Opening the storefront

By the fall of 2000, I had recruited a small staff team to begin building relationships with local organizations and individuals. When Shayne graduated I appointed him to a full-time position as a paid intern. I also hired a manager (whose primary job was to build relationships with organizations in the neighbourhood) and two administrative staff (whose job was to connect with the public using the storefront and do administrative tasks related to whatever programs we decided to undertake).

UBC had been invited to participate in a network of Downtown Eastside organizations that received funding from the federal government to establish free Internet sites. We figured this computer and Internet access would draw local residents to the storefront. This direct contact with residents would allow us to learn more about the area and generate further ideas about how UBC’s presence could benefit the neighbourhood.

A warm, cool space

The storefront was one quarter of an old, two-storey building that at one time had been a warehouse. The space had high ceilings, lots of natural light coming through the large front windows, and red brick walls that gave the space warmth and character. We replaced the carpet and painted the space in light, neutral colours. Shayne procured used desks, chairs, tables and other furniture by approaching friendly administrators on campus who were upgrading their offices and by rummaging through UBC’s cache of surplus office equipment. He also arranged to borrow several pieces of art produced by Fine Arts students. Shayne intentionally chose edgy pieces. My favourite was a black and white drawing of a long-haired man looking through binoculars that somehow had the effect of making you feel like no matter where you were in the room the guy was looking at you.

We thought the storefront was pretty cool. The space had a simple and efficient lay-out. You walked in the front door and encountered a small reception desk in an alcove that held two workstations for the administrative staff. Past the reception desk was the main area, an open space with the public computer stations along the wall on the left. There was a large board room table in the centre of the room and a small lounge area with a sofa, coffee table, and arm chairs at the far end of the room. On the right were two small, glass-walled offices, one for the manager and one that Shayne and I shared. There was a small kitchen in an alcove next to the lounge area. Adjacent to this was the one bathroom. Behind the lounge area was another small office that we intended to use as a meeting room.

An extremely “soft launch”

We decided to call the initiative “The Learning Exchange” to signal that the idea was that people from the university and the community would get to know each other and learn from each other. It was intended to correct any impression that the initiative was a unidirectional effort by UBC to bestow its largesse on the Downtown Eastside. It had also been decided without any fanfare that I would move from being Acting Director to Director.

The administration and UBC’s public relations people wanted to hold an official opening of the storefront, with a ribbon cutting ceremony, media attention, and a reception. I argued that this would be too risky. In the year since the consultation ended, as the staff team took shape, we had worked quietly but diligently to make connections in the neighbourhood. We were being well-received for the most part, but we were still outside the inner circles of power. The resistance in the neighbourhood was less obvious than it had been. But we could not be certain that some kind of protest or demonstration against UBC would not be organized if we were to rub people’s noses in our refusal to back off from the idea of occupying space in the Downtown Eastside. I reminded my UBC colleagues of John McKnight’s observations. The possibility of local people gathering outside the storefront, shouting and waving placards denouncing UBC was enough. The idea of doing an official opening was dropped.

Instead, we printed flyers about the availability of free access to the Internet and computers and distributed them to residences close to the storefront, including several co-ops and subsidized housing projects. Then one day in October, we simply unlocked the front door.

The afternoon drop-in

Over the ensuing weeks and months, more and more people started to come to the afternoon computer drop-in. Word spread. The fact that we were part of a new network of computer sites funded by Industry Canada helped. There was a buzz in the neighbourhood about the opening of all these sites where you could get free access to the Internet. UBC’s inclusion in the network, which consisted of some of the most powerful and respected organizations in the neighbourhood, gave us increased legitimacy. Plus our location was appealing. We were only three blocks away from Main and Hastings, the heart of the neighbourhood, but we were on a quiet block near the end of Main Street. There was little foot traffic and no open drug activity outside.

Before long, we had to institute protocols for scheduling the use of the computers because they were in such high demand. Within a few months, on a typical afternoon, the computers would be in almost constant use. There would also be a few people gathered around the central table reading, chatting or drinking coffee while they waited for their turn on the computer. Another two or three people would be sitting in the lounge area.

The drop-in started to take on a distinct feel. The staff members were diligent about creating the ethic that if you were at the Learning Exchange, you were there to work on something. It was not just a place to hang out or get free coffee. It was a space for learning, for doing projects you were interested in, for accessing all the information that was available via the Internet.

When someone came in the door, he or she would be greeted with some variation of, “Hi James, great to see you. What are you going to work on today?” We had to work to unsettle people’s assumption that we were a social service agency. UBC is an educational institution and therefore our focus was learning. When people would come in and say something like, “What are you going to do to help me?” our response would be, “Nothing. We’re not here to deliver services, we’re here to support you to learn something new, something you care about. What might that be?”

Gradually, a cadre of regular patrons developed. (We called people who came to the drop-in “patrons” as a way of trying to avoid loaded labels like “clients.”) Some came to the drop-in every day. Some stayed all afternoon, taking their 30 minute turn on the computer, booking another time slot, and then having coffee, reading, or talking with others while they waited for a computer to become available again. The centre table became a focal point for discussions on a range of topics from local and global politics to religious beliefs. Because the staff offices were so close to the drop-in, separated only by glass walls, I overheard many of these discussions, especially the most heated ones. No doubt the patrons overheard many of the conversations among staff as well as our phone calls.

The fact that patrons and staff were in such close quarters meant that it was inevitable that we would get to know each other. I came to understand that many people in the Downtown Eastside are well-traveled, well-educated, and well-read. I also learned that many people in the neighbourhood have mental illnesses that inhibit their ability to communicate in the “normal” ways that mainstream people expect. I learned that it was necessary to be continually alert to where people were at. You could not make assumptions. Someone’s behaviour on a particular day was not a reliable indicator of how they might be the next day. Sometimes this was due to the ebb and flow of mental illness. Someone could be highly lucid one day or even one minute, and then suddenly go off on a paranoid tangent. At other times, people’s unpredictability was the result of their living conditions. For example, they might have been awake all night because of a rowdy party next door. Or they might be irritable because they had not eaten that day or they had just come from a combative encounter with a bureaucrat who had the ability to provide or withhold a needed service.

The drop-in was a great place to learn to suspend your assumptions. I remember one afternoon standing in the doorway to the back meeting room talking with a neatly-dressed young man about the differing world views of well-known philosophers, both of us sipping from our recently-filled coffee cups. This man knew much more about Foucault and Nietzsche than I did, but I knew enough to keep up my end of the conversation. I had no idea whether this man was a local resident taking refuge in the drop-in or a professor or grad student from campus who had come down to check out UBC’s latest initiative. I felt privileged to be part of something where what mattered was making direct personal connections, regardless of your social position. It was only later that I realized how naive I was.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Moving in from the margins.