This month we feature the Our Park Project.
Our Park is a Vancouver-based community arts and peer support outreach project funded through the Community Wellness and Harm Reduction Grants. It is made up of a coalition including: Vancouver Park Board, Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, Vancouver Coastal Health and the City of Vancouver, working with cultural and peer support organizations in the Andy Livingstone area, as well as park neighbours, including those who use drugs and are precariously housed, local residents, and school families.
Read the team’s Q&A below!
1. What is the “Our Park” project?
Through community-engaged arts, building skills and capacity in peer outreach work, and increasing awareness of and access to harm reduction resources and information, Our Park Project aims to reduce stigma related to substance use and to support neighbourhood resilience in the communities that use Andy Livingstone Park. The neighbourhood around Andy Livingstone Park has seen incredible change in the past 5 years, including a new elementary school and a dense cluster of contemporary high-rise condo towers. As one of the only accessible open green spaces in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, it is also a place where drinking and drug use happens, and has been impacted by the overdose crisis. The Our Park Project intends to build peer outreach services, provide consistent resources across communities of use, and bridge the groups who use the Park with a street level community-engaged arts project. All of this work includes people who use drugs and are precariously housed, local residents, school families, and community-based organizations.
2. How has COVID-19 shifted your priorities or approach to this work?
COVID 19 has only has highlighted the importance of equitable access to public space, and reminded us that we need to work collaboratively to move the project forward. Our challenges have included communications and the inability to gather, as well as the difficulty of undertaking ‘place-based’ work outdoors in a public park, during a pandemic and seasons of inclement weather. We are aware of the heightened tension of mixed messaging when COVID safety sometimes butts up against what we know makes sense in a harm reduction context for the overdose crisis. There is a critical necessity for people to stay physically separate while somehow staying connected to friends, loved ones, information and services including using drugs safely. We are in this work for the long haul. The peer support work of WAHRS, the intense and changing make up of the neighbourhood, the daily impacts of the overdose crisis – all of this was here before COVID 19. Perhaps with the COVID reality comes an invitation to move more slowly but with more depth. Together we are learning, where possible, to let the process drive the timeline rather than the reverse.
3. In recent months, encampments and use of public park space have been the focus of negative attention in the media and public forums, in Vancouver and across the province. How does this impact your work, and how does “Our Park” hope to shift the narrative?
With so much negative and polarized attention unfolding in the media and in public forums, it is an important goal of the Our Parks Project to accomplish nuanced conversations, and work toward mutual understandings among individuals. We will work to counter negativity with creativity, compassion, and practical resources and information that enable resilience. We are grateful for the long and consistent experience and knowledge of our colleagues at WAHRS, who keep working when the spotlight is on and when it shifts away, as they did at Oppenheimer Park, with commitment and dedication. Concrete information and necessary support on testing, housing, showers, food will go hand in hand with an arts project that introduces the neighbourhood to its own multifaceted community.
4. This project has consciously chosen to work closely with community members who are artists. What do artists bring to the table that makes them ideal for this partnership? How can art help to build and strengthen communities?
Community cultural development practices – literally building community by enabling people to make art together – have a strong track record. The arts are a way to come to know and share what people think, feel and imagine about ourselves, our communities, our histories, our futures. When artists make art in and with community, connection, trust and skill building enable social, mental and physical health, and more. Working with artists, folks come to know each other and our places and spaces in different ways.
The arts and anti-stigma work we propose will enable learning and emergent expertise that is not ‘top down’ to come to the fore through interpersonal, creative reflection and action, supporting a broad range of knowledge systems and experiences through a strengths-based approach. Community members become creators, producers, performers, and activated audiences, sharing the many skills they already have as they make and share work exploring the things that matter to them. We will enable DTES artists with financial support and presentation opportunities for their personal art practices as well as participation in an overarching community-engaged arts project – e.g. collaboratively developed storytelling, theatre, video, etc.
5. We obviously cannot foretell the future, but we can be hopeful about what it may bring. What do you hope is in the future for this project?
We intend to create a lasting legacy of community support, understanding, communication and resilience across the neighbours and community members with diverse lived and living experience who share Andy Livingstone Park – that the park be a place that represents safety and inclusion for all, where folks who need additional supports are provided those in a dignified manner. In addition, we intend to use the salient learnings from the Our Park Project to help inform future initiatives and park activations to be place based and people centered.