“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
In 1940, Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals and legendary father of community organizing, spearheaded the establishment of the Industrial Areas Foundation in wartime Chicago. Seventy-five years later, the Anglican diocese of New Westminster may soon become an official sponsor of one of the foundation’s contemporary international avatars: the Metro Vancouver Alliance (MVA).
Like Alinsky’s activist agency, the MVA is a broad-based, non-partisan coalition of faith, labour, education and civic groups, all dedicated to improving life in the city. The four remediable targets of MVA’s current strategic plan are social isolation, affordable housing, poverty/living wage and accessible public transit. These and other such concrete goals are shared by 65 affiliated alliances in Canada, the U.S., Germany, Australia and the U.K., where, in 2012, its British counterpart persuaded the Summer Olympic Games Committee to become a “living-wage” employer.
In Vancouver, an informal Anglican MVA caucus has been focusing on social isolation and other MVA issues, and has raised sponsorship with the diocesan council. “Diocesan council has referred it to its steering committee for consideration and a recommendation,” says Douglas Fenton, executive archdeacon and archdeacon of Burrard. “If it is dealt with at its next meeting, a decision could be made by diocesan council in September.”
Sponsorship has the support of the diocese’s new bishop. “Becoming a sponsoring agency is an intentional public endorsement of MVA and has the potential to bring us into closer contact with others outside the gathered community, and to promote and support an increasingly fertile dialogue among people of faith and others of social conscience that can lead to action and change,” says diocese of New Westminster bishop Melissa Skelton.
Scant weeks after her installation this past March, Skelton appeared at MVA’s standing-room-only launch, where, addressing the 650-strong assembly with Archbishop Michael Miller, of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Vancouver, she spoke these quotable words: “I’m the new kid on the block, and this is the block I want to live on!
And these were not mere words, attests the Rev. Steve Bailey, deacon at St. Laurence Anglican Church, Coquitlam, who had chosen MVA’s living-wage campaign as his focus. “Bishop Melissa has been very active in promoting the MVA across the diocese.”
The MVA currently has four sponsors and 52 member organizations from 24 faith groups, including five Anglican parishes. For the past five years, the eco-justice unit of the diocese of New Westminster has been an MVA member, endorsing its 75-year-tested brand of community organizing. “We are not pulling this model out of the air,” says the Rev. Margaret Marquardt, the unit’s chair. “The reason why it’s working around the world is because it’s based on building relationships, strengthening the member organizations and continuing to listen and evaluate in strategizing about the issues we are working on.”
Each sponsoring organization makes a yearly financial contribution according to its size, says Bailey. That funding goes toward event staging, extensive leadership training and the salary of its full-time lead organizer, Deborah Littman, who came to the MVA in 2011 from similar work in the U.K.
Much of Littman’s time is devoted to community leadership development and discernment about “who should be at the table.” The goal is to establish enduring core alliances that don’t form, then dissolve, around individual issues. “What separates us from normal campaigning is that we don’t just sit down and say let’s do this and this,” Littman says. In an approach that puts power before program, she adds, “We first build long-term sustainable relationships between the very diverse sectors in this city. We share points of view, not necessarily to agree on everything but to find our core commonalities.”
After nine months of careful listening, those core commonalities have translated into the four practical pillars of MVA’s current agenda, narrowed down from an initial 10 or 12. “We prioritized three areas but ended up with four because unexpectedly the issue of social isolation came out on top in all groups,” Littman says, adding that the old organic ties that once bound people in their communities have become unravelled and replaced with transactional, marketplace encounters.
Setting concrete goals in the four areas, last October the MVA called a large pre-election meeting and presented them to last fall’s municipal candidates, pointedly asking all to explain how they would help implement them. It is actively following up with elected candidates on their expressed commitments.
In terms of affordable housing, the alliance has asked that all future building developments dedicate 20% of space for lower-income residences. On the transit issue, it strongly supported the yes side in the spring 2015 plebiscite on an increase of 0.5 per cent in the provincial sales tax to fund expanded public transportation. The diocese’s eco-justice unit helped plan public forums to raise awareness of the referendum.
The MVA’s continuing discussions with Mayor Gregor Robertson to promote Vancouver’s becoming a living-wage city have paid off: on July 8, the standing committee on city finances and services unanimously passed a motion to that effect, paving the way for a minimum living-wage of $20.68 per hour for its staff and contractors.
As for the problem of social disconnectedness, the alliance is steadily working to create sustainable local clusters, where neighbours can personally connect and tackle local issues. One recent success has been the easing of the municipal permit-granting process in order to facilitate holding community events.
The MVA’s listening and relationship-solidifying approach “moves us away from a charity model in building the kind of community that our Lord Jesus showed us, where each one has a place,” says Marquardt. “We, too, are well served by a community built upon attending to the care of all.”
If the diocese throws its hat in the MVA ring this September, it will take its place alongside four multi-sector sponsors: the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Vancouver, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, Local 258 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Vancity Savings Credit Union. Bishop Melissa’s block may soon get longer.