Five core practices

In the early days, the Learning Exchange staff team was flying by the seat of its pants: acting on instinct, learning by trial and error. We occasionally openly admitted to ourselves and others that we were making it up as we went along.

Fortunately, because the Learning Exchange was initiated under such inauspicious circumstances, with many if not most people imagining it would fail, nobody expected very much. We were able to make mistakes and learn from them without suffering public embarrassment or feeling that we needed to make excuses. We could pick ourselves up off the ground, share a laugh, and move on.

After gradually establishing a track record of success we started to feel more confident. We began to be able to articulate the modus operandi of the Learning Exchange. This made it easier to support staff, faculty and students as they, too, made the journey between UBC and the Downtown Eastside. Being more transparent about how we were working also made it easier to collaborate with people in the community.

By 2003 we had identified five core practices we followed and five values we strove to embody. These values and practices allowed us to navigate the diverse environments we worked in. They encouraged us to focus as much on how we behaved and why we made certain decisions as on the specifics of our programs and activities. 

These five practices and five values were inter-related and mutually reinforcing. They did not provide rules for our conduct per se but instead pointed us in the direction of certain ways of being in relationship. Having articulated these practices and values, the team was more grounded. We had something to hang onto as we walked the tightrope.

The core practices were:

  1. Engaging in iterative cycles of planning, action, and reflection or evaluation
  2. Inclusive dialogue
  3. Curiosity
  4. Careful risk-taking
  5. Collaborating with others on the basis of shared interests.

Planning, action, and reflection

paint potsThe first practice, that of intentionally planning out what we wanted to do, doing it, and then standing back to see what happened was one we used in both big and small ways. For example, the Trek Program settled into a yearly rhythm whose lynchpin was a meeting with the organizations that hosted UBC student volunteers. This meeting typically took place in the spring time, at the end of the academic term. This meeting focused on whether the goals for the year had been reached, what had worked or not worked from both the organization’s and our point of view, and what we had all learned.

Then we would discuss what the organization hoped to achieve with the help of UBC students in the coming year and how we should organize the next year’s activities given the organization’s goals and the lessons we had learned. Then the Trek staff team would spend the summer planning out the activities for the coming academic year. They would create charts showing how many students each organization wanted, what the student activities would be, which kind of students might be the best fit and how we could recruit them.

For example, if the organization wanted to design a nutrition education program for single moms on limited incomes, we knew that we should try to connect with professors teaching nutrition and/or health promotion. This planning led into the plan for the student recruitment drive, which included preparing new promotional materials that would keep the Trek Program’s appeal fresh.

This planning also led to the creation of lists of faculty that needed to be approached and decisions about who would contact which faculty member. During the summer we would also plan for any changes to the program’s structure or operations that might be necessary based on the feedback from students and our partners. For example, when a number of elementary school teachers observed that the UBC student tutors seemed hesitant about getting kids to read out loud, we worked with the Vancouver School Board to develop an orientation program for students who were acting as literacy tutors.

Starting in the late summer and early fall, Trek Program staff would go into high gear to implement everything that had been planned. They recruited, oriented, and placed student volunteers; supported faculty members who were integrating community work into their courses (e.g., helping to facilitate reflective discussions in class), and organized the annual CSL projects that would happen during Reading Week. In the spring, the cycle would begin again.

These iterative cycles of planning, action, and evaluation gave us confidence that we were making necessary adaptations to the Trek Program and not perpetuating activities or processes that were not effective. These cycles and the resulting changes we made also showed our partners that we were listening and responding to their concerns. This helped build trust.

In addition to these larger, more formal cycles, we used this first practice in smaller, more informal ways as well. The intention was that we would always have a vision for what we hoped to achieve with any particular action, that we would pay careful attention as we acted, trying to discern how our actions were affecting other people and the overall context, and that we would take time after the action was over to reflect on what had happened. Were our goals met? Did the other people in the situation get their goals met? What did we observe about how the action unfolded and our own role in the situation? For example, going into a staff workshop, I would have a formal agenda but I also might have goals for getting a certain person to engage more wholeheartedly or I might plan to pair a new staff person with a more experienced staff member during a particular exercise so the new person would gain a deeper understanding of the organizational culture.

After the meeting I would take time to reflect on how the meeting went. For example, did the way I introduced an exercise work or were people confused? Trying to ensure that all of our individual and collective activity was intentional, trying to be constantly alert to the intended and unintended consequences of our actions, and being willing to be open and honest about the results of our actions were part of our being a learning organization, continually looking for ways to strengthen our work. This practice also meant that we became a close, supportive team because we were willing to expose ourselves to constructive criticism, to make mistakes and resolve to do better. (For more on this practice, see Planning, action and reflection.)

Inclusive dialogue

The second practice, inclusive dialogue, is especially important in contexts where diverse, often conflicting interests and perspectives exist. It is especially challenging in contexts where behavioural norms and cultural expectations are different. For example, in the university, the expectation is that discussions will be carried out in certain ways (e.g., when people have a point to make or question to ask, they will raise their hands).

While these mainstream norms are upheld in meetings among professionals in the Downtown Eastside, they are not necessarily typical of all gatherings in the Downtown Eastside. For example, in public forums about contentious issues, it is not unusual to hear people shouting, swearing, and calling each other names. Many residents of the Downtown Eastside are not concerned about being politically correct. Some have difficulty controlling anger. Some believe that being openly passionate and assertive about your opinions is more important than being nice. Some have been silenced so often they believe the only way they will be heard is if they are shouting.

These different expectations about what dialogue looks like sometimes made it very challenging for us to be as inclusive as we believed we should. We had to think carefully about who needed to be included in which circumstances and for what reasons. We had to think deeply about what we hoped to achieve by engaging in dialogue and what forms of communication might be effective in different situations and for different people. (For more on this, see Making decisions.)


The third practice, curiosity, is one that, theoretically, is central to the academic mission. It seemed a wholly appropriate practice for us to adopt. Given the unfamiliar terrain we were navigating, it was particularly important that we maintain a constant willingness to ask, what is really going on in this situation? What role could and should I be playing? And, how can something worthwhile be created here? Being curious was the practice that enabled us to not be defensive when we were criticized by others or when we ourselves realized we had made a mistake. It inspired us to not be satisfied with superficial analyses of what was happening and how we should respond. It kept us mentally alert and emotionally open, two very important states to sustain when you are walking a tightrope.

Careful risk-taking

garden forkThe fourth practice, careful risk-taking, is the most subtle and subjective of these practices. For innovation to occur, risks must be taken. But which risks are worth taking? What constitutes due diligence in a particular situation? This was an especially challenging practice for the Learning Exchange because universities are notoriously risk-averse environments. Even the idea of placing student volunteers in organizations in a neighbourhood with the reputation of the Downtown Eastside was too risky a prospect for some people at UBC. But if no risks are taken, the status quo does not change.

The opening of the original storefront is an example of careful risk-taking. Early on, we knew that UBC’s plan to establish a physical presence had become a lightning rod for the hostility in the Downtown Eastside. But we also had information that suggested that UBC needed to establish a home base of some kind in order to be seen as part of the neighbourhood. So we took the risk of establishing a storefront, but we moved into a much smaller space than UBC had originally envisioned. Although the Public Affairs people at UBC wanted to do an official opening of the storefront, with dignitaries and media present, I pointed out that such an event might result in pickets or other forms of protest. The idea was abandoned; the risk was not worth the potential benefit. We took the risk of establishing a physical presence but we were careful to make it a modest presence and not to make a point of flaunting our refusal to cave in to the pressure from the activists in the neighbourhood.

The calculations about risk changed as the Learning Exchange evolved. Once our public profile became higher, we had more to lose. More people were watching. The tightrope was higher. We were also more skilled and more comfortable on the rope but we had to be wary of any tendency towards over-confidence. This possibility itself became a risk, especially as our work became more complex, with more people involved. We could easily think we had everything under control but lose sight of an important detail. Being careful was crucial. (For more on this, see Taking risks.)

Collaboration based on shared interests

The fifth practice, that of collaborating with others on the basis of shared interests, meant that when we started talking with someone about the potential to do something together, whether it was a professor, staff member, or student in the university or an organization or resident in the community, we would try to clearly articulate the reasons why we were interested in working together. We had learned through experience that, if a shared goal had been agreed on and people’s various interests in a project had been openly articulated, this could serve as a reference point when things became difficult, e.g., when misunderstandings arose. We could remind ourselves and each other about why it would be worthwhile to try to get back on track. We could ground ourselves in our shared sense of purpose and our shared appreciation for our relationship. For a detailed description of one of our most effective partnerships, see the article on our partnership with the YWCA.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Aligning with our sense of purpose.