The first Reading Week Community Service Learning project

As the Trek Program grew and I heard more students talk about their experiences I began to understand the value of having students volunteering in community settings. But it was our first Reading Week project that really convinced me of the power of Community Service Learning (CSL).

The genesis of the project

The idea to do a project over the Reading Week break originated with Cheryl Rose, who at the time was working in Student Life at the University of Guelph. I first met Cheryl in the spring of 2001 when about ten people from across Canada who were doing some form of CSL were brought together by Marla Gaudet and her service learning colleagues at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

At one of the coffee breaks during the two or three days the group spent together, Cheryl came over and crouched beside my chair. She said, “What you are doing in the Downtown Eastside sounds pretty cool. What would you think of the idea of me bringing a group of students to Vancouver and us doing some kind of project there over Reading Week?” I thought this was a brilliant idea, so we began planning. Or at least Cheryl began planning. There was so much happening at the Learning Exchange that I was caught flatfooted when 2002 came around and Cheryl told me she had eleven students lined up to come to Vancouver in February.

We gulped and moved into high gear. Shayne and the team managed to recruit nine UBC students to take part in a project. Then we had to find something useful for the students to do. Through her involvement in the community, the Learning Exchange manager had come to know the key person at the community gardens located in Strathcona, a residential area considered part of the Downtown Eastside. Around the time we were looking for a project, the garden coordinator mentioned that she needed help to prepare for the coming growing season. The manager suggested she could bring a group of students in to help during Reading Week. It seemed like a perfect match.

But as we learned later, when the garden coordinator connected the dots and realized she would be hosting students from the UBC Learning Exchange, she regretted having agreed to the joint project. As one of the activists that had originally resisted UBC’s move into the Downtown Eastside, the coordinator was in an awkward position. But having made the agreement, she stuck by it.

My team quickly organized accommodation and transportation for the students from Guelph and enlisted local people to give half-day workshops on Asset-Based Community Development, the approach to community organizing developed by John McKnight. In collaboration with the garden coordinator, we developed a schedule for the work that needed to be done.

Rain-soaked gardeners

Early on the Sunday morning of Reading Week, the nine UBC students we had recruited and my staff team met the group from Guelph at the storefront. The Guelph group consisted of eleven students, Cheryl Rose, and another staff member. We spent the day orienting the students to the Downtown Eastside context and their project. We also did group exercises designed to create a sense of cohesion among the students from the two universities.

It quickly became clear that Cheryl had done an outstanding job of preparing her students for the trip. They had read articles on the Downtown Eastside, discussed the readings with each other, and written reflections on what they hoped to learn during their time in Vancouver. In contrast, the UBC students, who had received very little attention from us prior to showing up, were less well-prepared. The differences in the level of self-awareness and readiness for the experience were striking. But as the week progressed, the differences became less visible. The effects of the Guelph students’ preparation seemed to rub off on the UBC students.

The weather during Reading Week was rainy and cool—not unexpected for February in Vancouver. But the students put their rain gear on and raked leaves, dug garden beds, pruned blackberries, and moved massive piles of compost around. The garden coordinator was surprised by how much work got done. She was also surprised by how capable and enthusiastic the students were and how harmoniously they worked together. By the end of the week, the coordinator’s initial skepticism had been replaced by delight.

The closing circle

At the end of the project, the students and staff gathered to reflect on their experiences. On that dreary Thursday morning, a group consisting of the twenty students, the Guelph staff, and my staff shoehorned itself again into the Learning Exchange storefront. With the sounds of rain dripping and car tires swishing on the wet street outside as background, I listened as each student spoke.

The students had participated in workshops given by some of the community organizers and citizens in the area. They heard about the pressing issues in the Downtown Eastside: the homelessness; the drug use that was such an obvious part of the street scene; and the fact that so many of the people who were homeless and addicted were also mentally ill and suffering from serious physical health problems. The students heard about the complex dynamics in the neighbourhood: the daily conflicts between street people and Chinatown merchants who were trying to convince customers that the neighbourhood was safe to visit; fears about gentrification among those on limited incomes; the history of turf wars among the large number of health and social agencies in the area; and the pervasive feeling within the low income community that they were constantly being “done to” by outsiders with power, people like property developers, the police, and academic researchers.

But, to balance the well-known bad news about the Downtown Eastside, the students also learned how local residents were being mobilized to have a say in how the issues in their neighbourhood should be addressed. They heard about the importance of focusing on people’s strengths and assets, rather than their needs. The students were challenged to think about what it means to be a citizen, no matter what your income level or social circumstance might be.

The lessons from the workshops were enlivened by what the students could see with their own eyes: the constant ebb and flow of drug users and dealers doing business outside the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings; the occasional sight of a drug user shooting up, barely concealed in an alley or doorway; and the emaciated women in high heels and hot pants, shivering on certain street corners, waiting for their next “date.” These scenes were witnessed against a backdrop of high-energy social activity: people on the street greeting each other like long-lost friends or all-too-familiar enemies with loud shouts and laughter or whispered threats.

I and the other staff members from UBC and the University of Guelph had encouraged students to set aside any preconceptions or fears they might have about the Downtown Eastside. We invited them to look and listen with open minds and hearts. As the students each had their say in the closing circle, it was clear they had risen to the challenge. In various ways they expressed what I would describe as a feeling of solidarity with people in the Downtown Eastside. The students’ use of words, their tone of voice, the occasional tears, all demonstrated that they were not seeing poor and marginalized people as “them.” No one voiced any of the usual dismissive rhetoric—“These people made bad choices and they just need to shape up.” “This neighbourhood is a disgrace and needs to be cleaned up.” Instead, they said things like, “My whole world view has been transformed. I will never look at a poor person on the street in the same way again.” And, “This has been the highlight of my university career.”

(Rich Appiah, one of the Guelph students who is now a lawyer in Toronto, spoke about this project almost ten years later when he was asked to give a talk to incoming students at the University of Guelph. Click here to read what he said.)

The students had been particularly moved by a presentation given by representatives from VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. This grass-root organization (which now has more than 2,000 members) was working to change the public discourse about drugs. VANDU’s aim is to get people to see drug use as a health issue rather than a moral issue or a sign of the need for stricter law enforcement. The students were surprised to find that the two drug users they met were not that different from themselves. One good-looking young man spoke eloquently about how his use of cocaine was part of his spiritual search for meaning in life. The other drug user spoke more simply, making the case that what drug users needed most from mainstream society was respect. “We just need to be lifted up and given some air.”

Reading Week Strathcona GardenThe students also spoke about the closeness and trust that had developed within the student team. The group had become a safe container in which the students could voice questions and explore their uncertainties. Many students said the reflections they were encouraged to write every day and the group discussions that had been built into the schedule had been crucial to their learning. The students also spoke about how important it was to see the tangible results of their efforts at the end of every day.

Having been touched by both the strengths and the vulnerabilities in the neighbourhood, the students were now looking for answers. “What can we do about the social issues we see here? These issues are not just happening in Vancouver. They happen in other cities and communities, too. We can’t just do nothing!” This question formed an increasingly strong undercurrent as we went around the closing circle. Finally one student voiced the question so baldly and with such urgency, that it hung in the air and demanded a response. Eyes turned to me, expectant. I was the Director of the Learning Exchange. Surely I would have the answer.

I took a deep breath and said something like this:

“I understand the drive to find an answer to what’s happening in this neighbourhood. I understand how unbearable it is to walk by someone sleeping on the cold, hard sidewalk and do nothing. I understand how overwhelming it is when you start to realize how complex this situation is and how deep its roots are. And I understand that what I am about to say may seem totally unsatisfactory to you. But I think the most important thing you can do right now is stay with your questions—hold them close, with as much curiosity as you can. Don’t give in to the totally understandable impulse to close your heart or turn your back. Don’t give in to the impulse to look for a quick fix. There are no quick or easy fixes. If there were, the problems you see here would have been solved a long time ago. I think what the situation demands is that we develop our capacity to clearly see what’s happening, to stay open to the confusion and the pain, and to let the realities and the questions ‘cook’ within us. So when you say, ‘What can I do?’ I say, ‘You’re already doing it. Keep doing it.’ And maybe there will come a time when you feel enough certainty about what kind of action would be useful, that you decide that this particular thing is the right thing to do. Then go ahead. Do it. And don’t be concerned if it seems like only a small or insignificant thing. But do watch to see what happens, to see what the consequences are, for you and others. This is what we are trying to do at the Learning Exchange, and so far, I think it’s a sensible approach.”

I may have misinterpreted, but I thought I felt a palpable sense of relief in the room. Not, “Okay, good, I’m off the hook.” But, “Oh, okay, I think I can do that.”

As the flow of the closing circle resumed, I realized these students were describing learning outcomes that were different from what I had heard Trek students describe. There was a depth of impact and conceptual sophistication that was new. I said to myself, “I don’t understand exactly what we did to bring this about, but whatever it is, we have to do more of it.”

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Engaging in inner city schools.

To read about how the Reading Week project model evolved, go to Growth in the Trek Program and Reading Week and Stabilizing the Reading Week model.