community foundations, to the enormous efforts of governmental and non-governmental organizations focused on health promotion, harm reduction, restorative justice, housing, and new immigrant settlement, the knowledge and relationships held by these practitioners and agents of change must always inform what we do.
The Local Economic Development Lab is a unique collaboration between Ecotrust Canada, RADIUS SFU, and a growing number of inner city community partners. Ecotrust Canada is a trusted and respected charitable organization with a mandate to support people and place-based development. RADIUS SFU is a social innovation lab and venture incubator at Simon Fraser University, with responsibility for growing emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in the social innovation space.
Listening to the community: our consultation phase
Step One for the LEDlab involved a 16-week consultation with representatives for the DTES community, and people experienced with social innovation in other contexts. A pivotal moment came early on, when we realized that our ‘language of process’ was not landing well. Our first ah-ha was that instead of telling people what we thought the Lab should be, we needed to be asking people how the Lab could add value to their work. This immediate and important shift in our programmatic design, caused us to suspend the imposition of a structure for this social innovation lab, which created the space for the community to tell us what they want and need.
The community told us:
- There is a need to increase low barrier employment opportunities for DTES residents.
- New capacity is necessary if nascent/emergent income-generating opportunities for DTES residents are to be realized. While there are many good ideas for how to build a stronger and more inclusive economy in the DTES, existing agencies are strapped for both time and money – and need help bringing their change-making ideas to fruition.
- Inter-agency coordination is needed to connect the work of various organizations and move towards a collective impact model for place-based economic development.
- Ongoing engagement with the residents of the DTES should take place through community partners with deep roots in the neighbourhoods – however, we must not mistake the voices of community organizations as representative of residents of the DTES.
- The legacy of community economic development (CED) efforts in Vancouver’s DTES is not well known or understood. Histories of successful innovations are at risk of being lost, as are lessons learned from large-scale CED initiatives that have been tried before and failed.
- Research that is conducted in the DTES is often buried or published behind pay walls. Community access to and co-ownership of research should be a mandatory component of our work.
- Student internships should be scoped with community partners, together with the overarching goals of the work. Community research ethics should be discussed and observed within the context of each research project.
- There has been a tremendous amount of work, immediately preceding the adoption of the Local Area Plan (LAP) for the DTES, that has gone into engaging the community and having different voices contribute to an elevated level of discourse around the local economy and its role in the social and cultural health and wellbeing of various DTES neighbourhoods and its residents, businesses and community organizations. Rather than re-invent the wheel, the Lab should be a coordinated effort with the City of Vancouver, building on the work of the DTES LAP and the Healthy City Strategy.
Where we have landed
The DTES already has, in many respects, a very diverse low-income economy. Inner-city organizations have been using unique and place-relevant approaches for many years. However, the ability of these community-focused efforts to replicate, scale, and create big change is often limited by the lack of one key ingredient – capacity. Many formidable leaders told us that they had been working feverishly on new ideas off the sides of their desks.
Hearing this theme repeatedly, the LEDlab is proposing to make a contribution to this root and resident-identified challenge.
We will harness the energy and creativity of 30 graduate students over a 3-year period, and place them with community partners who have expressed the need for capacity to realize their change making ideas. This work will not only bring a talent pool directly to the implementation-equation, but will also add Ecotrust Canada’s 20 years of place-based CED experience and the research and innovation capacity of RADIUS SFU to the mix.
In our inaugural year, the LEDlab has connected talented, creative and motivated graduate students with local organizations to accelerate community-designed and driven social enterprise, in what we are calling the ‘Community Acceleration Phase’. We then work with the students, our community partners, and subject experts to develop shared skills and knowledge, collaborate and change the economic system in support of this community over time.
The Local Economic Development Lab intentionally inverts the traditional university research model by placing community needs at the center of the agenda. Our vision is one wherein meaningful university-community partnerships serve and enhance community-led solution building and not the other way around. Our theory of change posits that multi-sectorial collaborations between academics, non-profits and the public and private sectors, will build better solutions to the complex problems of our time.
We hope that you will follow our journey, online, through our newsletter, blog, and research publications, and offline by connecting at public events, or visiting us at our colocation space at Carrall and Hastings.
We are committed to being transparent about the ongoing challenges we face and the failures we encounter, as well as sharing uplifting stories of success and hopefully raising the profiles of our community partners. In the name of social innovation and social change, we aim to support and enable what communities tell us that they need, and what they already know will allow them to succeed.