This might be a bit of a heavy read, and it’s a bit rambly about all the challenges we’re facing. But there is some practical inspiration and hope at the end of the post. Feel free to skip right to that section if you don’t want a re-hash of everything that is wrong with the world right now.
It feels as if the world came apart at the seams this summer. I read CBC news every day, both BC and national. I also scan the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. I read for information, but also for the metanarrative – what’s going on in the really big picture? How do all these headlines and stories fit together?
I wonder if others also see how bad things actually are and how all the problems we’re facing as a human society are interconnected, or at the very least related. The climate crisis. The housing crisis. The labour shortage. Worker burnout. Racism and colonialism. And more.
The pandemic and climate change are the most obvious. BC’s State of Emergency finally came to an end after 16 months and then, weeks later, BC was in another State of Emergency because of the wildfires. Is the new normal a State of Emergency? This is a real question.
In the interior, last summer’s tourist season was ravaged by COVID-19. This summer it’s COVID-19 and climate change. And nurses in the interior (and elsewhere) are quitting their jobs because of the stress and continuous state-of-emergency conditions. In Alberta, nurses are being forced to work overtime to deal with a rise in COVID-19 cases. Nurses and doctors are exhausted. Firefighters are exhausted. What if everyone just gets too tired? Who will take care of us then? Who will back fill?
Our population growth via immigration has stalled because of COVID-19, but even when we begin to welcome newcomers again, where will they live? Canada has one of the worst housing supply situations of any OECD country. So even if we let immigrants in by the thousands to fill the massive labour gap that we are facing in many industries and professions, there are no homes for them. There isn’t currently enough housing in the country, province or city for people who are already here.
In Victoria last summer, we also felt the negative effects of COVID-19. Those without homes and living in poverty experienced the giant gaps in the social safety net and ended up living in parks. And we also experienced a lack of tourist travel which had negative impacts on our local businesses.
This summer, tourists are flocking to Victoria rather than to other parts of the province that are too smokey. Our restaurant staff are so stressed as there aren’t enough workers to cover shifts; they’re often working shorthanded, or many are new and being trained all at once. Last year, restaurants had limited capacity because of COVID-19. This year some have limited capacity because of lack of staff; they have to close on certain days or cut hours. Everyone is hiring but no one can find enough workers. Why? Because the workers can’t find housing that is affordable, and, in many cases, they can’t find any housing at all, even if they make a really decent salary.
A friend told me over dinner recently that a few years ago, BC Assessment began to assesses the value of multi-unit residential rental properties differently and that rental buildings are now being valued at the income that they could be earning rather than the income that they are earning.
What this means is that even if a building owner is charging tenants rents that are below market, their buildings are now assessed / valued at how much they would be worth if they were charging market rents. For example, if a building owner has tenants that have lived in a building for a long time and are paying less than what they would if they moved in today, or if a building owner supports a single mom with kids by giving her a break on rent, their buildings are still valued at the maximum rents they are able to charge. They are penalized for providing below-market housing.
How is having a building that is “worth more” a penalty? Because as the assessed value of a building goes up, this means property taxes for that building go up and the below market rents can’t cover the property taxes. My friend tells me that some of his friends – long-time building owners – are putting their buildings on the market because they can’t afford to keep them more affordable.
These buildings are being snapped up by Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), the mandate of which is to deliver as high as possible rate of return to their investors. Some of the investors in REITs are public sector pension corps. We want teachers and nurses and city workers to have good pensions; but we also want them to be able to afford housing now.
We also want our small local businesses to survive and thrive coming out of the pandemic. And yet, Amazon is opening a distribution centre near the airport to distribute Amazon goods up and down Vancouver Island. When our small businesses are still struggling.
Housing shortage. Labour shortage. Exhausted workers on the front lines. Housing crisis. Pandemic that looks like it’s here to stay. And climate change wreaking havoc. Something’s going to give. Something is giving. The world is breaking apart at the seams.
What do we do? Do we become bystanders? No. What is my role? As a human? As mayor? It’s exhausting sometimes when every decision that is good for the climate crisis or for the housing crisis feels like a giant fight. Think the Richardson Street bike corridor. Think the proposed rental building at 1475 Fort Street, sent back to staff for a third time rather than moving forward to create new housing.
Is this a blog post or a journal entry?
I thought this morning that maybe it’s a culmination of feelings built up over a few days of summer holiday reflection. It’s the same way I felt sometimes as a teenager – despair that we humans were destroying the planet and no one was really doing anything about it. I rode my bike and took the bus to school and became a vegetarian for a time. I did my best, but it didn’t really matter, because look at how the adults were treating the planet.
Now I’m an adult with an eighteen-year-old in my life who feels much the same was as I did. What are we doing as adults?
We can’t house people. We can’t properly care for people with mental health and substance use challenges; the latter are dying in larger numbers than people are dying of COVID-19. We can’t provide our essential workers with any relief as we lurch from State of Emergency to State of Emergency. We can’t adequately or quickly enough address systemic racism, the ongoing impacts of colonialism and the grief of residential school survivors and the families of those who never came home. We want to save the old growth forests, but we still fly to Mexico for vacation.
All of this while the province literally burns down around us.
Despair. Fear. Disconnection.
But thankfully, this isn’t all.
I’ve spent the last few months reading Margaret Wheatley’s, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Almost every page has a folded corner. It’s from 2005. I bet her 2017 book, Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, has more recent insight for the even more precarious and uncertain time we are in now.
But still, in Finding Our Way, she shares wisdom that I turn to in despair. Wisdom that offers a path forward through connection, love, and hope-through-shared-action.
There are three elements in the book that give me not only hope, but the ability to see more clearly and to act more deliberately, both as a human and as mayor.
Wheatley says that we need to become better systems thinkers, to “see a system and its web of connections.” How is climate change related to COVID-19 related to the housing crisis related to the worker shortage related to worker burnout related to racism and colonialism related to disconnection?
She suggests when we’re trying to make change, to start small, do something that makes a difference and see who notices. The point is to find the connections in the system that we don’t know are there. Wheately says that when we do something like that – take a small action in the direction we want the world (or our street or community or neighbourhood) to move, people show up, “We didn’t know there was any connection between us, but their response makes the connection clear” (207). We then understand those connections better and can use them to take the next action.
To be better systems thinkers we also need to expect that there will be unintended consequences to the actions we take. We need to be able to identify these quickly, reflect on them, and then to take a different action next time. Systems thinking also requires seeking out different interpretations. “The more interpretations we gather,” Wheatley says, “the easier it is to gain a sense of the whole” (208).
Second, Wheatley says that we need to find less aggressive ways to work through problems. She points out that even how we talk about problem solving is aggressive. We “attack a problem,” “tackle the issue,” “get on top of it,” “wrestle it to the ground,” “take a stab at it” (182).
What she recommends instead is this:
“To step aside from aggressive responses to problem solving requires a little used skill: humility. Humility is a brave act – we have to admit that we don’t have the answer. We need more information, more insight. This kind of humility is rare in competitive, embattled organizations and communities, but it is what we need to find real solutions. One wise educator put it this way: ‘Humility is admitting I don’t know the whole story. Compassion is recognizing that you don’t know it either'” (184).
I think about social media here, how it is a platform for sheer aggression. What would Facebook, Twitter etc be like if – instead of posting with such certainty and then defending positions – people shared what they were grappling with, or struggling to understand. What if social media became a platform for humility and compassion.
The third kernel of wisdom I’ve gleaned and would like to share is probably the most important, and indeed the two approaches above are not possible without it: listening.
“Our natural state is to be together. In this time when we keep moving away from each other, we haven’t lost the need and longing to be in relationship. Everybody has a story. If no one listens we tell it to ourselves and we go mad. In the English language the word for health comes from the same root as the word for whole. We can’t be healthy if we’re not in relationship. And whole is from the same root as holy. Listening moves us closer; it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy” (219).
What she recommends is that we “all play our part in the great healing that needs to happen everywhere.” She asks us to, “think about who you might approach – someone you don’t know, don’t like, or whose manner of living is a mystery to you. What would it take to begin a conversation with that person? Would you be able to ask him or her for an opinion or explanation, and then sit quietly to listen to the answer? Could you keep yourself from arguing or defending or saying anything for a while? Could you encourage the person to just keep telling you his or her version of things, that one side of the story” (221)?
Thinking like a system, approaching problems less aggressively, and listening. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the complex issues we are facing right now. Yet in a time of despair and disconnection, in a summer where it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams, these are three tools that I can use – maybe tools that we can all use – to help stitch the world back together again, creating it anew at the same time. To become more whole, more healthy, more holy.