Climate Cell: mobilizing and supporting citizen climate action in Outremont

For Astrid Arumae and Julie Segal, founders of Climate Cell and members of the Civic Incubator’s Winter 2021 cohort, this is the challenge: to mobilize this spirit of solidarity and mutual aid in the service of new environmental initiatives in Outremont.

Mobilizing for a cause

March 2020: COVID-19 forced the population of Quebec into confinement. Strict measures were put in place to slow the spread of the virus. For vulnerable people, this period of physical isolation made daily life even more difficult.

Astrid Arumae, a resident of Outremont, felt compelled to respond. She launched the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Network to provide a food purchase and delivery service for isolated people.

Drawing on her experience in project management and entrepreneurship, Astrid promoted her initiative on social networks and launched a call for volunteers. Many people responded—both those in need and those seeking to help. A new network was born.

“The first day, it took us three hours to do the grocery shopping for only eight people! We felt the joy of taking action but also some discouragement, because of the magnitude of the work. But we rolled up our sleeves and persevered. As demand grew, we had to rapidly increase our efficiency. We noted what was working and what was not. Then we put the appropriate logistical tools in place to better organize everyone’s schedule.” — Astrid

Cellule Climat : activer et soutenir l’action climatique citoyenne à Outremont

Thanks to the enthusiastic mobilization of volunteers, more than 600 grocery baskets were delivered in the first three months. The success of this service was indisputable. Volunteers were still answering the call, and new people continued to join the project—notably Julie Segal, who became one of the first members of the board of directors. Building on the original initiative, Astrid and her team began thinking about other issues facing the population during the pandemic. As their second mission, they chose the improvement of mental health. They quickly generated ideas for countering isolation, alleviating chronic stress, and encouraging physical activity. The team set up wellness calls, a walk-and-talk program, and home visits for seniors who have difficulty getting around.

“The creation of social links was at the heart of our work—providing moral support to the beneficiaries, as well as to the volunteers, who felt the need for face-to-face exchanges. The support went both ways, and this mutual exchange certainly served as a lever for involving people and maintaining these activities. Their impact increased tenfold.” — Julie

Cultivating the strength of the collective

At the end of 2020, the team drew up a new report enumerating more than one hundred mobilized volunteers, more than two hundred beneficiaries, financial support in the form of grants and donations, and contacts established with local institutions. The network has fulfilled its mission of creating social capital through links between individuals, communities, and institutions. In Outremont, where communities are particularly diverse and fragmented, the challenge was great! Rather than rest on their laurels, Astrid and Julie are already envisioning what’s next.

“Moving forward, we wondered what kind of vision to give to our collective while staying close to the community? We recognized the importance of cultivating social ties to the development of community resilience to current and future crises—the most obvious one being the climate crisis. But the socio-ecological transition is not very far along in Outremont.” — Astrid

In disadvantaged neighbourhoods, community spirit and a sense of interdependence foster initiatives in favour of the socio-ecological transition. But in more affluent neighbourhoods, this isn’t the case, even though the local carbon impact is higher.

In Outremont, low-income families and individuals represent only 14 percent of the population, compared to 21 percent in the rest of Montreal. As a result, the neighbourhood produces a larger environmental footprint, particularly in terms of housing, food, and mobility. People are more reluctant to change, because change can be perceived as infringing on their daily comfort. One example is the widespread resistance to parking spaces being freed up for new bicycle lanes.

Historically, the success of citizen initiatives for the transition has been driven by strong social capital. Is it possible to harness the spirit of solidarity and mutual aid that has developed in Outremont in the service of the socio-ecological transition? Public discussions addressed this question, involving, among others, partners Solon and Coop Carbone. The project began to take shape when Astrid and her team from the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Network were given a mandate to lead a public consultation for an action plan to reduce greenhouse gases in Outremont. From this work came Climate Cell, an initiative designed to encourage people who are concerned about climate issues to propose ideas and put them into action. But how do you manage a laboratory of ideas?

Astrid Arumae (Photo credit: Youssef Shoufan)

Making social innovation a component of Climate Cell

Though she has experience in corporate project management, Astrid realizes that coordinating volunteers in the deployment of their own initiatives is an entirely different endeavour. She took a course from Social Innovation Canada, convinced that this would provide her with the keys to carrying out their impact project. When Julie mentioned the Civic Incubator’s Call for Projects, they both recognized an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of social innovation, meet equally committed project leaders, and further develop their project. They applied and were selected to join the Winter 2021 cohort.

Among the tools offered throughout the Civic Incubator program, two modules in particular have helped the project leaders. Julie cites the theory of change, which has enabled them to put their ideas on paper:

“Clarifying what was in our heads—so that we could take ownership of the project and easily explain it—made a real difference. We also had to work hard to define our priorities. Our enthusiasm makes us want to do everything at once and reach as many people as possible, at the risk of spreading ourselves too thin. MIS helped us refocus our model and align our communication with the desired impact.”

For her part, Astrid stresses the importance of field validation:
“We tend to fall in love with our idea. We think we have all the answers and the right overview. But by approaching the project step-by-step, then doing field validation, we can recognize our blind spots and the biases that we need to correct.”

They apply these lessons to ideas proposed in the lab by borough residents. Before these ideas are deployed, they are validated in the field, so that the team can reflect on the desired impact and any blind spots that need to be rectified. Climate Cell quickly applied this methodology to its first project for volunteers in the summer of 2021. Based on a citizen-science model (also known as participatory science), volunteers conducted a study of air quality in Outremont, gathering samples at about twenty collection points throughout the borough. The group produced a report on this study—available on Climate Cell’s Facebook page—that provides concrete data on the sectors most exposed to air pollution. The objective is to raise awareness of air-quality issues in both the local community and the municipality.

Climate Cell continues to collaborate with other local stakeholders in order to multiply its actions in favour of the environment. This year, the collective joined the Tamarack Institute’s Climate Transition Cohort with the citizen group Eco-citoyens d’Outremont. It also works alongside groups such as Pour nos enfants/For Our Kids:

“Each entity has its strengths and puts them to work for the cause, whether to organize online debates, demonstrations, citizen actions, or advocacy with political institutions. Green projects are carried out on both a small and large scale. We are all working together, and that gives us a lot of hope.” — Astrid

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