Photo: Chris Yakimov/flickr

In February and March, the Climate Justice Project hosted This Changes BC: A Conversation on Climate Justice. Over four Saturdays, a group of 34 citizens from Metro Vancouver gathered to talk about what climate solutions could look like in their lives and our province. Having worked on these issues for many years now, we had a lot of ideas to share, but our emphasis was on dialogue among the participants. We wanted to “road test” our research with regular folks to refine our understanding of “the good life,” based on what works in their busy lives.

We did not want to engage with climate activists nor climate deniers, but a broad group in the middle (one-third to half of the population according to the Six Americas public opinion research) who are concerned about climate change, but not already engaged in environmental issues or organizations. In many cases these are folks who may feel disempowered by the politics and complexity of climate policy, but would benefit from a chance to work with others to learn, deliberate and become more actively engaged.

Beyond that we wanted to ensure a diverse group — of ages, ethnic background, walks of life, and regions within Metro Vancouver. From one call for participants we received 185 applications, and out of that we selected our cohort. For some of our spaces we recruited from the rank-and-file of three trade unions (United Food and Commercial Workers, Hospital Employees Union, and Unifor) to ensure we had a solid worker perspective. The Vancouver Foundation similarly sponsored youth spots, and Vancity spots for their credit union members.

Our first day together included an overview of climate change and social justice, and some deeper discussion about the challenging psychology of climate change. We created open space for participants to dive deeper into conversations that mattered to them. We did not talk much about solutions but by the end of the first day many reported that just being part of the Conversation gave them new hope and inspiration for the future. They felt a shift out of isolation, and into a positive conversation among diverse peers.

Day 2 was spent diving into topics around our urban landscape: transportation, housing and density, and building complete communities. UBC professor Stephen Sheppard (Director of the Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning) led the group in a series of activities to deepen their understanding, including a block-mapping exercise and identifying local impacts of climate change. Participants brought their local perspectives into a discussion of transportation, and afternoon small group conversations looked at challenges and opportunities for different sub-regions of Metro Vancouver.

Our third day broadened the focus to the whole province. Food was identified early on as a top topic of interest, and we spent the morning looking at our food system and alternatives (though many wished we had more time!) The most challenging conversations were around rural and resource-dependent communities, where it is harder to identify local actions people in Metro Vancouver can take. But we were joined by Ben West and Jonathan Kassian, who showed the group a sampling of the amazing projects people around B.C. are already undertaking (such as solar power developments by the T-Sooke first nation and the City of Kimberley).

By the end of the third day, there was a thirst among the group to shift from policy solutions to talk about action. Our final day started with identifying components of well-being, and discussion of what change looks like in people’s homes, workplaces, communities, and B.C. Making structural change becomes progressively harder as one expands the circle. We closed with a super-panel of eight thinkers and activists, who shared their “theory of change” and how they were living it, with thoughts about how people can get involved.

Our society needs to have more of these Conversations. While the Conversation on Climate Justice was about “average folks” coming together to talk about what they care about, we quickly learned to dismiss labels like “average.” Participants brought a wealth of diverse knowledge and life experience into the room each day. Being part of it reinforced my faith in participatory democracy — that ordinary people can learn from each other, and figure out how to make change. People need a “safe space” to speak and hear from each other on big issues that matter — something our impoverished democracy is not providing. We hope this series of Conversations is a starting point for building a critical mass for change.

Special thanks to Stina Brown, who did amazing work in agenda design and as our lead facilitator, and Erin Daly, a practicum student from Simon Fraser University, who helped coordinate the cohort. The Conversation on Climate Justice was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and had an Advisory Group of academics and practitioners. Sam Bradd did some amazing graphic recording of the four days, which we will post shortly.

Photo: Chris Yakimov/flickr