The first step across the divide

On a recent walk through a forested park near my home, I paused in a grove of tall cedars. Looking around, I was impressed not only by the solidity and strength of these old trees but by the evidence of death and destruction all around them. The forest floor was littered with uprooted trees, some freshly-blown down, others covered in decades’ worth of deep green moss. Huge stumps of trees logged generations ago were almost obscured by sword ferns, the dead fronds of previous years’ growth now brown and dry. The fallen maple and arbutus leaves, which only a few weeks ago brought vibrant reds and yellows to the path, were already almost completely rotted away. I thought about perseverance in the face of predictable changes like seasonal rhythms as well as unpredictable forces like the extreme windstorm that blew through these woods last March.

I suddenly realized why, in the years when I bounced back and forth between my work activities in the Downtown Eastside and activities at UBC, I always preferred being in the Downtown Eastside, although it was not always easy to be there. The same close juxtaposition of life and death, perseverance and change that you see in forest ecosystems is evident in the Downtown Eastside. It feels real. In contrast, on university campuses, the predominant images, discourses, and experiences focus only on growth, progress, and success. Struggles and failures occur, but they tend to be hidden, an embarrassment. It is as if significant elements of the human experience are not allowed.

I am not glorifying poverty and social marginalization. There is nothing romantic or noble about homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or hunger. Nor am I criticizing the impulse to celebrate success. I am suggesting there is something vitally important about the experience of being in environments where loss and hardship are out in the open, where the need for individual courage and collective solidarity is painfully obvious.

This surface difference between universities and some community settings points to a deeper divide that, in my view, is a fundamental obstacle to some forms of community-university engagement. Despite the influence of postmodern discourses, academia is still rooted in positivist assumptions about the power of science to predict and control natural phenomena. The belief is that the world is orderly and its laws are knowable through rational investigation. Despite some softening of the rhetoric about value-free science, the normative view is still that the practice of scholarship requires dispassionate, objective inquiry. Reason trumps emotion. Further, the role of the academy is to generate and disseminate knowledge; there is no expectation that knowledge will lead to action.

In contrast, in communities where people are facing difficult challenges, the unpredictability and uncontrollability of life are what is at the forefront of people’s minds. For many people who are striving to achieve some kind of stability in the midst of a day-to-day reality that is utterly chaotic, the idea that the world is orderly seems like a bad joke. For people who are overwhelmed by trouble and for those who care about them, emotion is important. Whether it is professionals who are providing services or family and friends who are offering informal support, the efficacy of the help depends on the presence of emotional bonds. In such contexts, people are not moved to help each other as a result of rational calculations, they are moved by compassion. They are moved by a realization that talk and analysis are not enough; action must be taken, even when it may be very difficult to figure out what to do.

In order to make my point, I am describing these two realities in a way that is simplistic. I know there are shades of grey in both worlds. And these two worlds are not mutually exclusive. As noted in my last blog post, some people in academia have direct personal experience with the problems often associated with poverty and social marginalization. But there is merit, I think, in recognizing that academic environments have their roots in a worldview that is not necessarily shared by people in community settings where academics might want to engage.

Students seem to be able to navigate these contradictions more easily than faculty or staff. Students who do Community Service Learning in the Downtown Eastside often find themselves questioning the conventional wisdom about poverty and marginalization. Typically, a student gets to know a member of the community who fits into a category associated with some stereotype, discovers the stereotype is not true, and then begins questioning other things they have been told about issues like social inequality. For example, a student sees how hard a single mother on welfare is working to raise her children responsibly and get on a stable career path and says to herself, “This woman works harder than anyone else I know but she’s not getting ahead. This is not how it’s supposed to work.” Or a student hears a drug user tell the story of how he became addicted to cocaine and heroin and thinks, “This person did not choose to be an addict. Being repeatedly abused as a child and then starting to use drugs as a teenager as a way of dulling the pain is not a lifestyle choice.” Such experiences can seriously unsettle one’s assumptions about the controllability and fairness of life. The process of inquiry and learning that gets ignited depends on students making an empathic connection, seeing that this person who is “down and out” is not that different from themselves.

In my experience, faculty and staff don’t seem to be as willing or able to make connections between what they learn about the lives of marginalized community members and their own circumstances or assumptions. I remember one of my staff members telling me about a personal difficulty she was having and then closing the discussion by saying, “But I believe everything always turns out for the best.” I wondered how she could possibly maintain that belief knowing the stories of the Downtown Eastside residents who frequented the Learning Exchange storefront. It is patently false that things had turned out for the best for many of the people we knew. Upon reflection, I concluded that the way this belief is maintained is that the premise really is, “I believe that everything always turns out for the best for people like me.”

If people from post-secondary institutions are going to engage in authentic, sustained partnerships with people from marginalized communities or people who are facing serious challenges, I believe empathic connections must be made. Such partnerships will not work in the long run if those involved see the people they are engaging with as “people like them” rather than “people like me.” However, if empathic connections can be made, academics’ assumptions about the controllability of life, the need to separate reason from emotion, and activism being the responsibility of someone else will be unsettled. Ideally, the influence will go in the other direction as well. People who live and work in the midst of seemingly intractable chaos might come to see the value of taking a step back and trying to identify and understand the forces at work in their lives and their communities. Once the engagement is rooted in an awareness of our common human predicament, then a journey of mutual exploration across the cultural divide can begin.

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

For more on social marginalization, go to Being on the outside.