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Taking It to the Street: UBC Connects with Community in the Downtown Eastside

Welcome to the Learning Exchange. Through mutual respect and common goals, UBC and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community are working together to find solutions to some of society’s most challenging social issues.

Located at 612 Main Street, in the heart of one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, UBC’s dynamic inner-city campus is a place where local residents, students, university faculty and community organizations come together to learn, share experiences, and improve their lives.

In 1999, UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Martha Piper envisioned the Learning Exchange as a way for UBC to bring its expertise and global citizenship mandate into its own backyard—helping to be part of the solution to the growing issues of poverty, addiction and mental illness in the Downtown Eastside.

UBC learned very quickly that despite its myriad challenges, the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood has remarkably strong community leadership and a great deal of local pride. It is, in short, a community with a lot of heart.

“From the start, residents were very clear. They said, ‘Don’t tell us what to think and do. We have our own community and we don’t need rescuing,’” says Director Kathleen Leahy.

Leahy said UBC realized that it would need to work with the tightly knit local community if the project was going to be a success. Piper got graduate students Margo Fryer and Brian Lee involved to ask the community what it needed.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and the Learning Exchange has become a place where there is a true multi-directional exchange of ideas, with hundreds of people dropping in daily.

Leahy is justifiably proud of the work her team does. “We are well known in this community as a warm and welcoming space, and we have worked hard to earn its trust,” she says. The Exchange’s three-pronged approach includes ESL and computer education for community members, UBC student practicum and co-op opportunities, plus side-by-side research projects with UBC academics.

Take language skills. The Learning Exchange provides year-round, peer-led conversation groups for immigrants who want to improve their English. A reciprocal program gives third-year UBC Mandarin language students a unique opportunity to practice their speaking skills and learn firsthand about Chinese culture by pairing them with Downtown Eastside Chinese seniors in weekly sessions.

Just setting foot in the Learning Exchange, with its open environment, free coffee and bustle of activity, proves Leahy’s case. She credits supporters like the Carraresi Foundation for their ongoing belief in what UBC is doing.

“Research is often a dirty word for local residents, who feel like guinea pigs for academics who would parachute in, use them in studies and catapult out never to be seen or heard from again.” Now, Leahy is on a mission to ensure that research happens in conjunction with the community and its needs, and that the results are readily available and accessible to community members.

One of the Learning Exchange’s focuses at the moment is providing a home for the Binners Project, which teams waste pickers (e.g. dumpster divers) with community organizers to test innovative ideas for economic opportunities.

It’s just one way that UBC and the Learning Exchange are connecting community and closing the gap between theoretical research and on-the-ground solutions that make a real difference.