So, today is my last day as organizer for this wonderful organization. It will be harder to leave you than I can possible say. Organizing for MVA has not just been my job, it has been my passion and my vocation.
Back in 2008 I was presenting at a forum on living wage, when I was approached by Fr. Clarence Li. He said, “A group of us are trying to start a broad-based community organization and we’re not getting very far. Do you think you could give us some advice?”
At the time I was Vice-Chair of the Board of London Citizens, a similar community organization in the UK. I had spent almost a decade as a leader in that vibrant organization, building new chapters and campaigning on low pay and the rights of refugees. I was happy to share my experience with Fr Li and his colleagues Sr. Elizabeth Kellaher, Fr. Ian Stewart and Robert Doll.
Over coffee they told me how helpless they felt about conditions in Vancouver – the lack of affordable housing, the rising level of poverty in a wealthy city.
I was impressed by their anger and their passion for change. They knew what they wanted to build but they needed help figuring out how to make it happen.
Building a broad-based community organization takes patience and slow, careful planning. It takes hundreds of conversations with people from across the community before you know who has the appetite to work together for the common good.
I had an opportunity to come back to Vancouver for three months later that year. During that time, I worked with Fr. Li and other leaders like Lane Walker, Margaret Marquardt, Barry Morris and Michael Markwick, to get the exciting process of building Metro Vancouver Alliance off the ground. Many wonderful people joined their efforts, helped by Joe Chrastil, Regional Organizer for IAF NW.
A few years later, when the group had raised the money to hire a full-time organizer, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
In June 2011 I walked into the Rectory at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Campbell St. to meet with Fr. Ken Forester. Fr Ken took one look at me and said, “you look hungry”. He was right – I was a new organizer just off the plane, and I hadn’t even had time to shop for food. Fr Ken offered me a sandwich and we rolled up our sleeves.
The founders of MVA started by using the most important tool in broad-based organizing – one-to-one relational meetings. We met with leaders from unions and neighborhood houses, faith organizations and community groups, people active on campaigns and people just trying to hold their own organizations together. We listened to their ideas and their concerns, and then we challenged them to think about what they cared about deeply enough to act on, what they were prepared to do to make Vancouver a better place to live.
One of the biggest challenges we faced in those early days was the impatience of our potential members to start campaigning on the issues right away. With so many urgent problems to solve, it was hard to explain why we needed to take so much time building relationships and listening to one another. Why not just whip up a rally on the steps of the Art Gallery?
People who know me, have heard my thoughts on Art Gallery protests. I always ask “what did the curator of the Art Gallery ever do to us?”. The truth is, if you want change, you need power, and power comes from many, diverse people coming together to find common ground, even if they see the problem from different angles.
It means carefully planning a campaign aimed at the people with the with the authority to give you what you are after.
And finally, it means using your campaign to discover and train new leaders who will carry on the fight. The Iron Rule of community organizing is, never, EVER do for others what they can do for themselves.
Every one of you in this room has the capacity to take action to make this a better city. Some of you are well seasoned leaders, others are just testing your wings. But you are so fortunate to be part of this unique organization. MVA offers you training and support, but most important, MVA offers you a chance to get to know and collaborate with people you might never come across in any other setting.
Please take advantage of this opportunity. It will enrich your lives, it will offer you unexpected allies – and it will build your power.
Last April I watched proudly as a room packed with over 800 MVA delegates from our 57 member organizations won real commitments from Premier John Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver. MVA’s ability to press candidates beyond the usual party policies reflects the power gathered in the room that night, and the growing influence of MVA generally. It is a power that derives from the relationships we have built and our very different way of doing politics.
It has been a rare privilege to be part of taking MVA from an idea in the heads of a few, dedicated people, to this diverse, powerful force for community change. Getting to know you and your institutions has been one of the great pleasures of my life.
Together we have built an alliance we can all be proud of. My greatest retirement present would be to see MVA thrive and grow. I know I leave you in good hands, with Tracey Maynard your new Lead Organizer.
But, wherever I am in the future, my heart will be with you!