Litman has a passion for bringing people together and fostering conversation around creative solutions to environmental problems.
LIKE MANY OF US, FRANCES LITMAN receives a lot of emails—about saving salmon streams and protecting water rights or forests; from environmental and human health organizations looking for support.
As a photographer, she is used to seeing the world through many lenses. She thinks a great deal about the relationships between the arts, the environment, health, even the disappearing old-growth forests in BC. To Litman, it all seems connected—all facets of planetary health. But by 2012, with so many organizations asking for support, Litman’s despair was beginning to grow. The problems seemed insurmountable. “I [felt I had] to do something,’” she tells me over a Zoom call this spring, while Indian plum was beginning to bloom in gardens and parks between my house in Saanich and hers in Esquimalt. “What can I do?”
A communications and arts professional with a glowing personality and a large network of friends and community members, Litman also has a tonne of drive. “I want to be a good human and a good ancestor,” she says, her eyes shining at me through the screen. Litman wants us to stop feeling smug about our position here on the west coast of Canada, enjoying the Indian plum blossoms and luxuriating in the relative peace in our part of the world, while many other regions go up in flames or disappear under massive floods. “We need to recognize our privilege, put our energy into creating a future that’s livable for everyone.”
Recognizing that climate change and ecosystem protections don’t happen unless people feel inspired, Litman decided to build an annual event—tied in with Earth Day in April—that would allow the public to meet and interact with people she calls the “hero workers”: artists, environmentalists, activists, musicians. She called it “Creatively United for the Planet (CUP)”; the festival’s first year in 2012 provided concurrent entertainment and education—inspiring people with good music while teaching people about climate change, biodiversity and a whole host of other environmental issues. “We had Daniel Lapp, The Getting Higher Choir, Paul Horn, and films, music, exhibits. It was the first opportunity for new food trucks in the region. And the whole thing was zero waste.” The event drew thousands; they had only “a bag and a half of garbage” by the end, she proudly tells me.
Frances Litman at the 2012 Creatively United for the Planet Festival. Photo by Daniel Etiene
Litman held eight more years of CUP festivals, helping to bring visibility to non-profits and provide an outlet for positive action in the region. Then in 2020, a familiar refrain: COVID hit, and along with the rest of the world, she had to pivot to an online event using her website [creativelyunited.org]. She held a week-long free festival that included First Nations Elders, youth panels, a webinar series and a whole new website to connect residents and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The pivot, however, took its toll. Now, she needs help to continue her mission.
CUP’s website features a variety of solutions to today’s complex environmental and social issues, including food, housing, nature, arts, conservation, transportation, zero waste, energy and climate. Many topics contain tips and fact sheets, articles and documentaries. She has led initiatives on environmental stewardship with Rock Heights School and the Esquimalt Climate Organizers. The CUP site also hosts several standalone organizations within its pages: the Ecoforestry Institute Society, the new iteration of Merv Wilkinson’s Wildwood forest in Yellowpoint; Project Drawdown, a collaboration to reverse global warming; and Conversations for a One Planet region, UVic Professor Trevor Hancock’s informal network of citizens.
Litman wants the site to function as a community resource, where organizations can post upcoming events and contribute to the community blogs. “A lot of people maybe think this is an ego thing for me; but someone has to be the spokesperson,” she emphasizes. Her climate partners include organizations like the Sierra Club but also groups of her own devising, like the Community Trees Matter Network which advocates for respectful development and urban tree preservation and protection in the Capital Region. No one who volunteers with Trees Matter had the money to create a stand-alone site, so she folded it into CUP. Litman smiles: she admits she has a habit of picking up on what needs doing in the region and just doing it if no one else comes forward. “We need to recognize that solutions for a better world are possible. We need to let go of the fear of change.”
This spring, CUP is also featuring a Climate and Artists webinar series, which will continue every Wednesday from 11am-noon until May 19th.
The breadth and depth of Litman’s site is prodigious. It also provides an environmental events calendar on which non-profits can post their events. She says, “I’d truly like to see [the site] become a community solutions hub, where everyone wins. It’s meant to lift everyone up.” But Litman doesn’t have staff. Other than the webmaster, volunteers keep the site running, but what she really needs is an expert in coding, someone who could set up automatic curation and display of events from websites across the region, and someone who could organize, streamline and clarify the site’s pages. “We really need people with the ability to get this [information] out. But when you’re on a limited budget, it’s hard.”
The festivals, the website and the outreach are all labours of love, done off the side of her desk while she continues as a photographer and communications professional. She laughs, her enthusiasm bubbling through the computer screen, “I thought, ‘I’m going to kill myself if I keep doing this.’”
Last spring, Litman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since surgery, she has taken a step back from the work of Creatively United, and tried to find balance in her life. “It was too much work and too little self care,” she admits. “I find this work so energizing and encouraging, and a positive lift, but I’ve been totally out of my comfort zone. COVID has made me realize I’m an introvert. I can’t do everything. I can’t do it all.”
Still, Litman appeared in Saanich News just this week, miming pulling the winners for a draw for the Mountain Road Forest fundraiser. CUP partnered with three artists to enhance the fundraising efforts led by Habitat Acquisition Trust for the protection of a 49-acre forest in Saanich. (Go and donate if you haven’t already; the forest is beautiful and the fundraiser ends at the end of April.) Litman’s next episode of the Climate and Artists Series, on energy, climate and transportation, airs on Wednesday, April 7 from 11am-noon. Registration is free.
“I feel that people need to wake up,” she tells me, her hand to her chest and her curls shaking. She smiles again, “We don’t sense [the urgency] on this beautiful island, but climate change is going to wreak havoc in ways we can’t even imagine. I feel it’s a moral obligation to help people recognize that solutions exist.”
There’s an exhaustion hovering over many of us after after a full year of pandemic stress and uncertainty. We’re all tired. But somehow, Litman is still egging us on toward a liveable future. “This is the perfect opportunity for us to pivot.”
Explore Frances Litman’s labour of love at https://creativelyunited.org/
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which is in its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.