“Think about what you used to do on your own initiative as a child. That’s what your vocation is.” My friend was quoting advice he had read somewhere. He was explaining how his irresistible impulse to play with boats throughout his childhood was the foundation for his recent decision to buy a sailboat and live on it while cruising around the British Isles.
Ambivalence about being a leader
I thought back to my childhood. What did I do when I was left to my own devices? I organized my friends into clubs, got myself appointed President, and bossed everybody around. I had to laugh. This is ironic because the other thing I have always tended to do is seek solitude. When there are no external demands, I read, meditate, go for rambles in the woods, or turn on loud music and dance.
This tension has pervaded my professional life. After holding a leadership position in the 1980s in a large health care institution where I had to ensure my team’s compliance with absolutely necessary but rigid quality control procedures I decided I did not want to be in that kind of position ever again. I could not imagine power and status differentials being negotiated without somebody feeling dominated.
So I became an independent, self-employed research consultant working mostly in community settings. I loved this role. It was completely devoid of stress. My clients and I related to each other as colleagues, as equals. I had no one “under” me. I imagined being an independent consultant for the rest of my working life.
Then in 1997 I went back to UBC to get a PhD. Then I got involved in what became the Learning Exchange. When I was offered the opportunity to lead the development of UBC’s new initiative in the Downtown Eastside, I was so excited by the possibilities I forgot my earlier resolve about not getting into positions where I was responsible for overseeing the work of others.
In retrospect, in some ways I wish I had stuck to my earlier vow. I would have avoided a lot of stress. But I also would have missed huge learning opportunities and a lot of joy. Being part of the Learning Exchange team, I came to appreciate why it is so important for people to work together. None of us could ever have accomplished alone what we did as a team. Working at the Learning Exchange I saw the beauty of generative power, power that gets created when people work together to achieve a shared goal they care deeply about.
But I also was reminded of the destructiveness of dominating power. At times I was guilty of exercising it. So my role as a leader was, at times, a burden that I did not always carry with grace. But throughout my time as Director, I felt passionate about the importance of the work of the Learning Exchange.
My passion for the work
Most people assumed that UBC’s goal in reaching out to the Downtown Eastside was to help improve the situation there. This was true. But it was also true that UBC’s President and her allies wanted to change the university. This was the part of the work that I was most passionate about. I believed there was a reasonable chance that UBC’s initiative could achieve needed change in the university. I was not so sure that it could make a significant difference in the Downtown Eastside.
When the Learning Exchange was in its infancy, I was surprised that so many people said, “Margo, you are the perfect person for this job!” On one level, I wondered what they meant. Were they thinking of my previous work doing research and planning in community contexts? Or my keen interest in trying new things? On a deeper level, I wondered how they knew. Because that is how I felt, too.
Several beliefs and life experiences made me a perfect fit for the Learning Exchange, I think. One was my conviction, based on my previous work, that people in communities hold forms of knowledge that provide a crucial counterpoint to academic knowledge. I believe that public universities have a responsibility to engage more effectively with the critical issues society is facing. To do so they have to find ways to integrate and apply knowledge gained through science and rational inquiry with knowledge gained through life experience and engagement with adversity—knowledge learned in the “school of hard knocks.”
I also believe that students should be given more opportunities to take initiative, to rise to challenges, to fail and recover, and to achieve results that matter to other people. While doing my undergraduate studies, I saw the voice of my own excitement about learning decline from a girlish squeal at the start of first year to a cynical mumble by the time I graduated. Decades later, doing my PhD, I gained a new appreciation for many aspects of academia, but I could see that the fundamentals of undergraduate teaching had not changed much. So I was eager to see if UBC’s involvement in the Downtown Eastside could lead to changes in the way undergraduates are taught.
In addition, I have learned some hard lessons about poverty and marginalization through direct experience. When I was twelve, the family business that my father and grandmother were running went bankrupt. At the time, the bankruptcy laws were such that our house and summer cottage, my dad’s car, and my grandmother’s house and car were all seized. We were left with only our clothes, the household furniture, and my mother’s small car. At the time, the social norms were such that the collapse of the business and the circumstances surrounding it were seen as scandalous. Suddenly my family was poor, homeless, and in disgrace.
At the time, there was a great deal about this sequence of events I did not understand (and I still have a few questions about what happened and why). But I saw my family’s money and status evaporate almost overnight. I could not escape the teaching that financial “security” and social standing are not as solid as most people assume.
Later, in the 1970s, I chose to live on the margins. I went “back to the land” with a draft dodger from Baltimore. We built a small cabin on 30 acres of woodland in a rural area in Eastern Canada. Eventually, we ran out of money. We could not subsist on the land and there were no job prospects. My boyfriend was occasionally violent towards me. It was a very dark time. I learned unwelcome lessons about hunger and desperation. Like others in similar situations, I used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and fear.
I managed to extricate myself from this downward spiral, with the help of friends. But I have no illusions about how thin the line is that separates me and other “successful” people from marginalized people like those in the Downtown Eastside.
In 1980 I made the decision to return to life in mainstream urban North America. I had discovered there was nowhere to hide. Plus I felt an obligation to do my part to try to make the world a better place. But, even though I subsequently took on mainstream professional roles and adopted some of the trappings of the dominant culture, I still see myself as living on the margins.
The early shattering of my comfortable, middle-class life left me with an abiding curiosity about how the forces of money, community, and society operate as well as a recurrent skepticism about the conventional wisdom about such forces. I was influenced by some of the ideas associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s and ’70s, including some of the teachings of Eastern religions, especially the teachings of the Buddha. I have been a diligent practitioner of Buddhist meditation for 40 years.
The world view I have adopted as a result of these explorations is significantly different from that of mainstream Western culture. As a result I think I have become relatively sensitive to the ways in which words, deeds, and unspoken assumptions can either include or exclude people. I have also become preoccupied with the question of how particular ideas, practices, and even people become either dismissed or accepted as legitimate.
The question of legitimacy
Legitimacy and how it gets bestowed was the predominant theme of my PhD research. I examined the question of how people come to see different approaches to healing as legitimate. My research explored what was happening at the interface between conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine, especially in the area of cancer treatment.
For my PhD I had to go beyond my taken-for-granted understanding of the concept of legitimacy. I discovered that Talcott Parsons, one of the founding fathers of Sociology, started talking about legitimacy fifty years ago.
Parsons outlined three functions of social systems that are relevant to the determination of legitimacy:
- the way in which values are shared by members of a common culture;
- the ways in which values are connected to the institutions which regulate society; and
- the ways in which society is politically organized to implement collective or public goals.
Parsons conceived of processes of legitimation as, “The primary link between values as an internalised component of the personality of the individual, and the institutionalised patterns which define the structure of social relationships” (Parsons 1960: 173). So, the determination of legitimacy is a function of the interplay between individual and collective values, beliefs, and interests and the way these are expressed through social groups and institutions.
This definition of legitimation left me with a vague unease. What bothered me about Parsons’ analysis when I was doing my PhD is what still bothers me after my experiences with the Learning Exchange. Legitimation is a process that not only applies to values, beliefs and actions. It also applies to people and their sense of self, to the feeling of being a valued, legitimate person. It is a process that brings people in from the margins. It incorporates. It is a unifying force. But this means it is also a homogenizing force, a force that requires conformity. And the process is sometimes achieved through domination.
When I was juggling the conduct of my PhD research with my new role at the Learning Exchange, people often asked me about my dissertation, assuming my topic would be related to my job. I would explain that, “No, my research has nothing to do with the work I am doing in the Downtown Eastside.” But then one day I was facilitating a discussion with a group of cancer patients who were using alternative therapies and a woman said angrily, “I am so tired of being done to.” These were the same words expressed with the same frustration I had heard over and over again in the Downtown Eastside. In that moment I realized that my dissertation and my work were not that different. The underlying issues were the same: Who has what kinds of power? What kinds of knowledge count? Who gets to make decisions that can change the course of your life?
The process of becoming legitimate is a double-edged sword. Yes, I and others who are on the margins in one way or another want our truths and our personhood to be respected as valid and valuable. But I do not want my truth or personhood to be co-opted or subsumed. Neither do people in the Downtown Eastside. Yes, I worked hard to establish the Learning Exchange as a legitimate entity in both the university and the Downtown Eastside. We could not have accomplished what we did if we had not been seen as legitimate.
But as I reflect on how the Learning Exchange unfolded and the role I played, I see more clearly the price I and others paid. Now my preoccupation with the question of legitimacy is centred on whether and how it can be gained without sacrificing creativity or surrendering the impulse to effect change. I am still passionate about the work of the Learning Exchange and similar initiatives. But I am more aware of the potential for unintended but nevertheless, harmful, consequences when “success” (even successful social change) is pursued.
I offer this information about my background so you can see something of the person behind the roles of founding director and reflective writer. The content on this website is a function of who I am, just as the evolution of the Learning Exchange was influenced by who I was. My use of the past tense here is intentional. I have changed since the days when I was the Director of the Learning Exchange. I continue to change. In fact, it has been a challenge to launch this website because my analysis of how things happened and what matters keeps changing as I read and reflect more and am exposed to new ideas. So please keep in mind two things: The views expressed here are views from somewhere. But do not assume that it is exactly the same somewhere on every page.
Parsons, Talcott (1960) Structures and Processes in Modern Societies New York: the Free Press.