Matt Hern

Westcoast Families - - Dads -

the plump and gar­ru­lous chick­ens in the back of this East Van­cou­ver home seem very con­tented. Kept col­lec­tively by three fam­i­lies on the block, their up­keep and eggs are shared, and they happily cluck away un­aware of the no­tions of com­mu­nity, col­lec­tivism, or mod­ern ur­ban­ism of which they re­flect part of a pos­si­ble (and charm­ing) fu­ture. Un­like his chick­ens, Matt Hern is very aware of th­ese con­cepts. In fact, he’s con­sid­ered an ex­pert, if one with rad­i­cal lean­ings, about the fu­ture of ur­ban so­cial de­vel­op­ment. He’s a pro­fes­sor at UBC and SFU, and has writ­ten three books and edited a cou­ple more about this sub­ject. Oh, he’s also the founder of this lit­tle thing you may have heard of called Car Free Day, com­ing to a street near you on June 16th. Matt op­er­ates ac­cord­ing to what sounds like a sim­ple plan: when you do not have what you want, you make it. When a sys­tem does not ful­fill your needs, cre­ate an al­ter­nate sys­tem that does. Want a sand­wich? Hav­ing trou­ble putting on your pants over your shoes? You can fix that! But when what you want is a more flex­i­ble, inclusive school for your child, or when the trans­porta­tion sys­tem is about to put a high­way through your neigh­bour­hood, this “just go ahead and do it” phi­los­o­phy be­comes a lot more daunt­ing. Un­less, of course, you are Matt Hern. In which case, you just ca­su­ally go about build­ing an al­ter­na­tive school pro­gram, or reimag­in­ing your city’s re­la­tion­ship with au­to­mo­bile trans­porta­tion as though it was no dif­fer­ent from putting a piece of cheese be­tween two slices of bread.

Well, at least that’s how easy he makes it look. When you meet him, or have the op­por­tu­nity to hear him speak pub­li­cally, it’s not hard to see why he’s good at get­ting peo­ple on board with projects such as the East­side Learn­ing Cen­tre, Car Free Day, the Pur­ple This­tle Cen­tre, and his cur­rent Groundswell pro­ject: he is an ex­cep­tion­ally charis­matic and en­gag­ing guy, pro­ject­ing both ami­able con­fi­dence and ar­dent cu­rios­ity. “There have been a lot of projects that bombed too, you know,” he says mod­estly. “You just don’t re­ally hear about them.” The jour­ney be­gan when Matt and his part­ner, Se­lena, moved to New York right af­ter univer­sity, where Matt be­gan work­ing for The Na­tion mag­a­zine. They soon found them­selves mov­ing back to the west coast af­ter Se­lena be­came preg­nant with the cou­ple’s old­est daugh­ter, Sadie. “We did not want to deal with the Amer­i­can health­care sit­u­a­tion.” Faced with a baby to raise and no suit­able em­ploy­ment or child­care op­tions, the young cou­ple started up the East­side Learn­ing Cen­tre, an al­ter­na­tive school where they could both work (Se­lena and Matt both had ed­u­ca­tion de­grees), and they could switch off car­ing for their baby girl. The school was a pos­i­tive learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for both founders and stu­dents, and in 1997 the school was suc­cess­fully merged with the sim­i­larly-minded Wind­sor House School in North Van­cou­ver, where Matt con­tin­ued to work for five years, and where Se­lena taught un­til she started her PhD stud­ies re­cently. Work­ing closely with a group of seven teens post-Wind­sor House, Matt then started the Pur­ple This­tle Cen­tre, a “youth-run cen­tre for arts and ac­tivism,”

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