How My Kids’ School Renewed My Belief in Democracy

This is a special to the GNH Blog by Trish Garner.
Originally posted at The Tyee

Back-to-school week is always intense.

But for my family this year, it was especially intense — and remarkably inspiring.

Our preparations included eight hours of meetings in one day to find solutions to big challenges, and we still came out excited about going back to school. What thrilled me most was being involved in a gritty but inspiring process that reignited my belief in democracy.

Witnessing people from five to 75 negotiate their needs as individuals and as a community gave me hope. It showed me that when people commit to the work of the democratic process, what seems impossible becomes doable. It made me realize that this is the work that we, as B.C. residents, need to do to build a better province together.

My family is new to Windsor House, an alternative, publicly funded school that offers students from kindergarten to Grade 12 a self-described “free, democratic school” or, as we call it, a school where the kids get to choose what they want to learn. Literally.

It’s an educational model that’s hard to organize at the best of times. But last year the school lost its physical site in North Vancouver and this year, it’s using a “multi-campus model” with several smaller venues while it looks for a new home.

One easy way to manage the change might have been to let school staff set up a schedule and slot students into predetermined activities.

That’s not what we did. In the four-hour meeting I attended with my seven-year old twins, they first had to choose what they wanted to do in their first week. After writing down the activities they were interested in, ranging from animals to woodwork, we all worked together to figure out where students would go each day during the week.

It wasn’t easy. We had four available spaces for learning, offering different activities and topics each day.

Each corner of the room represented one of the different locations, and 25 chairs were set up in each one, showing the number of spaces available. The first Monday was to offer sword-building, gaming, swimming or media arts in the four locations.

The kids raced to find a seat in the corner of their choice and when there were more than 25 kids in a corner, they were involved in finding solutions to accommodate everyone. In some situations, kids who gave up their spots had first choice next week, or perhaps got to determine the activities in a different location. Each day there were more activities and more choices.

I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I suspect we all were. But what I saw unfolding was choice that moved beyond the individual in a complex dance of personal desire, social group dynamics (where is my friend going?), practical logistics, community norms and regulations (which, by the way, are also figured out together at Windsor House), and the needs of the community.

Sounds complicated? It was. At the end of that day of meetings, principal Meghan Carrico described this move as “the hardest thing she has ever done in her entire life.” Then she added, “I can’t imagine a better group of people to do this with.”

It’s not that this is a group of people with special skills or attributes. What makes them exceptional is simply their commitment to a process of full democracy. A process that involves asking and answering difficult questions. A process that provides a space where everybody feels heard and respected. A process where challenges are seen as opportunities. A process that is not reduced to voting (as democracy has been in our electoral system) but invests in coming to a shared solution. A process that doesn’t take democracy for granted but recognizes the work of doing democracy, every day. In short, a process that builds a truly democratic community.

The other four hours of meetings that day were two spent getting to know the kids’ new teacher advisor, who spent time learning what they’re interested in, and then two hours in the evening at a parents’ meeting focused primarily on discussing the pedagogy of this model, and then a bit of time for the practical logistics of bus schedules, etc. This meeting was mandatory (and childcare was provided to make that possible), making me realize that the only thing they force at Windsor House is full engagement.

At the end of the last meeting of the long day, Carrico asked: “Are there any more questions?” Everybody was tired and ready to go home — but no one complained when 10 more hands shot up. Sure there was a collective groan, but there was also a shared laugh as we all dug in for the last few minutes of the late evening.

Democracy in action is not easy — in fact, it’s very, very hard — but it is beautiful.

In my work in poverty reduction, I often see people shy away from engaging in democracy, saying that talking about the root causes of poverty is “too political.” So it’s wonderful to see people working hard at democracy. It’s only a small community of 170 families and a dedicated staff, but being part of it is enough to make me believe that this could be done on a larger scale.

We have an opportunity in the lead-up to the provincial election in May 2017 to work hard at democracy at that level. Ask difficult questions. Include everyone. Face the challenges. Invest in shared solutions. Do democracy every day.


Trish Garner is the community organizer of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, and has two kids entering Grade 3 at Windsor House and a preschooler looking forward to going next year.

Food, race and the ethnic aisle

This is a special to the GNH Blog by Rebecca Cuttler.
Originally posted at Vancouver Observer.

Kevin Huang at the Gordon Neighbourhood House event, “What’s up with the Ethnic Aisle?” Photo by Matt Schroeter.

It is, perhaps, a cliche to say that food brings people together. A good meal, shared amongst friends or strangers, can provide an ideal starting place for dialogue, learning and connection. Food is a language we all speak.

Yet food can also be fraught with its own complexities. Consider, for instance, the “ethnic aisle”. In grocery stores across Vancouver, staples from non-European countries are often grouped together in a jumble of sauces, spices and dried goods segregated into their own area.

This phenomenon was the starting point for a recent event at the recently closed Heartwood Cafe entitled “What’s up with the ethnic aisle?” Hosted by Gordon Neighbourhood House, the discussion followed on an earlier panel at the May 2016 Vancouver Food Summit, “Why is the food movement so white?”

Our world is currently experiencing a time when race, ethnicity and culture are at the forefront of many people’s minds. Police killings in the United States and the rise of Black Lives Matter have sparked an urgent dialogue about systemic racism.

Xenophobia in North America and Europe has shaped the current political landscape, with potentially huge implications. These topics are complex and extend far beyond food.

However, it turns out that what we put on our plates, and how we buy it, bring up their own set of important challenges, many of which affect Vancouver directly.

I was fortunate to be able to interview two of the event panelists, indigenous law specialist and former Vancouver Park Board member Niki Sharma, and Chinese-Canadian youth organizer and Executive Director of the hua foundation Kevin Huang.

The panel at the Vancouver Food Summit was entitled “Why is the food movement so white?” Do you think it’s true that the food movement is white?

Niki: There are a lot of people of colour that participate in local food production. I believe the real question is: are the voices of these people represented in the organizations claiming to represent the local food movement?

Kevin: In a local food systemic context contained to the Lower Mainland, yes. While we are often asked to choose organic kale as a way of supporting local farmers and community agriculture, I think it’s just as important to include organic bok choi in these selections as a means of providing culturally appropriate food choices.

Niki Sharma at the Gordon Neighbourhood House event, “What’s up with the Ethnic Aisle?”. Photo by Matt Schroeter.


How much does the problem have to do with how we define “food movement”? Are there other food movements out there besides organic food, locavorism and farmer’s markets?

Kevin: I don’t see it as a problem of how we define “food movement” as much as questioning who is this movement for, who it is serving, who is not at the table, and who are we excluding? Vancouver’s demographic is diverse and the food movement should reflect that.

The interesting things about Farmer’s Market-style direct sales is that they are also quite prevalent in most places around the world: wet markets, morning markets, you name it. Perhaps increasing the availability of culturally appropriate food items, increasing accessibility, and advancing our cultural competency to work interculturally would fill this engagement gap.

There is also the opportunity for us to expand or even redefine Vancouver’s “Food Movement”. We are missing out on recognizing and celebrating individuals acts such as grandmas and grandpas growing their own food in their backyards or even parents teaching their kids in the privacy of their own home how they should not waste food and to compost.

Niki: I spoke about my father during the panel at the Vancouver Food Summit. He has been collecting seeds and growing food for most of his life. He has a deep knowledge of growing food that he shared with us.

In many ways he is a local food champion, but I am sure he would not know why he was called that. This speaks to the disconnect of the movement to include stories of those with deep knowledge about local food from many different backgrounds. Ultimately, I believe the “food movement” cannot be successful if it chooses to define itself through disconnected and unrepresentative boardrooms.

In terms of other movements, food justices needs to be part of every movement or ultimately it just becomes an club that only few can participate in.

How much of BC’s food system – especially when it comes to things like agricultural production, importing and distribution – is dependent on the work of immigrants and migrant workers?

Niki: I would like to know these statistics. Between migrant workers, Chinese Canadian and South Asian farmers, I would expect this numbers to be high.

Kevin: With the exception of First Nations, acknowledgement that we are all immigrants is important. From hua foundation’s area of work, it is deeply concerning that there are only three academic studies on the Chinese Food Distribution system, considering how large the system is locally.

The Chinese once produced up to 90% of British Columbia’s vegetables before racist policy pushed them out. Similar to how there is little recognition on Chinese contributions, we rarely acknowledge the “immigrants” and migrant workers that continue to produce our food locally.

What’s up with the “ethnic aisle”?

Niki: I think we need to examine the word “ethnic” and think about what we mean when we say it. Canadians of colour will tell you that the ethnic aisle is where all the food from non-white countries is found. Despite being part of Canada for generations – certain backgrounds are considered more Canadian than others. For example, Chinese people migrated here before B.C. was a province. At what point does a culture or food stop being labelled “ethnic” in Canada?

Kevin: From a business logistics point of view, it is where you put all the “exotic” foods that your business traditionally doesn’t import/buy. For mainstream, non-visible-minorities it is where non-staple items can be found.

The sociological issue with the “ethnic aisle” is that it reinforces the “othering” of people of colour and “diverse” communities. The ethnic aisle is a physical manifestation of the fact that we live in a (white) colonial society where people of colour and Indigenous communities are still regarded as “others”.

I have hopes that the “ethnic aisle” is only a transitory stage as we work towards being more inclusive and recognizing our city’s diverse range of cultural backgrounds.

What can the food movement, and individuals who are a part of it, do to be more inclusive? Or, put another way, what can people from diverse cultural backgrounds do to have more prominent voices around food issues?

Kevin: Not a prescriptive checklist but some ideas: Build and invest in cultural competency. Empower those that have the lived cultural experiences. Work with those that are able to bridge cultures and create intercultural understanding.

Design programs and engagement models with a social justice and decolonizing lens. Recognize tokenism, unconscious bias, and avoid the Social and Moral Licensing trap. Be open to learning and challenging established beliefs and ways of thinking, both individual (self) and community (public).

Niki: I think all those involved in the food movement need to make the inclusion of all people of all backgrounds a priority, particularly those who are already participating in local food production but don’t have a voice at the table.

Also, there needs to be more linkages between organizations in different communities doing similar work.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and gardening contributor. She blogs about urban food gardening at

In Conversation with Susanna Millar

By: Scott Douglas Jacobsen (GNH Community Journalist/Blogger)


What’s your brief background – family, education, and work? How did you find out about Gordon Neighbourhood House? What was your original interest in us?

My background and how I came to know GNH are closely linked. I studied social work and have always had an interest in agriculture. I had travelled and worked on several farms abroad as a WWOOFer (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and always knew I wanted to incorporate this passion into my work somehow. Trying to connect my love of agriculture with social work seemed tricky at first, until I became familiar with the work GNH was doing around food and community. The GNH food philosophy was inspiring to me, and I felt this was a place where food could be grown locally with the community, cooked together, and shared over laughs. I am now grateful to be part of it.

Any suggestions for others to become involved with us? Any suggestions in ‘spreading the word’ via social media, word of mouth, newspapers, blog posts, articles, and so on?

We are always looking for folks to get more involved at the house. As cheesy as it sounds I truly believe there is something for everyone here. My suggestion is to check out our programs online or at the front desk, and if there’s something that interests you, sign up! We are also always hosting special events, so it is important to sign up for our newsletter and check out our Facebook page so you don’t miss those. If you see an event, post, or article that you like, chances are your friends might like it too- so be sure to share! GNH is a great place to meet new people, and I often hear stories of long lasting friendships that began at an event, in a program, or through volunteering. Don’t be shy…once you attend something you’ll be part of the GNH family.

You are a farmer and community programmer for Gordon Neighbourhood House. What are your tasks and responsibilities in that role?

As the farmer/community programmer I look after the GNH urban farms and community herb gardens around the West End. With 4 farms and 10 herb gardens to date, it’s safe to say I can’t keep up without an enormous amount of help from volunteers. The urban farm team is incredibly keen, and we go out each week to look after whatever needs to be done (weeding, watering, harvesting, and way more). Together we have learned how to maximize our space with salad greens, companion plant, troubleshoot with pests, and attract pollinators.  Once the produce is ready it gets harvested and brought back to Chef Peter, or one of our many other food related programs at the house.

Gordon Neighbourhood House wants to make the West End a better place to “live and grow” whilst remaining “sensitive to the ever changing needs of the diverse groups of people” in the neighbourhood. What do you see as the importance of this message and work by Gordon Neighbourhood House?

Being a better place to live and grow means all people feel welcome in this space. When I say there is something for everyone here, it means we strive to ensure that each person who walks in the door finds something important to them: English conversation class, a new friend, a tasty meal with neighbours, or a treasure at the attic.  It also means that this person has something to offer which makes this place grow alongside them: maybe they raise issues that affect seniors at the seniors’ lounge, or are looking to get their hands dirty at the farms, or find themselves starting a dance party at a Young Ideas event. With the West End being a fairly diverse community with a wide set of skills, interests and challenges, we see GNH mirroring such diversity in our programming and activities. This must also come with a commitment to critical conversations around how to make this community better in the future, and advocating to see that change happen.


Where do you hope Gordon Neighbourhood House moves forward into the future?

It is my hope that Gordon House continues to grow in the direction it is headed. I dream of a place with farms on all sides, food in all rooms, and conversation amongst all people. As I say this however, I am sitting at the front desk on a regular Thursday night at GNH and it feels pretty good. The Rainbow Soup Social is cooking up a meal for the Community Food Hub tomorrow and it smells amazing, “Mexican Fiesta soup” they say. In room 1 there’s a free documentary film screening about the Site C dam, with a Coast Salish welcome song and drum. A couple regulars are chatting in the lobby over some coffee, and curious people come and go from the thrift store. I just commented to someone that I hoped to pop in to see the film because “it’s pretty quiet right now”. If this is quiet, I think it’s fair to say we’ve hit a pretty high point. I trust it will continue to grow from here.

Thank you for your time, Susanna.


Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Gordon Neighbourhood House Community Journalist/Blogger. He founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Pelmeni and Pierogi Making Workshop


This summer local residents Tanya Shinder and Tanya Fabrichnikova along with their friends led a pelmeni and pierogi making workshop for interested community members at Gordon Neighbourhood House. Pelmeni (Пельмени) are small meat dumplings which originated in Russia, Ukraine, and Siberia. Legend has it that Siberian hunters on winter expeditions would carry large frozen sacks of pelmeni, which could then be boiled in melted snow. While a plate of these dumplings may not look like much to the untrained eye, the dish requires specific techniques to prepare the thin dough and seal the dumplings.

This workshop was funded by a Neighbourhood Small Grant (NSG) from the Vancouver Foundation. The NSG program is a unique initiative which funds resident-led projects that connect neighbours, share skills, and create a more resilient community.


Armed with instructions from the expert instructors, workshop participants immediately spread out on several tables and began making the small dumplings. Obtaining the right consistency of the unleavened dough requires practice and patience. Too thin and dough will tear when boiled resulting in a dish that is sloppy and soggy, too thick and the pelmeni will be tough and doughy. By the end of the evening everyone was able to make a plateful of pelmeni and pierogis.


The finished dumplings were then boiled in water infused with black pepper and bay leaves. When the pelmeni began to slowly rise to the surface of the gently boiling water they were strained from the pot and served with butter and soy sauce or sour cream.

After an hour and a half spent preparing and cooking the dumplings, everyone sat down at a long table and enjoyed a meal together while listening to stories from the instructors about making this traditional dish with their families. Tanya Shinder, who was once the proprietor of The Rasputin Restaurant on Broadway Street, even surprised the group with a homemade traditional triple-layered cake at the end of the meal!


The Neighbourhood Small Grants program is an annual initiative that is funded by the Vancouver Foundation. Gordon Neighbourhood House coordinates the grants for residents on the Downtown Peninsula. For more information please contact Jim Balakshin at or (604) 683-2554.


Linda’s 36th Anniversary!

By: Scott Douglas Jacobsen (GNH Community Journalist/Blogger)

Toast to Linda

Linda has been an integral part of the Gordon Neighbourhood House and West End community for over three decades. On behalf of our community, we want to express our deepest, heartfelt gratitude to someone not only indispensable to the community at large and to the individual lives influenced by her presence and interactions, but for playing a significant role in the growth of Gordon Neighbourhood House.

When Gordon Neighbourhood House opened in it’s current location at 1019 Broughton in 1986, HRH Prince Charles toured the house. Linda was there the day that he came to the house, in fact he shook her hand and commented on her important role at Gordon Neighbourhood House.

Royal Visit

Paul Taylor said, “Linda’s laugh brightens Gordon Neighbourhood House several times thorough the day. You couldn’t miss it!  It’s as much a part of this place as the walls are. Her commitment and dedication to her community is an inspiration to us all.”

Jim Balakshin said, “Linda is involved in so many aspects of Gordon Neighbourhood House. When we host events, Linda is often the first to arrive and will stay until everything is finished.”

Agata Feetham said, “Linda is a compassionate, kind, and loving person who truly cares about people. She is a hard worker and always willing to help anytime anyone needs it. Linda is a dedicated team player that everyone appreciates and she truly cares about Gordon House and the West End community. I am proud to call her my colleague and friend.”

Linda & Agata

Debra Bryant said, “Linda, you must have welcomed hundreds of newcomers into Gordon House and ANHBC.  Maybe that’s why you’re so good at it.  Thank you for warmly welcoming me when I joined a couple of years ago and for being part of the life of ANHBC for more than a third of our history.”

Thank you, Linda, and happy GNH 36th!

Linda and the crew

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Gordon Neighbourhood House Community Journalist/Blogger. He founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.