The Binners’ Project and inclusive City planning in the DTES
By Brandon Toews
It’s Tuesday morning.
I’m standing before an inconspicuous banquet room on East Cordova, where a meeting has been scheduled to discuss alternative waste management solutions in Blood Alley. The block – an integrated space for social housing and business, and part of a larger redesign for revitalizing the downtown area – more frequently resembles a dumping ground, with the discards and dregs of dumpsters and bins leading to persistent and mounting concerns over cleanliness, safety, pests, and aesthetic appeal.
Accompanying me is Richard, a member of the Binners’ Project waste-picking community, who optimistically opines that this block, like its neighbours, has a lot of untapped potential for socially and environmentally sustainable growth, and in spite of decades of systemic neglect.
“I hope there’s a good turnout,” he says.
Settling and sitting now is a disparate collection of linked yet distinct parties, with representatives from the City of Vancouver, local shops and restaurants, residential property managers, and waste-hauling companies huddled together in small groups. An enthusiastic and heated dialogue ensues, and after several minutes – four, maybe five – the direction and momentum of the conversation is disrupted by a voice that asks “what about the fifth pillar? We’re talking about waste generated by people rooting through garbage, but they’re not a part of this discussion.” Silence.
Some twenty-score of passionate and progress-oriented citizens and professionals are in attendance to make clear their recommendations and preferences moving forward, and yet, on this Tuesday morning, community members were left off the agenda. Having been invited to the event, the wide-eyed members of the Binners’ Project – the program manager, a team lead and member of the Core Binners Group, and myself – fast tasked themselves with sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience.
In my brief tenure as LEDlab intern and partner of the Binners’ Project, it has become immediately and eminently clear that non-profit social enterprises in the DTES depend on agility, rapid adaptation, and trust – trust between support workers and community members, key partners, and clients. The depth and breadth of tasks and responsibilities that must be undertaken by such small teams demand unbounded independence, sterling dependability, and a self-motivated entrepreneurial spirit. No job can be too small for one person.
And yet, although each day redefines my perception and expectations of the scale and scope of duties, commitments, and competencies held by the Binners’ Project team, the greatest surprise has been the role that the organization plays in the local area. It is humbling to be a part of a grassroots effort that creates space for a community that is so often overlooked (or outright ignored) to have a voice in conversations and consultations on the future structure and culture of their living space.
The Downtown Eastside is an exciting, complex, complicated, and oftentimes intimidating and forbidding environment, and for these reasons it is imperative that social enterprises assume with two feet forward the roles of champion and facilitator, and that they endeavour to positively impact the credibility and legitimacy of disadvantaged persons. For the Binners’ Project, this manifests through the presence and participation of waste-pickers at events, consultations, public appearances, and intra-organizational meetings, and by designing processes and policies around their position at the top of the Binners’ Project leadership’s structure. Without the membership and active involvement of binners, there is no Binners’ Project.
In effecting a long-term solution to inequity and intersectionality at the heart of the city, and to furthering socio-economic revitalization, many streams flow into one, and there at the confluence are social enterprises like the Binners’ Project – initiatives dedicated to developing the capabilities of vulnerable individuals and empowering them to become agents of change.
Brandon Toews is a Project Coordinator with LEDlab. Brandon is a MBA Candidate at the SFU Beedie School of Business, completing his internship requirement by helping the Binners’ Project to scale their social enterprise programs.
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