Drawing and erasing boundaries

Much of the language we use to describe social exclusion is based on spatial metaphors. Talking about the margins evokes an image of a circle or a series of concentric circles.  Alternatively, referring to the mainstream and the margins may evoke an image of a broad waterway running through a channel with shallow, boggy areas along its edges. Both popular and academic discourses on marginalization are filled with words that suggest physical boundaries that separate insiders from outsiders. My own descriptions of the two areas in which I worked—the university and the community— evoke images of two discrete entities separated by a distance that must be traversed. On one level, these metaphors are useful aids to navigation in life. For example, it can be helpful to have a mental spatial map of social or interpersonal worlds in which you can locate yourself in relation to others.

But when it comes to considering what social marginalization is, how it happens, whether it needs to happen, and what we might want to do about it, our spatial mental models may be blinding us to important possibilities. When we position ourselves and particular others too firmly in one social location or another, we limit our ability to move. And this, too often, limits our ability to see our environment from different perspectives.

In the original Learning Exchange space, there were two groups of people. They worked side-by-side but they were separate. The paid professional staff worked in their offices, developing and implementing Learning Exchange programs. On the other side of the glass partitions, people who patronized the drop-in worked on their own projects.

With the emergence of the ESL program, the boundaries between paid staff and patrons started to soften. As patrons took responsibility for facilitating conversations among people who wanted to improve their English, a new category of social position emerged: the English as a Second Language (ESL) facilitator. The boundary around the Learning Exchange staff team expanded to incorporate facilitators, who began engaging in some of the same kinds of behaviours as paid staff with some of the same expectations around accountability for performance and commitment to Learning Exchange goals. The criterion for inclusion in the circle of the staff team was conformity to organizational norms and expectations.

The issue of whether and how patrons came to be included in the Learning Exchange staff circle is only one side of the coin. In her thesis,  Marisol Petersen, the graduate student who became the coordinator of the ESL program, describes a turning point in her efforts to gain the trust of patrons. One day, one of the patrons saw her taking a pill. He asked her what she was doing. She explained that she was taking medication for a headache disorder which was the result of being in a car accident when she was a teenager. This led to a conversation that several people in the drop-in participated in. Marisol talked about her experience with the disorder and how difficult it was for her to realize that she did not have complete control over her life. This prompted others to share their own stories of a similar loss of control. Marisol says, “At that critical moment, a wall had come down between us and, in its place, a sense of mutual understanding and trust had taken root.” (Petersen 2006, p. 79)

The eligibility criteria for inclusion in the Learning Exchange staff team—the mainstream in this social microcosm—related to one’s capacity for competent performance of certain kinds of tasks. The eligibility criteria for inclusion in the patron group—the margin— seemed to be related to one’s vulnerability, one’s imperfection. This is perhaps not surprising given that both groups believe the stereotypes about themselves and others. And it is important to acknowledge that stereotypes often have a basis in reality; this is what makes them so believable. But stereotypes become destructive when they reinforce rigid boundaries separating “us” from “them.” It is neither realistic nor helpful to assume that marginalized people are not capable and mainstream people are not vulnerable. These perceptions limit both groups.

Using our imaginations

I have had some of the kinds of experiences that happen to marginalized people. But my experiences were not as extreme or as long-term as the experiences of many people in the Downtown Eastside. My past experiences give me a window into what it might be like to live in places like the Downtown Eastside. But when I try to really imagine what it would be like to feel what Jonathan described–to feel condemned–to feel that my future is “already destroyed,” my mind shrinks from pursuing the fantasy. It is too painful.

My reaction offers some insight into the important question of why we create boundaries between ourselves and others. The academic literatures from anthropology, sociology, and psychology also offer many ways of looking at this question. For example, these literatures discuss the dynamics of cultural cohesion, social stratification, identity formation, and belonging. These are valuable discussions.

Downtown Eastside streetBut based on my own struggles to make sense of what I saw in the Downtown Eastside and the many conversations my staff and I had with UBC students who were distressed about what they were seeing in their volunteer work, I think it is important to go beyond the realm of theory and confront our own experience directly. As valuable as it is for organizations like the Learning Exchange to try to create infrastructures that establish new spaces between the centre and the margins, such efforts will not substantially change the larger social reality unless individual people learn to create new spaces between the centre and the margins of their own hearts and minds.

The stories and perspectives offered on this website unsettle some of the prevailing assumptions and beliefs about marginalized people. For example, people who work to address social marginalization should not assume that every marginalized person aspires to be part of the mainstream and therefore the solution is to have everyone fit into the dominant culture. Some marginalized people actively resist mainstream cultural norms and values. It is important for non-marginalized people to make the effort to understand what the world looks like from the point of view of individuals whose life experience is different from theirs.

Making the effort to view your own position from the outside and other positions from the inside can stimulate new insights and ideas. For example, an exposure to the experiences of people in the Downtown Eastside can lead to a questioning of the way the mainstream world of work is structured. Sometimes the argument is made that poor people do not deserve respect because they are not contributing members of society; they are a drain on society’s resources. But when you suspend some of the taken-for-granted parameters, things look different.

The Learning Exchange ESL program demonstrates that lots of people who are considered unemployable by the mainstream can make valuable contributions to their community if there is a structure in place that develops their capacities and accommodates their limitations. In contrast, the way paid work is typically structured is so rigid that it precludes the participation of people whose abilities and talents do not fit within a fairly narrow range. For example, in most mainstream workplaces there are strict rules about attendance, hours of work and sick leave. Job descriptions set specific and high expectations around performance. We draw strict boundaries around how healthy, intelligent and socially skilled people need to be. If someone is outside the boundary, he/she is excluded. (And then some of us blame the person for not measuring up.)

Mainstream structures for paid work might make it easier in the short run for organizations to function effectively (when effectiveness is measured in certain ways), because the range of behaviours that need to be managed is narrow. But what is happening in the Downtown Eastside suggests that the long term societal impact of this strategy is problematic. Individual organizations may have balance sheets that demonstrate their efficiency and productivity, but the larger social system bears the cost of that efficiency.

We need to be engaging in more thought experiments about other ways that society’s economic and social needs and aspirations might be fulfilled so that more people can contribute to the well-being of society. Such experiments should include critical examinations of the current industrial model whereby large social agencies “meet the needs” of “vulnerable populations.”

wall mural elder on bullThis examination should include the recognition that a more accurate label might be “resilient populations.” Looking at the world of marginalized people from their own standpoint, what is striking is not that marginalized people are vulnerable, but that they have survived against enormous odds. What might it look like to have a social support system that focuses on the diverse talents, skills and needs that everyone brings to the situation while avoiding rigid hierarchical boundaries? Can a system be designed that not only avoids dehumanizing clients but is more nourishing for professionals as well?

Cultivating reverence

Reflecting on the question of why and how we create boundaries between ourselves and others can be challenging. It can lead us into territory that is uncomfortable. My own experience of feeling a friendly connection with a patron at the storefront, then going home to a hot meal and a safe bed knowing the other person is standing in line in the rain to get a meagre meal at a church mission and he will spend the night curled up on a sidewalk made it impossible for me to avoid this inner territory. Based on my own inner exploration, I can say that the primary reason why I create boundaries is to protect myself, to insulate myself from my fear—of the unknown, of change, of losing control, of my own vulnerability.

One way that I try to counterbalance this fear is to call on the value of reverence, one of the five values the Learning Exchange team saw as foundational to our work. Reverence was the guiding value that caused staff and students the most consternation when we used it as a topic for reflection. For most people the word either had religious overtones that made them uncomfortable or it was a concept that was so unfamiliar as to be meaningless.

tall cedarsFor me, reverence is what I feel sometimes when I walk in the coastal rainforest near where I live. The deep silence overlaid with bird song, the lush green ferns and delicate wild berry bushes, the ways that sunlight angles through tree branches all evoke a sense of awe. I am aware of the mystery of life, the interconnections between living beings that are usually invisible. Huge cedar trees in particular sometimes stop me in my tracks, calling me to contemplate the history they have witnessed, the storms they have survived.

One way I tried to be responsible in the enactment of my role as Director of the Learning Exchange was to try to invoke the kind of reverence I feel for old cedar trees when I encountered people in the Downtown Eastside. Can I see beneath the surface to the core of this being who has survived more storms than I can imagine? Can I open myself enough to meet this person on the shared ground of our human vulnerability, without needing to protect myself? Can I glimpse the invisible threads that connect us?

Occasionally I have succeeded in this effort. When I have, the tension that is associated with the existence of a boundary disappears. There is just “us” and we can all relax. The energy that had been put into maintaining the boundary can be used to serve different purposes. The power differential becomes a power potential. This might sound naive and simplistic. But after working more than ten years at the Learning Exchange, with a known track record of success and a less well-known trail of things that did not go so well behind me, I am still convinced that this strategy for change holds enormous promise.

The trick is to focus on what we have in common with others rather than on how we are different. We need to deepen the ordinary respect we feel for others so that it becomes reverence, an awareness of the mystery of life. But doing this is challenging. It is exactly the realization we tend to avoid—we are not that different from people who are homeless, sick, destitute, and in despair. Those of us with power and status need to be willing to move out of the safety of our positions. We have to be willing to be confused, embarrassed, hurt—all the uncomfortable emotions we ordinarily keep at bay. Doing so requires us to scrutinize our motivations and our agenda. It requires us to be in direct, undefended contact with people who we might really prefer to put on the other side of some kind of boundary.

The lesson of the ESL program is that this process can be easier in the context of day-to-day working relationships where people from previously separate worlds are brought together in environments that allow the discovery of common ground. This is really what is meant by the term“learning exchange.”

For more on the problem of social marginalization see the other articles in Being on the outside, part of the Reflections section.


Petersen, Marisol (2006) Cultivating community: a story of cross-cultural learning and empowerment in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. Unpublished Master’s thesis. University of British Columbia