Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Andrea Reimer

Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Andrea Reimer


OK, so my name is Andrea Reimer. I was specifically asked
to not talk about myself at the beginning of
the presentation, but I find it’s quite
impossible to know where someone’s
going to if you don’t know where they’re coming from. And as John said,
I’m challenging. So I will be talking
about myself a bit. And in that spirit, I did
want to start by acknowledging the Massachusetts and
Wampanoag indigenous peoples on whose
traditional territories we’re meeting today, to give
my respect to their elders, past and present. I also wanted to thank the Loeb
Fellowship for this opportunity to speak with all
of you here today. So this is where
I’m coming from. I’m a city councilor, an
elected official, a politician. My talk today is
going to be less about a good building,
a good housing policy or a good
urban plan, and more about how to get a city
council– whether good or bad– to approve good things. Many people have different
opinions about politicians. I have one as well. And I believe that
there are only really two kinds of politicians. The first kind is that that
sees unmet community needs, and sees elected office
as a vehicle for being able to meet those needs. And then the other
kind is the kind that has an unmet personal need,
and sees public office as a way to meet that. And as a society, we tend
to remember this kind more. There is a very good
reason for that. They are compelling. But it is because we’re
biologically programmed to remember the negative. So I want you to
imagine yourself as a Cro-Mag on the savanna. So your very survival
depends on your ability to remember that your
good friend yesterday ate a plant that killed them,
or a big-ass lion killed them, or some others were
at a cliff, something. So our brains are
specifically hardwired to be able to remember
negative things, so that our genes
could be here today in this room, so our Cro-Mag
ancestors could survive. It’s also why I’m pretty
convinced that my genes come from a completely
different species. That’s me at 18. My journey in life
has always been about a relentless pursuit
of positive alternatives for the future. And it started really early. So what you see here is
a big pile of raisins. What I see is a big
pile of torture. I have a lifelong
dislike of raisins because of the
quality of raisins that I was served in preschool. However, I had a positive
vision of the future. So I decided we would
organize in preschool, and we organized a nap-in. We slept. And it had two results,
marginally better snacks, no more raisins, and a
lifelong understanding that alone, we are weak. But together, even when we’re
sleeping, we are very powerful. So imagine what would
happen if we were awake. That idea has carried me
through a lot of community organizing as the executive
director of the largest membership-based environmental
organization in Canada. I was responsible for
overseeing campaigns that preserved over 1.2 million
hectares of pristine wilderness areas, set legal
precedents to preserve endangered species in Canada. We just got our endangered
species legislation in Canada in the mid 2000s. And successfully negotiated on
behalf of environment groups to get the first carbon
tax in North America in my province of
British Columbia. I also have sat through
a lot of evening meetings and volunteered for many
organizations on everything from democratic reform, to
establishing financial services for low income communities. My most significant
personal win, however, was getting off the streets. I left home quite young,
started doing drugs quite early, and managed to do
a lot of things that you kind of hope your
kids, and your friends’ kids, and even your enemies’ kids
don’t do and don’t see. I generally don’t
tell this story, because I find that in
it, people want to cast me as some kind of community hero. The reality of the
story is that it’s about a community of heroes. People who fail
tend to do it alone. People who succeed do it
because they have a community of support around them. And I had that. So by now, you’re
probably getting that I am one of
those politicians that got into elected office because
I see unmet community needs. I’m not that excited
about microphones. I’m super unexcited
about that camera. But I refuse to accept that a
positive vision of the world is impossible, and that
it isn’t worth making yourself a little–
if not a lot– uncomfortable in
the fight for it. I had an opportunity
to volunteer for the Green Party in 1996. And although I am and remain
ambivalent about party politics, I am not
ambivalent about my vision for a positive
future, and this was part of a vehicle to get there. It was in the course
of that that I met a woman named Colleen McCrory. So Colleen– sorry, Canadian
reference– but Colleen McCrory was the winner of
the Goldman Prize, and one of the planet’s
greatest heroes in the fight for preserving
ancient temperate rain forest. ■ while the great raisin
nap-in demonstrated to me the power of organizing,
Colleen really taught me how to organize
at a very grassroots level. It wasn’t until her funeral– she passed away quite
suddenly in 2007– that I realized that I’d spent
all this time with this woman who was fighting so hard under
such difficult circumstances– she lived in a
logging-dependent community– to preserve wilderness around
her home, that actually, she hadn’t been fighting
to protect the wilderness. She had been fighting to
protect a way of life. The ancient forests
that surrounded her home, the salmon,
the grizzlies, they were intrinsically
linked in her mind to her and her
mother and her father and her eight siblings
sitting around the table in this house that
had been built at the turn of the century, and
that the loss of one, the loss of the forest and the
grizzlies and the salmon to her meant absolutely the
loss of the other. So it was then that I decided
to redouble the efforts to preserve my home, Vancouver. So unlike Colleen, as I said,
her vision was about the past and keeping that intact. My vision is about
a positive future. So I had three big ideas
that I ran on for the future I saw for Vancouver. In case you’re
wondering what it’s like to be a woman in politics,
when this article ran, three subsequent
articles ran about it. Not one of them about
any of those ideas, but rather about my
hair and the makeup that I was
uncharacteristically wearing. How you get those things done
is a lot more complicated. So one of the policies
I’m most passionate about is democratic reform. But it needs to rest on a
foundation of open data. And the reason for that is
that people are only ever as equal as their access
to information is. That’s a very fundamental and
powerful idea in a democracy. So in 2009, the
year I was elected, Vancouver passed world-leading
open data policy. Going first was really scary. I invited my colleagues to
jump off a cliff with me. Which I thought
would be inspiring, but apparently, lots of people
don’t like to jump off cliffs. I actually paraglide, so to me,
cliffs are a great opportunity. But our policy became the gold
standard on which other cities based their policies. Open data is not
just about democracy. BCBusiness named us the
most innovative organization in BC in 2011 as a
result of the policy, the first time they had
ever chosen something that wasn’t a business. And they did it
based on open data as a modern economic enabler. This is a result that
we never expected. And it gave us the
courage to be able to take on being the first
city in Canada and one of the
first in the world to develop a public
digital strategy in 2012. And just last month, as a result
of the work in this strategy, we won the most digitally
transformed institution in Canada, business
or public sector. So we now have almost
90,000 tech jobs as a result of these layers of
policy that have been built, and are the number one
startup economy in Canada, and in the top 20 in the world. The point of all of this,
however, is that none of this would have happened
without jumping off that original cliff. We wanted Vancouver to be the
greenest city in the world by 2020. When we started in
2009, people said– and remembering that
we’re Canadians– it wasn’t even worth trying. Then they said it’s impossible. Then they said, well,
OK maybe it’s possible. And now what they say
is why are we there yet? In nine years, we’ve reduced
waste by 27%, water consumption by 18%, increase
green jobs by 49%, and grown Vancouver’s
brand value to 31.5 billion on the strength of this work. More than 50% of residents now
walk, bike, or take transit to work. We’ve implemented the world’s
greenest building code, and become the first
major city in the Americas to commit to 100% renewable
energy for all sources, electricity, heating,
and transportation. This has allowed us to
reduce our carbon footprint to 3.9 tons per person,
the lowest per capita emission in the Americas. We went from below the 50oth
greenest city in the world– they only ranked the top 500– to now being the third
greenest city in the world. And we did it at a time
when our prime minister may wear a sweater and
look like Mr. Rogers, but he actually has a lot
more ideologically in common with Donald Trump. This is our previous
prime minister. We’ve got a little
bit better one now. There are many other examples
that I could give you of this kind of policy. We have world-leading
work on reconciliation with indigenous people. We had created plans in
low income communities, where again, everybody
said it wasn’t possible. In 135 years in
Vancouver, no plan was ever done for our
poorest communities, because it just wasn’t
considered possible. And yet, in 2014, we
were able to do it. We’ve worked on
opening up streets to people as public space. We have the largest municipal
childcare program in Canada. We’ve passed a gender
equity strategy, which is one of the
leading ones in the world. And we have an
engaged city strategy, which seeks not only to engage
the city with residents, but residents with each other. We’re the first city in Canada
to do rental only zoning, the first globally to use
deliberative democracy to develop a community plan. We established the first
Renter’s Advisory Committee in the US and Canada. We also brought in
an empty homes tax, and signed in Airbnb
agreement that just freed up 3,000 new rental units
in the city of Vancouver. But no matter how good, the
policy that I’m doing is– was or is– on the
news every night. I have to go home and
watch the thing that enables all of this democracy
kind of dissolving all around me. I could no more sit
silent witness to that than I would feel uncomfortable
about a microphone or a camera and not feel compelled
to take action on it. So here I am. Made an announcement
that I wouldn’t be running for
public office again, because I felt that
the work that I could do outside public office would
have more benefit to democracy in the near term. So in my original hypothesis
when I wrote my application to the Loeb Fellowship,
I said in the gap between public expectation
and political gilds lies the unfulfilled potential
of Western democracies. Democracy was never intended
to be professionalized. In order for it to work, you
need language and processes that are accessible
to all people. Indeed, in the fully
actualized democracy of Locke and Jefferson,
the populists would become increasingly
adept at decision making, and thus, the
quality of decisions would continue to
improve by virtue of the ever-increasing lived
experiences the decisions were able to reference. So creating a democracy 101
seemed like an obvious pursuit if that is what you believe
the problem statement to be. But my preliminary
thinking was flawed. I have looked around,
and it turns out there are a lot of manuals
about democracy out there. And I already know this, but
checking my own hand on it, democracy is actually
remarkably well-designed compared to other systems. There is, however, frequent
and pervasive user error. And a lot of it goes
back to the fact that we don’t understand this. So I have realized that
this is the inquiry that I need to undertake,
that I am here to undertake. I might guess what
you’re thinking as that word is really– I made it big on purpose,
because power is a big thing. So back to that Cro-Mag
thing on the savanna, when we say the word power, we
tend to think about this. We think about people with
positional power, that have titles that
give them that power. And that is definitely
one kind of power, but there are so many
other kinds of power. Gandhi was born with
no positional power. None at all. In fact, probably the
negative of positional power. And yet, he had
a spiritual power that he used to develop expert
power, informational power, referent power that eventually
gave him the positional power that he needed to be able to
make the changes that he saw, the positive future
he saw for India. Serena Williams, no
positional power there. A tennis player is not is
not like president, right? It’s not like Gandhi. And yet, she has managed
to dominate headlines over this last week on vital
issues of societal importance. Tennis, yes, but also important
issues about race and gender. Jane Jacobs, expert power. Jane Jacobs did not
come into the world with a ton of positional power. But she was able to
leverage her acquiring of knowledge and her
status as an expert into huge positional power. Remains after her death
still the foremost expert on urban policy and planning
from a grassroots community perspective. Of course, people power. This is the Women’s
March in Washington. I Americanized it for you. I would normally show
the Canadian version. And then probably
the biggest power that exists on planet
Earth, and that is the person who is able
to marshal the people, and create the people power. Can we build thousands of
green-engaged reconciled cities where social and economic
justice are actively being addressed? Yes, but only if the people
most affected have the room, have the power to
inform what is being done in their
communities, whether it’s climate action, economic
justice, densification, or reconciliation. Like anything, it starts
with increased literacy, and that’s what
I’m here to learn how to do so I can understand
how to translate that into literacy in my community. In the language of the
people of my territory, the homelands of the
Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people,
[non-english speech] It kind of means thank you. It’s hard to translate. But I would convey
that I believe it is a great gift to have the
time and resources to undertake this inquiry. So I wanted to offer that
thanks to all of you. I’m looking forward
to learning from you. And if there’s
anything that I can share with you about
the power jamming that we’ve been able
to do in Vancouver, I’d be happy to do that. Thank you. [applause]

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