Lessons learned from the Downtown Eastside

Over the holidays the annual gift-giving rituals and charitable efforts—the food bank fund-raising drives, the collection of used toys for poor kids, the Salvation Army donation kettles outside shopping malls—prompted me to reflect on altruism, service and our responsibilities to each other. I found myself remembering a formative experience from early in my career.

I had started an after-school program for what were then called “emotionally disturbed kids.” The boys in the program were being disruptive at school and annoying merchants in the small suburban city’s downtown core by engaging in petty theft, vandalism, and other behaviours that offended customers. Not long after the program started, a police officer came by to have a chat with the youngest boy in the program who had been caught shoplifting again. I watched while the tall, imposing RCMP officer spoke gently but firmly to the boy. After the cop finished his mini-lecture, the seven year-old boy, who had freckles, thick, blonde, Beatles-style hair, and a mercurial spirit that oscillated between innocence and cynicism, threw his head back so he could look the cop in the eye, opened his mouth and let loose a belligerent tirade that contained an amazing array of obscenities. The boy’s main message was, “I know very well that given my age and family circumstances, there is really nothing you can do to me, so save your breath.” I was appalled but impressed. I thought, “This kid’s got nerve.”

Several months later, I was discussing the program with the social worker who oversaw it. I told him of my confusion and frustration at the fact that instead of my middle-class norms and values rubbing off on these kids, the influence seemed to be going in the reverse direction. These boys were training me to accept all kinds of bizarre behaviours as normal, even endearing. I also mentioned that now that I knew more about the family and economic circumstances of the boys in the program, I was beginning to think that maybe they really shouldn’t be adopting middle class values and behaviours because they were going to need all the bravado and street smarts they could get. The social worker said, “Forget about trying to change these kids. Your job is just to keep them off the streets so the downtown merchants are not phoning city hall all the time.”

This was my first lesson in the politics of service.

Decades later, establishing the UBC Learning Exchange in the Downtown Eastside, I encountered an environment where such politics were overwhelmingly complex. The three levels of government had initiated an attempt to coordinate their approach to “revitalizing” the neighbourhood. The city was working hard to build public support for its four pillars approach to drug problems and the issues were being hotly contested. Long-standing histories of turf wars among the dozens of health and social service agencies in the area meant that every meeting, every forum, every discussion about what to do about the issues in the Downtown Eastside was contaminated by power dynamics that were incomprehensible to a newcomer like me. Despite the neighbourhood being relatively small with well-defined boundaries, it contained a dizzying array of interest groups:  Chinatown merchants, intravenous drug users, low-income families with kids, artists, urban aboriginals, middle-aged men who had burned out in the province’s resource industries, social activists with a finely-tuned suspicion of mainstream institutions, property developers, organized crime, and others.

What could a large post-secondary institution with good but vague intentions do that would be worthwhile in such a context? What could the university do to overcome the mistrust that had greeted its entry into the neighbourhood?

Fortunately, UBC went ahead with a plan to establish a storefront presence in the Downtown Eastside. This proved to be incredibly important. Even though the idea of the university occupying space had been a lightning rod for people’s hostility, once the storefront opened, it became a symbol of UBC’s long-term commitment to the area. More important, the fact that local residents started coming to the storefront to take advantage of our free computer access meant that, over time, we got to know a wide variety of people, many of whom we saw on a regular basis. Through these relationships we learned about aspects of the dynamics of the neighbourhood that we would never have understood if our only relationships had been with professionals. We also learned something about the realities of the lives of people who carried labels such as “dually-diagnosed” (both mentally ill and drug-addicted), and “street-involved” (e.g., living on the street or involved in the sex trade). These lessons (combined with a lot of trial and error learning) allowed the Learning Exchange to become something that is highly valued both in the Downtown Eastside and the university. But this took many years of listening, relationship-building, and careful risk-taking by a significant number of people. Thus, it took an investment of money, both from the university and a variety of external donors.

I’m not sure it is realistic to expect that resource-intensive initiatives like the Learning Exchange will be created in today’s post-secondary fiscal and political climate. Obviously, many forms of community-university engagement are not as challenging as making connections between a large, research-intensive university and a marginalized neighbourhood where complex power dynamics are at play. But in situations where there are significant social distances to be crossed, the risk of doing service in ways that are naive, misguided, and ultimately destructive is high.

I wonder if universities and colleges should be working harder to encourage faculty and staff with pre-existing interest in and knowledge of community issues to think about innovative ways to expand their engagement with such issues. I have been surprised by the number of faculty and staff colleagues who have told me about their own personal connection to the issues the Learning Exchange engages with: a son is a heroin addict, a brother is homeless, or the person him/herself grew up in poverty or is in recovery from substance abuse. In most cases, my colleagues’ connection to these issues is not reflected in their scholarly or professional activity. I wonder if we should be finding ways to tap into this hidden resource of knowledge and experience. What might this look like? What kinds of engagement might emerge?

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.

For more on the Learning Exchange, go to The Learning Exchange Story.

For more on social marginalization, go to Being on the outside, part of the Reflections section.