What about efforts to bring about change in poor and marginalized communities like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside? Why should anyone try? The problems seem so intractable. Besides, poverty is inevitable. Someone will always be poor since wealth is always distributed unequally. And there will always be outsiders. The boundaries around social groups seem to be an inevitable part of social life.
My answer to this question is, “Spend time in the marginalized community. Get to know the people who live there. I am pretty sure, if your mind and heart are open at all, you will be motivated to try to make some kind of change.”
Yes, some degree of poverty and social marginalization are inevitable. But, in a wealthy country like Canada, there is no reason for people to be living in unsafe, unheated buildings that are infested by rats, bedbugs, and cockroaches. There is no reason for people to be malnourished. Or to die alone in alleys. There is no reason for people with gifts to contribute to their neighbours to feel condemned by society.
We need new stories
Academics, policy makers, service providers, and the media have been talking about what to do about the Downtown Eastside for a long time. Unfortunately, most of these debates simply repeat old formulations about what the problems are. And most exclude people who actually live in the Downtown Eastside and know the problems from the inside. The refrains are familiar. The predominant themes boil down to this: “These people are worthless and do not deserve to get help from mainstream society,” or “These people are sick or otherwise incapable and need more or better services,” or “We, ‘these people’ need to be given the government supports we are entitled to and otherwise left alone to live our lives the way we see fit.”
Each of these predominant viewpoints is associated with supporting arguments, research data, personal anecdotes, and firm moral or political commitments. Throughout society, the ideological and discursive lines in the sand have been drawn. In the Downtown Eastside itself, trenches have been dug.
The lack of curiosity about what is really happening in the Downtown Eastside seems strange. It is especially strange considering the fascination the area seems to generate based on the degree of media attention it gets. Too much of the fascination is that of the voyeur. If you spend time in the Downtown Eastside with an attitude of curiosity, you realize that it really is fascinating. You discover that none of the dominant stories hold water. The reality is much more complex, contradictory, and generative of interesting questions than the dominant stories suggest.
Inside and outside; us and them
People who live in the Downtown Eastside often challenge policy makers, politicians, journalists, and others who make pronouncements about the Downtown Eastside to actually spend some time living in the neighbourhood, trying to make ends meet on the amount that welfare pays each month, living in the housing that poor people live in, and eating at soup kitchens. Their point is that you cannot and should not try to influence issues and contexts you have no direct experience with.
People have debated this point for a long time. To be competent to comment, for example, on the issue of prostitution, do I need to have experience as a prostitute? Or would that experience make it impossible for me to be objective enough to see the issue clearly? I think the answer to this question is “it depends”—on the context, the nature of the issue, other sources of credible information and insight that are available, and other factors.
Given my experience in the Downtown Eastside I do believe that, if you have not spent a significant period of time in the neighbourhood and if you do not know a variety of people who live there, you are certainly not competent to try to effect change in the area. Why not? Because the complexities and contradictions do not reveal themselves to outsiders who only skim the surface. And because no strategies for change will be worthwhile for the people who live in a particular context unless they are generated by people who consider themselves “us.” Solutions to problems proposed from outside by “them” will never succeed.
Living with the tensions
During the time I worked in the Downtown Eastside I encountered a multitude of contradictions—people, situations, and relational dynamics that did not fit into black and white categories or familiar stories about how the world works. Things that might have looked obvious and straightforward from the outside were much messier on the inside. I had to learn to navigate terrain that was confusing and distressing. I had to learn to find peace in the vortex of two major tensions: between micro and macro and between change and stability.
There is a tension between dealing with a problem in the particular and dealing with a problem in the abstract. Deciding how to interact with a drug user who is in the midst of a cocaine-induced psychotic state who has suddenly appeared in your office is different from deciding where you stand on the issue of opening supervised injection sites. Deciding whether to give money to a homeless woman on the street who is obviously mentally ill is different from deciding whether to donate part of your paycheque to a non-profit organization that provides shelter to women fleeing domestic abuse. Seeing the difficulties faced by a man who has been unemployed for ten years who is trying to prepare a resume that will get him a job is different from seeing how global economic forces limit the range of available job options.
Bouncing back and forth between concern for the micro and the macro is, in my experience, one of the most demanding aspects of trying to be an effective social change agent. But to rest too long on one or the other end of the tightrope is dangerous. You get either too isolated from the urgency of the need for change or too captivated by the details of the particular instance of the problem.
There is also a tension between the drive for change and the recognition that people, groups, and systems need stability and continuity, too. This tension is not just related to the dynamic rhythm of rest and movement, like the difference between the logic of staying home, reading by the fire during the Canadian winter and the imperative in the springtime to get outside and plant your garden or play sports. This tension is also related to the deeper question of why we think we have to change situations rather than letting them be as they are.
Intensive meditation practice and other ways of achieving deep insight reveal that everything is changing all the time already. Despite appearances, nothing is stable or permanent. Despite our efforts to make ourselves safe and comfortable, the big forces in life cannot be controlled. Nevertheless, many people, me included, feel compelled to try to alleviate suffering, redress injustice, or apply our creative capacities to social issues. While I know this tension is almost unbearable, I believe it is necessary to learn how not to turn away from it. If we do not live inside this tension and let it live inside us, we risk becoming addicted to change, movement, novelty, or innovation for their own sake. The danger is we will forget to listen and watch for signs that it is time to stop and do nothing.
It takes skill to live with these kinds of tensions. Fortunately, this skill can be learned. Like most practical skills, it can only be learned by doing. Sustained practice is required. The way to learn to live with these tensions is to live with them. Ideally, you will be able to do so in the presence of others with greater experience. Which is why getting inside poor and marginalized communities is so important. Where else will you find so many people who have faced adversity, struggled to survive, wrestled with internal demons, and lived to tell the tale? When you lose a job, home, marriage, friends, or your mind, most people take it very personally at first, but many people eventually come to see larger social forces at work. When you are in the maelstrom of serious trouble in your life you have no illusions about being in control. People in poor and marginalized communities have much more experience navigating these tensions than people who have always lived comfortable lives. I am reminded of something a Learning Exchange patron said during one of my conversations with him: “You have to experience continual adversity until the frustration and resistance are worn away. Only then will you find peace within yourself.” You do not develop that kind of wisdom when your life is going well.
Focus on learning
If the conditions in places like the Downtown Eastside are going to improve, change agents need to focus more on learning than knowing. They need to position themselves on tightropes not soapboxes. They need to be willing to be uncomfortable. They need to unlearn stale, taken-for-granted assumptions and go looking for new stories about how social marginalization happens and what can be done about it. Ideally, these stories will be ones told from the inside, from up close and personal rather than from a distance. Ideally, these stories will humanize poor and marginalized people, rather than stigmatizing and denigrating them. Ideally, strategies for change based on these stories will aim to include people, not by making them conform to a standard of normality imposed from outside, but by making people in both the mainstream and the margins more aware of their own prejudices and enabling people to make space for diversity. Doing this requires the recognition that everyone has strengths and everyone is vulnerable. It requires everyone to be willing to have their comfortable viewpoints and arguments disrupted. It requires everyone to be willing to change themselves and their own living conditions. Sacrifices may be required.
I think the motive behind efforts to change conditions in places like the Downtown Eastside should not only be that poor and marginalized people are in need, but that the larger society needs such people. Not to serve as scapegoats or targets or foils for heroic projects. Societies need to retrieve people from the margins because we need their talents, knowledge, and expertise. We need to stop wasting these resources. And we need to stop harming ourselves by cutting ourselves off from an awareness of our own vulnerability. We need more challenging contexts in which to learn humility and courage. We need to learn how to be humans living in inclusive communities where people care for each other because they know and trust each other. If society does not embrace its weak and incapable members, it ceases to be a society. Its soul is impoverished. Everyone eventually ends up on the margins because the social group has no heart.
The only way change agents can learn the skills necessary to create this kind of social inclusion is in the presence of people who challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and norms. These skills cannot be learned in classrooms or board rooms. The context for learning needs to allow everyone the freedom to be confused and disturbed. Thoughts and emotions need to roam freely, at least for a while. The place where this kind of profound learning can take place is in communities like the Downtown Eastside, places where the storms of life cannot be ignored.
For more reflections on social change, see the other articles in Learning to be a change agent.
For more on social marginalization and social justice, go to the Reflections section.
For background on the Downtown Eastside and UBC’s presence there, go to the Context section.