Friday, October 28, 2011
History of sorrows and stumbles for CLBC
All the problems and drama at Community Living B.C. these days got me digging through the story archives this week to try to see when it was that things started going wrong for the Crown corporation.
I was prepared to be outraged. But really, I just felt sad.
I’ve often made mention here of a 1978 book I was introduced to a few years ago, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. I’ve seen so many real-life examples of the cautionary tales laid out in that fascinating book through my work helping people with few resources push change.
The heartbreaking story of CLBC just might be the clearest example yet.
Poor People’s Movements documents the histories of four protest movements involving lower-class groups in the U.S. I’d read it in hopes of learning strategies for shaking things up around homelessness and sex-work issues, but happily discovered the book was even more valuable for understanding why good intentions so often go awry in the drive for change.
In B.C.’s community-living movement, the families and advocates of people with developmental disabilities have always been the ones driving change. If it weren’t for them, we’d still be back in the day of giant, impersonal institutions for anyone with a mental handicap, because that’s certainly the easiest model from a government perspective.
CLBC was to be the movement’s greatest triumph. For the first time, people whose lives had been touched by developmental disability were going to be the ones guiding services. Families, advocates and those with disabilities would no longer be just another category of “stakeholder,” but would actually be making the decisions.
So how sad is it to see where things have ended up a mere six years later?
The situation in B.C. feels more challenging than ever for people with developmental disabilities. It’s harder to find services, harder to hold onto them, and the certainty of being housed is no longer a given.
During a recent visit to a local shelter, I was stunned to see how many people with visible developmental disabilities were there for services - the leading edge of a new problem that will grow much worse in coming years now that we’re giving up designated housing for this population.
People are being pushed out of their group homes and programs even while CLBC senior managers take $14,000 bonuses as thanks from government for getting that done.
Such revelations from other parts of government generally bring to mind some opportunistic, cosseted civil servant with no idea of what it feels like to be in need.
But in the case of CLBC, a number of the senior managers are the same family members and advocates who led the movement for years - people who know exactly how it feels. How did it come to this?
If only they’d read the book. It turns out there’s a deadly phase for grassroots movements, and it comes dressed up like success. It’s the point where the government or authority they’ve been railing at suddenly puts a friendly arm across their shoulders and invites them closer to work out a “solution.” Talk turns to joint committees and partnerships.
Movements must approach such invitations with great care, warns the book. Stepping inside the circle may look like a win, but it’s more likely to be a takeover. The goals of the movement are soon crushed beneath the weight and wishes of the new “partner,” and soon everybody’s too co-opted to complain.
CLBC was also created in total chaos. I’m a big believer in organizational culture as a determinant of how things will turn out, and by that measure CLBC never stood a chance.
Firings, investigations, disgraced ministers, delays, painful media stories about funds unaccounted for and sweet-deal contracts - it was a messy, protracted birth. Add in the constant reorgs that have swept through CLBC since its inception, and I doubt the Crown corporation has known many normal days.
And that’s not even taking into account the politics. Cutting social services has always been a top priority of the B.C. Liberals, and community living has been in their sites for 10 years now. The cost of housing people has been a particular irritant, which is why CLBC execs were up until recently being rewarded for moving people out of their group homes.
Families and advocates for this issue know how to fight, and it’s good to see them out there again. They won’t trust as easily next time, but what a discouraging truth that is.