I stood in the tentative sunshine outside UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and thought to myself, “She really means it.”
It was May 1998. I had just emerged from an open forum hosted by Martha Piper, UBC’s President. The forum gave the campus community a chance to hear about UBC’s new proposed vision for the future, called Trek 2000. I felt drawn to Martha Piper and her vision for UBC, especially the commitment to engage with communities beyond the university campus. Having spent most of my career doing social policy research in settings where I learned that community members have a lot to contribute to research, I believed that universities needed to be more open to working with people outside the academy.
At the time of the forum, I had just completed the first year of coursework for my PhD. At some point during my travels on campus I happened to pick up a copy of the discussion paper that outlined UBC’s new Trek vision. I was pleasantly surprised by the stated intention to form stronger connections with communities. Since I am interested in organizational change and how it happens, I decided to go to the forum.
Given my skepticism around bureaucracies, I expected the President to appear surrounded by a phalanx of men in suits—fellow guardians of the university’s interests. I assumed the dialogue would be tightly controlled. Instead, Martha strode across the stage of the Chan Centre, all alone, microphone in hand and said, “Hi, I’m Martha Piper and I want to talk with you today about the five central elements of our proposed vision and why they are important.”
Although Martha is slight, she has a personal power that was tangible even from my seat at the back of the hall. As she spoke, her movements were quick and confident. She was not hampered by the physical awkwardness, the disconnection between the head and the rest of the body, that characterizes so many academics.
With clarity and passion, Martha spoke about the five pillars of the Trek vision, one of which was “community.” Then she invited questions and comments from the floor. For the next hour, Martha fielded questions and listened to rants, some of them obviously well-worn. She responded with what seemed like genuine, even enthusiastic interest. Several times she said, “That’s an interesting point. Send me an email on that, so I can make sure we include that.” Or, “That’s an important issue, call my office and make an appointment to see me so I can learn more.”
I went home and wrote the President a letter. I talked about my previous experiences doing community-based research in the health and social sectors. I described some of the barriers to effective community-university collaborations that I was aware of, including cultural factors arising from differences in life experience. I ended my letter by saying, “I believe very strongly in the value of community-based research, especially in fields such as the health and social sciences—fields where research can be used in community decision-making. I am willing to do whatever I can to help UBC develop strategies to support community-based research, and to make stronger links between community members and interested faculty and students.”
Even though I made the effort to write the letter, the skeptical part of me assumed nothing much would come of it. I was surprised when, a couple of weeks later, I received a letter from Martha Piper indicating that the executive director of her office, Herbert Rosengarten, would be in touch with me to discuss my ideas further. I thought, “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”
But I did, in fact, receive a call from Herbert. And we did get together, not once but twice. We met in Herbert’s office, a room packed with books, like most professors’ offices. But unlike many professors’ habitats, Herbert’s office was tidy and welcoming. We took a few minutes to get to know each other. He told me that he was an English professor, former head of that department. He was raised and educated in the United Kingdom but emigrated to Canada as a young graduate in the sixties. As I told stories of some of the research projects I had done with different community groups, Herbert listened attentively. He seemed sympathetic to my argument that research in domains such as health policy would be better and more relevant if it were done by academics and community people working together.
A year later, in June 1999, Herbert called me again. He told me that, as part of implementing the Trek 2000 vision, UBC had decided to establish some kind of presence in the Downtown Eastside. He said he was looking for some students to conduct a consultation over the summer to find out what people in the Downtown Eastside thought of UBC’s proposed initiative. He asked if I would be willing to work on the project.
I was not particularly interested in the job. But I said I would think about it. I had just finished the comprehensive exams for my PhD and had submitted the application for ethical approval of my dissertation research. I was anticipating starting my field work in the fall. The consulting practice I had been pursuing for the previous decade had dwindled because the people in my network all knew I was back at school and not really available. So I did not have much on my agenda for the summer.
But I had the same stereotypes and misconceptions about the Downtown Eastside as most people. Did I really want to spend my summer there? I made a list of the pros and cons of accepting the job. The con side included bullet points about the fact that I would be exposed to people and situations that would be unfamiliar and challenging and that I would not be paid very much. The pro side included the (same) point that I would be exposed to people and situations that would be unfamiliar and challenging as well as the point that the work might lead to some other opportunities in my career. The list included more pros than cons so I accepted the position. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Getting to know the Downtown Eastside.