A community organizer’s grassroots run for Vancouver city council

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Jean Swanson and Aiden Sisler. Swanson, who has been a participant in struggles for social justice in Vancouver for decades, is running for a seat on city council. She’s doing so at the urging of a network of mostly young activists and organizers, including Sisler. Their goal is to mobilize grassroots movement energies to pry open space in the municipal political landscape to start addressing fundamental social injustices like homelessness and poverty.

Things are bad, in Vancouver, for people who don’t have much money or who face any number of other forms of marginalization. Gentrification is intense, the loss of affordable housing to make space for luxury condos is relentless, and homelessness is the highest it has ever been. The continent-wide crisis of deaths related to opioid overdoses has taken a particularly heartbreaking toll in the city. And all of the other things that are organizing hurt and harm into so many lives across the country – increasingly precarious employment, racist police violence, the targeting of migrants by a harsh border regime, social services that are less and less adequate, rising Islamophobia, and all the rest – are no less present in Vancouver than anywhere else.

The perennial question is, of course, how to respond, beyond the ever-present necessity of survival-focused struggles. How do we make change? How do we win things that actually make a difference in our own lives, the lives of our neighbours, everyone’s lives?

There is no singular or final answer to those questions, and anyone claiming to have it all figured out should probably be approached with caution. It’s a matter of context and judgement and, most of all, of constant experimentation. That said, however, one common theme among a major subset of people in North America over the last couple of generations whose central political commitment is to grassroots struggles has been a certain skepticism about the value of putting energy into electoral politics. A few small groups actively advocate boycotting them, while many other people see voting as useful but don’t see election campaigns as a particularly strategic place to put scarce activist energies.

But there are signs that, at least for some people with grassroots commitments, that might be changing. Without at all denying their limitations and problems, the kinds of impacts made in recent years by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom have inspired a new layer of people in all manner of contexts to begin experimenting with bringing together grassroots movements with the aim of intervening in election campaigns to challenge, in one way or another, politics-as-usual.

In Vancouver, for all the challenges faced by people who are poor, working-class, and/or marginalized in other ways, it has always been a city with an incredible array of grassroots activism and organizing pushing back and fighting for better lives. When a city councilor resigned and triggered a municipal by-election for October of 2017, a group of mostly young activists and organizers -- including Aiden Sisler -- saw it as an ideal opportunity to take the fight to the electoral realm and see if that might be a way to win some real, concrete gains.

To that end, they started a social media campaign to encourage Jean Swanson to run. Swanson has been a dedicated and principled participant in social movements in the city for a long, long time, and she is widely known and respected. She was initially reluctant to run, but the groundswell of online support convinced her to give it a shot.

Swanson's more than 40 years of grassroots involvement has touched many different areas of struggle. At various points she has worked in the labour movement, been part of organizing major peace marches, and co-chaired the British Columbia component of a national campaign against neoliberal free trade deals. The heart of her involvement, however, has been in housing, homelessness, and poverty struggles, particularly in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side neighbourhood. She got her start with the Downtown East Side Residents’ Association in 1974, worked for many years with a group called End Legislated Poverty, wrote a groundbreaking book on poor-bashing, and for the last decade and more has worked with the Carnegie Community Action Project on related issues in the neighbourhood. (To learn more about CCAP’s work on gentrification, check out this episode of Talking Radical Radio from 2014, which features an interview with Swanson and another organizer.)

Along with demonstrating her life-long commitment to social justice, this work has given her a great deal of experience in dealing with the city, from serving on municipal committees, to regularly addressing council, to ongoing engagement with city politicians and staff. And, along the way, she also managed to get named to the Order of Canada. Swanson is running on a platform that includes fighting for a rent freeze, taxing the rich to house the homeless, citywide door-to-door voter enumeration to decrease barriers to political participation faced by tenants and homeless people, expansion and strengthening of Vancouver’s Access to City Services Without Fear sanctuary city policy, and more.

Swanson and Siser speak with me about the current political context in Vancouver, about the decision to take grassroots passion for social justice into a municipal election campaign, and about what Swanson aims to do if she wins.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post is used with the permission of Jean Swanson’s election campaign.

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