Becoming a success story

As my team and I established working relationships with more and more people in the Downtown Eastside and at UBC and as our programs gained momentum, the Learning Exchange became  known as an exciting, innovative initiative. It became the exemplar of the university’s Trek 2000 commitment to community engagement.

Students as champions

People at UBC were impressed by the exponential growth in the Trek Program, which I highlighted whenever I could (e.g., in my annual reports to UBC’s Board of Governors). People were also impressed by reports from students, who became very effective advocates for our work within the university as well as in the Downtown Eastside. We invited Trek students to speak about their experiences whenever possible, (e.g., in meetings with donors or administrators) since hearing from students directly had more impact than second-hand stories from me or other staff members.

Martha Piper and Margo Fryer outside storefront

I also organized a few meetings and tours with the President where she could hear directly from students and community partners about the value of the Trek Program. At one memorable gathering in the fall of 2003, a Trek student who was volunteering at a facility for people with HIV/AIDS told Martha Piper about his efforts to engage in the practice of reflection. This student, who was hoping to get into medical school, explained that he always wrote in his journal on the bus on his way home from his placement. He spoke eloquently about his struggles relating to the people he was working with and how he hoped his experiences would make him a better doctor. Martha’s jaw literally dropped open as she realized the power of this seemingly simple approach to learning.

In addition, we invited members of UBC’s executive to visit Community Service Learning projects during Reading Week so they could see these projects for themselves. Going into school settings where children and UBC students were totally engrossed in activities related to science, math, art, music, sports, drama, creative writing, or cooking and being infected by their exuberance was always more powerful than any report or presentation.

Making it in the Downtown Eastside

Learning Exchange storefrontIt also impressed people at UBC that the Learning Exchange had quietly become accepted in the Downtown Eastside. The resistance and resentment gradually disappeared. Residents and professionals in the Downtown Eastside even started singing our praises. Once this started happening, I relaxed my vigilance about the Learning Exchange avoiding media attention. Since the Learning Exchange was in the same Vice-Presidential portfolio as Public Affairs, my collegial connection with its Director helped to raise our profile and consequently, our status. Public Affairs published frequent feature stories on various aspects of our work.

There is no doubt that being based in the Downtown Eastside contributed to the Learning Exchange’s profile. The symbolic power of the area, its notoriety and edginess, contributed to our reputation. The same activity in another Vancouver neighbourhood would not have received the same level of attention.

The President’s speeches

But it was Martha Piper who really put the Learning Exchange on the map. It became almost routine for her to mention our work in her speeches, both on campus and off. Having the President as a champion was a result of her own personal motivation to connect the university with the non-profit health and social sectors as well as her delight that her vision for community engagement was being realized.

Martha Piper
Martha Piper

The frequent references to the Learning Exchange in Martha’s speeches, I think, also reflected my friendly relationship with her speechwriter, Richard Littlemore. When he first contacted me for facts to include in one of Martha’s speeches, we established an easy rapport. After he contacted me a few more times, I realized it would be in the Learning Exchange’s interest for me to be more proactive. If the speechwriter phoned to get an update on the number of students currently in the Trek Program, I gave him that information and then went on to tell a compelling story about some other aspect of our work that we wanted people to know about. I think Richard came to see me as a source who could be relied on to provide good material even on short notice.

Capturing people’s imaginations

The Learning Exchange’s public profile was raised, too, by the photographs we used to showcase our work. In 2002 Shayne was contacted by Chloe Lewis, a photographer who had recently graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto. She told Shayne that she had been looking at our website and thought what we were doing was pretty cool. Since she was moving to Vancouver, she wondered if she could take some photographs for us. We jumped at the offer.

Chloe took pictures that were colourful and artfully composed. She had an uncanny ability to insert herself in the middle of what people were doing without anybody being aware she was there. She also could construct scenes that did not look staged at all, but produced shots that vibrated with life. She captured the magic of moments of interaction between UBC students and kids in the schools especially well. Chloe managed to convey the energy and essence of our activities.

We started using Chloe’s photographs on our website, in our Trek recruitment materials, power point presentations, proposals for donors, and reports. She helped design our recruitment materials and reports to make maximum use of her photographs. A faculty colleague told me around 2005, “You managed to capture people’s imaginations.” Chloe’s photographs were the key.

Showing what community engagement looks like

When Martha Piper was reappointed for a second term as President she initiated a reinvigoration of the Trek vision. The renewed vision, called Trek 2010, was finalized in November 2004. This second iteration of the Trek vision made UBC’s commitment to community engagement even stronger than it had been in the original Trek vision. The establishment and growth of the Learning Exchange influenced the language and specificity of Trek 2010. Our success encouraged the university to set more concrete and ambitious goals. As Martha said to me on more than one occasion, “The Learning Exchange showed us what is possible. You showed us what community-university engagement can look like.”

The influence of the Learning Exchange was especially visible in two of the new goals under the Community pillar of Trek 2010. One goal was to “explore the creation of outreach centres like the Learning Exchange in other parts of the province, acting independently or in collaboration with other post-secondary institutions.” The second goal represented the formal adoption of an ambitious target for participation in CSL that I had suggested to Martha in 2003: “Develop Community Service Learning programs, whereby experience in the field will complement academic study or be integrated with academic credit courses, and aim for participation in such programs by at least 10% of our students.”

Not only did our work influence the emphasis on community engagement in Trek 2010, I was invited to speak about the concept of strengthening civil society at the official launch of the new Trek vision. This was a clear sign that the Learning Exchange had become an emblem of the university’s vision for its engagement with communities.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Growth in the Trek Program and Reading Week projects.

For further analysis of the factors underlying our success, see Moving along the innovation arc.