Earlier this week, 100+ Women Who Care Cowichan (WWCC) announced that their September meeting would once again be held at the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC) clubhouse. The decision to remain at this location comes after a heated debate over the choice of venue, which spilled out into the community at large. I am writing today to discuss my involvement in those discussions.
100+ Women Who Care is a charitable organization with chapters all over the world. The premise is simple: chapters meet four times a year, each member provides a cheque for $100, and the total ($10,000 or more) goes to a local community group in need. The Cowichan chapter was formed early this year and already boasts a membership of over 225 women. Their donations to local projects and organizations have made a real difference to people right here in the Cowichan Valley.
This past summer, WWCC created a stir in the community when they decided to hold their quarterly meetings at VIMC. Several members, some of whom live in the vicinity of the track, were upset at the decision to patronize a business that has had such a negative impact on the surrounding neighbourhood. They argued that an organization rooted in making positive change within the community should not be endorsing a business that is in conflict with people in that same community. They, along with myself, wrote to the organizers with our concerns, and we offered alternative meeting spaces.
The conversation also spilled out into the broader community as various members posted widely-shared articles on Facebook about the ethics of philanthropy and the realities of accepting “free” donations from large corporations. The organizers did not seem to understand that by choosing to meet at VIMC they were not only endorsing the company, but providing them with ammunition to use against the SNA in our battle to end racetrack noise in our neighbourhood. For residents of Sahtlam, it felt like we were being betrayed by people in our own community who claimed to be working for the good of that same community.
Some of the emails to organizers went unanswered. Those that received a reply felt they were being dismissed, and that the issue was not being presented to the group as a whole, but rather being decided by a select few individuals. Some of the members resigned in protest; others wanted to talk about it at the next meeting but were told they would not be allowed to do so.
As a result, a community meeting was held to discuss forming a new 100+ Women Who Care chapter. The meeting was attended by disgruntled members who had recently left WWCC, those who were considering leaving, and those who wanted to join but objected to the actions of the organizers around this issue. I was there to represent the residents of Sahtlam, whose families, lifestyles, and property values are suffering at the hands of VIMC.
Most of the attendees were in favour of starting a new group, but I asked them to hold off on that decision. I'd been contacted by some WWCC organizers who wanted time to bring this issue to the membership and perhaps avoid a schism. However, I recently met with these sympathetic organizers to learn that, unfortunately, they were unable to convince their colleagues to use another venue.
I can tell you that they tried hard, and they agonized over the decision, but in the end WWCC has become a victim of their own success. Having decided early on that they would only use free venues that have liquor licences, their options have dwindled as their numbers have grown. Few places in and around Duncan meet their criteria when space is needed for over 200 people, and WWCC insists that the VIMC clubhouse is their only option despite offers from other members to pay for meeting spaces. Their self-imposed limitations have created an ethical quandary that many philanthropic organizations have to wrestle with: whether to accept "free" gifts from corporations, and what the true price of that gift may be.
For myself, I will not attend WWCC meetings as long as they are held at VIMC, but I have chosen not to sit in judgement of those who continue to do so. They have their own reasons. I honour their commitment to the group and, in particular, I honour the blood, sweat, and tears of the caring group of organizers who listened to our story and tried to bring the issues of ethics and philanthropy to the table.
If I've learned anything in the last year, it is that building and maintaining relationships - despite our differences - is key to creating positive change. Besides, this is not over: The recent proposal by VIMC to triple the size of their racetrack, if approved, would expose many more valley residents to the negative effects of motorsports noise. Perhaps WWCC will be forced to revisit this issue again and find a way to support those affected by choosing an alternate meeting place in which to continue the great work that they do.