Monday, February 26, 2007

Hard to stay positive when faced with our inability to act
Feb. 23, 2007

Life on the front lines of a load of social issues these past three years has underlined for me the problems of a community that can’t come to grips with what’s going on in its streets.
It’s been something of a grim awakening.
Not the issues so much - 23 years in journalism had already introduced me to things like drug addiction, the sex trade and people living on the streets before I started working in the not-for-profit sector in 2004.
No, it’s my newfound knowledge - that we’re paralyzed with indecision about what to do about any of it - that has proved the most unsettling.
I sometimes fear I’m drifting into cynicism, which was certainly a risk even in my previous job as a journalist. On that front, I remain haunted by the ghost of the Victoria Health Project of the late 1980s.
I was a relatively new reporter in those days, and loved the strategy for its common sense. Tasked with finding a way to keep aging people out of hospital when they didn’t need to be there, the project figured it out with a variety of strategies ranging from helping seniors with their household chores to developing mobile psychiatric care.
Yet less than a decade later, I checked back into the story and found the whole concept behind the project had been erased from the collective memory, to the point that the original problems had returned and the identical strategies were being talked about as if they’d never been tried.
I eventually lost count of the number of good initiatives that suffered a similar fate. It turns out we have a discouraging habit of identifying a problem, attempting a solution, cutting the funding before change can really take root, then reidentifying the same problem a few years on and doing it all over again.
Nothing positive comes from cynicism, that’s the truth. But boy, it’s waiting for you once you start paying attention to how little actually gets done about our most pressing problems.
It’s probably been close to a decade since I walked through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and realized it had reached the point where reclamation seemed an impossible dream.
Vacant and boarded-up buildings lined the streets. The handful of businesses still struggling to stay open couldn’t lure customers into the area. Sick and desperate people manouevered the sidewalks like drugged-out, heartbreaking zombies.
I was struck at the time by how fortunate Victoria was to have escaped a similar fate. To see a wonderful city like Vancouver with such devastation at its core is tragic.
But that visit of mine was a long time ago, and Victoria has lost considerable ground in the intervening years. We are not yet the Downtown Eastside, but neither are we even close to the healthy city we used to be.
We have real problems. If we can’t fix them, they will grow into profound ones. That’s the unassailable lesson of the Downtown Eastside, and one that we ignore at our peril.
Like the Downtown Eastside, the reasons for Victoria’s urban problems start with the closing of B.C.’s big institutions in the 1980s, and carry on through global economic shifts, the virtual end of social housing, cheap and readily available street drugs, relentless cuts to all social supports, and an equally relentless refusal to believe any of this is happening.
Add in the tendency of one troubled family to beget many, and you get the picture.
But homelessness need not be a condition of our times. Drug addiction and mental illness can be dealt with. Yes, we’ve left things a little late, but a better world for all is still within our reach.
How will the work be done? As always, one person at a time.
Were we to just get on with it, there could be a happy ending for everybody. We already know what it takes, and in some cases are already doing it. We just need to do much, much more, for as long as it takes to reach the point where we can see the difference in our healthy, happy downtowns.
Research typically shows that setting people up with the help they need costs virtually the same - and sometimes much less - as leaving them to rattle around in their personal disasters. But even if it cost more, it’s surely worth our while to fix our urban malaise regardless.
Why can’t we act? Perhaps it has to do with a culture that holds people responsible for getting out from under their own messes. I get the importance of the principle, but what we’re seeing in our downtown is how life turns out for the folks who just can’t make that happen. How long are we prepared to stand on principle?
Once upon a time, I would have thought that a wealthy, privileged city would stop at nothing to save its beautiful core from becoming just another disturbing example of failed social policy and inaction.
On my good days, I still do.

Monday, February 19, 2007

If exotic dancers' money not good enough, don't count on mine
Feb . 17, 2007

When I first heard about a national breast cancer charity turning down a donation from exotic dancers in Vancouver, I got mad. I fired off a furious e-mail to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, and suspect a lot of other people did too.
Being an exotic dancer is, after all, a legal profession. Up until 2004, Canada even had a special fast-track immigration category for exotic dancers to ensure the country never ran short of them.
Do we want our charities getting sniffy about taking donations from hard-working, fully legal dancers just because somebody disapproves of how they make a living? That’s what happened in this instance, when the cancer society rejected the proceeds of a fundraiser being put on by Vancouver’s Exotic Dancers For Canada next month.
But while I was poking around on the Web in search of insight into what could have possibly possessed the society to refuse the donation, what became obvious was that the same kind of thing happens all the time. Exotic dancers in particular have had a hard time of it.
The Windsor Star had a story about exotic dancers back in 1984 who tried to donate half of a night’s wages to charity. The local United Way wouldn’t take it, and the dancers finally ended up giving the $3,000 to a Windsor hospice.
Two years later, dancers at the same club raised $20,000 for two local hospitals. Both refused to take the money. It went to five other less-discriminating Windsor organizations instead.
Here in B.C., the interesting thing is that the very same charity that’s refusing the money this time out was being praised a year ago for bucking the trend and accepting money from the same group of dancers.
Up to that point, none of the main cancer organizations wanted to touch a donation from Exotic Dancers for Canada, unless they agreed to remain anonymous. Understandably, the dancers found that just a little demeaning.
The group launched its fundraiser in 2004 as a benefit for a colleague dying of breast cancer.
The following year, after the woman’s death, the fundraiser was staged again to benefit breast-cancer research. But organizer Annie Temple couldn’t find anyone willing to take the donation. As had happened in Windsor back in 1984, the dancers gave the money to an appreciative hospice instead.
The year after, Temple wrote such a compelling letter to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada that they agreed to accept the money from the 2006 event.
“Our bottom line is that any women can get breast cancer. It doesn’t matter what they do, what their profession is,” said cancer society executive director Rany Xanothopoulo a scant year ago.
Since then, however, “certain major donors” have made their displeasure clear. When the exotic dancers called Xanothopoulo this winter about donating the proceeds from their upcoming fundraiser next month, they got the news. Donations from “controversial sources” are no longer being accepted.
In this case, it’s especially outrageous because the dancers are legally employed. They ought to be applauded for their social-mindedness, not spurned for their offers of dirty money. Breast cancer kills more than 5,000 Canadian women a year, so good on them for trying to do their part for that ongoing battle.
The on-line debate around the Breast Cancer Society’s rejection of the donation reveals an overwhelming majority against the decision, although not without a number of people pointing out what a difficult position the society had been put in.
A “major donor” - someone able to provide a great deal of money for the cause, presumably - had made a fuss after the society had taken money from the exotic dancers last year.
The society could either stand on its principle of a year ago and risk losing a lot of money, or reject the donation from the dancers and give up a mere $3,000 or so. The decision makes sense when viewed as a financial dilemma.
I respect the right of the Breast Cancer Society of Canada to do what it has to do. While the Web site of the Sarnia, Ont., non-profit doesn’t breathe a word about the current debate, I have to presume that it did what it thought was necessary in choosing to pass judgment on its donors.
But an organization that does that also has to accept that it’s going to lose a donor like me when it all comes out, because I don’t want to go along with anything like that. If nothing else, this aggravating news of a charity turning away a donation will at least give me an additional thing to ascertain when deciding where to put my own charitable contributions.
Hooray for exotic dancers who care enough to raise money every year for breast cancer. May their money no longer go unwanted.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nothing appealing about Victoria's Centennial Square
Feb. 9, 2007

What is it about a space that makes you want to stay in it? You and I might have differing theories on that, but I bet we could agree on at least one point: Centennial Square doesn’t have it.
I cut through the square on occasion, and find myself wondering each and every time what it is that makes the place so completely uninviting.
I don’t think I’m alone on this one, either, because the square is disturbingly empty most of the time. People just don’t seem to go there.
No disrespect to the square’s original planner, Rod Clack. I’m sure Centennial Square was a heck of an improvement over what was there 45 years ago when it was built. Victoria’s downtown was still very much in transition from its rough-and-tumble past in those years, and creating public space next to a renovated city hall was a terrific move.
But whatever it was about the square that worked in 1962, it stopped working quite some time ago. To walk through the square on any given day now is to be struck by its unloveliness, and the almost complete absence of people. That’s not what you want from your public spaces.
I’m not suggesting that’s reason enough to jump into a costly reno, or that the time is now just because the B.C. government has up to half a million bucks for communities wanting to build “spirit squares” in the runup to the Olympics. All I’m saying is that as it stands, Centennial Square is all wrong.
A letter in this week’s paper touched on one reason for the problem - the square is in shadow too much of the time. It feels cold. I don’t know if the wind really does blow harder through the square, but that’s my impression every time I pass through.
What’s an even more fundamental problem, however, is that there’s no reason for anyone to use the square. With the exception of a few special events each year, there’s no draw.
No little stores ringing the edges for your shopping pleasure. No food vendors. No guy selling bags of bird seed, or balloons. No artists. No crafts. No comfy gathering places in sunny corners.
In short, the things that make squares work in so many other cities of the world are nowhere to be found in Centennial Square. Other than a mid-block cut-through and a venue for a handful of city-sponsored events, what’s the point of it?
Public spaces can be appealing without commerce, of course. A wander through Beacon Hill Park is a reminder of that, as is a visit to any of our region’s many beautiful public gardens and oceanfront lookouts.
But Centennial Square isn’t anywhere nearly pretty enough at this point to draw people on that level. If that’s what we’re aiming for, we’re well-advised to tear up all the concrete and start from scratch, because there’s nothing about the square in its current state that lures people in just for the sheer pleasure of being there.
If you’re one of the tens of thousands of people who never use Centennial Square, maybe its future seems of little interest to you. But the fate of the square ought to matter to anyone who loves the downtown.
Fix Centennial Square, and you get a lively community space that’s a hub for new retail on the streets around the square. A “jewel” in the heart of Old Towne. Leave it as is, and it’s a concrete no-man’s-land that few shoppers bother to venture past.
Like most things in Victoria, we’ve been talking about doing something about Centennial Square for a very long time. A performing arts centre, a new library, an expanded conference centre - the revamp of Centennial Square is one of the many good ideas regularly floated in Victoria that never quite comes to fruition.
In the case of the square, we’ve been making plans to move the fountain for more than 10 years now. Bob Cross was still the mayor when we last got talking about holding a design contest to improve the square.
Many years on, we’re no farther ahead. Centennial Square continues on as public space that nobody wants to use.
Whatever the future may hold for the square, what it needs most is a reason to be. An unwelcoming and pointless community square is worse than none at all in many ways, as the “dead zones” created by such spaces go against every dictate of good urban planning.
When Centennial Square was first taking shape in the early 1960s, it must have seemed like a wonderful alternative to the ragtag collection of businesses torn down to make way for the square: a couple of brothels, a weary public market, a derelict theatre. It was a good fit for the city at that time.
But like the song says, that was yesterday. And yesterday’s gone.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Jannit Rabinovitch's death a call to action
Feb. 2, 2007

My friend Jannit Rabinovitch is dead. The loss is huge, and not just to the throng of people who loved her in all her many roles: mother, mentor, lover, friend.
She was that rarest of breeds - someone who set out to change the world and really did. Our communities will feel her loss for decades to come.
The real shame of it is that Jannit had at least 20 more years of community work in her. She was only 57, and showing no signs of growing weary of the fight. Never mind that by that point she’d already built a women’s shelter, launched five grassroots community groups, gotten her PhD and co-parented two fabulous children. Jannit was nowhere near done.
But then the cancer set in last summer. She died last Friday.
She hated the weakness and vulnerability brought on by the disease and its debilitating treatment, and in a way I was glad t hear that she had been set free. But I really don’t know how we’ll create change without her. It scares me to contemplate a world without Jannit.
Not even a month ago, we were talking about me interviewing her to get her extraordinary life down on paper. We never got the chance. She was sick, I was busy, and one day she was gone. Such a lost opportunity.
Her many projects and good works guarantee her legacy. She built Sandy Merriman shelter with a crew of 12 homeless women, and willed into life no less than five organizations built on her unwavering belief that solving our social ills begins with empowering the people caught up in them. We won’t soon forget Jannit.
But will we be able to take up where she left off? If her 30-plus years of hard work is to have meaning, we will have to.
Jannit was 25 when she first stepped into the gap between those who create social services and those who the services are intended for. She was good at it, mostly because she worked hard enough to earn the respect of both the big wheels and the misunderstood people dangling on the edges of our society.
That first project involved youth with disabilities. Jannit had been hired by the B.C. government to manage a student employment program. The incentive for employers was a wage subsidy: 50 per cent for hiring a youth, and 100 per cent for hiring one with a disability.
Despite the offer of free labour, Jannit found that employers just weren’t interested in hiring a kid with a disability. Undeterred, she found a local non-profit interested in the program, and matched it with a school for youth with physical disabilities who were interested in putting out a provincial newsletter for other disabled youths.
Voila. Mission accomplished, in a way that benefited everyone involved.
That was how things went when Jannit was involved. She was a problem-solver, and a strategic thinker. She could figure things out in a way that turned out well for all concerned.
In 1991, while Jannit was working for the City of Victoria’s social planning department, she helped give birth to the Victoria Street Community Association after being tasked with “doing something” about the rising numbers of homeless men. Made up of people who’d personally experienced homelessness, the VSCA went on to develop and run the Medewiwin housing project.
In 1994, Jannit launched a series of conversations with homeless women to figure out their needs. That led to a construction project that saw Sandy Merriman House built by a hired crew of 20 homeless women.
Some of those women were sex workers. They asked Jannit to help them establish their own organization, built on the principle that the people best able to help sex workers are people who’d been there themselves. The Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society - PEERS - was incorporated as a non-profit the following year. Jannit remained a passionate PEERS board member right up until the cancer overwhelmed her.
In1998, Jannit helped stage a Victoria summit that brought together world policy makers and 55 sexually exploited youth from throughout the Americas. A few years later, she supported her dear friend Cherry Kingsley in the launch of the International Centre to Combat Exploitation of children. More recently, she helped bring to life the National Coalition of Experiential Women, an organization that I hope will one day rock our world around sex-trade issues in Canada.
But all of those achievements are just notes in history if Jannit’s life work ends here. She lived long enough to see the eventual collapse of some of the projects she’d started, and in her last months despaired that her efforts had been for naught.
Hardly. But it takes a lot of effort to give voice to the voiceless. Those who believe in the importance of that will need to pick up where Jannit left off, because there’s tough work ahead.
Jannit made a difference. We will honour her memory by doing the same.