Matthew Smedley talks Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, being a minister, and his relentless heart that aims to help every person
Name: Matthew Smedley
Profession: Executive Director & CEO at Mission Possible
Education: Simon Fraser University (graduate certificate in Community Economic Development), Regent College (course work in theology and sociology), and Cairn University (bachelor of science, field of theology, biblical studies and sociology).
Fun fact: Smedley says that the least known fact about him is that he is an ordained minister
An office, a window, and a tremendous capacity to care for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community — three things I quickly learn that SFU alum, Matthew Smedley, currently has.
After several rescheduled emails, we finally sit down for an interview, both in our respective offices, linked by our cell phone lines. I, in a cramped space tucked away in SFU Burnaby’s Maggie Benston Centre, and Matthew, in his office somewhere in the Downtown Eastside.
Amidst the awkward fumbling of recording devices, Smedley’s voice is clear and strong through the static of my iPhone. I begin by asking him to describe his role at Mission Possible (MP), a community organisation dedicated to helping the Downtown Eastside homeless population.
“I get to essentially support and help manage a team who are doing amazing work which is busy impacting lives of people who are experiencing poverty,” he says. “We’re creating impact ultimately through employment opportunities that lead to empowerment for individuals are experiencing isolation and marginalisation.”
In the morning haze, I do not put two and two together that Smedley, being the Chief Empowerment Officer, is also the company’s CEO. It’s safe to say that Smedley is familiar with the Downtown Eastside, as he has been with Mission Possible for a little over 11 years, being the CEO for almost five of them.
Smedley starts by telling me that the Downtown Eastside is a neighbourhood.
“Well, not a neighbourhood. It’s actually five neighbourhoods,” he later amends himself, “but it’s a community of 20,000 people. And of that 20,000 people, half of them are living in poverty. So the per capita rate of poverty is extremely high.” Throughout the interview, I notice something about Smedley: not once does he use the term “homeless people,” and opts for calling them as they are, people.
“People often just assume that people don’t have the ability or motivation to work, or those kinds of things, but it’s really the opportunity, they need just the right opportunity,” he emphasizes.
“You know, one of our individuals who was running our MP Neighbours program started out volunteering with our organisation,” he offers eagerly, sharing the story of an individual who came through Mission Possible’s program only to end up working in it permanently. “Someone who was going through recovery, and was volunteering, and then he was referred to come work with us.” Smedley doesn’t waste a moment before praising the individual’s hard work. “He walked in [the] shoes [of a homeless person], and just that lived experience is so powerful.”
“My goal is that anytime we have positions where we can hire people, we always look for those who have come through our program,” Smedley explains, “Those who have experienced what we do, and those people are going to have the biggest impact in supporting those who come after them.”
But how does one get into this line of work? For Smedley it was simple. Roughly 13 years ago, Smedley was working at a church. It was through there that he found Mission Possible.
“I started volunteering serving some meals, and then I was able to start working part time,” he shares. “And this was before we had our social enterprises, and our employment readiness program.”
When I ask Smedley whether or not his background as a pastor impacted his choice of current career, he agrees with an almost casual, “Yeah,” as if a life of social work from religious ministry was something most would do on their average weekday.
“I would say that the connection was what helped me come in, but the work, really — as a pastor and training that I had — was what inspired and gave me the drive to really want to care for people who I feel like otherwise would not have the opportunities that they have,” he says. As Smedley continues talking about the marginalisation, it faintly occurs to me that Smedley has talked about his community more than himself throughout the interview — a testament to his selfless character.
When I ask what Smedley finds most rewarding about his work, I’m not surprised with his answer. “It’s the people that motivate me,” he says, “It’s the team I get to work with, I just work with a fantastic group of people [ . . . ] But it’s also those we get to build relationships with and get to know who walk in our doors and get to see lives changed through the work that we’re doing.”
As he’s an SFU alum, I ask Smedley if his time at SFU helped to prepare him for his current career. Smedley states “it was a program that I did actually right before moving into the Executive Director role, and it was one that opened my eyes to the amazing work that’s being done across our province and across the country.”
The program Smedley speaks of is Community Economic Development (CED) program, which aims to empower and equip its students with skills that will allow them to help strengthen communities. On the CED website, SFU calls their program a leader in CED across Canada, [with content that] is both progressive and unique compared to peer institutions.”
When it comes to Smedley’s fondest memories of his time at SFU, he doesn’t hesitate to describe the connections with other people that have made his work fulfilling and memorable. Given that the CED program is located in downtown Vancouver, Smedley mentions how fortunate he feels to still be working with some of the other members of his program. They all may not be in the same organization, but the connection is there. “I’m just so thankful for the connections that have been made through that time at SFU.” he says.
For any aspiring SFU students interested in learning how to make a difference, Smedley offers two ways to get involved with Mission Possible.
“One is we currently have a co-op student working with us, and that has been fantastic [ . . . ] we have summer opportunities and things like that for short term, temporary work. We’re always looking to recruit great people.”
Those interested in permanent positions can find them on the Mission Possible website as well on SFU’s job posting lists.
Smedley emphasizes that he hopes to provide opportunities of all kinds, regardless of one’s major, whether it’s for communications or business students. “Anything from communications and marketing, you know — there’s fundraising roles, there’s sales roles, there’s training roles, doing employment training, [and] coaching.”
Smedley suggests that the small size of the organization, roughly 23–25 employees, make the jobs at Mission Possible multifaceted.
“We would love to give opportunities to students who are coming out with education, maybe in social services field, but even if not, there’s opportunities,” he says. “We’re running social enterprises, we’re running businesses, and so, I think there’s opportunity in a whole bunch of different areas that people may not expect when they think of a nonprofit.”
Even long after I ended the interview with Smedley, I am still in awe of his character. It gave me hope for humanity whenever he opted to say “we” rather than “I.” Inspired, and the slightest bit self-reflective, I look up Mission Possible’s next date for volunteering (it’s every Saturday, with a call time of 8:30 a.m.!). Smedley began his career serving the Downtown Eastside by serving meals, so I see no reason why I can’t do the same.