Choosing to live sustainably shouldn’t be a privilege, and yet, too often, it is exactly that. In our desire to create communities that embrace all facets of sustainability (environmental, social, cultural and economic), we often overlook the barriers doing so has on underprivileged populations including seniors, persons with disabilities and those who are economically disadvantaged. Barriers to inclusive sustainability can include things such as walkable communities that are inaccessible for those with mobility issues, inadequate or non-existent affordable and accessible housing options, and increased costs of living related to the commercialization and rising popularity of sustainable living practices which were once more affordable, such as purchasing clothing and other items second-hand.
The gaps and inequalities sustainability can create for disadvantaged populations are well-documented, although not always at the forefront of public discourse. I spoke with experts about how sustainability planning and practices can negatively impact those from underprivileged populations, and how we can work towards finding solutions.
COVID-19 reveals an emerging underprivileged demographic in Revelstoke
There is no globally agreed upon definition of sustainability, but the most often quoted definition comes from the Bruntland Commission Report, published by the United Nations in 1987. The report defines sustainability as “development which fulfills the needs of the current generation without diminishing the chances of future generations.”
In many ways COVID-19 has exposed, underscored and elevated inequality, says Jill Zacharias, former city of Revelstoke social development coordinator and current BC Manager of Growth and Impact of the Cities Reducing Poverty Vibrant Communities at the Tamarack Institute. “Working in social development for so long there are certain buzzwords, ‘social inclusion’, ‘community participation’ all these things. The pandemic has shown what it means to be socially included and what constitutes that. What are the structural inefficiencies and inequalities both in the big picture and at a community level.”
Perhaps one of the most prevalent examples of this is the many businesses that began allowing employees to work remotely when government health officials shut down numerous businesses at the onset of the global pandemic. Prior to COVID, many disabled people capable of working, but unable to physically be in an office each day, sought accommodations that would allow them to work from home — a concession often denied by employers not already offering a remote work option.
While the move to online working is helpful in ensuring economic sustainability, Zacharias points out it isn’t without problems, especially for those living in poverty.
“Everything has pivoted online out of necessity and we’re incredibly fortunate we live in a time in history where that option even exists. But that option doesn’t exist for everybody. It’s complicated, it’s not a quick fix. You can give someone a laptop, but they might not have the money to pay for Internet access. You can give them a cellphone but they might not be able to afford the cost of data. You can give a family a laptop, but they might need three to function,” she says. “You need to be able to not only pay, but once you’re dependent on them you need to be able to replace them. Yes, there are lots of services and programs that can help you, but you need the relationship and the trust to be able to access those.”
Coupled with the need for a trusting relationship is knowing where and how to access services in the first place. A community well-being survey, conducted by the Revelstoke Recovery Task Force in the fall of 2020, found that 25.4 per cent of respondents reported they did not know where to access local support resources. The survey, which sought to capture information on the well-being of residents by assessing current and anticipated impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic over a nine-week time period from October 5 to December 10, 2020, focused on four key indicators: housing, employment, economics and mental health. While the report had yet to be officially released at the time of writing this story, a section of the executive summary shared with me notes “[T]he initial immediate recommendation is a collaborative and coordinated effort to enhance community mental health and well-being.” The survey data corroborates this recommendation with respondents ranking mental health and well-being, the highest community social priority.
The survey also unveiled an emerging vulnerable demographic: young adults working low-paying front-line jobs.
Zacharias points out while we most often think of front-line workers as nurses, doctors, home care and other health professionals, it also includes grocery store clerks, restaurant servers and people in the hospitality industry. “The lowest paid, highest risk [jobs] in our entire community. Many of those jobs are being given to youth,” she says. The community well-being survey found youth working low-paying front-line jobs were most impacted in terms of mental health and high risk housing situations.
“We can blame youth for having high infection rates, but youth are at highest risk of infection rates because of over-crowded housing and working at the highest risk positions,” says Zacharias.
To create inclusive sustainability we need to include a diverse cross-section of voices
To ensure sustainability planning and practices are truly inclusive there is a need to include a diverse cross-section of voices from across all demographics — people with disabilities, seniors, First Nations community members and those living in poverty — from the start. As Jewelles Smith, communications and government relations coordinator with Council of Canadians with Disabilities points out, “what will impact a blind woman is different than what will impact a person with [Multiple Sclerosis] who is a mother.”
To begin building relationships with vulnerable populations, Smith, a disabled woman who lived in Revelstoke for many years, says there is a need to look at who is already sitting at the table, identifying who is not there, and then looking for someone from that demographic to fill that spot.
“Be honest. Say, ‘We have totally ignored your population.’ Clearly tell someone, ‘We have realized we are missing voices at the table,’ and then listen to them. When you open the space up take the time to listen and be prepared to have your mind changed about things,” she says.
Taha Attiah, who recently replaced Zacharias as the city’s social development coordinator, says funding agencies are beginning to implement requirements for projects to include the voices of people with lived experience.
“I think that’s going to be a focus going forward,” says Attiah, who points out the work of Vibrant Revelstoke’s Collective Impact Initiative has helped in finding and bringing together diverse voices. Taking root during a 2019 community event that saw people with lived experience sharing their stories and brainstorming solutions with individuals from the business, government and non-profit sectors, Collective Impact continues to work on social and economic issues in the community through its various working groups and listening team. In addition to this work, Attiah says work is currently being done to update the city’s Poverty Reduction Plan.
“It’s key because poverty reduction does cut across so many of the groups that could be left out of sustainability planning.”
Ensuring all voices are identified, heard and included is incredibly important, but so is offering people confidential and safe options to share their stories and insight.
“People need to feel safe. The other thing about community engagement that’s critical is we have to show people their input is valued. There’s a difference between token engagement and meaningful engagement. We need the stories of what people are living to augment the cold data that might not describe the subtleties and nuances that are important,” says Zacharias. “If our ultimate goal over here is a sustainable community and we’ve got someone who has to use a wheelchair, what’s the path between this person and the end goal? How can we help people navigate that path on their terms?”
We can’t forgo inclusive sustainability just because the cost is higher
Disability and poverty are often inextricably woven together, and yet, when people from these communities vocalize the ways sustainability practices negatively impact their lives by creating economic or physical barriers they are constantly ignored. The movement to ban single-use plastic straws is a prime example of this, says Smith.
“[The ban] created was so exclusionary for persons with disabilities who need to use these. It was a moment of persons with disabilities clearly telling you this is a thing they need, and clearly they are just being ignored,” she says. “People with disabilities, we know we use some resources a lot to live. We know we are contributing to plastic use with things like colostomy bags and straws. People with disabilities think of these things and are aware of them.”
“Many persons with disabilities live in poverty and many sustainable movements make things more expensive. We need consideration of alternatives that are more affordable, or where the community bears the weight of the expense instead of the individual.”
Where inclusive sustainability planning typically falls apart is when those in charge of implementing the plan begin looking at the bottom line, says Smith.
“Don’t go through the whole process of finding ways to create accessible and sustainable communities and then decide not to because of cost savings,” she says. “When it’s more expensive to do it that way, it gets vetoed to save money and instead they create something inaccessible. When sustainability is a clear goal of an entire community, if there’s going to be a cost that shouldn’t be on the people in the furthest margins to come up with the money to participate.”
And yet, sometimes it isn’t money at all, but another barrier that can kill a project. A number of years ago Zacharias and a person who uses a wheelchair worked together to identify every business in Revelstoke with accessibility barriers. “It was probably close to 30 [businesses] at the time. That’s a lot,” says Zacharias. An attempt to get a community ramp project off the ground that would have seen businesses provided with portable ramps was stalled when it was determined a potential tripping hazard for able-bodied people outweighed the accessibility needs of disabled individuals.
“The project just died. There was no political buy-in. If a community ramp project is too much of a liability then what’s going to work? What would work?” Zacharias asks.
Here’s how we can leverage our own privilege to advocate for inclusive sustainability:
There’s an important distinction to be made between choice and necessity when it comes to understanding the privilege that exists in being able to fully practice sustainable living. There’s a markedly huge difference, for example, between someone living in a van as a lifestyle choice and a family living in an RV because they are unable to afford the cost of renting a house, apartment or basement suite. Beyond housing, being able to buy locally made products, grow your own food, purchase sustainably made household items and clothing all contain an element of privilege. It’s also important to acknowledge that someone can hold privilege in one area while being underprivileged in another area. And, as Zacharias notes, it’s important to realize privilege exists on the backs of the underprivileged: “there can’t be privileged unless the underprivileged exist.”
To be able to advocate for underprivileged populations, it’s important for people to have a relationship with someone who is different from them to functionally understand barriers, says Smith. How we present ideas and information to people is also crucial.
“I use socioeconomic status and difference instead of privilege. I frame things in a human rights way. We’re all citizens and we all have a human right to participate fully.”
For Attiah, when groups with privilege are aware of the influence they can hold, there is a responsibility to ensure communities are both inclusive and sustainable.
“I think we can do that by ensuring the voices of those with lived experience are brought forward and are supported to be brought forward.”
Sustainability projects and initiatives that are getting inclusion right:
North Vancouver supportive housing for women:
In January 2021, the BC government announced it would fully fund a new five-storey, 60-unit housing project for single women and women-led families who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness with rents set at current shelter rates for those living on assistance through the Ministry of Social Development. A one-bedroom unit will cost $375, a two-bedroom unit $570, a three-bedroom unit $660 and a four-bedroom unit $700. The low-barrier housing will include staff onsite 24/7 to provide a variety of supports from meal programs to employment skills training. Project funder BC Housing is currently engaged in community talks, while District of Vancouver staff are spearheading a necessary rezoning process. More information on the project can be found at letstalkhousingbc.ca.
BC Emergency Health Services video remote interpretation services
BC Paramedics now have on-demand access to certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. A first for Canada, paramedics are able to use an app to access certified ASL interpreters to allow real-time communication with Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing patients. The video remote interpreting services is a partnership of BC Emergency Health Services, the Provincial Language Service and the Office of Virtual Health.
City of Williams Lake Accessibility Award:
While not a sustainability project itself, the City of Williams Lake Accessibility Award provides an incentive to create a more accessible community. Open to individuals, businesses and organizations, the award acknowledges projects that help to improve quality of life for all disabled people by providing them the opportunity to fully participate in community life. An example of a winning project is an elevator St. Andrews Church built in order to increase accessibility at its two-storey location.