Power of Women: Building change at the DTES grassroots

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The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (DTES), the poorest off-reserve postal code in the country, is home to the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre (DEWC) which houses one of the most impressive organising initiatives in the country, the Power of Women (POW) group.

Harsha Walia works at the DEWC, facilitates the POW group and is also the co-director of a recent documentary about the group. She describes POW as, "a group of women who live in a neighbourhood where residents face a variety of social, political and economic struggles including poverty, homelessness, addiction, child apprehension, violence against women, lack of access to social assistance, police brutality, as well as the stigmatization of living in this particular neighbourhood."

"What the group does," says Walia, "is organize around issues at the political level -- such as campaigns and raising awareness -- as well as building community and going through a process of dialogue about how to collectively overcome the barriers that are placed in front of women in this neighbourhood. This is important because there is a lot of organizing in the DTES, but not often led by residents. So there is an identifiable need for social justice work to be more directly rooted in the experiences and voices of residents of the DTES."

The healing process of sharing experiences seems to be one of the elements that make the group so effective and meaningful.

Beatrice Starr is a member of POW and a long-time resident of the DTES. In talking about what compels her to speak out and take action, she mentions issues including abuse, child apprehension and violence against women "...all things I have been through," says Starr. She says that she feels especially connected to the group because, "everything that's happened to me in my life, these are things we tend to go out and fight for."

Another reason Starr chooses to work with POW is "because it's gotten me to speak out for my family and other women that are being abused and other moms whose kids got apprehended."

"I've been through it," says Starr, "and I like to talk about the things I've been through if it can help other women."

According to Walia, this focus on women self-defining the nature of the group has been intentional. "We actively create time and space and share food together, and out of that shared space the women in the group build a deeper sense of community with one another," she says.

Shurli Chan, a member of POW for three years, affirms Walia's sentiments. She credits the "very inviting" atmosphere of the group and its members as a primary factor that brought her into the membership.

"Over time I watched women who have never said anything before, including myself... started to speak up for themselves and speaking up in terms of social justice, speaking up about one's own experience and then wanting to help other women and people that are in similar situations," says Chan. "And as a result of that we come to bond and we make collective decisions."

Describing the functioning of the group, Chan says, "the women come together to make decisions as to what they want to do, and they follow through." She mentions that they "put together petitions and put on protests" as examples of actions taken by the group.

One of the major components has been "a process of active skill building around things like media releases, talking to the public, as well as creative resistance," says Walia. "We coupled traditional activist tactics -- for lack of a better word -- around campaign strategies, with a focus on utilizing those skills to nurture community participation," she says.

Chan notes the participatory nature of the group's structure, processes and facilitation, which she says makes space for the women to "end up saying what they really want to say and to feel comfortable and protected." She adds, "over time their confidence in their ability to speak grows exponentially because you can see the major changes taking place in the members."

Chan also stresses that they "learn an awful lot about the outside world as well." Here she cites a meeting with the former Afghan Member of Parliament and Afghani women's rights activist Malalai Joya as one example of "learning to know more about women's issues internationally as well as those that are local or national."

When asked about the group's victories, Chan, Starr and Walia all cite nearly identical. For all three of them, the group's active involvement in the February 14th Annual Women's Memorial March sits right near the top of that list.

This past February, Starr marched in the annual event for her murdered sister and niece, as she always does, even though she had just gotten out from a lengthy stay in the hospital. "It is important to march," she says, "to show respect for all the missing and murdered women." She adds, "even though I was sore at the end, I had a good feeling because I was a part of that."

In addition to marching in memory, the group has also forced action on the issue of missing and murdered women. Chan points to a police investigation into the murder of a DTES resident as a result of the occupation of the local police station in late 2010. Before POW and the Feb 14th Women's Memorial March Committee's actions drew attention to the police's negligence, the Vancouver Police Department had "written off" the death as a suicide.

Yet another victory in recent years has been a successful campaign to have an especially violent police officer removed from working the streets in the DTES. Walia reminds us that, while "all cops are criminals," there is nonetheless an immediate need to "focus on some in particular that have a particularly notorious impact."

Aside from the Memorial March, the events most spoken about by the three women was the POW-led blockade of the Olympic Torch Relay as it tried to pass through the DTES, as well as the Olympic Tent Village.

The Olympic Tent Village was organized largely by the POW group as well as other anti-poverty and anti-Olympic groups. A group of Indigenous elders who were members of POW functioned as the leadership for the Tent City throughout its duration.

Walia says that "the Olympic Tent Village was a victory because the pressure exerted by the action resulted in housing for more than 80 homeless DTES residents, some who had been on waiting lists for years." She also notes that the "creation and centring of safe space, which is a recurring theme within POW's work, was really important in the Tent Village and something that lots of DTES residents and activists alike continue to refer to as an inspiration."

Starr adds the annual "Annual Women's Housing March" to the list of the groups' victories, which the POW group initiated five years ago to pressure for safe, affordable, and adequate housing. The group continues to be active in community campaigns for housing with groups such as Carnegie Community Action Project, most recently in opposing condo tower development and gentrification in DTES and the surrounding low-income neighbourhood of Chinatown.

At present the group is actively involved in an effort to get a 24 hour shelter and a 24-hour drop-in for women as a result of a number of reported sexual assaults in co-ed shelters. According to Chan, "There is a focus right now on women's housing, and in particular the safety of homeless women in shelters. In fact, we are doing a petition right now because we are looking for 24-hour women-only shelters and a 100 new units for homeless women and their children and asking that the government ensure that women who are in shelters are protected and safe because that hasn't been the case for the last while."

For Walia, "one of the largest victories of the POW group is, literally, the existence and the survival of the group because it is a testament to the strength of women living in poverty, predominantly Indigenous women, to take leadership." The POW group's record of direct involvement and leadership from those women most affected by the oppressive realities of the DTES, Walia says, "stands as an example for social and political movements across this country."

For Walia, "it has been an incredibly inspiring and learning space for me, not only in terms of the concrete political victories, but really as a model about how to build and sustain community within social movements. It also illustrates how possible it is to centre those who face the brunt of state violence, interpersonal violence, and societal violence not only within our analysis, but our practices of organization and movement-building."

Beatrice Starr added that one of the reasons she is especially fond of the group is because of how much support she got from them while she was in the hospital recently. She reminds us that, "that's what the group is about, caring for each other and caring for other people."

Alex Hundert is an activist currently under house arrest in Toronto. In Feb. 2010 he travelled to Vancouver to participate in The Olympic Tent Village where he met Beatrice Starr, Shurli Chan and Harsha Walia [A writer herself, Walia also occasionally contributes to rabble.ca]. He has since maintained relationships with various members of the group who wrote him while he was in jail, and Walia has become a good friend and ally. The interviews for this piece were conducted by telephone.

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