Respect is not enough

When I began working in the Downtown Eastside, I believed that one way to prevent or ameliorate social marginalization was to treat people with respect. When we opened the Learning Exchange storefront, respect was the number one value we tried to emphasize in our interactions with the people who came in the door. We knew that feeling others are looking down on you is one of the most pervasive and harmful aspects of being socially marginalized. We wanted the Learning Exchange to be a place where people felt valued not judged.

We laid out a few basic principles of conduct and posted them unobtrusively on the front reception desk. These principles were:

Respect others by:

  • being courteous in word and action;
  • using appropriate language and tone;
  • treating others as equals regardless of race, colour, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or ability;
  • respecting others’ personal property, study time, and learning time; and
  • using the Internet and off-line computers appropriately.

The last principle was made concrete. We said, “Please do not access porn, hate or offensive websites and do not download or install programs or change the settings on the computers.”

#35 - The storefront communityWe did not follow the practice of many Downtown Eastside organizations and post stark lists of Dos and Don’ts on the wall in big, bold letters. We also did not have rigid physical barriers between “us”—the staff—and “them”—the people who came into the Learning Exchange to use the computers or take part in our programs (whom we referred to as “patrons”). There was one bathroom, one kitchen, and one garden area that everyone shared. The staff offices were adjacent to the drop-in area. The two spaces were separated only by glass walls. This arrangement was in keeping with a vow I had made after visiting organizations in the Downtown Eastside in the course of the 1999 consultation about UBC’s proposed presence. Everywhere I went, I saw locked doors and gates separating staff areas from public areas. I was determined not to allow this kind of physical and symbolic separation to be created if I had any influence over how UBC’s presence was designed.

Another difference between the Learning Exchange and other organizations in the area, especially those connected to government, was that we did not put people under surveillance. We did not need to know how many jobs anyone had applied for that week or whether someone had taken his medication. We did not need to know where people were living or with whom. We did not even need to know their names. One regular patron who often showed his appreciation by bringing us flowers is still known to the staff only as “Mister” after more than ten years. He has never wanted to give his name and he has never been pushed to do so.

As a staff team, we believed that modelling respect and having high expectations for people’s behaviour were the best ways to create a respectful environment. Before long, the patrons themselves started safeguarding the behavioural norms at the storefront. For example, if someone new came in and stretched out on the sofa to take a nap, one of the other patrons would nudge him and say, “Hey man, that’s not what this place is for.”

We had a sharps container in the bathroom cupboard which would slowly fill up with needles, so we knew some people were injecting drugs in the bathroom. But we rarely had problems with patrons being obviously intoxicated. In the more than ten years I was Director, we had to ban only a handful of people who were unwilling or unable to modify their behaviour to comply with our stated principles of conduct. Some Downtown Eastside organizations ban a handful of people every day.

“A haven in a sea of negativity”

Laszlo Szemok was introduced in the previous article.  He has been participating in the computer drop-in and other Learning Exchange programs for a long time. He sees the Learning Exchange as different from other Downtown Eastside organizations. He found it to be a safe haven where he could reinvent himself. To hear part of a conversation I had with Laszlo about the Learning Exchange, click below.

“I didn’t have a lot of options.”


Laszlo felt there was a prevailing atmosphere of respect in the storefront as well as a consistency in the way staff related to patrons. Laszlo did not ever feel he was being judged. But even more important was the sense of community that developed in the storefront. UBC created the physical space and defined its interpersonal parameters, but the people who frequented the space were the ones who gave it life. The other patrons provided Laszlo with the emotional support and intellectual provocation he needed to grow as a human being. They made Laszlo feel that he belonged.

He said, “The Learning Exchange made me a happier person. I’m more at ease as a human being. Even when I wasn’t happy, even when I was crying all the time, this place was safe for me to be who I was.”

Click below to listen to more of our conversation.

“UBC was always a special place”

“It makes you see that there’s more . . . it’s been inspirational”

“There’s a consistency here.”


 Or “part of a killing machine”?

Around the time Laszlo started coming to the storefront, one of the regular patrons died of a drug overdose. His death surprised everyone. The man (I will call him Lorne but this is not his real name) was known to be a drinker, but no one knew he was a drug user. The day after Lorne’s death, when the news was given to the other patrons by Lorne’s roommate, I was asked if the Learning Exchange would allow Lorne’s friends to hold a memorial at the storefront. I readily agreed.

On the afternoon of the memorial, I sat near the back of the group of 30 or so people in attendance and listened to the eloquent eulogy given by Lorne’s roommate. I thought back to the time, before the storefront opened, when someone from UBC who had close connections with groups in the community, came to a meeting at the Learning Exchange and declared, “Nobody from the neighbourhood will ever come here, you know.”

I believed the memorial was a clear sign that the Learning Exchange had overcome the initial hostility that had been directed at UBC’s presence. It seemed we had become a valued and trusted part of the Downtown Eastside landscape. I believed the Learning Exchange and its staff were part of the community that had been created in the drop-in. Certainly there were differences between the staff and the patrons; no one would deny that. But I felt that everyone shared some common sense of belonging to a social phenomenon that we had created together. I believed we had created a space where everyone felt included and valued.

Several years later, one of Lorne’s friends shattered that illusion. Frank (not his real name) emailed me to try to set the record straight about a number of things. He believed that I perceived him to be “a low-life bum” since I had come to know him as a drop-in patron in the context of my role as Director of the Learning Exchange. He wanted me to know about a recent major accomplishment that proved he was not a bum even though he had failed to succeed according to mainstream norms. He referred to me as a winner in a dominant socio-political group that was seriously at odds with his group (the marginalized). He went so far as to characterize these two groups as enemies. Frank made reference to Lorne’s death, saying that he held me and others in my group personally responsible for that death and the deaths of a multitude of others like Lorne because we were an essential part of a killing machine. He said that he nevertheless liked me and believed I was too nice a person to really understand what he was talking about.

Frank’s email made me realize that he and I were living in different worlds. I thought Frank and I had shared some moments of genuine human connection at times when he was at the Learning Exchange, moments devoid of the influence of social status or role. But his email revealed that I might have been “just Margo” in my mind, but in his mind I was still “Dr. Margo the Director” and he was still “the low-life bum.” Even if I did not see him as a bum, he saw himself as one.

As I thought about this, I realized I had been naive to think our respective social positions could be ignored so easily. People in the Downtown Eastside read the newspapers and watch TV. They attend public lectures and forums. They know what mainstream media and experts say about the Downtown Eastside and its residents. They take the labels and stereotypes on, even as they resist and resent them. Frank’s email made me think about how much easier it is to step in and out of social roles when they are positive and powerful ones. The ability to step aside from one’s role is itself one of the powers that high social status confers. It is not so easy to remove the mantle of negative and dehumanizing stereotypes.

I was very distressed by Frank’s email. But as I reflected on it, I realized it was an important message about what being marginalized feels like and how great the distance really is between the margins and the mainstream. Frank’s email reminded me that oppression is not just a word, it is an experience. It is not just a sociological theory that powerful social systems and institutions demean whole categories of people. It is a lived reality. Frank’s email was an important signal that the same entity can legitimately be seen both as a safe sanctuary where people find themselves and part of a pervasive system of oppression. I realized that the problem of marginalization was deeper and more complex than I had understood. And the problem looks different from different points of view.

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