From the margins to the centre? The storefront

It was not as easy to bring the Learning Exchange storefront in from the margins as it was for Community Service Learning (CSL). Community Service Learning was relatively unknown in both the university and the community, so we did not have to overcome pre-existing stereotypes or biases. But legitimizing the storefront meant that people at UBC and in the Downtown Eastside had to accept the idea that the university had a role to play in the Downtown Eastside. More radically, from my point of view at least, for the encounter to constitute authentic “community-university engagement,” people in both contexts would have to accept the idea that the Downtown Eastside had a role to play in the university. But to accept these ideas, strongly-held preconceptions had to be overcome.

As the response to UBC’s announcement of its intentions in the Downtown Eastside and the resultant community consultation showed, many people in the community were suspicious about the university’s agenda. The Downtown Eastside has had more than its share of attention from social scientists and medical researchers. Many individuals and organizations felt dehumanized and exploited by their experiences with academics. In order for the Learning Exchange storefront to move in from the margins of the community, the negative stereotypes about academics and the fears about mainstream institutions had to be put to rest.

Similarly, in order for UBC’s initiative to gain legitimacy in the university, we had to overcome the view within the university that the problems in the Downtown Eastside were not the university’s concern and even if they were, the environment was too dangerous for students to be in and too politically-charged for the university to enter.

Salvation Army lunch line upI feel confident saying that CSL had become central to the university and some segments of the community by  the time I left my position in 2011. I think the storefront had become an integral part of the Downtown Eastside community by 2011, but I would not describe it as being central. Nor would I describe the Learning Exchange storefront as central in the university. It may be key to the university’s claim that community engagement is important, but I think the Learning Exchange and community-university engagement in general still sit at UBC’s margins. The situation was described well by Nancy Cameron, the Associate Director of YWCA Crabtree Corner, in a conversation with me in 2012. Nancy was a member of the advisory committee which guided the 1999 consultation in the Downtown Eastside and for years has been an enthusiastic host of UBC student volunteers. As we reflected on the history and current status of the Learning Exchange, Nancy said, “The Downtown Eastside embraced UBC. UBC never did embrace the Downtown Eastside.”

Integrated but not at the centre of the Downtown Eastside

The Story of the Learning Exchange talks about some of the challenges we faced creating a presence in the Downtown Eastside. Despite these challenges, surprisingly quickly, the Learning Exchange attracted a loyal cadre of local residents who helped make the afternoon computer drop-in a vibrant, friendly, interesting place to be. The use of UBC’s physical presence by local residents was the key to the dissipation of the community’s resistance. It was also important that local professionals came to respect and trust the Learning Exchange.

The Learning Exchange storefront gained acceptance in the Downtown Eastside as a result of the way we operated.

We did not fulfill negative stereotypes about academics. Given the hostility towards academic researchers, we did not even try to do research. In addition, we did not act like we had all the answers. In fact, we went out of our way to say that we were newcomers who had lots to learn. As Director, I did not feel I had the knowledge or credibility to make public statements about the situation in the Downtown Eastside until I had been working there for ten years.

Similarly, we did not fulfill the fear that UBC would draw funding away from existing organizations or initiatives. In fact, we helped secure some funds. For example, in 1999, UBC was invited to be part of a coalition of Downtown Eastside organizations that was applying to a federally-funded initiative to provide free internet access to help “bridge the digital divide.” There were signs that UBC’s participation in the coalition helped give the funding proposal legitimacy, reassuring government decision-makers that the grant would be well-managed. Eventually, the Learning Exchange became a lynchpin in the network of computer access sites that was created in the Downtown Eastside.

50 CCC close up exteriorWe did not try to become a major power broker. I did not believe it was appropriate for the university to aspire to such a role and I had no interest personally in playing the games such a role would entail. In the contested political drama that is the Downtown Eastside, we were content to be a bit player.  Behind the scenes we supported initiatives we felt aligned with while avoiding issues we did not see as relevant to the university’s actual or potential roles.

This may sound straightforward but it was not. In the early years, because of the general hostility towards UBC, I and my team members could not assume we would be welcome at community events or meetings. We had to be constantly alert to the question of whether UBC’s presence would be seen as causing problems for the event hosts or the proponents of the initiative under discussion or whether our presence was neutral or perhaps even a sign of merit. It was years before I could introduce myself in the Downtown Eastside and not have to brace myself for a possible cold shoulder or angry confrontation.

By 2011, the power dynamics in the neighbourhood had changed dramatically. Some long-standing power brokers were gone; new people and organizations had arrived. Over time, the storefront built a reputation for being well-organized and providing a safe, respectful space for learning. But we were not central to the play of power.

UBC made a commitment to the Downtown Eastside. The university did not back down when the activists resisted. It did create a physical presence, but it was a modest one.

We worked to make the storefront a respectful, inclusive space. We created the expectation that people who came to the storefront would work on something related to learning. It was not just a hang-out. It was not a provider of social services. We did not put people under surveillance. We tried not to be judgmental. We tried not to establish barriers between residents and staff. The fact that we had very few incidents of out-of-control conflict or violence impressed both residents and professionals. A momentum was created that reinforced the respectful quality of the space. The more respectful it was; the more respectful (and respected) it became.

We listened. We built programs in response to input from local residents. We adapted and even closed programs in response to feedback. The physical proximity of staff and local residents in the storefront meant that staff members were very accessible. It was not unusual for staff and storefront patrons to get into discussions about what we were doing and why. I think it was obvious to storefront patrons that the staff team was sincerely trying to respond effectively to the community’s needs, interests, and aspirations. Patrons certainly did not always agree with what we were doing, but they could see we were trying. The sincerity of our efforts helped to build trust. In addition, the fact that we eventually developed a model for the English as a Second Language (ESL) program that relied on the contributions of local residents for its success further demonstrated that the Learning Exchange was trying to do things differently.

Supported but not at the centre of the university

Once our efforts started to produce results, the Learning Exchange became a symbol of UBC’s commitment to community engagement. The Learning Exchange became a frequent subject of stories in UBC publications and was often mentioned in the President’s speeches. The fact that we were succeeding in the Downtown Eastside, against the odds, in a neighbourhood with huge symbolic power in the public discourse, gave us a cachet. We referred to ourselves as a “signature initiative” that was emblematic of UBC’s Trek vision. The Learning Exchange’s CSL activities always got more publicity and recognition than our storefront programs. But the storefront did become valued within the university.

Many of the same factors that contributed to the storefront’s acceptance in the community were important in the university. Other factors were more important in the university.

The operation was managed effectively. I do not know how much trepidation there was within the university about the riskiness of the Learning Exchange venture. But I am certain that our avoidance of risks to the university’s reputation contributed to the university’s support of the storefront. No one got hurt, no serious complaints made their way to the President’s office, and no controversies erupted.

My style of leadership fit within the university. It was important that I had a PhD (by 2003) but I think it was more important that I approached the job of building the storefront in an incremental, systematic way. Despite not doing research, I approached my job the way a researcher would approach a thorny topic. I explored, listened, solicited advice from more knowledgeable people, experimented, made careful observations, learned through experience, and tried to communicate what I was learning to others. It may be important to note that, in saying this, I am not contradicting the assertion that we were flying by the seat of our pants. If you are going to stay in the air you have to be quite rigorous and observant. (And lucky.)

Doing some things differently helped build credibility. I did not complain about not having enough money. I did not wait until we had secure funds before taking action. My team and I sought out others who might want to work with us. We recognized the contributions of others and tried to be modest about our own contributions. Upon reflection, I think our failure to comply with some of the university’s cultural and organizational norms was one of the reasons we became valued and trusted in both the university and the Downtown Eastside.

A surprising discovery

The Learning Exchange needed to build collaborative relationships in order to have any impact. The Learning Exchange team had to find ways to fit within two very different environments. We had to be seen as credible and trustworthy, but more important, we had to be seen as a team you wanted to work with. We had to initiate, sustain, and sometimes bring skillful closure to working relationships that spanned considerable economic, social, and cultural distances.

In some respects, we ended up creating an organizational culture that was a hybrid of the two cultures we were trying to bridge. We did not set out to do this explicitly in the beginning. It happened naturally. We brought the best elements of the contrasting culture into both the university and the Downtown Eastside. We succeeded because we did not comply with cultural expectations. Our difference was our strength.

24bBut we were careful about which norms we violated. People at UBC noticed the Learning Exchange because it grew quickly. It was nimble and responsive to changing circumstances, constantly trying out new ideas and developing new programs. The staff were enthusiastic about their work and obviously having fun. When we organized meetings, decisions got made quickly and efficiently. By the time another meeting was held, lots had been accomplished and we were able to report on what we had learned along the way. This was not normal for UBC. The Learning Exchange stood out because it was behaving more like a community organization than a department within a large bureaucracy. The two things I heard most often from people at UBC in the early years of the Learning Exchange’s development was, “This is so exciting!” and “You are so passionate about this work!”

In the Downtown Eastside, the Learning Exchange became valued because we took a balanced, disciplined approach to our work. As part of the university, we saw ourselves as needing to keep some distance from the many contested issues in the neighbourhood. We did not want to jeopardize our ability to play the role of neutral broker. We were careful not to align ourselves too closely with any of the power brokers or factions in the neighbourhood. In meetings, we asked questions intended to introduce another perspective or provoke further analysis. But we did not leap on a soapbox. This was unusual. At the time nobody said much, but subsequently I heard both professionals and residents in the Downtown Eastside say that what they appreciate about the Learning Exchange is that it has been modest about its role and careful about its relationships and has not become embroiled in the politics of the neighbourhood.

We became trusted and valued as partners in both cultures because we combined a commitment to societal change with a commitment to analysis, we worked quickly but carefully, we valued both reason and emotion. And we were constantly aware that, as marginal players in both environments, we had to stay alert. But it was not just a matter of responding to events in the external environment. We had to stay grounded in our own vision, values, and practices.

See the other articles in The Learning Exchange as social innovation for more reflections on the specific practices we followed.