Backgrounder: Intersectionality

By Christine O’Fallon, Steering Committee, Vancouver City Planning Commission


If you don’t have a lens that’s been trained to look at how various forms of discrimination come together, you’re unlikely to develop a set of policies that will be as inclusive as they need to be.

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, originator of the term “intersectionality”

Historically, governments and those outside government who concern themselves with social justice have sought ways to understand — and policies to address — a wide range of challenges and barriers encountered by supposedly discrete communities. But are all forms of oppression separate from one another? Can we disentangle the consequences of one person’s experiences living in poverty from her experiences living with a disability? Intersectionality theory proposes that individuals experience discrimination based on the multiple ways they identify (or are identified) in terms of race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, class, age, etc., and that discrimination (and privilege) is best understood as compounding or simultaneous, rather than being a series of unconnected, discrete experiences.

To begin with, Crenshaw saw intersectionality as an analytical framework to understand and illuminate the oppressions experienced by women of colour in the United States. Her ideas emerged at a time when there was a growing effort by other thinkers, including the Combahee River Collective and bell hooks, to bring to the American feminist movement an awareness of the plight of Black women. Over time, intersectionality has more generally come to be understood as a framework to analyze and respond to the different ways that the different identities of a single individual work together to create layers upon layers of oppression and/or privilege. In policy design and social planning, intersectionality is a tool to bring people and communities typically left on the margins of opportunity, health and wellbeing into the centre
of decision-making. It’s a framework for digging deeper to assess just exactly who is benefiting from particular policies, and who is not.

In 2014 the City of Vancouver created the Healthy City Strategy, which included as a guiding principle “for all, not just for some”, and referenced the use of an intersectional lens, noting:

The lived experience of being, for example, a female Aboriginal elder, is not ever one of being only female, or only Aboriginal, or only an elder – we experience our lives in intersecting ways. Rather than apply a single category lens (such as a “women’s lens” or an “Aboriginal lens”, or an “LGBTQ lens” or “a disability lens” or a “senior’s lens” or a “people of colour lens”), we are using an intersectional “for all” lens with the aim of reflecting and addressing this complexity.

In 2016, a motion was brought to Vancouver City Council to create a new Women’s Equity Strategy, in collaboration with the City’s Women’s Advisory Committee (WAC). The latter proposed, in alignment with ongoing priorities within the WAC, that intersectionality be a strong component of the new Strategy. The Vancouver: City For All Women, Women’s Equity Strategy 2018-2028 identifies intersectionality as a framework that unifies and runs through the Phase One Priorities of the Strategy , “to ensure that action in these priority areas benefit all women.”

Image Source: City of Vancouver Women’s Equity Strategy

Also in 2018, in a step aimed to broaden the reach of intersectionality-informed policies in the City, the department of Arts, Culture and Community Services (ACCS) hired a contractor to develop an Intersectional Policy Framework. The Framework will include a Resource Guide and Toolkit, which is scheduled to be completed, along with an implementation plan, in 2019.

The Vancouver City Planning Commission first included intersectionality as a part of its discussions about Resiliency and two themes: Engagement for Real and A City for All in 2017. Challenged by the Women’s Advisory Committee and Women Transforming Cities, VCPC adopted Intersectionality as an overarching framework for the 2018 Summit on A City for All. Throughout the planning meetings with partnering community organizations, the Summit Steering Committee encouraged each roundtable at the Summit to incorporate the framework into their discussions. It was an underlying principle in the outreach to community groups and organizations who were invited to the Summit. Before the Summit, VCPC held a workshop for Commissioners and members of Advisory Boards on the subject of Intersectionality. Led by Women Transforming Cities, the workshop used role playing to bring the idea home to participants.

In addition to working to integrate the concept in all the groups at the Summit, a specific roundtable (#17) focused on Intersectionality.