The Value of a Good Cup of Coffee (and Other Insights on Advocacy)
A community meal pre-employment program in Vancouver that Karen (middle) helped to create.
By Emily Ho | January 2022
Karen Giesbrecht shares with us her insights on advocacy and her involvement in British Columbia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. She works at an addictions treatment facility in the Vancouver downtown east side and is co-founder of Planted (a community food network in Metro Vancouver). Karen is currently a co-chair of the DC Household Food Security Network.
Please read below for a Q&A with Karen Giesbrecht about advocacy.
How did you become involved in the BC Poverty Reduction Strategy, and what was your role?
In my work I get to organize programs that support people who are struggling in Vancouver with poverty, mental health challenges, addiction, and really, a lot of pain and chaos in their lives. I create some of the supports higher up in the vulnerability continuum, looking at policies and gathering people who are working in programs to share best practices and ideas. So, I was invited to be part of the BC Poverty Reduction Strategy and take part in the work that Dietitians of Canada was doing to respond to our government. I worked with others in putting a letter together and brought in stories of how the policies ripple out and impact folks on the streets and in our shelters.
What encourages you to work in advocacy and promote food security?
I read a phrase once by the English essayist Samuel Johnson that said: "I have found the world kinder than I expected, but less just.” There are so many good initiatives, a lot of generosity, some very compassionate people, and yet, if we continue to operate as we are, we are going to be running the same food programs ten years from now. While direct support is important, we also need to look at root causes—the poverty and lack of income which really make people vulnerable, not the lack of food.
What do you believe is key to successful advocacy?
Trust and personal relationships have to be the foundation. Here in Vancouver, most of us have strong feelings about good coffee, so I often start there. I will meet somebody at a cafe to enjoy a latte. We will talk about how the coffee at a lot of programs needs improvement and how we should avoid serving powdered non-dairy creamer and whiteners to people, even just from a nutritional perspective! And so, if better coffee is something I would like to have, I should be advocating for our clients to have this too. That is one definition of advocacy on a small level, and yet, it is symbolic. Often we need to start with very small steps. It is sitting down and having a cup of coffee with someone (whether it is your executive director or somebody from the street) that will truly start to build trust, empathy, and understanding.
It is especially important to get to know people who are vulnerable. When we know somebody on a personal level—their name, their story, and their dog's name—that is when we will be inspired to use the influence and power that we have, as dietitians, to change systems.
What is one story or experience that really inspired you?
For about eight years I have been working with a group called Planted where we look at the network of food programs in the city of Vancouver. Inadequate support often forces people to cross town to find free meals. One winter, a woman who lived closer to UBC slipped during a snowstorm and had to wear a neck brace for six weeks. And even in the cold of winter, she would bus to the meal program over on Main Street. It must have taken at least an hour for her to get there, and she would have been painfully jostled on the bus. She was older and had diabetes too. It made me think—for her alone, we need to do something more on the westside of Vancouver. It took several years of planning and connecting, but the Kits Cares Cafe launched in 2018. Two years later, it was established well enough to continue to be a support when the COVID pandemic descended.
What are your practical tips on advocating for policy changes? How are stories involved in your approach?
It is often helpful to write down what the problem is, your idea, what the cost will be, and what the logistics are. Gather those anecdotal stories and statistics to show how a particular policy or program is manifesting in negative ways. When we can pull these details together in a tangible way, that is when someone can respond, that is when you are going to get the budget to do what you need to do. Always place the smaller programs and the individuals you are working with within the larger picture of our food system and our health care system
Also, changes take a long time to happen. If you have an idea for a policy you want to change, and you attempt to change it but get shut down, do not give up. Keep at it. Approach it from a different angle. Just because somebody says “no,” that does not mean the idea will not work. It can take years, but do not give up on it.
Learn more about the Household Food Insecurity Network and how you can get involved.
Emily Ho is a nutrition student studying at the University of British Columbia. She is currently pursuing a degree in dietetics and has been eager to learn more about life as a dietitian. After connecting with Lisa McKellar, she was introduced to a few dietitians and dietetics students whom she then had the pleasure to interview. She wrote these articles (based on their conversations) to shine a spotlight on the unique work and personal experiences of individuals within the dietetics community. She has enjoyed gaining a better understanding of dietetics through this project and is excited to continue exploring the dietetics profession.
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