Students bring their talents and skills to community projects through Vancouver’s LEDlab

By Elvira Truglia
This fall, the Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) gave the green light for a new group of students to start working on community projects in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. An award-winning community-university partnership between Ecotrust Canada and RADIUS Simon Fraser University, LEDlab works with community partners to jump-start ideas by matching graduate students to non-profit organizations for eight months. Students use this incubation period to help launch or scale new and innovative ideas. The added human resources LEDlab provides allows the community partners to try new things in a safe environment and to learn from and support each other in the process.
“One of the largest reasons that ideas don’t take off is it is difficult to access funding to develop the idea, and dedicate staff or resources to them,” says LEDlab’s manager, Kiri Bird. “We provide the human capacity to advance the idea, sometimes with a technical or business skillset that the non-profit might not have in-house.”
Brandon Toews, an MBA student at SFU with an arts background, is one of the four students in the cohort, funded through Mitacs, a national non-profit supporting research and training across Canada.
Before joining LEDlab, Brandon Toews says he was extremely troubled “to see the lack of resources that were available to marginalized and vulnerable communities and to see how often they were overlooked or outright ignored”.
He’s now happy to be involved with the Binners’ Project, a grassroots initiative in the Downtown Eastside with the goal to become “a project once led by support staff, that over time becomes one led by the binners and for the binners.
“I want people to know that binning is a legitimate living, people work hard for it,” says Michael Leland who has been collecting redeemable containers in the Downtown Eastside for the last 11 years.
Now a team leader with the Binners’ Project, the 58-year-old former commercial fisherman wants to remove the social stigma associated with “binning,” the term for collecting and reselling recyclable materials.

Connecting the dots

The Binners’ Project is one of four community partners to LEDlab, which earlier this year was a winner of the Cities for People-Re-Code Civic Innovation Award, organized by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.
LEDlab partners have been looking to develop innovative social enterprise ideas that generate income for people facing barriers to stability in the Downtown Eastside, and identify and develop solutions to systemic barriers to a more just, healthy, and sustainable economy.
Launched in 2015, LEDlab was created to respond to community needs and to act as a bridge between service providers, social enterprise and government, says Kiri Bird, one of the first graduate students to intern for LEDlab, which she now manages.
“The Local Economic Development Lab intentionally inverts the traditional university research model by placing community needs at the centre of the research agenda,” she says.

Social innovation meets community needs

All four of LEDlabs’ current projects are responding to community needs in different ways: legitimizing the informal economy, increasing task work, leveraging procurement, and through peer work and micro-enterprise.

The Binners’ Project legitimizes the work of informal waste collectors (recyclers) and is building a small scale enterprise to expand access to bottles and containers and to provide public education.

Photo credit: Knack

Knack is an online platform that helps connect residents on income assistance with jobs for two to eight hours per week. It creates jobs that people can and want to do, and helps them earn money without losing income assistance.
Photo credit: LEDLab

Photo credit: LEDLab

Rebuild is a social enterprise that provides professional construction, renovation, and restoration services in Vancouver. It specializes in renovation projects for non-profit housing providers and employs people facing extreme poverty in the Downtown Eastside, what it considers an “untapped labour force”.
Photo credit: Hives for Humanity

Photo credit: Hives for Humanity

Hives for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that fosters community building through beekeeping. It provides workshops on apiculture, encourages micro-enterprise and self-employment, and has a line of retail products, including honey, candles and self-care products.
It’s still early days for LEDlab but it is committed to supporting community aspirations for a Downtown Eastside that “is run by and for people who grew up the neighbourhood and where everyone is able to meaningfully contribute to the community in some way. It’s a future were First Nations people and women are leaders in all areas of a diverse local economy,” says Bird.
To find out more about LEDlab, visit their website.