Friday, March 19, 2021

Goodbye Thunderbird Basketball Court

There is an outdoor basketball court on thunderbird boulevard, just a bit east of East Mall. It’s a well used court that brings members of the university community together in ways that few social amenities do. This future of the court is, however up in the air. A private business/university partnership plans to build a hydrogen gas station on top of the community basketball court. They would have done this with out much trouble except for a happy coincidence of social media interventions where students and residence called out the planners and reminded them of the history behind this special basketball court. 

The basketball court dates back before the UNA’s Old Barn Community Centre was built. The original plan for the community centre included a basketball court in front of it. Right where that court would have been is a popular children’s playground today. 

I was one of the community members on the planning committee along with folks from UBC Recreation, UBC Planning, and UBC Properties Trust (UBCPT). 

The head of UBCPT, along with other senior development and community folks, took issue with “ ghetto blasters and loitering youth” they thought a basketball court would bring. They strongly opposed any kind of ball court being built near the Old Barn Community Centre. For reference, the original ball court was not as ‘professional’ as the one we eventually got on Thunderbird, it was to be an undersized child friendly installation.  Consequently no ball park was included in the final community centre design that was built. But we did eventually get a ball court.

A group of community youth, including my sons (who were in elementary school at the time), organized a children’s petition. They lobbied hard to have a ball park established.  They attended public meetings, lobbied, and at the end of the day an arrangement was made to create a ball park across the street from the arena and Osborne were it is currently located.  The use of the ball court was even included into the storied Neighbours Agreement that regulates the relationship between UBC and the UNA.

The years pass and by accident we found out the ball court was to be torn down.  This all took place under cover of a pandemic. None of the planning documents made any significant reference to the hard work that went into establishing that ball court. Nor was there any recognition of how over the years that ball court has been a central gathering spot enhancing and contributing to community well being.

By accident, a confluence of UNA residents and students came together on social media to bring attention to the coming destruction of the ball court. Within a few days of the one and only public hearing on the issue a group of people were able to gather and argue for keeping the ball court. Sadly, the current court will still be destroyed by the hydrogen gas station. But, we actually did get a public commitment that a UNA acceptable replacement space will be found and that the old court will not be destroyed until the replacement court is up and running.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Meeting David Eby #BCNDP


One thing about living about living on campus is that it's not uncommon to run into one's local MLA. Gordon Campbell used to live down the block from me. I don't think Christy Clark was ever informally on campus. David Eby, even as Attorney General, is often out and about by himself or with his family.  It shows his connection and interest in the riding. I suspect it also reflects the material reality of living on campus.

This time David wasn't just out and about - he was on the campaign trail. While engaged in some household provisioning I had my chance to say hello to David while he was soliciting votes. I waited for an elder who was talking with him and then took my turn to say hello.

I've followed David's political career from around the time he tried to get a Vision nomination for city councillor. He failed (good thing for us in Van Pt Grey I say!). His work with the Pivot Legal Society made a mark on my memory. There are a lot of lawyers in politics, but few have worked with groups like Pivot. The type of politicians we get shows it.  I also had a chance to go to one of those little coffee meetings political party organizers like to set up - small, intimate gatherings to get a chance to know the candidate (maybe get some donations too).  A fellow parent activist from the early Gordon Campbell 'destroys public education' era invited me (thinking I might be interested - I was). In my roles at UBC (as a director of the UNA, 2012-2016; and Board of Governors, 2017-2020, among others) I have also had the chance to see David in action as MLA. I was impressed at the start and remain so to this day.  I'm less sanguine about the NDP. 

I've had a mixed relationship with the NDP. As a teenager in the '70s I door knocked for MLA Graham Lea. In the '80s I conceived of the NDP as the left wing of the ruling class (but nonetheless continued voting for them). In the 90s I slacked off the critique as they were the only show on the road - even served as a constituency executive in Van South and Pt Grey. By the 2000s it was clear that while flawed they were better than the anachronistically named provincial Liberal Party. I'd just about come to terms with their flaws. Then the police actions against the Wet'suwet'en land healers began last January.  

A group of students, some affiliated to UBC, occupied Eby's office on January 28, 2020 in a show of support for the Wet'suwet'en land healers. Before the occupation had really started the police were called and several students were arrested.  I had only just purchased an NDP membership and had been in the process of reaching out to the local constituency office to see how I could get more involved.  But that act by the NDP, clearly supported by David Eby, was an act of overt and unnecessary aggression. When faced with a similar occupation and huger strike at UBC, President Ono and members of his executive reached out to the students, visited them, offered moral support, but didn't call in the police. I've seen right wing politicians in BC have greater tolerance of having their offices occupied then did Eby's staff.  But that action reflected and reinforced the action the NDP were taking with regard Indigenous rights and title versus industrial development in BC. It was one of those moments in a life when we make changes and that action led me to revoking my new membership in the NDP. 

So here I am on a sunny Monday afternoon speaking with David Eby in Wesbrook Village on campus. We know each other, we are cordial. I say how much I appreciate the work he does individually as an MLA. I say that I will be voting for him. But then I pause. He is thanking me for my support. I don't really support you and the NDP at this time. I feel compelled to explain that while I am voting for him, it is not becuase I can honestly agree with or support the party he represents. I can see him stiffen up a bit. I can sense the slight defensiveness. I try to shift a bit to the positive, but then get drawn back to the way the COVID-19 plan is causing stress and mayhem for teachers that I know.  He suggests it will be to their detriment if they stay home or vote for someone other than the NDP. I'm inclined to agree, but I don't share that thought with him. We stand there silent for the moment. He glances at his watch. I wonder why one feels compelled to share our disagreements with our elected politicians.  I thank him for his time and say again how much I have appreciated his work as an MLA and say my goodbyes.

As I walk home across the UBC athletic fields I wonder about that desire we have to tell our politicians what we think of them and their work. I've had similar experiences running for local level political office where people will say they're voting for me but then explain the particulars of where I've gotten things wrong. I'm not thinking about that nasty online stuff where people act like verbal hooligans.  That is something totally different.  I mean like the elder who was speaking to David before me. Or my own need to say that just because I was voting for him didn't mean I actually was supporting him and his party. I suspect there are a good many among us who have found themselves in that kind of situation - meeting a politician of some sort, being pleased to meet them, and saying hello, and then adding in that extra share on how we think they could do better.

There's a part of me that rather wishes I'd simply said to David, "nice to see you. You can count on my vote" and then left it at that.  Yet, and maybe this is the point, that simple sentiment feels dishonest to me. Yes I am voting for David (and would urge all of you to do the same), but I'm not doing it wholeheartedly. I am doing it with reservation. Even though the final vote tally won't be broken down into 'really loved the guy,' 'lukewarm,' 'hates his guts but voted for him anyway,' and thus it matters little why we came to our final decision, there is still something in all of us I think that feels it important to explain our misgivings and conditions; even if they don't matter at the final count.  

So in this election I'll be voting for David Eby, reservations and all.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Flame-out of the BC EcoSocialists

Barely on the scene for a year it looks like the party that was the BC Ecosocialists may have run it's course. Last fall when news of the party started popping up on social media (Like Geoff Berner's piece or Charlie Smith's in The Straight) it caught my eye as an interesting project. Here was a group of erstwhile socialists claiming to be real socialists and trying to establish themselves as a legitimate electoral party. It looked interesting.

Not until David Eby called the police on student protesters at his office in late January did I start to think seriously about the BC Ecosocialists as more than a novelty item on the news. Ironically, I had only recently rejoined the NDP. But the use of police to remove and arrest peaceful youth protesters in the context of the NDP's continued repudiation of Indigenous rights in favour of the petroleum industry led me to rescind my membership in the NDP.  In this context the ecosocialists seemed like an interesting possibility. Shortly thereafter I sent in $5 and became a member.

Between February and June I essentially heard nothing. Then I received a cheery message from the organizing chair of the party telling me that I was now the rep for Vancouver-West.  That was a step up, but likely the result of a lack of people able to volunteer.  It seemed like an opportunity to get one's feet wet at the ground level and maybe make a real change at the same time. But I wasn't able to actually participate in a meeting of the party until late August.  

By the time August rolled around it really seems like things were falling apart.  The first meeting I made it to followed close on the heels of what had been by all accounts been an angry exchange  transgressing all kinds of social norms. Several resignations followed. I think I should have packed up right then and there - yet I still felt there seemed to be something in the idea of the party that was remained attractive.  I was even considering running as a candidate (luckily a good friend told me to focus on the important things and I stopped the campaign before I began).

Then the acting party leader got themselves into a facebook comment fight that changed the debate from principles to people. Their intervention seemed gratuitous at the time and, after the fact, even more so.  It unleashed a storm of personal attacks (in multiple directions), the classic tactic of capitalist liberalism. It was becoming clear to me that the politics of the ecosocialist milieu was less a kind of socialism based on materialist conceptions of society and more of a left cultural politics.

One of the strengths of an historical materialist approach is that it focuses on social processes, structures of power, and how to change them. Capitalist liberalism (and, it seems, left cultural politics) is all about individuals, choice, agency, and ego.  

Once the terrain of discussion around the BC Ecosocialists shifted there was no going back - for the limited social milieu surrounding the BC Ecosocialists it had all become about the acting leader (it mattered little whether they resigned or not).  I read over some of the social media feeds that I could see - it was not pretty.  It was aggressive, unrelenting, and clearly a simple resignation by the acting leader would not placate the criticism. There was a demand for a kind of collective debasement of all involved one way or another. 

Meanwhile the search for a permanent party leader had been continuing. Someone was identified, they said yes, and were ready to run in the election. It looked like things were moving back toward principles. But here is where I think the ideas of what constitutes leadership should have been better thought out. It became apparent to me that despite the socialist ideals of collective leadership that would deemphasis cults of the personal, both the former acting leader and the potential permanent leader had operated in ways that drew heavily upon their own personal sense of 'brand' and the associated idea that leaders lead by acting and informing rather than following, facilitating, and collaborating as equals.

The new leader brought a document to the party to send out as a press release. It began by apologizing for the words of the former acting leader. It then continued to lay out and explicate the party's policies, intentions, and practices on policy development. An email just before the start of the meeting was the first time some of the meeting attendees had seen or heard about such a document.  Revisions were requested. Commitments were made to work out a revision and by late in the evening a new document was received. Personally I thought the revised document was tighter, clearer, and addressed principles more effectively than the original draft.  But it went no where. The next day I learned via social media that the person who was to be the new leader had withdrawn from the election and had changed their mind about being party leader. 

That was it for me.  I took my leave of the party the next day.

It's been an interesting journey into not quite fringe politics. I have spent a lot of time working with extraparliamentary left groupings, have moved in and out of the NDP (even serving on a riding association executive for a number of years), but this was the first time in a startup political edge group.  The idea had possibility. It still does.  There are some things that I think need to be changed. Primarily among these is finding a way to allow difference and dissent within left cultural politics in ways that avoid  personalizing or moralizing differences into a hierarchy of values. 

Left cultural politics is currently structured through a set of beliefs that ascribe priority to experiences and feelings of particular types of systemic and personal discrimination and prejudice. That is, given one's subjective location (defined by race, sexuality, gender, etc), one accumulates certain types of experience. These experiences structure how one feels and moves through society. This is popularly referenced as intersectionality. This approach is further entangled by popular notions of psychology that emphasizes ego's perspective - that is, if I feel something my interpretation of why and who/what is at fault is unquestionable: that is "If I feel poorly, I have been hurt, and to cause me hurt is a serious affront." In this context it's pretty difficult to engage in  discourse outside the parameters of the belief system. 

A dissenter is framed, not simply as disagreeing with a principle, but rather their disagreement is seen a repudiation of a person or a class of person.  There is no space for dissent beyond orthodoxy in this formulation. This would be (sort of) fine if the underlying beliefs and values were static, but they are not - they change over time, they change in relation to the subjective identities of participants,  and they change depending upon the specific individuals engaged.  Thus, and despite all the talk about feelings and appreciation of difference, there is no room for intellectual variation beyond a narrow band.

Of course there are somethings that don't require theories or elaborate principles, they are just good sense. For example there is no need to provoke people.  Some issues -like treating all people as people- aren't really debatable.  A lot of the mess created by the well intentioned people who created the ecosocialist party could have been avoided if they and their allies had placed a politics of care front and center ahead of a politics of power and the personal. But that is easy to say from the margins and as a latecomer.

Hopefully there will come a time when we have a real socialist party -able, willing, and popularly supported- ready to make real change. In the meantime I'll continue doing what I have always done - working in my place of work, my neighbourhood, and my community of origin to make the little changes that might make our world better.