A celebration of strength & resilience: The 2019 Women’s Street Fair & Flea Market

Aug 23, 2019

Written by Lola Fakinlede

For the fourth year in a row, the women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) have partnered with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) to hold a summer market on Columbia Street, between East Pender & Hastings.

Held every Saturday (until August 31st) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Women’s Street Fair & Flea Market celebrates the resilience, creativity and community of the women in the DTES. For the women of the market – vendors like Pat, Mikaela and Kathy who sell original artwork, customized accessories and baked goods, respectively – the weekly event is a source of positivity in a neighbourhood associated with poverty and drug overdose.

Women of the community speak to how the Women’s Market is crucial.

“It is needed. We, as women, are isolated by everyone and need the bonding opportunities,” says Shelley M., a jewelry and crafts vendor. “Women our age are literally kicked to the curb,” says another vendor, who goes by the name Q-PID Indigo.

In an adjacent stall, Alice, a secondhand clothing vendor, is excited to have her picture taken. She wraps a beautiful blue scarf around her neck. Q-PID Indigo approves: “She’s got the best smile.” Alice is visibly pleased and picks out a scarf for Q-PID Indigo.

Official reports highlight the many health challenges – HIV, Hepatitis C, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, developmental disabilities, and psychological trauma, to name a few – that many individuals in the neighbourhood are facing. The lived experience of exploitation and violence, which many of the women have known for years, would be devastating for anyone to go through. To see the women smiling, talking, and excited to make a sale is a pure reflection of their strength and resilience.

Despite the many challenges that they have faced and continue to deal with, the women are survivors. Time and again, they display their ability to move through painful experiences and see a better, brighter future – the market is no exception.

Brenda, who moved to the DTES after her husband’s death in 2000, is one of a handful of regular volunteers at the market. She witnessed its humble beginnings four years ago and says she feels grateful to be part of such an inspiring community event. “It is my opportunity to give back to my community,” she says. “It feels really good to give back.” As a volunteer, Brenda has seen the market blossom each summer. “We have learned a lot of good lessons.”

This year’s summer market is supervised by Ekaterina, Program Manager at DEWC, and Jasmine and Sophie, who are Market Coordinators with DEWC. Every week, they host meetings with volunteers and take regular feedback from market participants to continue improving the efficiency of the market and the enjoyment of its stakeholders – the vendors, the volunteers and, of course, the visitors. 

A project like this helps organizations like DEWC to continue moving the agenda towards addressing systemic issues like poverty, in addition to providing women in the area with much-needed safe spaces, basic necessities, and advocacy and self-development programs.  

Operating on a grassroots model, DEWC’s programs and services, which promote inclusion and cultural safety, have emerged out of necessity to meet the needs of the women in the DTES. For women who are new to the community, the market has been a learning experience. “It makes me feel nerves. [It’s my] first time,” says one vendor. However, as she engages in conversation with market visitors and potential buyers, her friendliness and optimism are apparent – novice or not, she looks very much like a pro alongside the other vendors. 

“Women work more together,” says Teresa, an art vendor. 

Candice, focusing carefully on braiding her client’s hair, says she finds the market a conducive and safe environment where she can bring her baby. As her talent for braiding hair gains more exposure through events like the market as well as on social media, Candice is branching out to hosting workshops at community centres in the area. Her first hairbraiding workshop is on August 23rd at the Strathcona Community Centre.

While the market represents the beauty and joy of the community, the surrounding area is not without visible reminders of prevalent poverty and hardship. Yet, just a few feet away, another vendor named Gem finds refuge and reprieve. “There is drama everyday in the DTES but here [at the market], I feel safe,” she says. “Sell or not, I enjoy being here and meeting people.” Like several other vendors, Gem says she would like to see the market extended beyond the summer months. “Do more weeks on extended time,” she says.

Brenda echoes Gem’s sentiments. “The market encourages women to declutter…to work hard and to get in shape,” she says. Brenda pledges to return and volunteer again at the next summer market. Looking ahead, the hope is that the Women’s Flea Market & Street Fair continues to grow into something that makes an even greater difference for the women involved and for the community at large. 

The Downtown Eastside Women’s Market runs every Saturday until August 31st on Columbia St between Pender and Hastings.