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Troubled residents can teach us a thing or two

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — Margo Fryer is the founding director of the UBC Learning Exchange, a program that links University of British Columbia staff and students to inner-city schools and community groups, and has a storefront location in the Downtown Eastside. The idea for the program was sparked in 1999, when Ms. Fryer, then a student at UBC, and a fellow student were hired to find out how the university could build a presence in the neighbourhood. That led in 1999 to the Trek Program, which matches UBC students to inner-city schools in activities such as sports, academics and art, and has grown from the participation of dozens of students to hundreds. A Learning Exchange storefront opened in 2000 and has since offered programs in English as a second language, computer skills, and humanities and science. Ms. Fryer has a PhD in interdisciplinary studies.

Tell me about the first time you saw the Downtown Eastside. What surprised you?

When I was about six years old, my parents brought me to see the Christmas window displays that the Woodward's department store was famous for. Everything surprised me – the twinkling lights in the snow-covered miniature village, the elves in Santa's workshop that were moving as if by magic. I was enchanted.

What is at the root of the problems plaguing the Downtown Eastside?

The roots of the problems go down several levels. On one level, the problems are the unintended consequences of various government policies like the native residential schools, the war on drugs, the withdrawal of government support for social housing, the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, various immigration and settlement policies, and welfare policies like the clawback of any income that people earn.

On another level, the problems are the result of economic and social forces like rising property values, the shift from a resource-based economy to a technology- and service-based economy, and the breakdown of extended and nuclear families.

On a still deeper level, the problems are related to social, cultural and psychological factors like the tendency to distance ourselves from people who are different, who we define as “the other” and whom we relegate to an “out” group. This tendency to marginalize others is especially strong when our own fears get activated, for example, fears related to our own mortality or vulnerability. Many people do not want to look at distressed people in the Downtown Eastside and come to terms with the possibility that, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Why has a decade of heavy spending by government failed to fix the problems?

It's important to remember that not only government money has been spent in the Downtown Eastside; charities, private foundations, corporate donors and individuals have also directed funds to various programs and services. I think part of the problem is the expectation that a quick fix is possible and that money is the answer.

Too many interventions have been implemented in a fragmented way without a broad and deep analysis of the situation being done first. And too many policies and programs are designed by outsiders without any input from people who live and work in the neighbourhood – people who know the situation from the inside and have a lot of knowledge and creativity to offer.

What must be done to fix the Downtown Eastside?

We have to stop thinking of the Downtown Eastside as an isolated problem that is going to be solved simply by applying some kind of cosmetic fix. We have to go beyond the stereotypes and recognize that lots of ordinary people live and work in the Downtown Eastside and that everyone is somebody's son or daughter and many are someone's mom or dad.

The situation in the Downtown Eastside is complex. Many social, cultural, political and economic forces are at play. We have to start thinking of the Downtown Eastside as part of the larger social ecosystem and be more curious about what its place is in the bigger picture. We have to stop focusing all our attention on the ways in which the neighbourhood and many of its residents are distressed and look for the ways in which the community and its citizens can contribute their ideas and talent to the development of the neighbourhood.

What must be avoided?

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 know this is easier said than done. People in the Downtown Eastside are suspicious of outside institutions and experts. But obviously, the status quo is not acceptable.

Do you think the Olympics will have a positive or negative impact on the neighbourhood? Why?

I think the more interesting question is why the Olympics seems to be inspiring a collective will to address the problems in the Downtown Eastside.

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 can your area of expertise (education) help to fix the Downtown Eastside?

Since 1999, the UBC Learning Exchange has been bringing UBC student volunteers to non-profit organizations and public schools in the Downtown Eastside.

Students help non-profit organizations provide health, educational, recreational and social programs and help inner-city schools enhance the learning environment by acting as tutors, coaches and role models. So students are increasing the capacity of Downtown Eastside organizations to address the wide range of issues that exist in the neighbourhood.

This year, more than 500 UBC students are doing what is called “community service learning” in inner-city schools throughout East Vancouver, not just in the Downtown Eastside. We have been focusing on getting UBC students into schools as a way of preventing children from “falling through the cracks” because we know from our colleagues in the schools that having UBC students as role models makes a difference for kids. Plus, UBC students are learning about complex social issues through first-hand experience. So when these students become teachers, doctors, lawyers, business people, engineers, policy makers or simply citizens, they will perform these roles differently, with a greater awareness of the dynamics of poverty and marginalization than they otherwise would have.

The Learning Exchange also offers educational resources to residents of the Downtown Eastside, including computer training and access, and an ESL program. The ESL conversation groups are facilitated by residents of the local area who are trained and supported to play this role. This is a great example of the kind of initiative that can use the existing resources in the neighbourhood (in this case the English skills of residents) to address a need (immigrants' need for informal, peer-led groups where they can practice their conversational English). Our experience building this program has taught us that there is a wealth of talent in the Downtown Eastside that is not being used effectively and that people are eager to contribute to the strengthening of their own community, but often need some kind of structure to channel their energies.

If we follow your proposals, what will the Downtown Eastside look like in 10 years?

Ideally, in 10 years the Downtown Eastside will still be a diverse and lively neighbourhood where people care about each other. If “mainstream” people can take the time to learn more about the neighbourhood and its strengths as well as its weaknesses and can increase their understanding of how social marginalization occurs, and if we as a society can rethink what our responsibilities are to people who, for whatever reasons, are not able to be self-reliant, then the Downtown Eastside will also be a neighbourhood where no one has to sleep on the sidewalk or line up for hours in the rain to get their only meal for the day. It will be a neighbourhood where long-time residents and newcomers can coexist in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual understanding.

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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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