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Earlier Discussion

Margo Fryer: The education solution

Globe and Mail Update

Nearly $1.5-billion in public spending since 2000 and little to show for it — that's the story of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The Globe is pleased to introduce four experts who will lay out fresh solutions for the neighbourhood. Each will join us online to take your questions and participate in a live panel discussion March 24 at the University of British Columbia.

The forum will be hosted at 7 p.m. (10 p.m. ET) at UBC's Robson Square campus by The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the university.

For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016
Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT

Margo Fryer is the founding director of the UBC Learning Exchange, a storefront education program based in the Downtown Eastside. The exchange sees volunteer UBC students and faculty teach everything from basic computer skills to English-as-a-second language classes.

Read her thoughts on how the troubled residents can teach us a thing or two.

Ms. Fryer joined us online. Questions and answers appear below.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Brodie Fenlon, Thank you for joining us Ms. Fryer. I want to pick up on something you said in the earlier Q&A about what must be avoided when we look to "fix" the Downtown Eastside. You wrote, "We must avoid the tendency to look for a quick fix and to rely on outside experts who may not understand the particular context of the Downtown Eastside. We must not impose solutions, however well intentioned, that have not been planned in collaboration with residents."

I'm wondering if you can elaborate on this. What's the particular context that outside experts may fail to understand or appreciate about the Downtown Eastside? Can you give an example? Also, do you have an example of a project or solution that worked well because it was planned in collaboration with residents?

Margo Fryer: There are actually many aspects of the Downtown Eastside context that are important for decision-makers to understand. I'll talk about one. Much of the public debate about the Downtown Eastside tends to focus on individuals who live there and what they should do or not do to get themselves out of the situation they are in. One of the things that struck me most when I first started working in the Downtown Eastside was the fact that the neighbourhood contains a complex web of social relationships. Individuals are connected to many informal social networks or groups as well as formal organizations and these groups and organizations have a big influence on people's lives. Sometimes the influence is helpful; sometimes it is not.

For example, one of the reasons why it is so difficult for drug users to stop using drugs is because their friends tend to also be drug users and so when an individual comes out of a detox program, if he or she does not have friends who are not using drugs to connect with, it's hard not to fall back into the drug scene. This is an example of the drug subculture being harmful. But the work of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) provides an example of how users can support each other in positive ways and can act as powerful change agents in the larger society (although opponents of Vancouver's Four Pillars drug policy will dispute this). VANDU played a very important role in the city's adoption of its current drug policies a few years ago. VANDU members educated the public about the realities of drug use, humanized the policy debate, and advocated for solutions that took drug users' perspectives into account. Some of the resulting programs such as the supervised injection site (Insite) were planned and now operate with input from drug users. The effectiveness of Insite has been demonstrated through numerous research studies published in a variety of scientific journals.

So we need to not only focus on individuals and their problems and capacities but also be mindful of the role that social connections play and work to strengthen the social capital in the neighbourhood so it is a force for positive change.

Erin Konsmo from Red Deer writes: How does education and The Learning Exchange help play a role in creating students that are social entrepreneurs, who may come up with creative solutions for the Downtown Eastside? How can this be a model for other areas in Canada, as a solution to fix other social issues?

Margo Fryer: I think this is one of the most exciting things that the Learning Exchange does. When students do Community Service Learning, they engage in a variety of activities in the community, such as tutoring children or coaching sports activities in schools, building compost systems for community gardens, and designing nutrition education materials for low-income single mothers. These activities bring students into situations where they meet people they would otherwise not meet (including people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside). As part of the process, we try to challenge students to think critically about what they see happening in the community, what their own reactions are, and what kinds of changes might improve the situation they are working in. We know from experience that this experiential learning process often inspires students to come up with great new ideas, partly because their minds are open and they are less limited by conventional ways of thinking about social issues. Getting to know people who are living in the midst of the issue is an important part of stimulating students' creativity and developing that ability to be a social entrepreneur. Other universities in Canada are also creating and expanding Community Service Learning programs so this is a model that is already being developed in other areas in Canada. I think the Community Service Learning model can be a very powerful way to address not only social issues but also economic and environmental issues.

Brodie Fenlon, I'd like to get your thoughts on this interesting exchange between two readers who commented on your original Q&A.

Tremayne Hersch from Canada writes: There are bad neighbourhoods in every major city. Why are people acting like the DTES is something special and unique? Why is a local slum getting play as national news?

Ginny Smith from Canada writes: Tremayne, the Downtown Eastside is the poorest postal code in Canada. That's why it's an issue of concern. And over 60 women went missing there while the police did nothing. That's why it's a concern. Because drug addiction and the concomitant issues of the spread of disease (hepatitis, etc) are a major problem. That's why it's an issue of concern. Because focusing on one area may give us some solutions to similar areas in other cities. The Learning Exchange is a unique initiative that has had a dual effect of enabling the residents of the DTES to help themselves and to work on a more local level, but also to help the students, most of whom are from relatively privileged backgrounds (and you have to have some privilege to attend university, even if you're there on student loans), understand the reality that is life in the DTES. I've worked there in the past. It's a horrific place. It's a tragic place. It's also a place with tremendous community spirit and goodwill. The people that call the DTES home are very aware of each other and of their community. It is, in this sense, much 'richer' in human resources than many of the more affluent communities on Vancouver's west side where you may never ever talk to your neighbour unless it's to complain about how the city hasn't fixed the crack in your sidewalk (I'm not making this up, either). It is a complex place. And Dr. Fryer is absolutely right. Solutions aren't going to work unless they involve the community they're targeting. And those solutions aren't only about money. Thank you Dr. Fryer, for your commitment to change. For your recognition of diversity. For your willingness to take steps that the rest of us have been unable to take.

Margo Fryer: It is true that the Downtown Eastside seems to have more symbolic power than other, similar areas in other cities. It has become emblematic of a set of issues that many urban communities are facing. I think one of the reasons for this is the concentration of problems within a fairly small area that is highly visible. I agree with Ginny that one potential positive outcome of the focus on the Downtown Eastside will, ideally, be the development of ideas and models for solutions that can be applied in other areas.

Douglas Freestone from Canada writes on your Q&A: The Downtown Eastside is a major blemish in such a wealthy country. It needs attention, but at the same time, it has to be understood that in comparison to slums in the developing world this place (and its residents) perpetuates itself because of the attention that it does get (food, shelter, medical services, safe injection sites, lots of social workers, etc...). Find a balance between state help and self help. If I understand correctly, this is essentially the tone of this article. [Your thoughts, Ms. Fryer?]

Margo Fryer: Yes, Douglas, you understood correctly the essence of the points I am making. We do need to find a different balance between state help and self-help.

On solutions proposed by our readers, John Hopeful from Canada writes: It seems to me that all of the good intentions that are suggested (and many of them have rational proposals) are doomed to failure. If anyone has had any experience dealing with addicts they know that their viewpoint has little to do with developing their lives and everything to do with feeding their addiction. 'Enabling' does not break the cycle. When people talk about community and support networks in the Downtown Eastside, they are talking about a structure that supports the destructive lifestyle and creates a quagmire that makes it almost impossible for the addicted to get out. The community, I think, is the problem. The community is an enabler. [Your thoughts, Ms. Fryer?]

Margo Fryer: The Downtown Eastside is actually not just one community; it is multiple communities. Do some aspects of the social environment keep people involved in destructive behaviours? Yes. Does this mean that the whole community is a problem? No. Are there examples of the ways in which some parts of the community help to strengthen the Downtown Eastside and its residents? Yes, the work of the Carnegie Community Centre is an outstanding example of the kind of strengths that exist in the community. For example, the Carnegie has worked with residents for many years to create theatre, writing, and other artistic productions. If you live in Vancouver, or are here visiting, I encourage you to visit the Carnegie, which is at the corner of Main and Hastings, for many years the epicentre of the open drug scene. A visit to the Carnegie demonstrates the incredible paradoxes that abound in the Downtown Eastside.

Brodie Fenlon, I'd like to wrap up by posing to you a question you first asked in the Q&A: Why have the Olympics inspired a collective will to address the problems in the Downtown Eastside? As you put, "Why were we not motivated enough by feelings of compassion for the suffering of others or outrage at the appalling conditions that some poor and marginalized people are living in?" How would you answer your own question? Are you concerned this Olympic-inspired attention on the DTES will prove short-lived?

Margo Fryer: I am concerned that the current attention on the Downtown Eastside may be coming more from a perceived need to "clean up" the Downtown Eastside before the Olympics so we are not embarrassed about its current state rather than a genuine motivation to resolve the problems and build on the community's strengths. I think our failure to take effective action so far is partly due to the scope and complexity of the problems and partly due to our tendency to think it is not our responsibility.

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Return to Canada’s Slum:The Fix

Speak your mind

With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?


Public Forum:

On March 24 at 7 p.m. PT, The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the University of British Columbia, will bring together experts with fresh solutions for the Downtown Eastside at a public forum at UBC’s Robson Square campus.


For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.
Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT


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