Discernment Day: Priorities for collective action
By Elisabeth Hazell, Manager of Donor Engagement
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Greater Victoria Acting Together (GVAT), Sierra Club BC is one of 21 dues-paying member organizations that make up this broad coalition. We represent a diverse cross-section of society and our fellow members are comprised of faith groups, unions, nonprofits, charities and community organizations.
Our method of organizing is via “listening campaigns” where we build strength in our own organizations through listening to each other and collecting powerful stories that can help shape the priorities for the larger coalition.
Beginning this summer and continuing through the fall, I personally hosted multiple potluck parties and listened to nearly 100 Sierra Club BC members, including most of our staff. We asked each other four things in order to gather information about what is genuinely going on in our lives:
- What do you value most about your life right now?
- What are the most pressing challenges facing you and your loved ones?
- Can you share a personal story about a specific memory you have about a time when you recognized or identified with the values that Sierra Club BC represents?
- What issues do you think you would have energy to work on if GVAT were to decide they were a priority?
After listening to many of you, these were the broad themes that I heard:
- You value your health, your friends and family, the access to the natural world available here, and the freedom and quality of life that comes with living in Canada and on the island.
- Many of you expressed deep concern about climate change and a sense of climate grief or stress. Many also expressed concerns about affordability and housing; racial, social and economic inequality; a spiritual disconnection from nature and each other; and challenges with health and family.
- I heard many stories about developing a strong connection to nature as a child, stories of grief and loss over favourite wild spaces, and feelings of awe and wonder at the universe and humanity’s relationship to it.
- The issues you felt like you could get behind were: climate change and related areas like transit, the urban canopy, renewable energy, and also affordability, inequality, spiritual disconnection and reconnection to nature.
On November 18, 2018 we gathered at the Cadboro Bay United Church to share what we had heard with each other and to vote on which two issues GVAT will collectively tackle together.
A video from Discernment Day. At 4:45, Elisabeth and Judy Lightwater share the stage.
The experience was incredibly emotional and powerful. The afternoon was spent listening to each other’s stories and building personal connections to individuals across a broad spectrum of society.
Six issues were brought forth to be voted upon. The top two issues – that all GVAT member organizations could get behind – clearly emerged as Mental Health/Addictions and Housing.
It had been pre-agreed by GVAT that whichever issues we tackle, they must hold the same two lenses that Sierra Club BC has adopted for our own work: a climate lens and an Indigenous reconciliation lens. This means that whatever solutions we propose to these problems, they must also address the issues of climate change and reconciliation.
When the voting was done, the individuals who had voted for climate change as their primary concern were clearly upset. For many “environmentalists,” this felt like the first opportunity they had ever been given to “reach beyond the choir” and to have the support of unions, churches, and social service organizations join the call for urgent climate action. The conversation immediately turned to asking if we could tackle climate change directly as a third issue. However, for the sake of unity and strength, it was agreed that we could not take this approach, but should instead commit to tackling one of the two issues in a manner that addresses climate change. (And in the future, GVAT may choose climate change as a top priority itself).
The next phase of action for GVAT is the research phase. I personally made a commitment to volunteer on the Action Research Team for mental health and addictions. I chose to volunteer my time here partly because of my personal experience with mental health and addiction, partly because I see society’s disconnection from nature as a contributing cause of mental health and addiction issues, and partly because I also see reconnection to nature as a solution/prevention for both mental health and the climate crisis. It has been said that the climate crisis is itself the manifestation of a deep spiritual malady, and I am personally very committed to exploring the intersection of these two issues.
However, after we ended the session, I was approached by a number of members who were clearly dissatisfied and wanted to do more. It is clear that Sierra Club BC has an amazing opportunity to engage not just with GVAT, but directly with these other member organizations who self-identified climate change as a priority for their members. These members are: BCGEU, Sisters of St. Ann, Camosun College Students Society, First Unitarian Church of Victoria, Cadboro Bay United Church, Victoria Shambhala Centre, Holy Cross Catholic Church, Indigenous Perspectives Society, Congregation Emanu-el, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and St. John the Divine Anglican Church.
To address these concerns, I invited delegates from each of these organizations to meet at my house on December 12. Many of us reconvened along with a few Sierra Club BC members who wanted to join and we began with a go-around allowing everyone to share their feelings about the discernment day. The meeting was an opportunity to reflect on the value of GVAT and our role as members for whom climate change is the most critical issue. It became clear that the top priority is to support GVAT around the “climate lens” so that the broad coalition does not lose its strength.
It may also be possible for opportunities to surface such as sharing important information about the work that Sierra Club BC is doing with the other members of GVAT and that we may invite members of unions and faith groups to join our existing campaigns. Further, it was acknowledged that by supporting the issues of mental health and housing, we free up individuals who do not yet have the capacity to work on climate change because they are facing homelessness or addiction issues.
We agreed that we are all committed to the next phase of GVAT’s action, which is the research phase. Trainers from GVAT’s parent organization, the IAF, will come from Seattle in January and we all committed to attending one of the training sessions.
Additionally, areas of need that were identified were:
- Determining a way to better disseminate information across our networks such as a digital hub;
- Providing more opportunities for our members to network in person and build connections;
- Strengthening the core operations of GVAT through financial support and not overburdening our only employee, Lead Organizer Flossie Baker.
Unquestionably, the climate crisis will not be addressed by environmental organizations alone – we do not have the power to make such drastic changes. The GVAT model of organizing is designed to build exactly such power – moving only at the speed of trust by building personal connections across diverse constituencies.
It is my sincere aspiration that Sierra Club BC members will continue to attend and support GVAT in building its power and strength. I have found my experience with GVAT both personally enriching and professionally beneficial for Sierra Club BC. New leaders have surfaced from within our organization and new members have joined us. In 2019 I will actively seek opportunities to invite GVAT members to learn more about the incredibly important work that Sierra Club BC is doing, building both our individual strength, and that of our coalition.
– Elisabeth Hazell