4 min

Fostering community dialogue

West End pilot project moves forward

Credit: Matt Mills

Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell is very excited about the West End Integrated Neighbourhood Network (WEINN).

“This is a community that takes care of its problems,” he says. “They don’t shuffle them off, they don’t say, ‘oh push them someplace else’. They come together as a community. All the diverging groups sit down and say, ‘okay, how are we going to go about this’ and they come up with reasonable ways of doing it.

“It’s so Vancouver! Keep the politicians out of it. Let the community decide, let us know what they need to make it work and go forward.”

WEINN is a think-tank and a series of discussion groups started in July 2004. It’s comprised of representatives from 11 West End community groups. It’s an experiment in community discourse devised by the city of Vancouver to bring community groups, people and government together in a bottom-up effort to help find real solutions to street-level problems facing the West End.

The population of the West End has exploded over the past decade and continues to grow. With that increase in density comes a whole host of social issues and economic pressures.

WEINN hopes to find solutions to problems like street level public order, livability and safety issues. It has drafted four action plans to address homelessness, public drug selling and use, property crime, and traffic and pedestrian safety. The idea is to best use existing community and government resources to help solve these problems.

“WEINN’s biggest achievement to date,” says city councillor Tim Stevenson, “is the fact that they’ve been able to bring all these groups together for the first time to identify the primary issues they want to work on. Obviously, they can’t deal with everything in the West End, but they’re going to identify and they are identifying the worst ones.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Richard Jonah, a gay community member and longtime resident of the West End. “To me, the greatest concern is the homelessness and the people doing drugs on the corner of Davie and Bute Sts. I live right there and those two telephones by the liquor store are used constantly for drug deals and things like that. That’s a big concern for me.”

Of most interest to queer people may be WEINN’s interest in safety issues. WEINN may be one way to help address queerbashing.

“I think personal safety is a big issue for gay and lesbian people in the West End,” says WEINN chair and West End Residents Association officer Brent Granby. “There’s an issue around bashing. One of the positive things in this process is we’ve had the police come to our meetings every month to start this dialogue. It’s been all these 11 groups that have been in dialogue with the police. That’s been a beneficial result.”

“In Vancouver we realize it is a right for people to walk down the street and not get hassled and not be harassed,” says Campbell. “I was reading in Xtra West today that we haven’t reached that point yet. I think that an organization such as WEINN will help us get there through community awareness.

“If we allow [bashing] to happen, who’s the next group these goof-offs are going to be after? Who’s the next group that will suffer taunts and will suffer violence? There is no place in either the West End or the city of Vancouver for people to get away with this.”

BC Persons with AIDS Society (BCPWA) secretary Robert Nickerson says people living with HIV/AIDS are especially vulnerable to bashing. Nickerson thinks WEINN could help with the bashing problem but says the solution to bashing lies with individuals taking action on their own behalf.

“If you’re HIV-positive or dealing with AIDS, you’re a little bit fragile and often people have to go to the drugstore late in the evening or early morning because they need to get some medication,” says Nickerson.

“WEINN is one vehicle,” he continues. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the only thing. This is just sort of an opportunity for people to share their concerns but also to find some solutions. The real thing is not WEINN itself. It’s the community that counts.”

How do you move from grassroots discussion to engaging governments and implementing solutions? How do you stop gaybashing once and for all?

“I’d like to do it on a personal level,” says WEINN’s coordinator and only full-time paid staff member Dana Walker. “I want to do it differently than we have done in the past. I want to have more and smaller meetings. I want to have panel discussions and low-key workshops.

“Are there people out there [gaybashing]? Can we connect with them to help come up with better literature to get the word out? Maybe have a panel discussion with people who have been abusive. Bring them in and talk to them and say, ‘why were you abusive?’ Those are the kind of panel discussions. I don’t see those discussions having a lot of bureaucrats or politicians involved,” he says.

Walker says he chairs WEINN’s steering committee. He also helps Granby and other WEINN members coordinate what they do. He prepares background information, gets speakers together and acts as a conduit between community and government.

Campbell, Stevenson and Granby had public praise for Walker’s hard work at WEINN’s open house at the West End Community Centre, Jun 11.

When the WEINN project was announced by the city last year, it included $81,000 a year to cover Walker’s salary. Vancouver-Burrard MLA Lorne Mayencourt told the Vancouver Courier last July that he was concerned the WEINN project was “just going to be an $81,000 job for someone and not really make a difference to people living in the West End.”

Mayencourt says he’s not worried about that anymore.

“What we have here is something where there’s some real genuine community involvement,” says Mayencourt. “We’ve identified some good short- and long-term goals which is good. The city’s getting its money’s worth.

“What we’re seeing right now is a better coordination of the delivery of services to people in need at the same time as educating people about how to have a civil community,” he continues. “I think it’s been very positive. Police are involved, community is involved and youth are involved.”

The government spends billions of dollars funding community organizations such as these to deliver services at a community level, Mayencourt notes.

“The reason we do that is that government is not good at developing grassroots programs. We’re not. No bureaucrat in Victoria is going to come up with a great plan that will fit every neighbourhood. That’s why we support neighbourhood and community groups to do that.”

Walker says anyone who wants to be involved with WEINN can get involved with one of the member community groups. Another way to contribute is to form your own group. “We’re open to having more groups join our membership,” says Walker.