January at Strathcona Community Centre

An art project is like a tree — for every visible branch, leaf or bud, there’s an entire non-visible underground network of roots and mycelium, soil and water that supports it. The spreading canopy that we see, feel and enjoy can’t exist without these prosaic mysteries.

I have trouble admitting this and allowing myself the time and space it takes to make the roots for the art — they’re not the substantial product, and they’re not me standing in front of an audience and teaching or leading, so they’re not what I get paid for; it takes me a long time to think things through and digest and create from what I’ve learned, I begrudge the time it takes away from paying gigs and think I should be able to do it faster, I’m just too slow. I’m finally beginning to see how unsustainable this is, so to counteract my corrosive attitude, I’m going to account for all the time I’m spending doing the thinking and organizing. It’s not the glamorous and aspirational crown, but I hope it helps other artists after me.

This is the Concept and Plan Development phase of the residency, which began in January with some email exchanges with the AIC contact person Liza Tam arranging for me to attend the first staff meeting on January 17. I met Linda, Ronnie, Huyanne, Rona, Jenny and Jeremy that morning (everyone except Gabe Dennis, the new Youth Worker, who was attending a meeting offsite). I described the project vision that I had drafted for EartHand’s application for the residency, and asked if there was any space or element at the centre that seemed like a good place to focus our attention for making and highlighting. Ronnie immediately put up their hand and brought up the garden space on the north side of the childcare centre: “It would be nice to look out there and get a good feeling.” The fruiting vines and other features are beloved by the kids and named by many as favourite places; but the community centre staff make several rounds first thing every morning, plus additional time as necessary, to clean up garbage and messes, which may include broken glass, needles, bed bug infested clothes, condoms, and human feces. Speaking for myself (since I have a bit of experience doing this sort of thing at Trillium Park and MOP, though David and Sharon bear the brunt), it makes me feel vulnerable and insecure, and then armoured and indifferent, when these spaces that I use and enjoy and take care of are defiled in these ways. I know that the folks who are doing it are usually hanging on by a thread…. but if they can’t even be bothered to pick up their needles and find somewhere else to empty their bowels than on a kids’ playground, where is the capacity for care and compassion for themselves that they’ll need to turn things around? There are folks who do take care, and since nighttime occupation is pretty much inevitable, Ronnie tries to remind folks of the kids’ needs and make those who are tidy and respectful feel welcome. As Ronnie said, it’s got to happen somewhere… but since some people don’t clean up after themselves, so that there have to be two extra morning staff just to do the cleanup rounds… that’s a drag.

So Ronnie and Huyanne talked about the need to animate the outdoor spaces with the relationships that are there during the day, things that children find engaging but adults less so, like murals based on children’s art. Sometimes the armoured feeling becomes embodied in bland, hard-wearing, institutional design; but the anonymity and unwelcoming look can reduce traffic of a loving and enjoying kind, and make the disrespect of the space worse. It’s a fine line, for sure.

January 24 I did some research about best practices for outdoor spaces. I already knew that sight lines are important; but my research emphasized that visual richness and mixes of user groups are really important for making the space more inviting and discouraging illicit use.

January 25 I went down to the Youth Lounge to meet with Gabe Dennis. It was a party in there! Not the kind of energy that makes artwork, but a good time to let loose a bit after the week is over, play and be social. Gabe thought Saturday would be a better day for workshops, and he seemed pretty excited when I told him about my friend Alex, who’s worked in photography– ” youth and photography is a no-brainer. [They already all have smartphones]. It doesn’t take much for them to turn the lens around.”

Gabe requested 3-4 projects over the course of the year, always with the same 1 or 2 artists. He stressed the importance of relationship in being with the youth.

January 29 I popped into the centre and ended up having a fascinating talk with Jeremy, the recreation programmer. Jeremy is in charge of the paid program offerings and really wants to see the arts programming built up over time. He noted that the Roundhouse is famous for its really forward-thinking and rich arts programme. Here in Strathcona, he told me, the focus for a long time has been in raising people up, especially families in crisis or new Canadians trying to adjust to the disruption and fragmentation of life in a new culture. As the neighbourhood is changing, he sees an opportunity to create recreation programming that speaks to established households and the enriching artistic flavour of the neighbourhood, beyond being just the nearest place to work out at the fitness centre. Strathcona has an extremely high index of magic and per capita rate of amazing artistic types, and Jeremy would like to see more of those aspirational qualities embedded in the centre’s programming. He noted that new paid programs such as embroidery and cedar weaving have sold out, with wait lists.

Another point he brought up is meeting the needs of Urban Indigenous folks — 70% of Strathcona actually speaks English as a first language, he tells me (in contrast to its reputation as a place of Chinese speakers, which is better deserved now by a centre such as Marpole); and the centre is working on how they can better reflect the arts and recreation needs and interests of Strathcona’s diverse and numerous Urban Indigenous population.

January 31 My first day visiting Strathcona’s Breakfast Program! This was an education, wow. The coordinator, Jane, has been in her role for 22 years. She told me that the program was started 30 years ago by a person who was a third generation resident of Strathcona, whose house stood where the staff parking is now.

Jane called the Breakfast Program a “dynamic” program, and explained that this means that as little is done for the participants as possible; the expectation is that participants take ownership. She emphasized that this is not a charity model.

It’s different from a school program because children can bring their family members, self-defined — aunts, cousins, older or younger siblings — everyone may be served. Support staff from the school come in and place take-out orders. The program also runs during school day camp sessions.

The program is staffed by a team of adult volunteers who make a minimum one year commitment, and school kids called “Breakfast Buddies” who volunteer one shift per week. Jane told me that the longest serving volunteer has been coming every day for 18 years, and now has one child about to graduate and another already at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Jane runs it like a sports team, coaching and mentoring.

Jane told me that the Breakfast Program won a Queen’s Jubilee Medal for its programming. She’s proud that the program creates a safe place for families to land each morning, consistency and the reassurance of the same faces.

I had breakfast and chatted with some of the regulars. One person put out bread bags on each of the tables and someone explained to me that the bags are for collecting for scraps for compost — she has a really amazing garden.

After breakfast I stayed to talk to Huyanne, the food security coordinator, who was a Strathcona resident as a child and went to Strathcona Elementary (which is amazing, to meet someone in Vancouver who lives and works in the same place they grew up) and filled me in on some of the other food-related programs at the centre: Cooking Fun for Families, another long-running (25yrs+!) grassroots program; community kitchen programs, cooking for kids programs, backpack program (a Friday afternoon mini market). Huyanne talked about her vision of the community centre as safe and welcoming “third place” (not home, not school, and not the street either) where kids and families can come. She talked about some of the challenges faced by folks in the community when they’re struggling to meet their basic needs — how both time and money become precious, people uncomfortable taking time to do things for themselves, especially if they have limited or no childcare, kids not signing up for free afterschool enrichment programs for fear of missing snack time at their regular out of school care. Huyanne strives for an “active allyship” approach, offering the pleasant aspect of someone’s day, a chance for them to suspend or alleviate anxieties for a moment to be able to orient towards some goals, building their sense of agency rather than offering a convenient handout.

I must, for a moment, suspend my own survival dance, to consider and imagine the direction my heart charts into the future.