Richmond resident Jessie Sutherland has been recognized for her work as a social advocate, focusing on poverty, homelessness, reconciliation and the overdose crisis.
Sutherland was one of 20 B.C. residents who received the BC Achievement Foundation’s 2023 Community Award.
Sutherland told the Richmond News her inspiration to fight for social change came from different turning points in her life.
She learned early in life about the importance of having a sense of belonging, having been born into the foster-care system and then adopted.
“I was adopted as an infant, but I have early experiences of feeling pushed out and so that gave me an attunement (to inclusivity). I’ve had to build belonging from the inside out for myself,” she said.
Another turning point was when she arrived in Mali, West Africa for a six-month volunteer placement on the same day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990.
“So we got off the plane in Bamako, there were parties everywhere. And this euphoria – people were so excited; they wouldn’t even tell us what was going on,” said Sutherland.
The joy was short-lived, however, when she saw pathways between villages getting flooded and villagers dying from tuberculosis while the main roads were being paved to allow international diplomats to travel with ease.
When Sutherland witnessed injustices during the Oka Crisis, she decided to work on issues closer to home.
“That’s when I started working on Indigenous Non-Indigenous relationship building and just (thought), ‘What am I doing gallivanting around the world when there’s so much to clean up back at home?’” she said.
She started by learning how to promote cultural exchange, and she ultimately became an international speaker, trainer and consultant.
Sutherland is now the founder of the organization Intercultural Strategies and the designer of a framework called Belonging Matters, which has been used around the world to encourage diversity and help build stronger communities.
“I am very touched that people took the time to submit the nomination and then to be selected,” said Sutherland, who said she had built up her body of work through trial and error over the years.
Promoting inclusion in Richmond
Although Sutherland’s work takes her all over the world, she decided to move to Richmond almost a decade ago because she enjoyed the diverse community and working with local non-profit organizations. And her parents being Richmond residents may have played a part in her decision as well.
She added that the award reflects the hard work of people and organizations who supported her along the way.
“I am very appreciative of the award, the people who have supported the early days in (the Belonging Matters framework’s) development, and all those who have contributed. For me, it is a testament to our collective work,” said Sutherland.
One of the causes Sutherland worked on in Richmond was addressing the overdose crisis with the Richmond Addictions Services Society, Vancouver Coastal Health and the Richmond community action team.
The team identified one key area that needed to be addressed was the stigma substance users experience in the emergency room.
“The community really rallied and supported this process, and then created opportunities to connect people with lived experience with emergency room folks so that the stigma can be changed,” Sutherland recalled.
She also worked with the city on improving diversity and helped design plans to support the work of organizations such as Richmond Family Place and Richmond Children First, as well as programs such as United Way of BC’s Better at Home program for the city.
“(In) Richmond, there’s opportunities where values can be aligned and people collaborate in really meaningful ways,” said Sutherland.
The annual award celebrates the leadership, dedication and selflessness of individuals in the province.
To learn more about Sutherland’s work, click here.