Reflections on the SFU Community Economic Development Program

By Kristina Roberts

I recently completed the professional certificate program in Community Economic Development (CED) through Simon Fraser University. I initially applied for this program because I wanted to gain a deeper perspective to bring to my work here at JS Daw & Associates. I wanted to see how actions taken at the grassroots level might align with the CSR and community initiatives of our clients. Over the past five months, I have learned a lot and had a really awesome experience. I hope to share some of my learning with you!

What is CED and Why is it Important?
In modern western society, we are conditioned to believe that competition for money, financial status and material goods can fulfill our need for meaning, purpose, and relationships. Capitalism has transformed many of our relationships into services and our natural resources into products. The missing connections to nature and a sense of community have created an emotional void that people feel can only be filled through consumption. The insatiable needs and wants of consumers lead to economic growth. Economic growth has been deemed as necessary – if the economy isn’t growing, it’s dying. But economic growth isn’t always the wonderful phenomenon it’s made out to be. As the economy grows and the GDP increases, it directly correlates to an increase in environmental damage and social inequity. Why must there be a trade-off between economic prosperity and environmental/social well-being? Why does this need to be an ultimatum?

Perhaps one answer to this conundrum could be CED, which I’ve come to understand as: the ways in which we can restructure our relationships with each other and nature in order to secure long-term well-being and a sustainable future.

What are we trying to achieve?
Our economic system needs to be integrated into Earth’s natural systems and consumption levels need to come into alignment with the generative capacity of the planet. In order to obtain a sustainable economic system, positive economic outcomes must not undermine the ecological and social systems upon which society is dependent.
From the standpoint of the current system we are operating in, this sounds like a utopian fantasy. However, in the Community Economic Development program we were given a story of hope. We met allies and saw that real progress is being made.

Practical Action: What can be done?
Michael Schuman, author of Local Dollars Local Sense, taught us that building a resilient economy was all about becoming as self-reliant as possible and maximizing the number of local jobs. He outlined the myriad of environmental and community benefits that stem from localizing the economy, such as reduced carbon emissions from transportation and increased support for local charities and events. What’s more, there is a multiplier effect — buying local keeps four times the amount of money circulating in the local economy.

In Brian Smith’s class (Executive Director of Community Futures, Sunshine Coast) we learned about social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. This new organizational model is blurring the traditional boundaries between the business and nonprofit sectors, and combining the best of both worlds. Collectively, our society is slowly moving toward the realization that the only legitimate purpose of any human institution – whether business, government, or nonprofit – should be to contribute to the long-term well-being of people and the planet.

As part of the CED program, we had the opportunity to tour several social enterprises in and around Vancouver’s downtown eastside. While spending a week immersed in Canada’s most impoverished neighborhood was both eye-opening and unsettling, I was inspired by the innovative work that is being done by enterprises such as Potluck Café, Save-on-Meats and Swachay’s Lodge.

As a capstone project, during the final intensive week of the program, we participated in a Social Innovation Challenge. With a 90 second limit, students in the class pitched ideas for projects that improved the local economy and/or were focussed on triple bottom line outcomes (social, environmental, economic). We narrowed down the projects through a process of rapid prototyping, project design and community mobilization. At the end of the “collab-etition”, four teams shared a $25,000 prize donated by the Dragonfly Fund at Tides Canada. The four successful projects were:

  •  A matched-savings program for entrepreneurs, which encourages them to save $70 per month for a year, which will then be matched 3:1. At the end of the 12 months, they would have $3,360 in start-up capital (Courtney Hare with Momentum).
  • A co-operative that allows seniors to remain in their own homes. The proposed co-op will ‘seniorize’ and build a secondary suite for existing home-owners allowing seniors to age-in-place (Lindsay Lunhau.)
  • Converting Our Community Bikes‘ free bikes program into a more robust program that reaches more users and creates more socio-economic benefits to the end-users (Lauren Warbeck with Our Community Bikes.)
  • Calgary’s first tool-lending library, which already has 50 subscribers and over 300 supporters (Carolyn Davis)

The experience of condensing a well-researched, complicated idea into a 90 second pitch was very challenging, nerve wracking, and steeped with valuable learning. Many of the projects pitched contained elements of the sharing economy and circular economy – demonstrating how versatile and promising these new economic models can be.

Final Thoughts
Working on strategic plans for community engagement and partnership development at the organizational level can sometimes cause me to lose sight of the more human element of this work. Every individual in the program (as in life) had their own story and had overcome their own unique challenges. After 5 months in the program together, everyone felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable and authentic. This program served as a really good reminder that our economy is made up of real people.

I would highly recommend this program to anyone who wants to explore the alternatives to the dominant systems at work in our society, and the narrowly defined roles of our institutions. Exploring and testing out these alternatives is becoming increasingly critical. As our instructor for “Sustainability of People, the Planet and Places”, Sean Markey advised: if we’re going achieve a sustainable and equitable world with 8.2 billion people, we’re going to have to get weird.