In 1997, Martha Piper, the University of British Columbia’s new President, began envisioning a new future for the university. One of her ideas was that the university should forge stronger connections beyond the boundaries of its campus. During the visioning process, someone made the point that if UBC was really serious about connecting with the community, it should start in the Downtown Eastside, because that was where the needs were greatest.
When UBC announced its intention to create a presence in the Downtown Eastside, well-known as Canada’s poorest and most distressed inner city neighbourhod, local residents and professionals rose up in opposition. Despite these troubled beginnings, the University of British Columbia Learning Exchange gradually became a trusted and valued part of the community.
I had the privilege to be the founding Director of this exciting initiative. By the time I left my position in 2011, the Learning Exchange had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. The programs in its storefront in the Downtown Eastside had benefited hundreds of local residents. Each year, about 200 people were taking part in free basic and advanced computer skills workshops. Each year, approximately 1,000 immigrants were participating in free English as a Second Language (ESL) conversation groups facilitated by specially trained people from the local area.
Community Service Learning (CSL) had become a major strategic priority for UBC. The Learning Exchange was the catalyst for the introduction and growth of CSL at UBC through its Trek Volunteer Program, its Reading Week CSL projects, and its support of faculty doing curricular CSL. The average annual growth rate in student participation in CSL from 1999 to 2011 was almost 60%. In 2011, 2,600 UBC students engaged in community-based experiential learning with the support of the Learning Exchange or its offshoot, the UBC-Community Learning Initiative. These students worked with non-profit organizations, public schools and small businesses across the Metro Vancouver region as well as in other communities in British Columbia.
Faculty began incorporating CSL into course work with Learning Exchange support in 2002. Since then more than 175 courses in disciplines across the university have included a CSL component. About 60% of UBC students doing CSL undertake their community projects or placements as part of an academic course.
UBC was the first Canadian university to do a CSL project during Reading Week (spring break). UBC’s Reading Week projects continue to be the largest in Canada, typically involving about 300 students. Teams of students, faculty, and staff from four other Canadian universities have come to Vancouver to learn first-hand about UBC’s Reading Week model.
The Learning Exchange and UBC-Community Learning Initiative raised $7.5 million from external sources from 2000 to 2011. This funding came from individuals, private foundations, corporate donors, and government.
The Learning Exchange tried to create opportunities for people to work together to achieve shared goals, especially people who would otherwise not get to know each other (e.g., middle class students and mentally ill homeless people). By facilitating these “learning exchanges” my team and I could see that amazing relationships were forming. People were connecting across social distance, united by their common aspirations and concerns. People learned about the others they were working with as well as about themselves. It was these relationships that were the core of the Learning Exchange’s success.
The name “learning exchange” might give the impression that these relationships are like commercial transactions. But they are not. They are more like gift exchanges. People often get more than they give. Typically, the gifts people give (of their time, attention, effort, and care) multiply and circulate through webs of relationship beyond the original giver and receiver.
What matters in these relationships is not how much you can pay or what your social status is compared to the person you are relating to. What matters is your shared humanity. These relationships are all about learning–something that is priceless. And the relationships that matter most are not the small percentage involving paid staff but the relationships involving the thousands of people who have participated in Learning Exchange activities–the Downtown Eastside residents who created community at the storefront or facilitated ESL or computer classes and the thousands of UBC students who have done Community Service Learning in the Downtown Eastside and other communities. Through the Learning Exchange, countless numbers of otherwise unlikely relationships have been created.
Some of these unlikely relationships have lasted. One student, Jacqui Ferraby, formed a relationship with a mentally ill Downtown Eastside resident that continues today. Jacqui took part in the first Reading Week project, then was a member of the first Trek Leadership Network, and then became a part-time Learning Exchange student staff member. To hear Jacqui talking with me about her relationship with her friend, listen to the audio clip below.
” We just clicked right away.”