Meet Vision Vancouver park board candidate Sarah Blyth

Vancouver civic elections 2011: Her priorities are healthy, affordable community spaces and finding a creative way to make things happen in tight financial times.

Photo by Rafal Gerszak.

Vancouver municipal election 2011: Sarah Blyth perches on a stool at a Downtown Eastside coffee shop, half smiling, half serious, composing her thoughts for yet another campaign interview.

When we’d set off down East Hastings just minutes earlier, the first thing she wanted to point out was a tiny, empty lot wedged between two buildings. It’s about to be cleaned up and converted to a simple, open soccer pitch that will be available for community use. 

Blyth was still explaining how happy she was to see the project coming together when a woman stepped from the door of Save-on-Meats on Hastings to wish Blyth luck in this weekend’s election, when she’ll attempt to hang on to her park board seat for Vision Vancouver.

Blyth stopped briefly to listen to what the woman was saying. She made eye contact, paused, smiled, nodded and raised her hands in a sort of palms-together Buddhist gesture that she didn’t seem aware she was making.

As we set off again down Hastings, Blyth said the moment was typical of the support she has been getting during the campaign. People seem to “get” that her goal is to do what she can to create healthy, active, affordable ways for them to get out in the community and enjoy themselves and each other, she said.

It’s been just three minutes since we met, and Blyth has already raised the two themes that will occupy her during the afternoon’s talk: the joy of sports and the duty to build strong communities, especially for those with personal or financial challenges.

Sports weave themselves naturally through her explanation of why she first ran for a spot on Vancouver’s park board in 2008, the campaign that saw Gregor Robertson and his Vision slate sweep city council and the school and park boards.

From skateboarding to politics

Blyth, now 39 and the mother of an eight-year-old, recalls her young life as a kid who was both willing to speak her mind and yet not good in groups. Outspoken yet shy.

She blossomed as a skateboarder, she says. It was a perfect blend of a pack activity that she could also perform alone, somehow, at the same time.

But Blyth was boarding at a time when the sport had yet to gain any “respectable” reputation. Ross Rebagliati had yet to work his magic on a snowboard. As she worked her way through her arguments about why young people who wanted to skate were entitled a public space too, and why their boards shouldn’t be confiscated, and why youth in general ought to have a say in their share of the public realm, it led her into contact with the parks board and their workers. They helped show her how to bring demands forward in an organized, useful way, she says.

Then, with a crash course in organizing under her belt, Blyth became a founding member of the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition. She started looking at what was possible through the park board. And what she found was unused money sitting the capital plan for more skate and BMX parks. She decided to run for office to make sure it got used.

She won.

A path that had begun with work at non-profits, as a youth outreach worker and with the Portland Hotel Society as a New Fountain shelter worker had led her to a seat on a public board where she could make some of the decisions she wanted to see made.

“Working on campaigns, bringing kids into (projects), I could see the activist side. But I could also see how the park board can advocate for the bigger picture, and in the end, that’s why I decided to run. I realized things can be different, depending on who’s governing. It can make a difference.

“I want to make sure young people have a voice. I know that if you work with people when they’re young, especially the ones who have learning disabilities, like I do, it makes a difference.”

As a skateboarder who seized power and saw new skate parks open and the city’s first BMX track built, Blyth says she has also seen communities who were initially concerned and skeptical learn that young people really can use their piece of the public park system responsibly.

“Because there has been such a lack of facilities for youth, sometimes I think people worried when a (proposal) came forward. Now we’ve got a whole bunch that have been really successful. The first ever BMX dirt dump park was built in my term. It was a success for the bike community, it’s off the street, it’s safe for kids to learn at, it’s a nice place to get exercise. There’s a big community out there now,” Blyth says.

It was also through her work at a homeless shelter that Blyth learned about the power of soccer. What began as a casual project putting together soccer games for homeless people led to formation of a homeless men’s soccer team, and then one for women. The players eventually competed in Paris at the Homeless World Cup.

Blyth, who first hit the field as a staff member of the shelter, found that soccer did all the things for her that boarding had. Maybe even more.

ADHD not a detractor for political career

She has recently gone public with the fact she suffers from attention deficit hyperactive disorder, hoping to help remove some of the stigma from the condition. She says soccer helped her – the exercise refreshed her and the team aspect of the game (“they’re cheering for you, you’re part of a group, it leads to so many other things, we share a meal, we get together”) did as much for her as she believed it would do for other users of the parks system.

So she’s pretty clear on her goals for her next term, she says.

Having learned how the system works, she wants to help guide people through it. To have their suggestions heard and the concerns addressed, and creative solutions put together.

She wants youth to have a say in the facilities they want. She wants every park to include some element for young people. She wants the entire system to remain affordable. And she wants the arts supported; her current project is to open up existing field houses in the parks system to artists. 

On the other hand, she acknowledges that money is tight, and not everything can be done, or done now. Some people will be disappointed. Sometimes the answer is “not now”. Sometimes it’s just “no,” she says.

“The capital plan decisions, they were hard, because of all the amazing projects out there. You’re looking through the line items and wondering what to do. You do your best, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy deciding things like which community centre will get help," she says.

“All the decisions are tough and they’re all multifaceted. There are many people with many good ideas, and you’re trying to think about all that, trying to make the best decision you possibly can. That’s my job.

“But to do that kind of job, it’s stressful. There are people counting on me to make the best decision.

“There are some sleepless nights, yes.”

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