Enacting our values
How does LEDlab follow through on its stated values? Communications & Research Coordinator Sarah Moreheart reflects on her first few weeks with the lab.
Since beginning with LEDlab in March the big question on my mind has been, “what the heck is a social innovation lab anyway?” Once the mental ‘click’ happened I felt like I had found the elusive secret ingredient that makes my favourite food so special and delicious.
For those like me who find the concept of social innovation labs confusing, you are not alone. “Social innovation” is a broad term that captures a variety of activities, actions, innovations, and strategies that seek to address a social or environmental need that is unmet by current institutional or cultural norms. A lab is a collective group of people who organize themselves around a need, and work together to come up with new ways to address failure in the system. This collective acts as a platform from which new ideas can be prototyped immediately in the real world. Have you ever thought to yourself, “if we could just get such-and-such, then that would solve so-and-so problem!” That’s what a social innovation lab does – they take that idea and try it out.
Social innovation labs require people to work together. In order to do so in a way that is accountable, it is helpful to develop values that can be reflected on. Values help to develop a common vocabulary and guide what we will do and how we will do it. Working in the community of the DTES, our set of values include: trust, collaboration, appreciative inquiry, empathy, and rigour. After having spent a few weeks in this new environment, I want to share my experience in seeing how these values have been played out; that is, does LEDlab’s actions reflect its words?
I try very hard to align my personal actions with my words and commitments. This is a difficult and ongoing process, and at times it has even been problematic in my life. For example, I hold the value that every person is deserving of a home. While this sounds very altruistic and well-meaning (don’t we generally want to be good and do good?) it can be uncomfortable and create conflict in actual practice. Standing up for this value has at times created tensions that have affected some of my personal relationships and have created scenarios that threatened my job security. In my previous employment I was responsible for running a transitional housing program for women near Oppenheimer Park in the DTES. Conflicts arose and sometimes these spilled out into the street, impacting the right for our neighbours to experience safety and solitude within their own homes. I often had to deal with angry neighbours who questioned why I was allowing such things to happen and why I wasn’t doing more to protect their children from bearing witness to these type of conflicts. So, here is my dilemma; how do I act out my value when faced with a person for whose behaviour I am partially accountable isn’t conforming to what is considered a basic tenet of living with neighbours? If someone repeatedly creates an environment that others consider hostile and threatening, how can I successfully defend my value?
The answer to my dilemma is complicated by trying to negotiate through the muddle of power dynamics, prioritizing some people’s rights over others’, people’s vulnerabilities, my obligations as an employee, the obligations and expectations my employer has with the funders of the housing program, and so on. Sometimes my decision seemed to side with the neighbours and sometimes with the tenants of the program; usually there was a compromise but there were occasions where one party felt very wronged. For each decision I had to justify to myself and to my employer why I had taken a certain course of action. Sometimes I had their support and sometimes I didn’t. I share this story to demonstrate the difficulties we all face when we are confronted with acting out our values, but to also share with you the commitment I have made to myself to not turn away from this struggle and instead find a way to talk about it, reflect on it, and learn.
Entering into this new job offers an opportunity to see how I can enact the values that LEDlab holds and reflect on how the program itself enacts those values. One of LEDlab’s values is empathy, stating “through human-centred design, we keep a consistent focus on those with lived experience at the core of what we do.” In systems change work, because you are constantly working with partners and stakeholders with different values, empathy also means keeping multiple perspectives in mind as you search for a solution that meets everyone’s needs. In the context of the LEDlab’s work in the DTES with its community partners, this value is a cornerstone.
In my few weeks here I have witnessed the project coordinators [LEDlab graduate students] interacting with their respective community partners. I have attended board meetings, public events, and have witnessed interactions between the LEDlab project coordinators and project participants. In these places, I observed the residents of the DTES having ownership of the conversations and meeting spaces. People were honest with each other about their gaps in learning and these admissions were met with a supportive answer from another group member. I saw that the project coordinators took an allyship role—they were not the first to speak; they supported what residents were saying; they responded if the group had a question for them, but they did not lead the discussion. There were points in these meetings where it may have seemed simpler or faster for the project coordinator or other outside-of-community member to step in and provide a quick resolution, or to simply complete a task themselves. It must be tempting at these points to want to push ahead and just get things rolling. To some, perhaps this is too cumbersome and frustrating, delaying the final result of getting a project running and income generated. It was a wonderful experience to witness the restraint of the outsiders, to be comfortable enough to sit in the space and truly play a background supportive role. The value of empathy, as LEDlab defines it, was at play; the community members had clearly expressed a desire to build their capacity and have ownership and the project coordinators were enacting this by taking direction from the participants.
Enacting our values can be frustrating at times; to truly take the time to stop and think about how our actions will either perpetuate or resist an inequity simply as it may be the easier thing to do. It is precisely the mindset of “let me take over” that has rendered some participants in this community crippled with shame and feelings of low self-worth. Building up a person’s confidence to take on new tasks, roles, and skills is not a quick and straight path, but it is the right one.
Sarah Moreheart is passionate advocate for people affected by structural violence and barriers including, but not limited to: mental health consumers, substance users, sex workers and women impacted by historical and current violence and trauma. Recently Sarah managed a transitional housing program for women in Vancouver’s DTES. Harm reduction and social justice is at the forefront of her practice.