Getting to know the Downtown Eastside

The President’s office hired a second student to work with me on the community consultation. Brian Lee was a civil engineering student with strong people skills as well as an interest in social issues. Brian and I interviewed professionals, met with small groups of residents, and “hung out” in places where residents gathered. Throughout the consultation, Brian and I were guided by a small advisory committee that included people who worked in the Downtown Eastside.

When Brian and I started doing interviews, we discovered that UBC had alienated a lot of people. In the fall of 1998, the President’s office held a press conference to announce UBC’s plan to create some kind of presence in the Downtown Eastside. The media event was held at Strathcona Elementary School. The President spoke to the assembled VIPs about the university’s new Trek vision and the plan to reach out to the Downtown Eastside.

Strathcona School
Strathcona School

But UBC had not talked to people in the neighbourhood before making the announcement. Not surprisingly, many people were skeptical. Some were openly hostile: What does UBC know about the Downtown Eastside? What makes them think they have anything to offer? Why didn’t they come and talk to us first? What’s their real agenda?

The community consultation was a response to the backlash from the community. But a considerable amount of damage had already been done. When Brian and I tried to make connections, we were rarely met with open arms. Only one organization I approached flatly refused to participate in the consultation. Others hesitated, but agreed to talk to us when we made the point that if no one spoke to us, UBC would never understand people’s concerns.

Most interviews followed a similar pattern. The interviewee complained about the press conference and then about the arrogance and insensitivity of academics, often telling disturbing stories from their own experience. I listened carefully and acknowledged that research sometimes dehumanizes and exploits people. My status as a student helped. I felt no need to defend the institution and most people did not really expect me to. Once the criticisms had been voiced and accepted as valid, I asked if there was anything UBC might be able to offer that could be useful. This usually led into a more open discussion of what might be possible.

Over the summer, Brian and I met with representatives of 27 organizations and agencies. We also talked with local residents in settings such as a community barbeque and concert, youth and family drop-in centres, and a church that provides social services. We also spent a long Saturday night walking alongside a squad of police officers as they patrolled the neighbourhood on foot.

First United Church
First United Church

I spent one morning at First United Church, intending to talk with ordinary Downtown Eastside residents about UBC’s proposed initiative. Over the course of a few hours, I approached eleven people who had come to the church for a free cup of coffee and a bun, to get a few hours’ sleep in one of the pews, or to get free legal advice. I quickly realized that I had to let go of my expectations. I was unable to have a “normal” conversation with some people. One person was having an imaginary conversation with entities unseen. Two others responded to my approach only with nods and smiles. Most of the others I approached had not heard about UBC’s initiative and were not interested in hearing about it or thinking about it. As one man explained, “It’s hard to think about learning or other things when all that matters is finding a place to sleep and something to eat.” Once I abandoned my predetermined agenda, I was able to relax and be more open to what people did want to talk about—their own personal stories. I got a glimpse of the wide variety of experiences that lead people to the Downtown Eastside and the diverse range of supports and opportunities that people there find valuable.

First impressions

As I visited the social service and health agencies that were the most influential in the neighbourhood, two things struck me. The first was that the area had a huge concentration of these agencies. As one person I interviewed noted, “What you see mostly in the Downtown Eastside are bars and social agencies.” I had been involved in similar projects earlier in my career, but never before had all the organizations on my interview list been within walking distance of each other.

The second thing that surprised me was the degree of separation between the professionals in the agencies and their clients. Everywhere I went I was escorted through locked doors or access points requiring security codes. The professionals all had rings of keys around their wrists or hanging from their belts.

I was distressed by these stark barriers between the professionals and the people they served. I resolved that if I had any influence over what UBC created, it would not follow this pattern. I did not want UBC to create a space built on an “us and them” mentality. As I spent more time in the neighbourhood, I began to see that the boundaries were not as impermeable as I had at first imagined. I also began to understand the frustrations and fears that led people to create these dividing lines.

For example, the evening Brian and I shadowed the police officers, we witnessed one of the officers get upset when he searched a known drug dealer and discovered a razor in the man’s shoe. The dealer had not warned the officer about the razor. The officer later explained that the police and drug users have an informal agreement that, because of the danger of contracting HIV, users who are being searched will tell the police if they are carrying anything sharp. I realized that, underneath the apparent war between police and drug users, lie networks of relationships governed by some kind of social order. I got a glimpse of the complexity and contradictions that hide beneath all the stereotypes about the Downtown Eastside. But I still felt it would be important for UBC to avoid creating symbolic and real barriers in whatever physical presence the university decided to establish.

Clear messages

In the course of the consultation, Brian and I came to understand that the Downtown Eastside is not one monolithic entity, but a combination of many diverse communities. As we said in our report, “Trying to understand the Downtown Eastside is like looking into a kaleidoscope. From different angles, the pieces of the puzzle form different patterns, each one with its own truth.” We knew we had only scratched the surface. But we did receive some very clear messages about UBC’s proposed presence in the area.

In a few of our conversations, people expressed excitement about what UBC’s engagement could mean. In others, people voiced skepticism, even hostility. There was an undercurrent of suspicion that UBC had a hidden agenda, that its initiative was really intended only to garner publicity or bolster the university’s fund-raising efforts. This was partly the result of the mistrust of mainstream institutions that pervades the Downtown Eastside. It was also a result of people’s previous experiences with academic researchers who came to the community to pursue their own ideas, collected their data and then disappeared, leaving nothing of value behind.

But between the extremes of “UBC knows nothing about this neighbourhood and has nothing to offer us!” and, “UBC should get down here tomorrow!” there were a fair number of people who seemed willing to give UBC a chance to demonstrate what it could do.

Fortunately, pretty much everybody we talked to in the Downtown Eastside offered the same advice: UBC should proceed slowly; UBC needed to show that it was willing to listen and learn; it should make a long-term commitment to the area; the university should not duplicate existing programs or compete with organizations that already had a presence in the area. Instead, UBC should work collaboratively to address issues that people in the community perceived to be important.

Deciding to proceed

The undercurrent of suspicion in the Downtown Eastside was exacerbated when an “open letter to UBC’s Board of Governors” was distributed to the fax machines of all the major local organizations. This long, accusatory letter was sent out by three UBC students who had been hired to do the Downtown Eastside consultation but had resigned “in protest.” I had been told that a team of students had been hired before me and Brian but that the arrangement had not worked out. I was given the impression it was not a big deal. But the students thought otherwise.

The letter claimed that the President’s office had mishandled the planning for the consultation. For example, the students said they should have been encouraged to start the consultation by finding out exactly what UBC could offer the Downtown Eastside. The President’s office did not agree. Nor did I. It seemed obvious to me that to start a consultation about the Downtown Eastside anywhere but in the Downtown Eastside would be ill-advised. Besides, the university is so large and diverse, and so much activity is not publicized, that the students could have spent months talking to faculty and staff and still not have produced a comprehensive picture of what UBC could offer. In addition, based on other research and planning projects I have done, I believe it is not sensible to try to plan new initiatives on the basis of what people say they might perhaps be willing to do at some indeterminate future time. The creation of viable initiatives depends on the confluence of people and ideas in particular contexts at particular moments in real time. I did not think the students’ letter was credible enough to undermine UBC’s position but it added fuel to the fires of resistance that were smouldering in the neighbourhood.

UBC’s proposed initiative was making some people at UBC nervous, too. Some people did not think this kind of initiative was a good use of the university’s resources. Others did not think the President’s office had the right intentions or the requisite knowledge. In addition, around the same time the open letter was distributed, the local daily newspaper ran a front-page story whose headline read, “UBC forced to cool outpost plans.” This story focused on all the skepticism and hostility in the Downtown Eastside about UBC’s proposed presence. It gave the impression that UBC was backing off. Since universities worry a great deal about their reputations, this negative publicity made some decision-makers at UBC wonder if maybe they should back off.

But knowing there was at least some receptivity in the neighbourhood and some consensus about how UBC could proceed, and believing it was the right thing to do, the President and her allies in the university decided to go ahead. They decided to proceed with the establishment of a presence in the Downtown Eastside with the consultation’s recommendations as the blueprint.

To listen to Martha Piper talking with me about this part of the story of the Learning Exchange, click below. 

“It could have been a disaster.”

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Becoming the Director.