Van4Acumen’s journey to implement the Blue Sweater Challenge

Part 1: Listen. Listen. Listen.

‘Jacqueline’s dream would be to see the Blue Sweater Challenge taken chapter-wide.’ said Jo-Ann Tan, our direct contact at Acumen Fund HQ, who has become a friend, mentor and inspiration to me and chapter leaders around the globe.

And that’s how Vancouver for Acumen started thinking about how we could make Acumen Fund’s dream a reality.

The Blue Sweater Challenge was a business plan competition held in Kibera, Nairobi; a challenge to individuals and groups to create change in their community. In true Acumen-style, the winners were given one-year loans instead of grants and charged a nominal interest rate to start their business ideas.

When Jo-Ann first proposed that our chapter implement the challenge, my first reaction was, ‘What could Vancouver and Nairobi possibly have in common?’. But after giving it some more thought, I started to see the similarities between Kibera, Africa’s infamous slum, and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), a neighborhood known as Canada’s poorest postal code.

In line with the increased talk of the growing divide between rich and poor in developing countries, Vancouver is no exception. Walking down the infamous East Hastings Street, one would never guess that Vancouver tops the list of best places in the world to live year after year.

Similarly, just as we hear example after example of ‘the West’ imposing solutions that better ‘the Rest’, Vancouver is no different. One of the key issues on the DTES is the lack of affordable housing in the area, yet developers insist that the only way to improve the lives of the residents in this area is to develop housing that includes a good ‘social mix’ of regular and affordable housing. Although this strategy may have the best of intentions, it is only increasing gentrification and pushing those they are trying to ‘help’ out of their communities.

Although Kibera and the DTES and their respective residents differ in many fundamental ways such as geography, political justice, issues of religion, class, substance abuse and immigration, I think the starkest similarity between these communities is the single story that we insist on telling about them; one of hopelessness; people who are poor and not much else.

It was this story that convinced us that the Blue Sweater Challenge could and should be replicated in Vancouver by our chapter.

But before we could push forward we agreed we needed to educate ourselves about our own community, we needed to listen before we could take action. So we gave ourselves a month to do our due diligence and meet with business owners, NGOs and residents of the DTES.

We came together last week to share our findings.

Chapter members, Mark and Marica took a walking tour of the area stopping into a bodega on Main and Hastings Street, the heart of the DTES, to speak with its owner, Ronnie. He had owned the store for seven years and knew everyone. He explained the ecosystem of running a business and the tacit agreement with the drug dealers and prostitutes that work the front of his store. As long as they didn’t steal from him, he would continue to allow them to solicit to passers by. There was a mutual respect, an unofficial Chamber of Commerce if you will. But perhaps, this is just reinforcing the single story that exists of the area.

As part of my research, myself and chapter member, Carla Culos, attended the launch of the DTES Business Improvement Association (B.I.A). Hosted at the iconic and recently refurbished Save-On-Meats, a social enterprise in the heart of the neighborhood which aims to serve low-income people in the DTES. The plans for the B.I.A. are ambitious. Their first project, DTES kitchen tables will deliver local, fresh and nutritious food to residents in a dignified manner. With influential people in attendance including Gregor Robertson, Vancouver’s socially minded mayor and senior management from Vancity, a credit union that specializes in financing social enterprises, it was clear that the support for a new way of doing business is strong.

We’re still unsure how the Blue Sweater Challenge is going to manifest itself. Despite our research, we know we are still outsiders to this historic neighborhood. Our next step is to find the right partner to ensure whatever we deliver has a long and lasting impact. Stay tuned for Part 2…

Aki Kaltenbach | @akikaltenbach

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About Vancouver for Acumen

A Vancouver volunteer-run chapter of the Acumen Fund, who is a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty.
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