Rebuilding the staff team

In the summer and fall of 2007 I hired five new staff members for the Learning Exchange, not counting the usual contingent of interns and part-time student staff who worked in the Trek Program. In 2008, I hired another nine full-time staff. By the end of that year, the Vancouver Learning Exchange staff team consisted of 17 full-time staff and six paid part-time students or interns. Only three of us had been part of the team prior to 2007. This represented a wonderful infusion of new, diverse talent and ideas.

A loss of culture

But it also presented a challenge to the integrity of the organizational culture I and the original team had worked so hard to create. Previously, when new staff members were hired, there was a critical mass of people who had participated in the creation of the organization’s culture and who saw it as their responsibility to socialize newcomers. But this was no longer the case. New people might have been reading the staff manual, but this was not enough to really convey our ethics and values. One incident in late 2007 left me in despair about what had been lost.

The main floor of the storefront consisted of two separate spaces with a doorway that allowed traffic to pass back and forth. The computer drop-in and training area took up one half (the original storefront space); the other half (the adjacent storefront) housed the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. There were staff offices and workstations in both halves. There was a washroom with one toilet and sink in each half. Given my commitment not to create separate spaces for staff and the public and the fact that when we first opened we only had one washroom, our tradition was that the washrooms were used by both staff and the public.

In 2007, the staff in the ESL program began noticing that one or more users of the washroom on their half of the storefront were not cleaning up after themselves. Staff were finding urine and feces on the floor and the toilet seat. We instituted procedures to deal with this, including placing gloves and antibacterial cleaning supplies in the washroom and asking whoever encountered the dirty conditions to clean up.

But I started hearing rumblings that staff were not satisfied with this solution. Eventually, one of the managers brought forward a verbal request from two of the new staff to designate one of the bathrooms a staff-only washroom and to install a lock so that only staff members with keys could gain access. I asked the manager to inform the staff that if they wanted to make this proposal, they would need to do so in a formal memo. I said their memo would need to explain the rationale for the anticipated change, outline the implementation process and the likely outcomes for everyone concerned, and identify the costs (not only financial) of the proposed change.

My expectation was that, in the process of thinking about the realities of what they were proposing, the two staff members would realize that implementing their request would result in inconvenience and distress for our program participants and/or other staff. ESL facilitators and participants would suddenly find a “Staff Only” sign on the door and would likely feel annoyed that a part of the Learning Exchange that had once been accessible now was not. They also might feel intimidated by the need to go through the drop-in to the other washroom, perhaps finding themselves standing around in the public area waiting for the washroom to become available. The responsibility to clean up the washroom would shift to the storefront staff, who were not the ones making the suggestion. I assumed the proponents of the idea would see that their proposal was contrary to our values and would withdraw the request in favour of some other solution to the problem.

I was mistaken. I received a brief memo arguing for a separate staff washroom on the grounds that the current situation exposed staff to communicable diseases and represented substandard working conditions. The only cost was deemed to be under $50 for a lock. The only anticipated outcome was an increased use of the other washroom during the afternoon.

Exclusion and inclusion happen in small ways

One of the essential features of the Learning Exchange operation overall, and the storefront in particular, had been our perspective that everyone was welcome (as long as they followed basic guidelines around civility), that everyone was worthy of empathy and respect, and that we were all engaged together in a creative effort to achieve change. It seemed to me the fundamental problem faced by people in the Downtown Eastside was not only poverty in the material sense, but the emotional and spiritual poverty created by social marginalization. I believed that one of the core functions of the Learning Exchange was to be a force for the remediation and prevention of social marginalization.

Over the years I had taken advantage of many opportunities to say all this to the staff team. I argued that we had a responsibility to continually strive to develop our own understanding of how social exclusion happens, and to examine our own policies, practices and behaviours to ensure that we were creating inclusive programs and spaces for learning. I often made the point that if we could not create such spaces we had no business doing what we were doing.

With the support of my new management team, at the next staff meeting I talked about how important it was that we set high expectations about our sensitivity to the ways we might be marginalizing people. I told the story of how we had come to install iron gates outside the doors to the storefront.

Installing the front gate

When we first opened the storefront there was no locked gate at the front entrance. We co-existed peacefully for several years with various homeless people who took shelter in the alcove by the doorway. But at a certain point the alcove came to be inhabited most nights by a couple who were drug users. They would abandon the space when we arrived in the morning, but they always left behind considerable debris, (e.g., used needles, clothing, and even mattresses). When they were asked to clean up after themselves (which for most homeless people in the Downtown Eastside is part of the community ethic), they refused. They were occasionally violent and threatening. It typically took about 30 minutes of staff time every morning to clean up the entrance. On more than one occasion, fires were set outside the door and the smoke entered our offices through the letter slot (and at least once, burning debris was put through the letter slot).

This situation obviously presented serious hazards: fire, communicable disease, and assault. We spent several weeks in an effort to determine how to address this problem. We consulted the police, we talked with other organizations in the Downtown Eastside, and we discussed the matter extensively within the team.

All the staff agreed that we did not want to have to install bars, gates, and locks. But the other options (e.g., overhead sprinklers that go off periodically) were not feasible. Finally, after an instance where a staff member was again threatened physically, we decided that our only option was to install locked gates. From my point of view, the installation of these gates represented a failure to live up to our ideals. But the pragmatic need to safeguard staff members trumped philosophy. As a manager, I believed the decision was necessary and appropriate. As a leader, I felt defeated.

The new gate at the storefront
The new gate at the storefront

When I told this story at the staff meeting, my deep commitment to the principle at issue came through. Later, one of the proponents of the separate washroom proposal told me that she had been profoundly moved by what I had said. She acknowledged that she had not thought about the implications of what she was suggesting. She was more than willing to work with the team to find another solution.

Problem solved. Or was it?

The team decided not to create separate washrooms but to try to educate program participants about our expectations around bathroom hygiene. It helped that we had determined that staff were not being exposed to huge health risks as long as we used gloves when cleaning up. With time, the problem disappeared.

This was an important learning for new staff. At the time I hoped it would provoke some new reflections on what we were trying to do and a dawning realization that there was more to our work than met the eye. But I found the incident troubling.

I feared I would be unable to convey the myriad dimensions of our principles, values ,and practices quickly enough to the many people who were now the embodiment of the Learning Exchange. The task seemed overwhelming. And I felt irritated by the sound of my own voice repeating things I had already said so many times. The juices of discovery and creation were no longer flowing in the ways they once had.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Re-thinking our approach to curricular Community Service Learning.