Capilano’s work in Downtown Eastside helping residents improve themselves and community
For almost two decades, Capilano University’s Community Development and Outreach Department (CDO) has been providing residents in at-risk neighbourhoods the basic skills and credentials they need to further their education. Despite provincial cuts to adult upgrading education, CapU’s partnership with the Carnegie Community Centre, known as the Carnegie Literacy Inreach/Outreach program, is allowing students to master both basic skills, such as English or mathematics, and pursue their own specialized goals.
“We’re really working to assist people with their interrupted learning lives, to pursue their educational interests, but also to deal with the functional challenges they may have around literacy, numeracy and digital literacy,” said Lucy Alderson, Instructor and Project Coordinator with the CDO.
Over the years, the CDO’s projects and programs have partnered with organizations throughout the University’s main regions, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast and Sea to Sky, as well as Burnaby. At Carnegie, most of the teaching happens in pairs or small groups with volunteer tutors. “Many people who use our programs are doing one-on-one or group work with tutors. It’s not like a class of 25 people coming in to learn the same thing. For example, we often have three or four people who are at the same level learning English,” said Alderson. “Occasionally, we will do larger workshops, such as our course in community leadership.”
Among the basic skills taught include ESL, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy, as working your way around a computer is something Alderson suggests is increasingly necessary for residents in the DTES to find, and succeed in jobs. Other subjects taught by tutors include American Sign Language and themed “tech cafes”, where, for example, students can learn how to better use their mobile phones or tablets.
For Alderson, many of the DTES residents she has gotten to know through the partnership are quite unique and talented, with many involved in a variety of creative interests. “People who learn with our tutors do have a big interest in the arts. We do have a community arts festival called Heart of the City, which is facilitated by Vancouver Moving Theatre [VMT]. The [CDO] has been part of that since the beginning,” said Alderson. “We’ve helped people who have been a part of plays. For instance, when they’re trying to learn their lines or have struggled with their reading, we help them rehearse and participate with VMT.”
This diversity of talent has also led to the CDO working with artists who can apply for an arts grant known as Downtown Eastside Small Arts Grant. The grant, awarded by Vancouver Foundation, allows artists to receive funding to access training, resources or materials that will allow them to complete their project. “The grant exists to support emerging artists in the community to further their work, by manning a new technique, marketing their work or by just being able to afford enough materials to produce significant work,” said Alderson. “There is someone who works at Carnegie to support that program. We worked with them because we have a whole group of artists that maybe aren’t feeling proficient at the computer, so we’ve offered that support through the learning centre. This year we worked with 13 artists in the community to help prepare their proposals.”
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the work the CDO does in the DTES, for Alderson, is the amount of students who have become tutors, volunteers or support staff with Carnegie or other organizations themselves. “The way that people engage with the Learning Centre, not just coming for an hour to study, but participating in other ways, people really start to learn all of the skills that they need to get involved in the community,” said Alderson. “We’ve seen people move up, and join the Carnegie board, or join other boards in the community. Some people come as students, then become volunteers with us or nearby organizations, and often that leads to part-time work for them.”
This desire to give back, after being helped by Carnegie and the CDO, has really revealed itself during the opioid overdose crisis, which has had a disparately tragic impact on the DTES community. “As you know, the Fentanyl Crisis has hit our neighbourhood in terrible ways. We’ve lost current or former students. But, what’s really been amazing is the amount of people who have taken on the role of peer-support workers out in the community, carrying naloxone kits or helping out at the using sites,” said Alderson. “Yesterday, one of my former students came to me asking for help in returning to school next September. When I asked if she would like to return earlier, she said ‘no, I’m doing peer-support work right now. Did you know I’ve saved seven lives! All I could say was ‘wow, that’s incredible’– people in the community are rising to the occasion.”
While the work of the CDO, Carnegie Literacy Program and many other organizations on the Downtown Eastside has had a huge impact on residents’ lives, Alderson concedes it has become harder for students to learn their way to better lives, due to BC’s cuts to adult basic education. Alderson cites this policy has resulted in many closures of adult learning centres, including one in the DTES. “We’ve been participating with the ‘Open the Doors’ campaign because we see how many adult learning pathways are being eliminated or narrowed,” said Alderson. “So many school boards have reduced the amount of adult learning centres. Also, of these, upgrading courses are no longer free. You shouldn’t have to go into debt before you begin your post-secondary education.”
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