LEDlab, Ecotrust Canada’s initiative with Simon Fraser University, is racking up small but significant victories on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Manager Kiri Bird fills us in.

Sep 22 2

The Downtown Eastside Local Economic Development Lab, or LEDlab unlocks opportunities for those living in a Canadian neighborhood known for its decades-long struggle with poverty, addiction, and mental illness.

It identifies and nurtures innovations that support legal income-generating activities already going on in the community. It also builds individual and organizational capacity from the ground up, so that the community can more effectively respond to opportunities as they arise.

This past week, the initiative published its 2015/16 Annual Report. We spoke with Kiri Bird, the manager.

What is a social change lab, and how does it work?

Change labs revolve around a core challenge or issue area. They bring together diverse stakeholders to work collaboratively on identifying new solutions to address that challenge—solutions that work for all parties involved. They typically bring together government, industry, and community members.

How is that different than a more traditional approach to addressing a social or economic challenge?

Change labs are highly experimental and iterative. You are creating a “fail-safe” environment to test out new ideas and take in feedback. You are also evaluating your work more frequently.

Companies measure success—profit, loss, growth—constantly, almost obsessively. But NGOs typically really only take stock once a year. Realistically, can they be expected to have the capacity to increase that frequency?

We certainly do after-the-fact evaluation of our annual cohort, we asked what worked and what didn’t in interviews with project coordinators and our partners. But the world of evaluation is changing. Developmental evaluation incrementally measures what changes are happening within and amongst stakeholders, as well as in the ecosystem in which you operate—what political changes, what new language is being used in policy, what networks or structures are emerging, for example. Every two weeks, every person involved in the LEDlab is documenting what is happening and responding, changing course if necessary.

How does Ecotrust Canada support in your work?

Our lab model blends social entrepreneurship with community development practice. Ecotrust Canada has 21 years of on-the-ground experience working with communities; they know how to build consensus among diverse stakeholder groups, they know how to work in place, and how to how to show up, listen, and let the community lead the work.

Your new annual report devotes ink to one your failures—a program that didn’t get traction and that you let go. Should more organizations talk about their failures as well as their successes?

We know that most business startups fail; but in the nonprofit sector, we don’t talk about failure very often because of our relationships with our funders. I think if we were more honest, we would have a lot to learn from each other about success and challenges.

Part of your work involves “disrupting traditional patterns of power.” What does that mean in the context of the Downtown Eastside?

I’ll give you two examples. One is is a partner organization of ours, Binners Project. Binners are traditionally very marginalized, they are going through back alleys to collect redeemables, bottles and cans with deposit value. Considering the amount of recycling they remove from the waste stream, we believe their work is highly undervalued. But through the work of the Binners Project, binners are now coming through the front doors of offices and stores for pick ups, not the back doors. Now there is a new power relationship in that space; the binner is now providing a service to an office manager. That one small interaction can be a transformative thing.

Binners Project Sep 22

What’s the other example?

Well, we can look at community benefits agreements. Typically these agreements are negotiated between developers and cities. Disrupting power would mean giving the community a seat at that table so that community members represent themselves and have their own voice.

How does Ecotrust Canada’s other work build off of, or support, yours?

In the traditional resource-based economies we have in Canada, when the boom-and-bust cycle inevitably goes from “boom” back to “bust,” people end up in urban centres looking for work. They may end up unemployed, and living in the Downtown Eastside. There is a connection between urban and rural economies that is not well explored. Ecotrust Canada is really interested in learning more about how we can strengthen the economies of both. How might we develop resilient rural and urban economies that are mutually reinforcing?

What attracted you to this work?

I began my career doing international development work in Latin America with rural Indigenous communities. After coming back to Canada, I did my masters at SFU in Resource and Environmental Management. I knew I wanted to focus on solutions, rather than advocacy. So social innovation has been a great fit. Both Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS SFU are the types of organizations that roll up their sleeves and build solutions with entrepreneurs in the communities we work and partner with.

How can traditional companies support social enterprises and the work you do?

Procurement is a huge lever. Vancouver has one of the most mature networks of social enterprises in North America. Many of them focus on providing employment for people who are facing barriers to stability. If you own or manage a company in Vancouver, most things you have in your budget line—everything from coffee to window cleaning, to recycling—you can source from a social enterprise. It’s the same with many Canadian cities; the social enterprises are out there.

What about individuals?

If you live in Vancouver, or come to visit, I would encourage you to spend a little time in the Downtown Eastside to try to get past that uncomfortable feeling that many of us have. Maybe it is going to the DTES Market and shopping for something, or sitting in Victory Square. It’s good to get a break from “others who are like you,” and try to learn from and engage with people in the DTES and be curious about their stories. There is so much polarization in our society. Opening yourself up to new experiences is a good way to help you decide what you can do, and what you are ready to do, next.