Fostering Consistent Stakeholder Engagement for a Maximum Impact

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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.

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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.

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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.

When fruit and sharing come together, everyone wins

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Good news of the week: the Sharing economy has set sail. With AirBnB reaching over 1 million users a month, the world’s first fair trade and open source Smartphone being launched in Amsterdam, and locals hosting pop-up restaurants in their homes  across the globe, a new cultural narrative of collaborative consumption is unfolding. And with summer fruits ripe and ready to be picked, what better way to celebrate than by sharing fruit -- urban fruit, that is.

In today's world where over 30% of food goes to waste, every little bit counts. Community-based initiatives have sprung up in several cities to reclaim the overlooked edible bounty of our own city streets and backyards.

Two non-profit initiatives in Toronto and Montréal are harnessing helping hands from local communities to harvest urban fruit trees in people's gardens. Most homeowners are unable to keep up with the abundant harvest produced by their tree, leaving thousands of fruits unharvested each year. Not Far From The Tree in Toronto and Les Fruits Défendus in Montréal see this as an opportunity -- to reduce waste by redistributing fresh, local produce to local food banks, shelters, and community kitchens.

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Not Far from the Tree volunteers picking cherries in Toronto. Source: Flickr.

Not Far From The Tree aims to inspire residents "to harvest, share, celebrate, and steward the bounty from our urban forest as a way to connect more intimately with a sound environmental way of life."

As Les Fruits Défendus puts it, "[this] brings together fruit tree owners and volunteer fruit pickers in order to give the city's delicious fruits a happier fate." In the end, everyone's happy - homeowners, volunteers, community members, and even the fruits!

In fact, there are dozens of organizations across the country carrying out similar "fruit rescue" operations, with 15 in British Columbia, two in Alberta, two in Quebec, two in Manitoba, one in Newfoundland and Labrador, and eight in Ontario.

Three geographers and photographers from the University of Colorado took on the ambitious project of quantifying these urban resources on a global map. Falling Fruit's website reads:

"Falling Fruit is a celebration of the overlooked culinary bounty of our city streets. By quantifying this resource on a map, we hope to facilitate intimate connections between people, food, and the natural organisms growing in our neighborhoods. Not just a free lunch! Foraging in the 21st century is an opportunity for urban exploration, to fight the scourge of stained sidewalks, and to reconnect with the botanical origins of food."

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Falling Fruit world map. Source

The map data is crowdsourced, meaning any local from Montreal, Barcelona, or Beijing can go on the website and input the geo-coordinates, a photo, and a short description the plum tree down the block. Talk about open source! Being able to share data now means being able to share resources, like deliciously free local fruit.

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A lonely apple tree in Michigan, submitted by an anonymous user. Source

Another troupe of three decided to form an art collaboration around abandoned fruit in Los Angeles. Fallen Fruit "uses fruit as a common denominator to change the way [people] see the world", first by mapping fruit trees in public space in L.A., then expanding to public projects and installations in various cities around the world. By working with fruit as media, their projects reimagine public interactions with the margins of urban space, systems of community, and narrative real-time experience. Their people- and fruit-focused programming includes such fringe activities as Public Fruit Jams, Nocturnal Fruit Forages, Public Fruit Meditations.

Food is central to the way we perceive urban space, and sharing is the economic paradigm of tomorrow. What could be a sweeter, juicier marriage of edible urban landscapes and the sharing economy than enjoying fallen fruit with new neighbours.