‘Poverty is more than a collection of data’

In Spring 2012, Danse Crowkiller, a homeless resident of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, returned to UBC to share his experiences with homelessness, his philosophies on materialism, and his passion for carving.

Last year, economics instructor Catherine Douglas invited Danse and education consultant Jennifer Hales to speak with her class, ECON 317: Poverty and Inequality. She also invited students from Carla Paterson’s class on technology and development. Jennifer is the author of a resource guide to Learning about Homelessness in British Columbia.

This early Mix inspired Catherine to invite Danse and Jennifer for a repeat performance. This time, she collaborated with sociologist Carrie Yodanis and her course, SOCI 342: Consumers and Consumption.

In 2008 Danse participated in a CBC documentary (Devil Plays Hardball) that followed the journey of four homeless individuals and four housed mentors as they attempted to work together toward housing and other forms of stability. Interested in learning more from Danse’s perspective, filmmakers at Romantic Child Studios equipped Danse with a video camera to film his own experiences and thoughts. Jennifer screened an excerpt of the documentary, ‘The Purpose of Life Is Rice… Wink’ to introduce the students to Danse and gave a presentation on the causes and possible solutions for homelessness in British Columbia.

The rest of class time was set aside for a question and answer session with Danse. Danse said that ‘the meaning of life is learning’, passed around examples of his carving, and expressed his passion for the artform:

Photo of Danse Crowkiller (from the blog My Friend Danse)

Question: ‘What gets you up in the morning?’

Answer: ‘Carving.’

Question: ‘What do you own, Danse?’

Answer:  ‘My body… and my carving knife I suppose.’

While even Danse’s X-Acto knife is occasionally lost or broken, Danse’s positive attitude are  steadfast. One student remarked that he was impressed with “how an individual who is not well endowed monetarily can be so rich spiritually.”

Danse and Jennifer’s presentation managed to convey both the resilience of individuals like Danse as well as the systemic challenges he faces along with thousands of others experiencing homelessness today. Exploring the nuances of economics, inequality, and consumption, students from both classes had the opportunity to reconsider their coursework in light of Danse’s personal experience.

“The discussion gave us a real feel of what happens to people living with less than enough,” one student remarked. “It showed that poverty is more than a collection of data.”

This Mix got students thinking critically and locally about their course subject matter. UBC Mix collected brief feedback forms and students indicated that they highly value interdisciplinary learning. They want more opportunities to interact with each other and share their intellectual perspectives, experiences, and reflections. Mix will continue to find ways to build connection and foster interdisciplinary dialogue through inter-faculty and inter-community collaborations.

A different kind of teacher for a day

It’s not every day that university students get to learn about poverty, inequality, and the role technology can play in society from a homeless man.

But Danse Crowkiller, who has lived over half of his days and nights homeless, seemed like a perfect guest speaker to Catherine Douglas, who teaches an economics class on poverty and inequality.

“I found him very insightful,” said one of Douglas’ economics students, Catherine Aragon, after listening to Crowkiller describe why he chose to reject government financial assistance.

After months of being coaxed into applying for social assistance, Danse finally agreed to try it out only to be put in an $850 apartment infested with bedbugs. The pressure to depend on a system some First Nations people view as an extension of colonialism is a theme that comes up in the final version of Danse’s documentary, The Purpose of Life is Rice … Wink.

Danse Crowkiller on his usual spot on Commercial Drive. Photo by Laura Bucci Handmade

Douglas wanted to offer Crowkiller, a Native carver, financial support in return for visiting her class. UBC Mix, which financially and logistically facilitates interdisciplinary mixing, stepped up to help her accomplish this and also encouraged the opportunity for Crowkiller’s words and insights to impact a wider audience.

Douglas opened up her class to students from applied science, partnering with Carla Paterson’s course on technology and development. The pair are already brainstorming ways they can mix their classes together in the future with the help of UBC Mix.

The audience, made up of students from different academic disciplines, spent most of the hour asking Crowkiller questions.

“What do you want to change the most in your life?” one student asked.

“I never said I did,” Crowkiller replied without a pause.

“You’re happy?” the student responded.

“I am happy. I like carving,” said Crowkiller who earns most of his money through wood carving, “but an apartment would be nice.”

Douglas’ economic class was developed with a Community Service Learning component, which integrates classroom theory with hands on action within a community. Students are partnered up with community organizations and learn about societal problems and solutions from people experiencing these issues firsthand. Community Service Learning initiatives, where students are engaged in community action, hold a wealth of potential for future UBC mix partnerships.

Exploring new classroom experiences, such as having Crowkiller speak from personal experience about poverty – an issue that some students only learn about through statistics – is important for giving students a personal connection to what they are learning about and how they want to affect the world.