New Westminster’s 2016 Citizen of the Year, Jen Arbo, moved to the Royal City from tiny Parksville, B.C. on Vancouver Island in 1994.
Like many a youth, she moved to get out of her small hometown, she said, but has spent the better part of the last two decades working to create in New West some of the small-town sense of community and connectedness she left behind.
President of the Royal City Farmers Market, operational support director for KidSport, member of the city’s community grant committee, intelligent city advisory committee and public engagement task force, Pecha Kucha organizing committee member, organizer of three Vancouver Foundation small neighbourhood grant projects, Operation Red Nose volunteer, managing editor of Tenth to the Fraser and co-founder of Hyack Interactive, Arbo’s involvement in the community has been prolific and wide ranging.
The Record sat down with the local entrepreneur and community builder for a chat. Here’s that conversation edited for space.
When and why did you move to New West?
I moved to New West around ’94. I was, like most people who are 18 or 19, looking to escape the small town. I originally landed in Vancouver for about six months or so and then my roommate and I decided that we both had jobs sort of more easterly, so we decided to find an apartment in New West. So I moved out here, and in ’97 I started at Douglas (College).
What did you take at Douglas?
I’m a graduate of the print futures professional writing program. … I was accepted to Langara’s journalism school at the same time, and I chose Douglas College because it was less money in bus passes.
Why’d you stay in New West?
It’s an easy place to live for all the reasons New West likes to talk about it: It’s centrally located, it’s super transit friendly. I didn’t have a car at the time, so everything I did was based on buses and SkyTrain. And I found that it was sort of – and, again, this might as well be New West’s tagline – but it was a small-town feel in a city. Having come from a sleepy little town on Vancouver Island, it kind of was that nice middle ground for me.
Have you always been a publicly involved person?
It wasn’t until I moved to a city and I felt that there was kind of a lessening of that connection that you get when you live in a super rural area, where you really can go and play with the other kids all day and nobody notices. I moved to the city and I felt like you had to almost manufacture connection to a degree, you had to manufacture engagement to a degree. I started realizing I had spare time and I could volunteer for things and that I could help out. But I lived here and graduated from Douglas before I really started getting involved.
What difference has that made?
One is I just feel more empowered to say hello to strangers. I feel a little bit more comfortable inserting myself into things because I’ve done it enough now that I’m pretty comfortable with idea of just sort of going, ‘Hi, I’m Jen. Can I help?’ It’s sort of emboldened me, if you will, to feel more comfortable that I belong here and that the city’s something that I’m a part of and not just living in.
How do you sum yourself up in a nutshell?
I like to think of myself as a really positive person, and I like to think of myself as a person who contributes for the greater good. And that’s the thing I’m trying hard to teach my kid, number one, and I hope that others take the initiative to do it as well because the rewards that I’ve experienced are personal and I feel good about contributing and I think others would feel that way too.
What about a title?
(Laughs) A community builder.
Why did you originally get involved in the farmers market?
I needed a job (laughs). I had worked for a company for 13 years before I went off on my mat leave. The work that I was doing, although it paid the bills, wasn’t the most meaningful work, and the equation of childcare versus wages was not a good equation. … I was trying to find a creative way to be able to stay home a bit more with my son. … It was just really good timing and the farmers market needed someone, and the job was really flexible. I could do it from home.
How do you feel about the way the farmers market is doing now?
The farmers market is a really healthy organization. It’s got a number of committed board members, also some committed staff. We’re all thinking on the same page about what the farmers market’s role is in the community, that blend of providing a fun event, a food shopping place and also being, on a level, advocates for food security. We’re just about to enter our 10th year, which is great. We have a lot of good systems in place and a lot of good processes in place, so, as an organization, it feels like we’re in a good place and we’re headed in the right direction and that we’re important to the community and there’s good reason for us to continue the work we do.
Are you proud of it?
Definitely. I’m super proud of it. A lot of the work was done by Andrew Murray. I have to give him a ton of credit, so now that I’m president, he’s passed on the reins, but a lot of the work was done by board members before me. We’re just at a place now where we have to start thinking about expansion, taking on bigger, more meaningful projects such as the more advocacy based work. We have to think about what is the greater impact that the farmers market can have in the community. So we’re thinking about these questions and putting plans in place. Hopefully we’ll be able to put something together for the next year or so.
Food seems to be a theme with you. Why is that?
(Laughs) Because it’s delicious! I don’t know, I grew up, like I said, in a pretty rural setting. I’m a big fan of making things myself, and I think there’s some therapy that can come from cooking. I was brought up to eat as well as I could, eat whole foods wherever I could.
Do you garden? Keep chickens?
I do. We have four chickens right now. I’ll admit Ross does most of the chicken care just because of the time he leaves in the morning. I’m a good garlic grower, but the other vegetables I grow don’t do great.
So Tenth to the Fraser, what inspired your involvement with that?
I was asked. In 2008, I was at home with a newborn and I wrote a long, ranty, angry post on my personal blog about people who don’t shovel their sidewalks because I was out with my stroller or baby carrier constantly tripping and slipping. Briana Tomkinson, who owned the site, reached out and asked if she could republish my rant on her website. I was like, ‘Sure.’ As it turned out, Briana and I had a lot of things in common. She had a young kid and was pregnant with her next. So we started hanging out and socializing. There were a lot of good conversations about politics and community building.
What about taking it to print?
When they moved away last December, Briana offered the website to me to take over. I said sure, and then along with Joanna Bartels, we decided that a bi-monthly print magazine would be something that would be well received. We both felt that there was a missing community magazine component to the community. ... We decided to go with a kind of community culture magazine and just go bi-monthly.
How did you get involved in KidSport?
I’ve been involved in KidSport for three or four years, and actually (Steel & Oak owner) Jorden Foss is the reason that I’m involved in KidSport. He was involved in KidSport through some friends of his, ... and I guess he’d seen some of my abilities to be organized and efficient, and he asked if I would be interested in volunteering. I had some spare time and I said sure. I was a registrar for KidSport for about three years. ... Now I’m technically the operational support director.
I love the New West Love Letter to Myself. Did you write one?
What did it say?
I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you for a couple years. All of the New West love letters are in a box in my office. There’s a note on it and there’s a reminder on my phone that says ‘To be mailed September 2019.’ The whole premise of it is that you wrote yourself a love letter based on the person were then. There were about 80.”
You seem very entrepreneurial. Do you ever see yourself settling into just one thing?
(Laughs) I would love to. I’d have more time to read books. I can’t help myself if I see a project or if I see something that just needs a little boost, a little push to get going. I like being involved. When I was in school, my teachers would have said that I’m great at starting projects and not as good at finishing project. That’s also, I think, part of the entrepreneurial spirit, that you love that exhilarating excitement of a new project and making something happen and then being able to hand it off to people.
What’s next for you?
For now, Tenth to the Fraser is taking up the bulk of my spare time. It is a business venture but currently it’s revenue neutral, I guess. It’s a lot of hustle. … I’d really like to focus a little bit on getting back into the hobbies I’ve had and trying to approach them in a way that still builds community. I really like sewing. I’d like to be able to have some craft afternoons, maybe teach someone how to do these things. I’m also making a lot of terrariums. I’ve been asked a few times lately to give some terrarium workshops at the library. And I think I’d really like to up my game when it comes to canning and pickling and preserving, so I’m actually doing some garden planning right now. And then just supporting the organizations that I feel passionate about in the community and also organizations that do really important stuff but maybe people don’t know about them.
Any chance you’ll go into politics in the future?
(Laughs) I get asked that a lot. I prefer to be a little bit behind the scenes. I’m not saying it’ll never happen, but it’s not on my immediate radar. Kale’s only eight, and he’s actively involved in karate and theatre, so I have to be really mindful that if I want to continue volunteering with all these organizations, there won’t be time to get into politics. Getting into politics means I would step down on a lot of boards, and I don’t know that I’m ready to do that yet.
Given all of this, what does this award mean to you?
I don’t think anyone volunteers because they have an expectation of winning awards. I don’t think that’s anyone’s inspiration that they might win an award, but to be nominated by people I respect and admire and to be nominated with people I respect and admire, it’s pretty humbling.