Stephanie Allen’s Twitter feed includes the following biographical note about herself: “Building replacement systems for when we dismantle oppressive ones. Constantly in trouble, most of it good.”
In a phone interview with the Straight, Allen explained why she’s so interested in advancing racial equality—and stirring up good trouble—even though she’s already incredibly busy as B.C. Housing’s associate vice president of strategic business operations and performance. That’s on top of being a caregiver to her mother.
“I would be lying if it wasn’t personal,” Allen said. “It’s absolutely personal. I’ve seen the devastating impacts of systemic oppression on the lives of people I care about.
“I’ve felt that—the sting of it in my own life,” she added. “And I’m…driven by that notion that if we can find the off switch for this thing, we’d all be better off, including our environment, including our ecology.”
Allen spoke to the Straight in advance of International Day for the Elimination of Discrimination on Sunday (March 21).
She’s perhaps best known as a founding member of Hogan’s Alley Society, which advocates for Black Vancouverites whose history was erased when their neighbourhood in Strathcona was razed in the late 1960s to make way for the viaducts. The society has partnered with the Portland Hotel Society and B.C. Housing to create a 52-unit temporary modular housing development named after Nora Hendrix, a major figure in Vancouver’s Black community in the 20th century.
Hogan’s Alley Society has made progress persuading the city to support a Black cultural centre in Northeast False Creek.
But the society’s demands for community control over the land where Hogan’s Alley once stood have so far been rejected by senior officials at Vancouver City Hall.
“There’s a lot of progressive conversation,” Allen said, “but are they really willing to stop and go, ‘Hey, we planned to sell the Hogan’s Alley block and that really screwed us up when you said don’t sell it. We’re grappling with that and it sucks because we have a whole machine that counted every nickel out of that and now you’re saying you want to make it into a community land trust.’
“They had the opportunity to partner with us and say, ‘Let’s find the money; let’s make it happen,’ ” Allen continued. “But, instead, what we found was resistance and arrogance.”
That’s not the only example of “institutional arrogance” at Vancouver City Hall.
She said that this also occurred when the city spurned a request from her and more than two dozen other Black leaders and organizations to cancel a planned virtual town-hall meeting with the Black community. It ended up being bombarded with racist messages, resulting in the city issuing an apology.
“Don’t get me wrong: wonderful people work for the City of Vancouver,” Allen declared. “A lot of them I really adore and admire. But what I’m talking about is that the institution itself doesn’t just shift on a dime.”
She is not reluctant to speak out if she thinks that this will prompt greater self-awareness of the nature of the problem.
“They have power and they want to hold onto that power,” Allen said. “They’re not as interested in giving away power.”
She revealed that she’s lost friends in the past year as she became more vocal about her analysis of racism and her own experiences.
“We’re starting to come to terms, finally, in Canada with the way that white supremacy has been the cornerstone and the building block that has shaped this nation from the initial displacement and land theft and genocide of Indigenous people through to enslavement through to gender-based subjugation,” she noted.
From developer to community activist
Racialized communities, which created enclaves to forge social networks and interdependence, are often caught in the crossfire by a real-estate industry hell-bent on pursuing profits by zeroing in on “desirable” neighbourhoods.
“What makes these places really fantastic is that they are bringing other facets of culture, of language, of art, of expression, of music that we can enjoy,” Allen said. “But what happens is instead of something we celebrate and enjoy and share, it becomes a consumable. It becomes something to kind of extract from, market with, and then eventually destroy. This is the irony of these processes.”
She wrote her SFU master’s thesis in urban studies on Hogan’s Alley. It won the 2020-2021 Western Association of Graduate Schools and ProQuest award for distinguished master’s thesis in humanities, social sciences, education, and business disciplines.
The fate of Hogan’s Alley once again demonstrated to her that “people who are racialized have been unwelcomed across the landscape and have been unwelcomed in certain neighbourhoods”.
In light of her comments, it might come as a surprise that she has a great deal of experience in the real-estate sector.
Allen, who has an undergraduate business degree, grew up in a lower-income household but was able to gain entry into the upper middle class in the early 2000s while working in the red-hot Arizona property market.
“I remember buying up apartment buildings [and] converting them to condos, because there were no restrictions on that,” Allen recalled. “You could just go full bore.”
It was a remarkable rise, given that her grandfather was born in an estate house with dirt floors in Guyana when it was a British colony. "My people were definitely subjugated by the British and enslaved by them," she said. "My grandmother at one point in her life had one dress. She'd wash it and put it on everyday. But they used to have people into their house to feed them."
After the market crashed following a global economic meltdown in 2008, Allen decided to go back to school to learn more about the context of what she had been doing for a living.
Around the same time, she decided that she wanted to work in the nonprofit-housing sector.
That led her to move from Calgary to Kelowna to Vancouver, where she was hired by B.C. Housing.
Allen seeks to understand whiteness
She described the SFU urban-studies program as “life-changing”.
“I understood racism,” Allen said. “I understood what my family went through. I knew the history of it, to a degree. But I didn’t understand how it manifests itself in the economic system. I didn’t understand how it manifests itself in policy.”
She would love to pursue a PhD in the future.
“I’ll tell you the topic,” Allen said. “I’ve already got it in my head. I want to understand whiteness.
“We have Black studies. We have Indigenous studies. We’ve got gender studies,” she continued. “I want to understand what whiteness is. Where it came from. Why scarcity is so deeply embedded in this culture. Why it drives the type of responses—both violent and policy and institutional—to ensure that it shores up and maintains power. And what is the off switch? I think there must be one.”
She wonders whether culture and social structures led whites to adapt to the scarcity of food sources in colder countries in ancient times in ways that nonwhite people living in the tropics didn’t.
Based on her reading of Guyanese-born scholar Ivan Van Sertima's theories, she questions whether this could be a factor behind white countries being so eager to dominate other parts of the world in recent centuries. Regardless, she thinks that most of humanity is in various degrees of reaction to colonization.
“We’ve been around this culture long enough that we’ve absorbed certain parts of it,” Allen emphasized. “It’s not like white supremacy only exists in white people’s heads. It exists in our heads.”