Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Oh, what are my thoughts on what we need to do to improve social health in BC? Why, thanks so much for asking...

Illustration by Avril Orff for provincial forum

The lines between my professional and personal interests are quite blurred at this stage in my life, as I've had the great privilege of being able to work for many years now on issues that I feel very passionate about personally.

One such issue is social equality - in other words, supports and strategies for better social health that lift us all up, whether we need something relatively mainstream like good childcare and a safe, friendly place to grow old in, or something more intense like trauma counselling, help getting out of a gang, services for mental health, substance use, immigrant settlement and so on. Social health wears many, many hats.

In my role as part-time executive director of a very small umbrella non-profit, the Board Voice Society of BC, I was invited to speak Nov. 15 in Richmond at the Provincial Social Services Forum. I'm part of that forum through my Board Voice role, as there are a number of umbrella organizations sitting at a roundtable with government right now trying to work out a more resilient, mutually agreed upon partnership that will achieve our shared desire to strengthen, organize and sustain good social care in BC.

I was asked to speak on how the work of the roundtable could impact social change in BC. Here's what I had to say:

We do a lot of visioning about social health, in BC and around the world. We do less well at figuring out how to realize that vision. We dream big – ending homelessness, supporting every child, eliminating poverty, creating community well-being. But we rarely have structure in place underneath those dreams to guide us in achieving them.

I like metaphors, so let’s use the roofs on our houses for this one, and start with a suitably sweeping vision: “My family will live under a roof that doesn’t leak.”

It’s a great goal. But what if the reality was that you had leaks all over the place? Buckets overflowing. Bits of weakening tarpaulin pasted over some of the holes. A major reno in one corner that worked for a while but can’t keep up. Leaks patched a couple of years ago that have started dripping again. You’ve spent a fortune in buckets, mops and make-do repairs by this point. But still the roof keeps leaking.

So it is with social care, where we dream big but often struggle to identify and effectively tackle the root causes. The roof leaks until you fix the leak, right? Social care fixes social problems, and supports healthy communities in so many ways.

But just like fixing a roof, the only way to get there is by taking our lofty visions and breaking them all the way down to the strategies that can fix each one. After that, we apply them - in a planned, thoughtful, flexible, routinely updated, client-centred manner that understands that social care is as important as health care and education to all of our futures. Because we know that’s true.

I see the roundtable as a vehicle for getting us there. Nothing about social care is ever simple, but we now have a place to talk about it, one that brings us together as partners with a shared interest in improving social health.

Quality child care. Affordable housing. Interventions for kids with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities. Lifelong supports for people with intellectual disabilities. Services that improve Indigenous people’s lives. Newcomers settled in and helped to find work. Good homes for children in care all the way through to genuine adulthood, not an arbitrary age.

Supported housing for people as they age and lose function. Employment services. Recreational opportunities. Income assistance. Wellness programs. Trauma counselling. Community centres. Good work and fair wages. Clean and green communities.

These are the true determinants of health, and fundamental to the health of a province’s economy and future. Any region, any community, any neighbourhood is only as good as the health and connection of the people who live and work there.

But much like climate change, social health is mired in public opinion, politics, fear, judgment, stigma, and a general tendency in humans to waste a lot of time casting about for someone to blame when people’s lives go sideways.

Do we even think of the same thing when we hear “social services”? I would bet we don’t have consensus even in this room, let alone at a provincial level. I see the roundtable as a means for establishing measurable social goals, so we all know what we’re chasing.

What are the social challenges that are priorities for tackling in BC? We need to agree on that. We need to establish achievable outcomes and then measure them relentlessly, and constantly adjust our approaches and supports to account for emerging issues, changing priorities, unintended consequences.

We need to agree on all these things and then raise that work above the political cycle, as we do with education and health care. Because social care is foundational to a life well-lived, but it can’t be realized in a three- to five-year political cycle.

Emerging social issues are almost always just the visible evidence of problems that began 10 or 20 years earlier, now grown so big that you can’t help but notice them. Homelessness is one such example. If you’re my age, you’ve seen it go from a word that didn’t even exist to a persistent and seemingly intractable problem in every BC community.

There are so many reasons for that. And if you want to vanquish homelessness, you have to do something about every one of them.

Yes, homelessness is about homes, but it’s equally about things like early childhood nutrition and child development, quality education, family supports, mental health, good work, income assistance based on the true cost of living, and the way our justice and foster systems function.

Our governments play a key role in supporting strong foundations for social health. But they can’t stand alone in that important work. This is work for all of us, from the community-based organizations that know this work and how to raise money for it, to the engaged citizens already involved in building well-being in their own communities.

From the BC businesses that get that good social health is fundamental to a strong economy and workforce, to the five million British Columbians who will all benefit when social health is addressed in a planned, strategic, realistic and sustained way in our province.

For me, the roundtable and this forum is a statement that all of that has been recognized – not just by government, but by the community-based organizations that have been doing the work of social care since long before there was government funding for it. I look around at who’s at the provincial roundtable and marvel that we’re finally all there together. And today, here with all of you.

And no, this is not the first time we’ve tried to figure this one out. But it could be the time that changes everything. It could be the time that we actually get this done.

I really appreciate that all of you are here to deepen a conversation that might finally fix that roof, to everyone’s benefit. Thank you.