Weaving Our Plans Together: USI and the ISP

Embedding UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Plan into a new UBC Sustainability Initiative Strategic Plan

The UBC Indigenous Strategic Plan (ISP) is a critical step in redressing the legacy of colonialism and the shameful history of residential schools that haunts UBC, BC, and all of Canada.

At the UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI), being one of the first to take the ISP Self-Assessment Tool offered us a hopeful way to intertwine ideas about Indigenous justice with the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis. Under new leadership from Senior Director, Linda Nowlan, and Academic Director, Tara Ivanochko, we launched our own strategic process to coincide with the ISP release, taking the opportunity to use the Self-Assessment as a central planning tool.

“My previous work on bridging between Indigenous and Crown law was revelatory, and I was excited to continue this work to centre Indigenous knowledge,” said Linda Nowlan, the USI’s Senior Director. “UBC’s commitment to Indigenous rights and the climate emergency was a major factor in my decision to join UBC.”

“I jumped at the chance for the USI to do the ISP Self-Assessment and weave the ISP Actions into our new strategic plan, with expert facilitation from Vicki, Alex, and Jessie from the Office of Indigenous Strategic Initiatives (OISI),” added Nowlan.

Self-assessment: Are we part of the problem?

At the USI, we had recognized that our programs lacked an Indigenous focus for some time, but were unsure how to address the gaps. The team started the process by reading the ISP many times, but the guided facilitation by OISI was instrumental to making progress. We found self-rating is not always easy, and as a group had to ask ourselves some hard questions. For example, “Do our current programs present challenges and systemic barriers to participation by Indigenous students and faculty?” “Are we capable of recognizing unconscious bias in our work?” We didn’t always like our own answers.

“Talking openly as a team made it clear to me that we are just at the beginning of this process. The OISI facilitators helped us understand that the team conversation was an important part of the process. The specificity of the self-assessment toolkit allowed us to really evaluate where we had made some progress and where we still have a lot more work to do.” Tara Ivanochko, Academic Director, UBC Sustainability Initiative.

We also realized our own office space and other spaces within the Centre for Interactive Sustainability (CIRS) – the building we manage – are not welcoming enough to Indigenous students and do not convey Indigenous cultures from our host Nation, or any other Nation. The welcome plaque at the CIRS entrance from Musqueam is the exception, rather than the rule.

But as we continued with the self-assessment and shared our experiences, we also realized that we have good work to build on.

  • The pilot Climate Justice Webinar series we ran last winter and spring aimed, among other goals,  to highlight the disproportionate impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples. We centred Indigenous voices in each session. For example: Lawyer and artist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, a graduate student at the Allard School of Law and counsel for the Haida Nation, explored climate justice as a threat to Indigenous sovereignty at the first webinar, “Just Is” ≠ Justice, Who does Climate Change Impact the Most? on March 5, attracting 320 participants.
  • A growing number of Sustainability Scholar projects focus on Indigenous sustainability issues and are co-developed with Indigenous partners.
  • In the inaugural Campus as a Living Lab (CLL) competition, applicants were scored on their commitment to equity and inclusivity in their project team, design and execution, among other criteria. One of the winning projects led by Dr. Jan Hare, Indigenous Education & Dr. Moss Norman, Kinesiology, focuses on Indigenizing UBC Vancouver’s campus recreational spaces, and supporting Indigenous self-determination through socially and culturally sustainable campus recreation.

So overall, while we started off feeling defeated and recognized our connections to Indigenous faculty, staff, and groups on and off campus seemed weak, the ISP Self-Assessment helped us recognize and quantify both progress and serious gaps in our approach in a way that helped us clearly understand where to go next.

Putting it together, together

Using the ISP Intent to Action Tool, we dedicated significant time to translating our enhanced understanding into action through multiple brainstorming online sessions. Through large and small groups, we reconvened to bring back ideas for discussion and review, identifying relevant goals and actions.

Jamboard after Jamboard, we had a lot of ideas and positive energy. But after the final session, we knew we needed to narrow down our chosen 10 ISP Actions for a more meaningful focus. So, we chose the democratic route and voted. The tally showed that we ranked Actions  8, 10, 12, 22 and 23 as our top 5 actions from our ISP Self-Assessment . 

Our top 5 actions

Our team selected the following top 5 actions to implement:

  1. Action 23: “Implement an Indigenous procurement strategy which prioritizes the provision of goods and services from Indigenous businesses and vendors.” Two staff volunteered to begin this work immediately.
  2. Action 8: “Provide free and publicly accessible educational tools, events and resources that promote the local and global implementation of Indigenous peoples’ human rights, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice.”

    We have included this Action in our new strategic plan as a commitment, “re-imagine the delivery models for public outreach programs to ensure off campus communities including vulnerable and marginalized populations have more access,” and “build and nurture extensive, robust and reciprocal relationships with campus, community and Indigenous partners who champion strategies for systemic change in order to identify shared sustainability learning goals.”
  • Action 10: We chose to incorporate the ISP language directly into one of our new Research Excellence goals. We will aim to, “Create dedicated programming to catalyze collaborative research that is co-developed with and led by Indigenous communities ”and, “Focus new projects and partnerships to work with UBC’s host Nations, UBC’s neighbours and connected ecosystems, and UBC ‘s non-traditional academic spaces.”
  • Action 12: We’ve reflected the ISP action in our plan by, “Enabling and co-developing research opportunities for students to become leaders in the advancement of Indigenous knowledge systems in sustainability research and practice.”
  • Action 22: “Identify and make visible the generational connections of Indigenous peoples to culturally significant places across UBC campuses.” Our new strategic plan is committed to providing cultural connections through ideas such as an Indigenous artist in residence at CIRS, or an Indigenous Climate artist.

The USI’s new strategic plan commits us to move ahead with these five actions. It will  be ready for launch in fall 2021.

So what did we learn?

Honestly, we wanted to move quickly through the process. But we soon realized how much more we would gain by delving deeper into each other’s work and outlooks. It took a long time.

We also discovered that some individuals in our unit had deeper understanding due to previous learning and experience, but that as a group there is no specific or regular process to identify bias.

“Participating in the ISP Self-Assessment exercise was an enriching experience, providing an opportunity for reflection, both on the good work that’s being done, as well as on the areas where we’re falling short. It helped us identify tangible ways to meaningfully integrate Indigenous interests in our work, avoiding the trappings of superficiality and tokenism. I am grateful for having participated in this exercise.” Binoy Mascarenhas, Interim Director, Urban Innovation Research, UBC Sustainability Initiative.

One of our sessions coincided with the day the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, announced it had located unmarked graves with the remains of 215 children, who died while attending the Kamloops Indian Residential School. That sombre session underscored the importance of our work. We will be guided by UBC’s Reconciliation Pole, a symbol of unity, and remember that the Pole’s thousands of copper nails commemorate children who died at residential schools.

Major changes were prompted by this group journey of discovery:

  • We’ve woven selected ISP Actions directly into our unit’s new strategic plan goals and actions.
  • We’ll animate the CIRS building to make it a more welcoming space that reflects Indigenous traditions.
  • We’re committed to Indigenous hiring and have already commenced new practices.
  • We’re honoured to have the role of convening and coordinating work on the Climate Emergency Task Force report which commits UBC to, “Establish mechanisms and processes that ensure Indigenous perspectives, communities and worldviews shape the development and implementation of climate-related initiatives and policies”.
  • Our new Climate Emergency staff will continue to build relationships with Nations and possibly reinvigorate the Indigenous Engagement Working Group that was a part of the CETF process.
  • We are also working on building greater Indigenous connections into existing programs, and co-developing new programming with Indigenous community members.

It is still early days. One of our lasting lessons is that building relationships and seeing the world differently, informed by history and current cultural knowledge, takes time. We are conscious that we need to start with small steps and move slowly.

The USI is proud to be one of the first UBC units to complete the ISP Self-Assessment Tool – there are many strands of work we still need to weave together.

We look forward to meeting you on this journey.

If you have any questions for the USI team, please reach out to Linda Nowlan, Senior Director, USI.