Guest blog by Anna Godefroy, Director, Binners Project
Although a relatively new initiative, the Binners’ Project is often praised for its true grassroots nature and strong engagement with the community. Yet maintaining member involvement is a sustained effort for the project staff. This is a very common challenge for many community initiatives.
At its core, the Binners’ Project aims to decrease stigma surrounding binning (also called dumpster diving). Binners and staff work collaboratively to build new income-generating opportunities. We do so by fostering face-to-face interactions between binners, residents, and the community at large, in Vancouver and Montreal.
Initially a One Earth / Cities for People initiative, the Binners’ Project secured a grant in 2015/16 from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation allowing it to test several pilot programs. In only one year, those burgeoned and we saw an influx of interest from binners and from the public.
Despite the success amongst participating binners, one of the biggest challenges we face this year is relying on their steady engagement. Consistent participation and reliability is the greatest source of anxiety for our staff, as the demand from the community and clients increases.
Our community evaluation, conducted in the Spring 2016, demonstrated that members regularly involved with the Binners’ Project felt a remarkable impact on their overall wellbeing. However, most of our members lack stability in their lives, which prevents them from fully benefiting from our programs. Barriers include, but are not limited to, housing insecurity, addictions, mental health issues, physical disabilities, abuse, gender-related tensions and/or homelessness. These of course are drawbacks to consistent engagement.
Based on our two years of experience organising regular meetings and workshops, we now believe that the emphasis must be on fostering a web of interconnected individuals. Building tight network around and amongst group members is the best strategy to overcome involvement inconsistency.
This can be constructed around two central pillars: meeting recurrence and peer networking. Although it is too early to draw any conclusions, we are seeing encouraging results already.
We find that success in engaging individuals in the middle and longer-term comes down to the recurrence of our meetings. It is a matter of finding the right balance of meeting regularly without overwhelming people (our members are burdened quite literally with the daily struggle to survive, and therefore meetings occupy time that could be spent foraging for the recyclables from which they earn their living). Our experience has shown that regular gatherings translated into increased connection to people’s surroundings, and growth in confidence in their ability to take on new challenges and fulfil commitments.
Pre-set weekly gatherings require heavy staff involvement, but bring stability and structure in lives that often have very little or none. Perhaps even more important is rediscovering the feeling of expectancy, which might be the early sign of what it means to be part of a community.
Building a peer-network system: Because dumpster-diving on the street is an extremely competitive activity, binners are most often marginalised and disconnected with their own community. Additionally, most binners do not have access to internet, mobile phones, and/or landlines.
To facilitate the process of connecting and staying connected, our group has selected two team-leader binners, whose roles are to work out ways to contact people at street level and help them organise so they can honour their commitment with the Binners’ Project. Often, finding people involves knocking on their door (provided they have one), or walking around Vancouver Downtown Eastside with the hope of crossing paths.
With this peer-network in place, we are finding that team leaders’ roles are going beyond expectations. They informally keep track of the other binners’ housing situation, addiction challenges, and mental health states.
New members look up to their team leaders and are able to approach them with specific questions and concerns. Joining a group is often challenging for new participants who are used to being, and working, on their own. Our programs aim to break isolation, while building on soft skills with the goal of reaching financial independence for binners. Peer-team leaders play an important role in supporting new members passing through the daunting early stages before they are able to reap the full benefit of joining.
Commitment issues are not rare when it comes to community initiatives. Despite proven impact in their stakeholders’ lives, some community initiatives’ existences are threatened because of a lack of commitment from participants. It must not be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm from its members, adequacy, or relevancy to the group it serves.
Our track record shows that our programs are popular and truly improve people’s lives. Only time will tell whether the solutions mentioned above will help tackle the issues in the long term – but our early outcomes are promising.