New space, new funds

Around the same time the composition of the Learning Exchange staff team changed so dramatically, it became obvious that we would have to leave the original storefront. The building had serious problems related to its age and state of repair. Fortunately we found a storefront for rent just a few blocks south on Main Street. We moved in the fall of 2008. This location was larger and newer than our former space. Instead of being crammed into 2,500 square feet of space, we now had 7,000 square feet on three floors to hold our programs and staff offices.

Moving to Chinatown

copyright Margo Fryer
New storefront at Main and Keefer

Even though it was not far from our original storefront, the area around our new space had a different flavour. The original storefront was on a quiet block at the north end of Main Street, on the fringe of Gastown, where not much happened on the street outside. Now we were in the heart of Chinatown. There was a constant flow of walk-by traffic outside the storefront, mostly people going to and from the retail businesses in the area. Approaching the new storefront meant being surrounded by intense sensations. The sound of cars, trucks, and buses mingled with voices speaking Chinese. Racks of brightly coloured clothing and bins of exotic fruits and vegetables competed for your eyes’ attention. The smell of fish and fowl hung thick in the air.

We allocated the ground floor of the building for the computer drop-in since it was easy for people to access. We did some minor renovations to create a reception area with workstations for a couple of staff and an enclosed office that would give the drop-in coordinator a quiet space to work but keep her close to the action. We tried to make the space welcoming and comfortable. But the drop-in struggled for quite a while.

The new space did not have the feeling of warmth and intimacy that the old space did, with its brick walls and enclosed garden. Since we were in a different part of the neighbourhood, new people were coming in, people who were not familiar with the staff or the organizational culture of the Learning Exchange. Some of the regular patrons did not like the new location and therefore avoided it. So the feeling of community that had developed over time in the old space was lost. The drop-in and the computer training program continued to run and even expand slightly, but there was a palpable uneasiness in the air. Conflicts and misunderstandings became more frequent and more difficult to sort out.

We allocated the second floor of the new building to the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. This floor had two meeting rooms that were just the right size for the ESL groups. It also had two glassed-in offices, an open area that we used as a reception area and lounge, as well as a washroom and large meeting room. The lay-out was perfect for the ESL program. It gave staff much more space to work in, so the number of conversation groups expanded. Demand quickly grew to match supply. The number of participants doubled in the first year in the new space. But the number of staff did not double. So while the ESL team was excited about the growth in their program, they were working flat-out to try to keep up with the volume of their workload.

I was relieved that I had found an alternative site for the Learning Exchange. Since our raison d’etre was linked to the Downtown Eastside, we were limited in where we could go. Our needs in relation to the configuration of interior space were pretty specific. Although there were a lot of vacant storefronts in the area, many of them were uninhabitable. We had been lucky to find a building that was so well-suited to our programs in such a central location.

New space; new distance

But one aspect of the new building distressed me. The first and second floors both felt open and welcoming. But to get to the third floor you had to go through a heavy locked door, navigate a steep, winding staircase, and then go through a second locked door. The third floor had a kitchen, two washrooms, several separate offices, and some open areas that could either be configured to hold workstations or used as meeting rooms. It was great to have so much space. But I was acutely aware that many staff members, including me, were now working away from the public areas, separated by two locked doors.

This set-up was at odds with the vow I had made when the Learning Exchange was created. I was adamant that I would never allow the staff and our program participants to become separated by locked doors. This new set-up not only went against my principles, it changed something important about my daily work. I had become used to working within sight and hearing of the drop-in. I could see what patrons were doing and they could see what I was doing. Even though we were working on different things, I think some ineffable feeling of camaraderie developed based on everyone sharing the same workspace. I certainly felt that working at the storefront kept me connected to what was important about the Learning Exchange. Even though I had gradually been spending more and more time working in my office on campus because of the demands of our Community Service Learning (CSL) programs, I counted on my time in the Downtown Eastside to keep me grounded.

But I never felt at home in the new space. I felt like the virgin in the tower. When I came to the storefront, I typically made my way through the drop-in space, rarely stopping to talk with anyone, partly because few of the old familiar faces were present, and partly because I had a surfeit of work to do in my office. I went up the two flights of stairs, juggling my briefcase and keys, opened up my office and typically only emerged if I had scheduled meetings to attend. It was a lonely, isolated way to work. But part of me actually felt relieved. I should have recognized this as a signal that something was amiss. But my workload was such that this warning sign did not really register.

Solidifying the Budget

One of my priorities was to finally get the Learning Exchange on solid financial ground. UBC had granted us some ongoing operating funds but not enough. Every year at budget time I pointed out that we were facing a shortfall and asked whether we should cut back on our continuing growth. Every year my boss said, “Keep going.” So I did. But it was nerve-wracking.

At budget time in 2009, President Toope signaled that he wanted to align the university’s budgetary decisions with the priorities articulated in the Place and Promise vision. This vision was the result of the President’s revamping of UBC’s earlier Trek 2010 vision. As department heads entered into the annual budget preparation and approval process, everyone knew that it would be in their interests to link their budget requests with Place and Promise. I had no difficulty doing this because everything the Learning Exchange did was a direct outgrowth of UBC’s vision. Fortunately, Place and Promise strengthened the commitments to student learning and community engagement originally made in the Trek vision.

This seemed to me the only real chance we were going to get to finally secure the ongoing funds we needed. Some of the messages I was hearing through the grapevine suggested we would be successful. The Learning Exchange and CSL were considered exemplars of the kind of initiatives the President and his executive wanted to see happening. We had the reputation of being fiscally responsible. We were aggressive about external fund-raising. I had been careful never to whine about not having enough funding, instead expressing gratitude for the support we did receive. But we were asking the university to find more than $1.5 million every year to fill the hole in our budget. And I knew other worthy units were also asking for support.

The process was more than a little hair-raising, but the Learning Exchange did get the core funding we needed. It was agreed that we would not just maintain our current level of activity, but that we should continue to grow. I was immensely relieved and grateful. This was a huge milestone.

When the budgetary decisions were finalized, the President sent a letter to the university community in which he explained the university’s budget situation and described some of the decisions that had been made. He highlighted the fact that the Learning Exchange had been allocated core funding to enable its stabilization and further growth. I expected we would come under fire from other parts of the university who had not been so successful in their pleas for support. I was surprised to hear the Provost report that when he told the Deans about this and other budget decisions, the Deans objected to some strategic decisions that had been made, but they were not at all unhappy about funds being directed to the Learning Exchange. The Provost said the decision was completely non-controversial; the attitude was, “It’s about time.”

Around the same time, the bank that had been supporting the Learning Exchange from its early days renewed its financial commitment to our programs.

I found it extremely gratifying to see the Learning Exchange settled into a space where it could continue to grow, with its programs doing well, and with stable funding. We had recovered from the storm of 2007 and were back on track. But I was not sure it was a track I wanted to be on anymore.

For the last chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Taking my leave.