Taking risks

The need to take risks was inherent in the existence of the Learning Exchange. The politics in the Downtown Eastside are complex and volatile. The university’s reputation was endangered when local people tried to resist UBC’s entry into the neighbourhood. The situation could easily have become worse. In addition, while the Downtown Eastside is not as dangerous as the media hype suggests, there are risks to personal safety that need to be attended to.

I knew from the beginning that managing risk would be one of my main responsibilities as Director of the Learning Exchange. I also knew that if we did not take risks, we would not get anywhere. Taking careful risks became one of our core practices. This meant thoroughly assessing conditions in both the external and internal environments. The calculation of how much risk could be tolerated was dependent on timing. We had to assess where the organization as a whole was in its evolution, where the people involved were in their development of requisite skills and capacities, and what other events might affect our decisions. Judgments about how much and what kinds of risk to incur depended heavily on what our core values demanded of us and how well our other core practices would protect us. The following story provides one example of how these calculations played out.

Threats to staff

As we were gearing up for the third year of Music 101, some of the drop-in patrons brought in copies of a crude poster that was being tacked up around the neighbourhood. The poster warned of the threat posed by a man who had appeared at the storefront a few times and who had signed up to take part in Music 101. The posters claimed that this man had been sexually harassing young Asian women who were involved in some of the language schools in the downtown area.

Our regular patrons had developed a strong affection for the student organizer of Music 101, a young Asian woman. They wanted to make sure she would be protected. I knew that a number of other young, female, Asian music students had been recruited to act as tutors for the course. I was not terribly concerned about the course organizer because I knew she was confident and assertive. But I did not know any of the new tutors.

I raised the issue with the staff team and we debated what to do. The issue also became a hot topic of conversation among regular drop-in patrons. I did not want to bar anyone from participating in our programs on the grounds of hearsay. I felt we had to take a stand to protect the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” especially given what I had learned about how nasty gossip circulated in the neighbourhood. But I also knew I had a responsibility to safeguard the participants in the course and its facilitators.

We decided to take a multi-faceted approach to the situation. I asked one of UBC’s most skilled Equity Office trainers and counsellors to do a series of workshops on boundary-setting and assertiveness for the course organizer and her tutors. I also discussed the situation with the head of Campus Security and he agreed to bring a visible presence to the evening classes on campus.

broom and blue doorOne day when the gentleman in question appeared at the storefront, I called him into my office. He was a tall, seedily handsome Caucasian in his 30s or 40s with a seemingly mild manner. I showed him the poster and asked him if he had seen it. He said, “Yes.” I told him that I was not going to prevent him from taking the Music 101 class because I had no way of judging the veracity of the claims made in the poster. But I told him that I had alerted Campus Security to the possibility of risk to the class participants and facilitators. I told him I would be attending all the classes and that I would be watching him. I put him on notice that at the slightest misstep on his part, he would be barred from participating in any Learning Exchange programs. He nodded, and said, “I am not here to cause any trouble.”

The evening of the first Music 101 class, I met the head of Campus Security and one of his officers at the classroom, and pointed out the gentleman of concern. We were careful to ensure that he was aware of our presence.  At the beginning of the class, the organizer facilitated an exercise in which the group developed guidelines for their participation in the class. After several others had offered suggestions, the man stood up and declared the importance of creating a safe and respectful environment. I thought, “Well, we’ll see.”

At the end of the class, the organizer’s husband and the campus security officer escorted all the young women from the class to the parking lot. I went to my car being more alert than usual to sudden noises and movements. At the next classes, campus security was again in attendance. The organizer and the tutors were never left on their own. After three or four classes, the man in question stopped attending and we never saw him again. So he did not, in the end, cause any trouble directly.

However, the fact that I had handled the situation the way I did caused another participant in the Music 101 program a great deal of distress. As the course was getting started, this man, who was not otherwise known to me or other Learning Exchange staff, approached me on several occasions to berate me for my irresponsible behaviour in allowing the alleged sexual predator to enroll in the course. When the Campus Security people were in attendance at the class, this man approached them and demanded they do something about my failure to handle the matter appropriately. He wanted the man who was under suspicion removed from the class.

take care drawingsjpgWhen campus security and I refused to do this, this man’s anger escalated. He would regularly phone my office in the middle of the night and leave long, ranting messages about how badly I was fulfilling my responsibilities. He never once phoned during office hours so he did not really want to speak to me, he just wanted to rail at me. Some of his messages verged on outright threats to my personal safety. So, after waiting some time to see if the man would tire of the pursuit (he did not), the campus security officer and I confronted him and told him he was no longer welcome in the class. He was angry but left and had no further contact with me or the Learning Exchange.

More mundane risks

The Music 101 story provides a dramatic example of a potentially serious risk we had to manage. Most of the risks we faced were not as serious or as well-defined. Some risks were ongoing and faded into the background as experience showed us the risk was being managed well. For example, when the Trek Program started, a lot of people asked me if I was not concerned about the safety of students volunteering in the Downtown Eastside. As described elsewhere, I undertook the recommended due diligence to minimize risks to students. As the years went by and no student was injured or seriously harmed as a result of their experience in the Downtown Eastside, I relaxed, confident that we had put the necessary safeguards in place. This risk became a background consideration as other risks related to new developments claimed our attention.

It was important for me and the staff team to explicitly acknowledge that we were prepared to take risks. This expectation was crucial to our ability to continue to be innovative. It was equally important that we explicitly recognized that we had to be careful. This calculation was critically important. We had to ask, what does “careful” look like in this particular context at this particular time, given the presence of these particular people? What are the potential costs and benefits of taking this risk? What is the worst that can happen? What can we do to minimize any potential harms?

It was sometimes challenging to knowingly take risks while being part of a university, a category of institutions that is highly risk-averse. There were times when I felt constrained by the explicit or implicit norms within the university about what kinds of risks could be taken. But what happened with the Music 101 course taught me that there were advantages to being part of a large institution that aims to mitigate risk. Faced with a potential danger to the tutors in Music 101, I had colleagues to support me. The people I approached for help did not hesitate to mobilize all the resources at their disposal. We took risks and we had a strong safety net.

For more reflections on social innovation and key practices, go to The Learning Exchange as social innovation.