Collaborating with the YWCA

The Learning Exchange team learned early on that our work depended on our ability to collaborate with other organizations in the Downtown Eastside and other units at UBC. One of our most enduring and productive partnerships was with the YWCA of metro Vancouver.

Our multi-faceted relationship with the YWCA

Crabtree Corner

Crabtree sign
(photo copyright UBC)

I met Nancy Cameron, then the manager at Crabtree Corner, when I started working on the Downtown Eastside community consultation in the summer of 1999. Nancy was one of the members of the advisory committee that provided direction to the consultation. Nancy started at Crabtree not long before I met her. She did not have student volunteers working at the centre, but she was keen to try including them in the volunteer workforce that was so crucial to Crabtree’s ability to run its programs. So Crabtree became one of the original partners in the Trek Volunteer Program. It was obvious from the start that Crabtree was a great place for Trek students to volunteer. It provides a diverse array of programs and services to support women and families in the Downtown Eastside. In the early years of the partnership, before Crabtree moved to its current location on Hastings Street, Crabtree ran a day care centre, it provided a hot lunch every day to dozens of women and their children, and it offered support groups and programs tailored to the needs and interests of local women, many of them street-involved (i.e., involved in the sex trade and /or the drug scene). After it moved, Crabtree expanded its programs to include transition housing and an expanded array of supports, including a community kitchen program that was started by Trek students.

What was valuable about Crabtree from my point of view was the variety of its programs and the way they exemplified the principle that services should be grounded in the realities of clients’ lives. Even more important, volunteering at Crabtree exposed students to situations that were fertile spaces for the kind of learning that was central to realizing the potential of the Trek Program.

Students learned to scratch beneath the surface of the stereotypes. Clients at Crabtree are treated with the utmost respect. Most staff and volunteers are themselves former clients, so they are able to relate to clients’ situations. They do not put themselves at an artificial distance from clients. Crabtree, like most Downtown Eastside agencies, serves people who are mentally ill, intoxicated, affected by violence and abuse, and in distress. But Crabtree is different from some other agencies in the way order and calm are maintained or restored—not through the enforcement of rules but through the application of respectful attention to what is happening and shared problem-solving. The following interview clips from my sidewalk cafe conversation with Josie Mitchell, the student who did a Creative Writing project,  at Crabtree reveal how Crabtree’s approach affected her.

“the women there were so amazing”

“the women there let me in”

“I got to know them and hear their stories”


From Crabtree’s point of view, the relationship with the Learning Exchange was valuable because Trek students brought energy, enthusiasm, and talent into their programs. A relatively small number of Trek students volunteered each year but they became an important part of how Crabtree organized its work. One of the benefits for Crabtree was seeing how the students were changed by their experiences. Nancy Cameron believes these experiences were pivotal for some students. The seemingly simple act of chopping vegetables every week alongside local women changed students’ attitudes and behaviours. Crabtree participants shared their stories with students and discussed their perspectives on the issues in the neighbourhood. Nancy could see students’ fears unraveling and their stereotypes dissolving. To hear part of my conversation with Nancy about our collaboration and what students learned, listen to the excerpts below..

“for some students this was clearly a pivotal experience”

“students worked side-by-side with community members”


Once the Learning Exchange began offering project awards to enable students to undertake innovative projects, the benefits for Crabtree accelerated. Projects that students completed at Crabtree included the preparation of a manual for volunteer staff, a “Food, Fun and Facts” project that got clients cooking together and learning about nutrition (which became an ongoing program), and the creation of a social enterprise that had clients cooking food to be used by other YWCA facilities. To hear Nancy talking about the impact of these projects, listen to the audio clip below.

         “significant pieces of work started getting done”


Crabtree's new boutique
Crabtree’s new boutique

When the Learning Exchange started doing Community Service Learning projects during Reading Week, Crabtree had a team of students turn its cluttered collection of donated clothing into a boutique. When we began bringing students doing CSL projects as part of their coursework to Crabtree, even more work got done. Client families were taken on a field trip to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, women were coached on how to make the best use of the food offered through the Food Bank, workshops were given on nutrition for children, and a shelving unit to display information brochures was built by a group of engineering students. Having teams of students volunteering was different from having individual students on site, but the teams, too, got to know participants in Crabtree’s programs and learned a lot about the Downtown Eastside. Here’s Nancy describing how some students started out being anxious, but ended up being completely engaged with Crabtree participants.

      “(students) were surprised that they were accepted so easily”


Crabtree staff appreciated that all this work got done, work they would otherwise not have been able to do. They also appreciated knowing they were teaching students important lessons about life in the Downtown Eastside and that this learning would ripple out to others. Here’s Nancy again.

“their thinking was changing, so some of the conversations with their friends were changing”

“globally, we’ll benefit from that”


Welcome to My Life and Boys 4 Real

Word got around within the YWCA that enthusiastic and capable UBC student volunteers could be accessed through the Learning Exchange. In 2005, Lis Petersen, (Vice-President for Health and Fitness and Youth in 2011), contacted Shayne Tryon, then the Trek Program manager, about a new pilot the Y was launching. The plan was to develop a program for grade 7 girls that would inoculate them against some of the risks of the transition from elementary school to high school. The concept was to bring groups of grade 7 girls together after school to take part in activities facilitated by two university students. The group of grade 7 girls would also be supported by a high school mentor and an adult (called a “wisdom champion”) who would offer advice and encouragement. The girls would take part in a variety of activities and discussions around peer pressure, family relationships, self-esteem, and making choices. In addition, the program would incorporate a Community Service Learning (CSL) project that girls would do in their own community.

Lis discussed the concept for Welcome to My Life with Shayne and Francy Hayward, a coordinator in the Trek Program who had started her involvement with the Learning Exchange as a student in our first Reading Week project. The meeting took place around the time the Learning Exchange realized we were over-committed. We were in the process of determining which of our activities were priorities and which could be discontinued. At first, Shayne said, “We can’t help you.” The YWCA had arranged for the pilot to be implemented in a Vancouver school that was not in the Eastside. Shayne was being true to the decision we had made to concentrate on inner city issues. He was following our new policy of sometimes saying no to even great ideas.

But when Shayne and I discussed the pilot, knowing that Crabtree was such a high-quality learning environment, knowing from our work in Vancouver schools that the transition from grade 7 to grade 8 was indeed difficult, especially for kids in inner city environments, feeling aligned with the overall goals of the YWCA, and being intrigued by the adoption of the CSL model in this different context, we decided to break our own rules. Much to Lis’s surprise, Shayne called back and said, “We’ll give this a try.” Francy started working with Lis to fine-tune the details of the program. We recruited students to act as group facilitators for the first round of the pilot. Francy helped in the training of the facilitators, including passing on what we had learned about doing CSL projects and how this kind of activity connected to the concept of global citizenship. One student who was a facilitator for two groups in the Welcome to My Life programs found it helpful to be given this context. In a recent interview with me she said,

“In high school you’re just told to volunteer. You don’t really know why. As you get into university it’s really nice to have a program like this to get you thinking about why you volunteer, why it is important to you and to the society. For me that’s what the Learning Exchange did. It helped me make that connection better and clarified my motivation that this is what I want to do, this is an issue I care about. That was really important to my personal growth. I mean my personal growth as a person in terms of my involvement with the community as a volunteer, and learning about social issues, and how I see myself fitting in in the future.”

The pilot was a huge success. It led, over several years, to an expansion of the Welcome to My Life program and the development of a companion program for grade 7 boys called Boys 4 Real. The Learning Exchange recruited UBC students for this program as well. In 2008, the YWCA started reaching out to other universities and colleges to recruit facilitators because the Learning Exchange could not commit to getting all the facilitators needed for the expanding programs.

The Rooftop Garden

In 2006, the YWCA began developing a plan to create a garden on the roof of the building downtown which houses its hotel, administrative offices, and recreation facilities. The idea was to grow food that could be used at Crabtree Corner. Lis Petersen suggested to Ted Cathcart, the facilities manager who was spearheading the project, that he contact the Learning Exchange about getting UBC students working on the garden. Ted was enthusiastic about this possibility because he had previously worked at UBC, overseeing the UBC Farm, and enjoyed teaching and interacting with students. Ted believes in the power of experiential learning. He knows the limits of “book learning” on its own.

At the same time, the Learning Exchange had just created the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI) as the vehicle for the expansion of course-based CSL. We were looking for more sites in the community where students could do projects. The timing was perfect. I had begun working with Susan Nesbit, an engineering professor, to figure out how to integrate CSL into large undergraduate courses. Her course in civil engineering focused on sustainability issues and also aspired to educate students about their roles as professionals and community leaders. The nature of the work to be done at the garden was very much in synch with Susan’s vision.

The work required some knowledge of design and infrastructure development. It entailed raising awareness of issues such as poverty and food security. The rooftop garden and Susan’s course were a perfect fit. There were lots of short-term projects students could do that would give them a great learning experience while helping the YWCA create the infrastructure to enable the garden to become a productive source of food.

From 2007 to 2010, an impressive array of projects got done. Engineering students constructed compost boxes, cold frames, trellises for growing fruit, hoop houses, an irrigation system, and raised tables for planting. A group of students from UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems developed a plan to identify the food that would be most useful to Crabtree. An individual student from the same faculty created a fruit tree garden with the support of a student grant from the UBC-CLI.

Munroe House

YWCA painting projectThe need to find new community partners for the UBC-CLI also brought us to Munroe House. This transition house for women and children leaving situations of abuse proved to be another rich learning environment. Some of the CSL projects done at Munroe House had students doing physical labour, e.g., sprucing up the paint in the administrative offices, reconfiguring the group activity room so it was more usable with more storage space, and creating a food garden in the back yard of the house. Other projects required students to practice different skills. For example, one project had students compile a resource binder describing local subsidized housing units and the services in their surrounding neighbourhoods so that women leaving Munroe House would be able to make informed decisions about where to look for housing. Whether the project involved physical labour or research skills, the students were educated about the issues surrounding violence against women. Coming to grips with these issues was challenging, especially for students who had no previous exposure to the realities of family violence.

Collaborating based on shared interests

Our partnership with the YWCA was a great example of the Learning Exchange core practice of collaborating on the basis of shared interests. In this case, the Learning Exchange was looking for environments where students would be encouraged to learn about the realities associated with social marginalization while being supported to explore what it meant to be a global citizen and practice the values of a civil and sustainable society. All of the YWCA units we worked with provided that kind of environment.

The various YWCA units were looking for energetic, capable volunteers who would enhance their capacity to deliver their programs. The UBC students met and in many cases, exceeded the Y’s expectations. So this partnership was definitely characterized by reciprocity and mutual benefit. But, from the point of view of those of us who were involved, the partnership was more than a “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

I have talked with the key people involved in this relationship about what worked and why. These conversations revealed that our shared interests went beyond the meeting of our respective organization’s instrumental objectives. The key players felt it was important that the overarching vision and mission of the two organizations, the YWCA metro Vancouver and UBC Learning Exchange, were so closely aligned.

The YWCA is committed to improving the status of women through integrated services and advocacy. They emphasize education and social change not just service provision. They have a strong commitment to sustainability. These goals fit with UBC’s vision to cultivate global citizenship, strengthen civil society and promote sustainability. The fit between the YWCA and the Learning Exchange could also be seen in the concrete activities, work processes, and cultures of the two organizations.

In particular, the shared underlying belief in the importance of learning as a catalyst for social change helped to strengthen the bonds between the Learning Exchange and the YWCA. This emphasis appeared in the design of our respective programs, e.g., our invitations to Trek students to learn about the realities behind the stereotypes and reflect on how marginalization happens and the development of the Welcome to my Life program as a response to girls getting lost in the transition to high school.

Lisa Rupert ran Munroe House and later became the Vice-President of Housing and Violence Prevention at the YWCA. As I was writing about the partnership between the YWCA and the Learning Exchange, we discussed Lisa’s view of education and social change. Click  below to  hear her perspective.

“How great is it if students . . . come here to learn about issues . . . and see it from our point of view?”


The focus on learning also appeared in smaller ways, e.g., if a problem arose in the midst of a CSL project, our joint trouble-shooting would centre on the question of how students could learn from the situation and how they could find a suitable solution themselves, rather than having staff supervisors fix the problem. Over time we all realized that we shared a commitment to learning by doing as well as an appreciation for the value of mentoring and coaching as teaching strategies. Both organizations were “learning organizations” that were open to changing how things were done. For example, Lisa Rupert valued the questions students asked because they inspired her to reflect critically on how Munroe House does things. Here is part of our conversation.

“I like people to challenge and ask”


Over time, we realized that the respective work cultures of the YWCA and the Learning Exchange were very similar. Learning Exchange practices around planning, setting goals and checking to see if expected outcomes were achieved were congruent with the way the YWCA does business. Nobody at the YWCA was surprised that Learning Exchange staff would want to discuss goals, timelines, how resources would be secured, and how roles and responsibilities would be defined. Developing plans and using agreements as reference points was standard practice for both organizations.

Everyone involved also had similar understandings about what kinds of communications would help keep us on track. Emails and phone messages were responded to quickly. Our assumptions about which decisions needed formal consideration at particular levels of authority and which could be made informally matched. If a problem arose, a quick phone call would usually clear up any confusion or allow a decision to be made.

The importance of this similarity in what we took for granted cannot be underestimated. To some extent, we were playing by the same rules because we were all working within an established bureaucracy of significant size. The rules we were following were those typical of hierarchies of professionals responsible for complex activities where public accountability was required. But it was more than that. The key people actually believed that planning and evaluation were worthwhile (even enjoyable) practices. We all were highly motivated to communicate clearly and quickly with each other because we believed in what we were trying to do together. We saw our partners treating people with profound respect and encouraging creative problem-solving and we wanted to live up to the standards we saw being embodied. We were not just working together, we were inspiring each other.

Over time the people involved developed a shared sense of purpose that went beyond the intent to get certain specific objectives met. We went from caring about what we could get from the partnership to being oriented to what we could give to the partnership. The partnership itself became something of value. In addition, over time, we came to trust that we could count on each other if something went awry.

This was important because both organizations were knowingly taking risks. The risk for the YWCA was that students would not be capable of fulfilling their responsibilities. This could mean that CSL projects would not be completed or would not be usable. It could mean that students would do something that would harm a client or damage a client’s relationship with the YWCA. Or keeping students on track would be so demanding of YWCA staff members’ time and energy that the results would not be worth the effort.

For the Learning Exchange, the risks were that students would not be given meaningful work or would not be supported if they encountered difficulties, or that students would be put into unsafe situations.

Both organizations were taking a leap into the unknown. With the programs for grade 7s and the rooftop garden as well as many of the projects at Crabtree and Munroe House, something new was being tried. Trust developed between the two organizations through repeated experiences where problems were sorted out quickly with minimal stress. Both organizations expected hiccups, especially in the early stages of the relationship, so when these occurred, they were no big deal.

It helped that we all were approaching the work with an entrepreneurial spirit. Lis Petersen described the partnership as having an electrical energy. She appreciated that the Learning Exchange team members had a “can do” approach and were not afraid to admit they did not know how things would turn out. Click below to listen to part of my conversation with her.

“there was a total electric energy”


It also helped that the people involved shared something of themselves in the course of their business-oriented interactions. For example, people discovered they had similar backgrounds or shared an interest in the same non-work related activities. People were also willing to reveal their own vulnerabilities, their uncertainties and frustrations. This contributed to the sense that we were working with kindred spirits, something that is impossible to formalize or mandate, but may be crucial to the long-term success of collaborative work. Lis Petersen emphasized the importance of this in my sidewalk cafe discussion with her about our partnership.

“You learn about that person”

Generating power

The camaraderie and shared willingness to take risks in the interests of developing important innovations generated creative power. This generative power was reinforced when students got involved in bringing our shared ideas to fruition. Lis Petersen described this process as arising from our trusting that students could deliver combined with the magic ingredient that students have—youthful enthusiasm.

The prevalence of this generative power in the relationship meant that the way power differentials are usually talked about in the discourse about community-university engagement did not apply. One of my School of Community and Regional Planning graduate students, Charlotte Humphries, examined the nature of the partnership between the YWCA and the Learning Exchange for her Master’s thesis. She discovered that the people from the YWCA did not see themselves as having less power than the university.

On the contrary, YWCA staff saw the Learning Exchange as depending on the YWCA to provide high-quality learning experiences for our students. As Lis put it to me, “It was more collaboration based on a common goal than power over.” Similarly, Ted Cathcart, who oversaw the rooftop garden told me that, “UBC had the mandate to involve students in community and the Y had a vested interest in receiving focussed efforts, so I think the partnership was equal. I always felt that UBC valued the relationship and I know that the Y did so I never considered ‘power’ as a factor.”

Our partnership with the YWCA revealed that it is more fruitful to think about how such partnerships can generate power by virtue of people’s shared effort than to worry about which organization has static power adhering to it because of its social position or financial resources. Our experience suggests it is important to think about how to ignite sparks of creativity and then nurture them with respect, trust and shared intentions rather than focusing on redistributing existing forms or symbols of power.

Our partnership also showed that strong collaborations are built not just on the achievement of specific mutual benefits and some give and take in the process of implementing concrete initiatives. Ideally, collaborations succeed because of shared interests at many levels, from the organizational to the personal.

For more on this topic, see The logic and magic in relationships.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Winds of change.