Aligning with our sense of purpose

At the same time the Learning Exchange culture and sense of purpose coalesced, our scope of activity increased dramatically. As we became known and trusted in both the university and the community, more people wanted to work with us. More great ideas were generated. Starting around 2004-2005, we realized that, paradoxically, as our sense of purpose and identity had become more focused, our activities had become more ad hoc. This plus the fact that the staff team was working flat out all the time made us realize we could no longer say, “Yes!” to every good idea.  We had to create an orderly garden from what had become a field of colourful but unruly wildflowers. We needed to do some judicious weeding and pruning.

Sustaining some things, letting go of others

We decided not to continue with some initiatives like Music 101 and the Trek Leadership Network. We also let go of some pilots and smaller projects we had initiated such as volunteer programs for UBC staff and alumni. The outcomes of these efforts did not justify the considerable resources they required or they were not tied closely enough to our increasingly clear vision.

painting garden bed

We did not question whether to continue growing our Community Service Learning (CSL) programs. It was obvious from the feedback we were getting from students and community partners that these programs were paying off. In addition, we could easily see how these efforts were in line with our vision for the Learning Exchange as well as UBC’s larger vision. Plus these activities had become high-profile emblems of our success. So it made sense to continue to grow the Trek Program, expand and refine the Reading Week model, and strengthen UBC’s participation in curricular Community Service Learning (CSL). I was not as certain about how we should build on the foundation we had created at the storefront.

Reflecting on storefront programs

The afternoon computer drop-in was operating at or beyond its capacity. It attracted a steady stream of new people to the Learning Exchange as well as providing a home base for a regular contingent of 30 to 50 people who came every day or almost every day. The drop-in was the heart of the storefront. Obviously it should be sustained.

With the continued popularity of the drop-in and the steady influx of new people, the demand for computer training was very high. People coming to the drop-in wanted to learn to use the computers and the Internet more effectively. As patrons saw what others were doing, a natural drive to improve their own skills was activated. Consistently, the class list for every new series of workshops would fill within days of being opened for registration. So it was obvious that we should continue the computer training workshops as well.

Similarly, the English as a Second Language (ESL) program continued to attract participants, with only a minimal amount of formal advertising. Class schedules always filled quickly and long waiting lists were the norm. We always found the requisite number of local residents to play the group conversation facilitator role. These programs were popular and in demand. Fortunately, the adjacent storefront became vacant around the time the ESL program was taking off, so we rented that space and allocated it primarily to the ESL program.

The populations we attracted began to intermingle. People who had come to the Learning Exchange to learn English found out they could also learn how to use computers. Local residents who were interested in free Internet access realized they could take on a new challenge by becoming an ESL facilitator. This cross-fertilization enriched the atmosphere of the storefront. The development of the combination of English skills and computer skills enabled some people to get jobs. The bank that had donated money to the Learning Exchange decided to support the ESL program as well as the computer training program, since both matched the bank’s goals around helping marginalized people integrate into the mainstream.

Having so many local people in the storefront every day meant that we had direct access to a large and diverse array of Downtown Eastside residents. People were not shy about telling us what they liked or did not like about our programs. In addition, we held a few evening forums to get input from patrons and then instituted a suggestion box that people could contribute to. So we were communicating directly with patrons.

But I wondered whether patrons felt free to say what was really on their minds. And I wanted to understand what the storefront meant to people before making decisions about what to strengthen or change. So I hired a consultant to interview patrons to get their perspectives on the Learning Exchange storefront.

What the consulting team heard was not a huge surprise but patrons told the consultants some things they did not tell the staff team. Patrons said the Learning Exchange was, “the place in the Downtown Eastside where the intellectuals go.” It was known as a place where you could use big words and discuss big ideas and not get laughed at. Patrons noted the standards for civility were high. They reported that some people with mental health issues whose behaviour was problematic in other places in the neighbourhood were noticeably better behaved at the Learning Exchange.

As I reflected on this information, I remembered the number of times that other professionals in the Downtown Eastside had expressed amazement that we did not have the kind of problems that were an everyday occurrence in other settings: drug use, intoxication, and interpersonal conflict, including violence. No doubt the pervasive presence of our staff team was a factor.

But the feedback from patrons suggested that it was also significant that we were part of UBC. It seemed the Learning Exchange had developed a cachet. It had become a cool place to go. People were proud to say to their friends and neighbours that they were going down to the Learning Exchange to check their email, work on their book (more than one novel has been written in the drop-in), complete a school assignment, work on their resume, or whatever.

The consulting team’s interviews showed that many patrons felt they belonged to what had become an amorphous but real community. This feedback was enormously gratifying. It reassured me that my sense that something special was happening at the storefront was not an illusion. The space had become a stable touch point, a refuge, for a lot of people. But the feedback from patrons did not explain how this happy state had been achieved. It seemed there was magic afoot but the magic ingredients were still a mystery. Not knowing exactly how the dynamic in the storefront had been created made me uneasy.  I also felt an abiding discomfort about the possibility that the staff team might settle too comfortably into routines that did not demand enough of us. I questioned whether we were engaging deeply enough with the question of how marginalization happens and how we could intervene. But the computer and ESL programs were working, so we concentrated on making them better.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Stabilizing the ESL program.