Climbing Mount Everest

In late 1999, Chuck Slonecker, the acting Vice-President who was overseeing the unfolding of the Downtown Eastside Initiative, suggested that, if I wanted to, I could bring in an outside expert to advise me. I immediately thought of John McKnight, then a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and the originator of the concept of asset-based community development.

John McKnight’s advice

I had been introduced to John’s work several years before by a colleague in public health. In his 1995 book The Careless Society, McKnight argues that the growth of the social service and health care industries after the Second World War undermined the way communities functioned and turned citizens into clients by providing what he calls “counterfeit care.” In my own work doing research in the social service and health sectors I had witnessed the dependencies and other unhealthy power dynamics that John describes. I believed that John’s argument that it is more important to focus on a community’s assets and strengths than its needs and deficits was particularly applicable in the Downtown Eastside.

In addition, I was aware that a community organizing effort getting underway in the Downtown Eastside (called Community Directions) was trying to use John’s asset mapping approach in their work. I thought UBC could host some events with John that would begin to meet our goal of sponsoring educational events and, at the same time, forge some links with people in the Downtown Eastside. When I told Chuck about John, he agreed without hesitation that I should invite him to come to UBC.

After an exchange of emails and phone calls, John McKnight’s visit to UBC was arranged for February 2000. Given John’s high profile, I was convinced there would be lots of people who would want to hear him speak or meet with him. So I arranged for John to spend a day at UBC, where he would give a public lecture and take part in small group discussions with faculty as well as meet with students in the Trek Program.

I also wanted to offer a day of John’s time to the Downtown Eastside. But given the ongoing undercurrent of resistance to UBC’s presence, I felt it would be inadvisable for UBC to be the only sponsor of any off-campus events. So we contacted the Vancouver Foundation, a large private foundation that is highly respected in the Downtown Eastside, to see if they would be willing to broker some kind of arrangement. The Foundation was very keen to have John do a workshop on asset mapping for Community Directions. But they were adamant that UBC’s name not be associated with the event. Not only that, because they feared an outbreak of open hostility, they would not even allow me to attend the event.

After John’s day-long workshop in the Downtown Eastside, he met with me and Chuck and a few other colleagues. He also met with the President. He offered astute observations and advice. John said the Downtown Eastside was the most troubled neighbourhood he had seen in all his years of working in and visiting inner city neighbourhoods in North America and Europe. He also said he was surprised at the degree of suspicion and anger that was being directed at UBC.

In light of these factors, John said that UBC’s undertaking was “akin to climbing Mount Everest.” He advised us not to open a storefront but to focus on building relationships with key people in both the Downtown Eastside and the university. He emphasized the importance of UBC refraining from blowing its own horn about its initiative. He said, “When you start hearing people in the community singing your praises, then you can start to talk about what you are doing, but even then, it will always be better to have the community be your champion.”

Finding the storefront

John’s advice about abandoning the idea of opening a community liaison office in the Downtown Eastside was sobering. Soon after the recommendations from the consultation had been accepted, UBC had begun looking for a space for such an office. In the beginning, the university was thinking of a location with space for classrooms and computer labs, maybe an art gallery, and office space for staff. By December 1999, several potential sites had been identified, ranging in size from 2,000 to 7,000 square feet.

But it was clear by early 2000 that the resistance in the community was being fueled largely by the misconception that UBC was going to establish a “campus” in the Downtown Eastside. The fear was that students would start moving into the low-cost housing in the neighbourhood thereby displacing low-income residents. It was believed that UBC’s proposed presence would accelerate the gentrification of the neighbourhood. The idea of UBC establishing a storefront had become a lightning rod for people’s fears.

While I was mindful of John McKnight’s advice about people rather than a physical structure being the operating base for UBC’s initiative, I had also been impressed by one local professional’s observation that the Downtown Eastside was like a small town. This person said it would be important for people from UBC to be seen on the street, to be available for chance encounters that would lead to informal conversations that could lead to more formal opportunities for collaboration.

In the week after John’s visit I talked about the storefront idea with the consultation advisory committee and several other people from Downtown Eastside organizations. Opinions ranged from supportive to neutral to strongly oppositional. When I suggested that we focus on the building of relationships, this intention was enthusiastically received, even by those who were not in favour of UBC establishing a storefront. It seemed the wisest course of action would be to find a small space which we could use primarily as a home base for staff members who could then start developing relationships with key individuals and organizations.

Learning Exchange storefront
original Learning Exchange storefront

Once we decided to look for a smaller, more modest space, UBC Properties soon identified a suitable location at the north end of Main Street, a few blocks away from the intersection of Main and Hastings, the epicentre of the city’s open drug scene. It was a small, 1250 square foot storefront that had been a lawyer’s office. We arranged for some minor renovations to be done and started planning for the office to open in the fall.

During this time, as I talked to people about the storefront, I saw for myself something that John McKnight had reported. As I became known, people dissociated me from the university. The word on the street was, “Oh yeah, Margo Fryer, she’s okay. But she’s just the front man who’s been sent down here to soften us up.” The institution was still viewed with suspicion even though I was beginning to be seen as someone who could be trusted.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Finding my right hand man.