Trial and error at the storefront

As the Learning Exchange became a known and trusted entity, more people in the university and the community came to us with their ideas. Fortunately, Martha Piper was able to interest a small number of external donors in our work, so we had the funding and the staff resources to pursue pretty much every idea or partnership that seemed viable.

Computer access and training

By 2003, during the afternoon drop-in, every computer was in constant use. Thirty to 50 local residents came in every afternoon. Often there was a line-up of people on the sidewalk waiting to come in when we opened the doors. Some days, it was standing-room only in the small open space of the storefront during the peak of the afternoon’s activity.

A gift from a major bank enabled us to formalize and expand the computer training we had begun to offer in response to requests from the people who frequented our afternoon computer drop-in. We developed a series of workshops and tutorials on basic computer skills (e.g., sending and receving emails) as well as workshops on more advanced skills (e.g., creating spreadsheets). By 2005, about 150 people were taking part in these workshops every year.

Pilot projects

We wanted to do more than offer free computer access and training. We believed that UBC should be offering educational activities that would be of value to local residents. In response to the obvious need for residents to have a wider range of options for generating income, we piloted an Entrepreneurship 101 course, in collaboration with UBC’s Commerce faculty (now the Sauder School of Business). This course was intended to give aspiring entrepreneurs some of the knowledge and skills necessary to enable them to start a small business. The course was popular but it became clear that, without complementary supports, knowledge was not enough. Participants’ ability to follow through on their ideas was limited.  They faced many barriers, including poor health and a lack of stability in their daily lives. In addition, because of their social status, participants’ access to capital was extremely limited. (People who have unstable residency and employment histories are not typically considered good credit risks.) The realization that the course was not likely to enable a significant number of individuals to start successful businesses led us to a different approach, one based on an inner city business development model developed by the University of Washington.

Instead of being targeted to potential individual entrepreneurs, our new Business Education Development Program focused on offering support to existing small businesses that needed specific forms of help that post-secondary students could provide (e.g., help with business and marketing plans, website development, or the implementation of Human Resources protocols). The goal was to strengthen businesses in the Downtown Eastside in the hope they would form a stable economic base for the area, one that could eventually employ local residents. The program was developed in partnership with the downtown campus of the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). The model received federal government funds in its development stage. This model was promising but our experience taught us that the more practical and less academic orientation of BCIT and its students was a better fit with the needs of local businesses. Consequently BCIT took on the responsibility to continue implementing the model and the Learning Exchange withdrew.

In 2003, the Learning Exchange also piloted a Self-advocacy 101 course. We developed the curriculum in collaboration with several community organizations and UBC’s Faculty of Law and School of Social Work. This course was fully subscribed and was valued by the participants. But we were uncomfortable with the fact that its focus on instrumental knowledge and behavior represented a deviation from the spirit of the 101 model. The course also represented a duplication of advocacy training efforts that others were undertaking so we decided not to continue it.

Instead, in 2004 we collaborated with UBC’s Women’s Resources Centre and Sheway, a Downtown Eastside agency that serves women, to pilot a Peer Mentoring Program for Women. This program was carefully planned and executed and it did have some successes. But the dynamics of the small group of participants was extremely difficult to manage. The participants were local women, some of them “street-involved”—meaning they were or had been sex trade workers and/or drug users. Most of the participants had known each other prior to joining the program. These pre-existing relationships, some marked by histories of conflict, affected the dynamic in the group. Trying to develop a trusting, safe environment in which to conduct the group activities turned out to be extremely difficult, even for the highly skilled facilitator we hired to run the program..

In 2004, we also piloted a Personal Goals Planning Program, (informally called “On the Road Again”) The program engaged almost 40 people in small group sessions intended to support participants’ efforts to establish a plan to achieve their goals, whether these were related to education, employment, or other life goals. This program, too, had mixed success. Attendance was inconsistent and participants had trouble articulating and believing in their ability to reach goals given the very real constraints they faced every day.

The realities of Downtown Eastside residents’ lives

Learning Exchange storefront
Learning Exchange storefront (photo copyright UBC)

The initiation, implementation, and evaluation of these pilot projects taught us a lot. For example, we learned that when you do not have a day-timer, watch, or alarm clock, it can be a challenge to remember your commitments and show up on time. If you have been kept awake all night by emergency vehicle sirens, partying, or other noises coming from your neighbours, it is not surprising that you might decide to stay in bed rather than make your way to the Learning Exchange. If you are hungry, your search for food may take precedence over any drive for self-improvement. Even when people’s daily lives were stable, they could be plagued by self-doubt. I was amazed to discover how many people had been told by their teachers in elementary or high school that they were too stupid to learn. We realized that our ideas about what might be viable and valuable learning experiences did not mesh with the realities of the lives of the people we were trying to reach.

I also realized that the approach we had been taking was fundamentally flawed. We had been working to make the Learning Exchange a valuable entity by adopting a professional service delivery approach. This was how most organizations in the Downtown Eastside approached their work. This was the model I was most familiar with from my previous experience in the health and social service sectors. So it was not surprising that this was my default strategy. Fortunately, my awareness of John McKnight’s perspective on the downsides of professionalized care caused an undercurrent of discomfort with what we were doing. When all our attempts to develop educational programs for residents proved unsatisfying, the penny finally dropped. We were approaching the question of what UBC should do from the wrong stance. We needed to get out of the expert professional role. We needed to listen more carefully and look more deeply.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Starting the ESL program.