Alisha Masongsong – Acting Director, Exchange Inner City


May 14, 2020

Exchange Inner City is a community backbone organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It convenes about 60 different stakeholders in the neighbourhood, including social enterprises, business improvement associations, local residents, nonprofits who work in employment and training services, as well as City of Vancouver liaisons. Exchange Inner City works with these stakeholders on community economic development in Downtown Eastside and inner-city regions, focusing their initiatives on two priority areas: increasing access to low barrier employment, and increasing access to affordable goods, services, and spaces. 

Additionally, Exchange Inner City is working alongside the City of Vancouver to implement Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) policies. A CBA is a mutually beneficial, equity-driven policy initiative that offers increased job and training opportunities to local residents, ultimately aiming to support economic growth while also supporting community wellbeing by decreasing poverty.

We spoke with Alisha about Exchange Inner City’s coordination work in the DTES and her observations on what is happening there during the pandemic.

This interview took place on May 14th, 2020. Some of the information discussed below was true at the time of this interview but may currently be different. 

Trigger Warning: Infanticide, 4th page, answer to the question “Could you give a specific example of why community representation is important?”

Sydney: Has your work changed a lot because of the pandemic?

Alisha: Because we convene these stakeholders together, normally in person, we’ve had to do meetings virtually and make sure that people have access to digital mediums such as phones and computers. Another really big change is that we took on the additional role of supporting coordination and communication efforts of the Coordinated Community Response Network (CCRN). So, this CCRN was about 50 nonprofits coming together – and then an additional, about 100 other non-profits staying informed through mailing lists – to collaborate on what that response looks like for the Downtown Eastside. It all started with Community Impact Real Estate Society – it’s a social enterprise in the Downtown Eastside run by executive director Steven Johnston. He gathered a small group of local social enterprises in the area to come together and say, “how do we, as social enterprises, respond to this pandemic? This is nothing we’ve ever had to deal with before, and how do we continue to provide our very necessary services?”. As word got out that he was doing this, more people asked to join, and so as that coordination of different non-profits grew, Community Impact Real Estate Society reached out to say that they needed more support with coordination and communications of this group. I said that, you know, Exchange Inner City can do that. It didn’t take long to think about it because we had been convening and collaborating organizations for the past four years in the Downtown Eastside, so we were aware of how to coordinate with people. A number of our members were part of this group already, so we had a lot of the relationships there. And, I had the time. So, for me, it was just kind of an automatic, like, “we do this – we can help. Let’s step up”. I quickly sent an email to my executive to say, “hey, if we’re gonna do this, is everyone on board?” and everyone was fast to say yes, and then here we are. So that added an additional workload to our work when we already had a very limited staff team and capacity for that, but it was very much needed to support this community.  

Sydney: You mentioned that you’re coordinating about 100 groups?

Alisha: Yeah, so in total the list of people that are on that mailing list to get all of the communications from this group are about 133 different organizations. This includes organizations, individuals, and consultants, including City of Vancouver liaisons who are connecting into this work to understand what the needs are. There are three meetings a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, those who are able to have the time to connect online do more of that organizational work, and there’s about 50 active organizations coming together around that.

Sydney: What are some of the challenges that you’ve witnessed during this pandemic? 

Alisha: When you have about 2000 plus people who are homeless in the neighbourhood and without housing, and the orders coming out to protect yourself from Covid-19 are to stay at home, to self-isolate, to keep six feet apart – this is very challenging for people who do not have a home. And so, that of course created a lot of panic in the Downtown Eastside and also made it difficult for these protocols to be put in place. 

Another challenge was the closure of organizations that provided food, or that provided drop-in support services, or spaces for people to come together and connect. It became really isolating for folks when they didn’t have those spaces to go to anymore. There was a moment there where people were food-insecure, didn’t have places to go.

The pandemic really isolated the Downtown Eastside, but it also brought the general public’s awareness to the Downtown Eastside. It raised awareness of the fact that as a city, we are connected to the health and well-being of our most vulnerable population. To realize that if a cluster of Covid-19 cases were to happen in the Downtown Eastside, it would be detrimental not only to the Downtown Eastside community but also to the larger city of Vancouver and the ability of our health sector to keep up. The pandemic really focused peoples’ attention on the Downtown Eastside to show that the wellbeing of that community is necessary for the wellbeing of the entire city.

Sydney: Can you give us a few examples of some of the major initiatives that you’ve been involved in coordinating?

Alisha: Yeah, definitely. So, one of the very first key initiatives that began out of the CCRN was around peer-work and peer work programming. Local residents in the Downtown Eastside who relied on peer-based work before, through non-profit programs or social enterprises, may have had to be laid off from their jobs due to health-protocol based closures. So, this caused some of the organizations to come together and think differently about how to still provide jobs and an income to people while also addressing the concerns being raised during the pandemic. And so, peer-work programs became a very big focus, and that led to things like block leaders, where peers would provide street outreach, would help with sanitation on the streets, and would ensure that information was going out with updates about Covid-19. 

The other initiative that came out of the Coordinated Community Response Network was food provision and coordination. So, right from producing food down to the logistics of getting different food providers to come together to support the need, and distribution to the community. One really key example was the food coordination led by Potluck Cafe. South Hall Banquet Centre came to support with food donations, the Teamsters Union came to help with some of that distribution, Wildebeest restaurant helped Potluck with preparing food and providing additional kitchen space, and then peer-workers came to help distribute the food to people in the private SRO’s and to the unsheltered and un-housed people on the streets. 

Exchange Inner City mainly helped with doing the updates and the notes after each call and keeping the communications channels open to everybody involved on the mailing list and part of that network. We also helped organize a database of information resources and compiled various helpful support links, information from government, new lists of where food was being provided or what community centres were open, changes to what organizations were doing to respond to the pandemic, who the private SRO’s were that were getting meals – just really kept track of where things were going. 

Exchange Inner City essentially helped with connecting everyone together and connecting them to their needs, sort of triaging and providing that added coordination support, introducing different organizations to each other so that they could support one another in their own initiatives. 

Sydney: Although your role was to connect different groups, did you ever connect with residents of the Downtown Eastside directly?

Alisha: There were some residents who joined the calls, but the main connection to local residents on the ground was through a peer-based leadership program. The program consisted of local residents, people with lived experience, who provided support on the ground. They would have one leader report on the call about how things were going, explain what the needs were from local residents, gather that information, and feed it back up so that our network of organizations could offer support. 

Sydney: With so many groups and organizations part of the CCRN, were there any challenges with coordination?  

Alisha: I mean, there’s always challenges. Sometimes it’s about just making sure to meet the needs quick enough or triaging accordingly. For the most part, everybody collaborated really well together. With that said, there were three main challenges. 

One challenge was not always getting back what was being asked, and that’s sometimes just because of how resource flows happen and needing to support other areas of the city as well. Sometimes we would communicate what we needed as a collective, but these needs didn’t always resonate with those who had the decision-making power to provide funding support.

The second challenge was communicating what we were doing to the general public because we were so focused on just doing the actions on the ground and doing what was needed most, that we didn’t always have the time to do press releases. For example, there were a number of news articles coming out about the need for food coordination and we wanted to respond to show that that was happening. Potluck, a social enterprise cafe and catering company, and the network put out a press release to talk about this. But also, when you’re working with a large group with many organizations, there are different organizations that have different points of view and folks don’t always agree on how a press release should go. 

The third, ongoing challenge is – and it’s definitely something that we want to take forward as we continue – is the need for the government to work alongside the community and to involve community at the beginning in their plans and in their strategies. We really made this known to the government liaisons we were working with, making it clear that the community can self-organize – we know what’s needed most. And so, when coming up with solutions and strategies, it’s important to make sure there’s some kind of community representation involved to avoid the unintended consequences that come up.

Sydney: Would more community representation be one kind of change that you’d like to see going forward? 

Alisha: Yeah, it definitely is. It’s always important to include community at the beginning. It’s important to reach out to necessary representatives, or at least enough to get a large stakeholder group to represent what the community looks like, to be a part of those actions, those plans, those policies, etcetera. I do have to say that city government has done this with other strategies and with other policies in the past, but in a pandemic everybody’s panicking, they’re rushing, they’re trying to provide emergency response as quickly as possible. In these emergency situations it’s important to remember that the community is very valuable and should be included in the process. So, going forward that’s definitely something that we want to take as a pointer that needs to happen with any sort of community-based strategy or plan within the city.

Sydney: Could you give a specific example of why community representation is important? 

Alisha: Yeah, I have a story – it’s unfortunately a little bit traumatic. A number of porta-potties were put out onto the streets to help with sanitation/hygiene needs for those who are homeless in the community. Porta-potties were needed because there were less washrooms as many community centres, drop-in-clinics, and businesses had to close their doors. However, they were just sort of dispersed throughout the community with no one really monitoring them. So unfortunately, and there’s no particular blame to anyone for this, but unfortunately a number of challenges happened where some porta-potties were set on fire, and then another very traumatic challenge happened where, unfortunately a woman felt she had nowhere to go or to turn to, had a baby, and had been with the baby inside the porta-potty, and the end result was that the body of this infant was left in the porta-potty and found by somebody else in the community. So, porta-potties were needed – but when putting them out there it would have been helpful to have the community be involved in maintaining and managing them. We could have had peers available to watch the porta-potties, to provide street outreach services, to let people know what’s available to them, to be able to clean them, etcetera. It would also have been beneficial to think about where they’re placed in communities. So rather than having a few different porta-potties placed all over the neighbourhood, maybe having a couple centralized locations that could be more easily managed by peers, with organizational support, to prevent any unintended consequences.

Sydney: Do you feel that the networks and partnerships that have emerged will continue going forward after the pandemic?

Alisha: Yeah, so there’s been discussion about this network needing to continue to be a part of that recovery process and that resiliency post-pandemic, or in our new normal now, and so the idea is that it will continue as it has been. There’s still a lot of discussion about what that will look like: who’s gonna continue to provide the organizational support? Will Exchange continue to provide coordination and communication support? That’s to be determined. But there is encouragement from other organizations, there is willingness from those involved in the Coordinated Community Response Network to keep this going long-term. People see the need for it as part of the recovery process. There’s also been acknowledgement from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction and the City of Vancouver for the value of this work and for it to continue.

Sydney: How would you describe the value of this work succinctly?

Alisha: The value of this work succinctly… It’s meeting the needs of the community by the community. It’s putting income into people’s pockets who live in this neighbourhood. It has developed relationships and created immense collaboration among a number of organizations in the Downtown Eastside. There was already a lot of collaboration in this neighbourhood, but now there are new collaborations being formed between groups that had never traditionally worked together that have created immense bonds. And it helped city governments and funders to know exactly what the needs were on the ground – when, who to go to, what organization could provide what, how to do something, how much money it was gonna cost – to have that information and to be able to directly provide that support. And so, acting as that go-between, between government, funders, and the community, was really valuable and helpful to those groups from their perspective. But as a community, we were coming together, helping the community with what it needed most and providing emergency and relief efforts.

Sydney: So, will the work of Exchange Inner City change after the pandemic?

Alisha: You know, it won’t change too much. there’s a possibility that we could be involved in supporting the long-term coordination and communications support with the CCRN. I think a lot of the work that we’re already doing, which is raising awareness and advocating for policies around social procurement – and we’re helping raise awareness and providing implementation support of Community Benefit Agreements (CBA’s) here in the city of Vancouver – I think our work there will be really vital as part of the recovery process. We want to encourage government, business, corporations, and institutions to think differently about their buying – to direct some of their buying to local businesses and social enterprises that have suffered during the pandemic. These social enterprises are often working on the ground with local residents who have lived-experience, who may have barriers to employment, and if they have more revenue coming their way, they’re able to provide more employment opportunities and help keep people employed and support the economy that way. 

Sydney: Would you say that the pandemic has made the importance of the work you do more apparent? 

Alisha: Yeah, definitely to some extent, for sure it has. I think there’s always going to be that cultural shift of doing things differently, of offering a new way of providing community benefits through the development industry and thinking differently about how and where large institutions do their purchasing. But I think the pandemic will help make people a little bit more open to looking at different ways of working and how that might support economic recovery, and I think people are more willing to think differently about how they operate and to see where the gaps are in our systems in general, and what could be done differently. So, my hope is that by raising awareness around these things, that we may have a more positive response from organizations that may have been a little bit hesitant before.