Starting the ESL program

In 2004, two graduate students taking a course in community economic development in UBC’s planning school elected to do a Community Service Learning (CSL) project at the Learning Exchange. Given the focus of their course on economic development, the students were interested in seeing whether some kind of social enterprise might be a viable undertaking for the Learning Exchange.

When the students first came to the storefront I gave them an overview of the work of the Learning Exchange. I suggested there was a pool of talent sitting in the storefront every afternoon that had enormous, but largely untapped potential. I said I had no idea what the drop-in patrons might want to do to contribute to the betterment of the Downtown Eastside but I was convinced that something valuable could be created if the right sparks were ignited. I figured students and patrons might be able to come up with ideas that would work where our attempts to provide professionally-driven programs had failed.

One student decided to focus on consulting with local organizations to see what they thought might be needed while the other decided to focus on the local residents who came to the storefront. This student’s task was to spend time getting to know the regular patrons, brainstorm ideas for some kind of project or initiative, and see what emerged.

Gaining trust by hanging out

The planning student who spent time in the storefront, Marisol Petersen, was initially nervous about how to connect with patrons. The thesis she later wrote about her experience developing a program at the Learning Exchange described how she overcame both her own anxiety and the mistrust of patrons by “hanging out” with patrons at the drop-in rather than trying to impose formal idea-generating strategies like brainstorming sessions or interviews.

In the course of one of Marisol’s conversations with a patron, it came out that they both had worked as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher overseas. This conversation made Marisol start thinking about whether an ESL program might be a viable and useful enterprise. As she discussed the idea with patrons, some were skeptical, but others were enthusiastic.

The concept was that patrons would facilitate conversation tutorials with people wanting to practice their English skills. Some patrons thought it would be a great way to build on their interests and gifts, especially their gift of the gab. By February, the idea had gained enough momentum to be proposed as a pilot project to the Learning Exchange summer project award fund, a fund designed to enable UBC students to develop a creative community-based project.

The summer pilot

Marisol Petersen (centre) receiving her Chapman award from Martha Piper (right) and Margo Fryer (left)
Marisol Petersen (centre) receiving her summer project award from Martha Piper (right) and Margo Fryer (left)

The proposal did receive funding from the awards program, so Marisol began discussing the design of the pilot with the patrons who wanted to be involved. For example, Marisol and the patrons talked about who the target population for the ESL pilot should be. Everyone knew that the diversity of the potential pool of learners in a multicultural city like Vancouver could be huge.  Everyone wanted learners to feel comfortable coming to the Downtown Eastside. They wanted learners to feel some kinship with the ESL facilitators. They also wanted to ensure that the facilitators did not feel too intimidated by the learners or this new role they would be taking on. After much discussion, Marisol and the patrons decided that the pilot should be targeted to adult immigrants and refugees who were either unemployed or underemployed and who needed to practice their English in order to find work. It was assumed this target group would understand something about being marginalized and would not be averse to being taught by people who were themselves marginalized.

The decision to have patrons playing the facilitator role was the most innovative aspect of the project. It was also the most risky. Some of the immigrant-serving agencies the students consulted about the pilot were skeptical about the idea of using Downtown Eastside residents as conversation group facilitators. They did not think learners would find such teachers credible. For her part, Marisol worried that the facilitators would not show up and she would end up doing all the facilitation herself. Everyone, including patrons, worried that the facilitators would not have the requisite skills to do a good job. In order to minimize these risks, instructional materials were collated to serve as a handbook, facilitators were given some training, and the schedule and format of the conversation sessions was designed so that the sessions always took place when one of the graduate student coordinators was available to monitor the session or stand in if the facilitator did not show up.

As it turned out, people’s fears were unfounded. Posters and brochures placed in targeted locations did bring learners into the storefront. For the most part, facilitators did show up for their scheduled sessions. Even better, the learners and facilitators enjoyed themselves. Word got around that a new free ESL program was happening at the Learning Exchange. More and more learners started signing up. More Downtown Eastside residents volunteered to be a facilitator.

Before long, instead of having one learner and one facilitator in each conversation session, the facilitators had to start working with small groups in order to keep up with the demand. Facilitators started producing things on their own initiative to help the pilot be more effective, e.g., one person created a flash card game, another developed a list of common Canadian idioms, and a third developed a log book to track learners’ progress.

By the end of the summer, instead of the original six 1:1 conversation tutorials scheduled each week, 37 group conversation sessions were happening every week. Nineteen Downtown Eastside residents had been trained and supported to act as facilitators. Sixty-seven immigrants or refugees had participated as learners in the pilot. Typically five or six people attended each hour-long conversation session.

By all accounts, the pilot was a huge success. We demonstrated that Downtown Eastside residents could effectively act as facilitators of small ESL conversation groups. And we discovered  that residents really wanted to play this kind of role. Facilitators appreciated the fact they were trusted to perform well and supported to do so. They felt rewarded when their students’ English improved. Being a facilitator meant feeling useful and being seen as contributing to the well-being of others. In addition, it seemed we had connected with a market for ESL instruction whose potential we had only begun to tap

Even more importantly, we discovered that the diversity of the people who had been brought together—their widely differing world views, educational backgrounds, life experiences, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances—acted as the catalyst for powerful learning experiences. In one group, there could be a Chinese senior who had lived and worked in Chinatown all her adult life but never learned English, a refugee from South America who had fled from political instability, a physician from India who was trying to obtain the credentials to practice medicine in Canada, a bank employee from Hong Kong who needed better English to be considered for a local job, and a schoolteacher from Germany who had moved to Vancouver when she married a Canadian.

The groups would start by talking about aspects of everyday life, e.g., how to navigate the Vancouver transit system, the English names of vegetables, and how the Canadian education system works. But as the participants in the groups got to know each other, they started talking about deeper matters, e.g., the loss of their former identity and status, the trauma of living under repressive political regimes, and the challenges of finding their place in a new country.

Finding the groove

Our experience with the ESL program was very different from the other programs we had piloted in an effort to build human and social capital. The combination of students and patrons had a kind of messy magic that was much more exciting than anything we saw in our other pilots. Although this approach was more unpredictable and challenging to oversee than the traditional program development and delivery model, it felt right. There was more diversity at the storefront, more creativity, and a greater sense that we had found a way of engaging with the complex power dynamics in the Downtown Eastside that was both innovative and in line with our values.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Becoming a success story.

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