Throughout this process, we have felt the need to connect more with our community partner in order to make our work meaningful. One of our most significant activities that helped us to feel more connected and grounded in the work was the participation in the DTES NH Volunteer Orientation. During the orientation, staff recounted a deeper history of the DTES NH than we previously had learned in this project and they placed it within broader historical movements, such as social work. We were also given more detailed descriptions of their programs and how they specifically address issues within the neighbourhood. Beyond the safety protocol and health regulations, we also learned about the code of conduct. This went beyond a typical code of conduct one would expect in the workplace. For example, we were told to refrain from speaking about our religious beliefs in front of clients because some of them may have past trauma linked to religious institutions. They offered ‘rules’ that helped us navigate respectfully, that we would have otherwise been blind to, given our privilege. There was also a discussion of the welfare system in British Columbia, and how it affects the lives, the schedules, the eating habits, and the health of residents. We became informed of just how much the DTES NH’s programs must shape themselves around the welfare system’s structure. During the orientation we were also given difficult scenarios to work through that may come up as volunteers at the DTES NH. This aspect of the volunteer orientation was memorable because it challenged us in new ways, using scenarios we may not have been prepared for, due to our inexperience with the community. The DTES NH volunteer orientation was significant to our group because, midway through our project, it reminded us of our original goals and helped us to meaningfully connect this project to larger issues.
For many of us, the orientation was an experience to see community action and resilience within a real-world environment. While each of us in the group has theoretical experience with topics such as British Columbia’s welfare system, privilege, residential schools, food justice, etc., it is otherwise difficult from the comfort of a campus lecture hall to see the real-life effects of social issues and the way communities are addressing them. While some of us have been lucky to connect our theoretical knowledge in real-life contexts, it was new for all of us to understand them in the Downtown Eastside.
Additionally, the breakout group scenario exercises illustrated to us the depth of knowledge we have yet to gain about the DTES community, and how we have merely scraped the surface with this project. Once we shared how we would react to these scenarios, staff offered their feedback. It was during this point that we realized that our instinctual responses to issues we have experienced in our lives previously may be harmful in the context of the Neighbourhood House. At that point, it became obvious to us that we had not learned everything there was to know about that special place and the people who live there.
This experience was also significant in terms of connections to the bigger picture. When the volunteer coordinator was explaining the programming at the DTES NH, he made the strong point that they only provide programming that the community has asked for. He went on to explain that they provide a physical space and as many resources they can, but that the programming must be requested and controlled by the community. It was exciting for us to connect a keystone theme of this course, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), to our community experience. In addition to theories discussed in LFS 350, this orientation drew connections to larger conversations happening in Canada’s political realm. The volunteer coordinator’s discussion focused on the financial realities of DTES residents and the welfare system implicitly spoke to universal income discourses happening in Provincial Legislatures, newsrooms, and kitchen tables across our country. It was important for us to see how this larger debate was relevant in our very lives.
As we wrap up the course and our project this week, we can reflect on our learning from our direct experiences with the DTES NH. Attending the volunteer orientation session brought a depth of understanding to our group that we hadn’t yet gained in our project work or our previous volunteer sessions, and allowed us to put the remainder of our work and our finished product in a context that we hope will be more useful to the DTES NH. We have a greater understanding of how our work will fit in with the DTES NH operations, and we hope that we have produced it in a thoughtful and respectful manner that aligns with their values. If we hadn’t had this opportunity to learn and contextualize, we may have unintentionally disconnected ourselves further from the DTES NH, as all of our work was external to them. If this had been the case, we probably would not have produced useful or meaningful deliverables to them.
Although we did not complete all of our objectives, spending time doing activities like this was very important. Each of us felt much more invested and knowledgeable about the work after attending the orientation and volunteering at various sessions, and felt a renewed inspiration in the work. In addition to giving our work a deeper context, it shaped us as more conscious students. It made us understand that, although not every hour spent on a project will necessarily directly link to our project outcomes, or directly translate into grades, or pay in our careers, but it is all just as important to the overall project. However, it also made us understand that we still have so much more to learn.
As we leave this course, and continue with our academic paths or enter our professional careers, some of us will continue to live and work in Vancouver, and we now have a greater connection to and understanding of this community. Some of us may continue to volunteer with the DTES NH, but even if we do not, we will still all carry a new way of looking at a marginalized communities, new skills to respectfully and meaningfully work with these communities, as well as an appetite to learn more. We have just barely touched the surface in this limited timeline project, but this was the start of an ongoing learning experience which has given us new ways to examine the world around us.