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Education Without Barriers: The 'Hum' Success Story

In Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, students bring rich perspectives to the study of university-level humanities.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 1 Mar

Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of two books of poetry. Her poetry and prose have appeared in over 16 anthologies. For six years, she has been a guest instructor in the writing course operated by the Hum programme at UBC.

Events in Tunisia and Egypt have dramatically shown how profound social change can originate from the smallest seed of courage and imagination, be it an action, image, speech, article, book or film, planted in the right soil at the right time by passionately committed individuals.

Last year's award-winning documentary, Waste Land about the power of art also depicted the transformative power of books and ideas. In the film, Tiaõ, one of the impoverished catadores who collect recyclable materials at a landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, describes how Machiavelli's 1532 realpolitik classic of political philosophy, The Prince, along with other discarded books collected there, influenced his understanding of power relations. Applying the ideas he had absorbed from his reading, he created the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho, a co-operative which steadily improved the living and working conditions of his fellow catadores. With funds raised from the sale of the art that the catadores produced in collaboration with artist Vik Muniz over the course of the film, Tiaõ and a fellow catadore later built a community library with over 7,000 books, an IT room stocked with computers and a learning centre.

But one doesn't have to look to other continents to find local examples of the same kind of inspiration and transformation. Allison Dunnet, presently a planner with the City of Vancouver, was a political science student at UBC involved in student government in 1998. At the time, she was struck by a particular article in Harper's magazine by writer and educator Earl Shorris, "As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor."

The article described how his conversations about the origins of poverty with a woman prisoner in a maximum security prison inspired Shorris to set up an experimental educational project in the humanities at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in lower Manhattan in 1995. The curriculum focused on classics of moral philosophy, literature, art history and American history. Subway fare, childcare, dinner and snacks, books and materials were provided to all students in order to enable them to participate. Believing that the study of the humanities could provide a path out of powerlessness, Shorris rejected equating education with vocational training of the kind that would lead to repetitive, poorly paid dead-end jobs: "The distinction is between doing and thinking, between following and beginning."

Dunnet knew firsthand about socio-economic barriers to postsecondary education, being from a low-income single parent family of six children. "At the time, the talk in the province was about how job skills training was what low income people needed. It rubbed me the wrong way. They didn't see education being for everyone," Dunnet told me. She discussed the article and its significance at length with Am Johal, who at the time was a recent graduate in human kinetics working in the development office at UBC. Johal had also been frustrated by the elitism and exclusivity of academia. Believing that the inner city had too long been the object of research, he wanted to change the relationship between the university and the community.

Johal recalled how he and Dunnet decided then and there to apply for funding to set up a local pilot project: "We applied for a small amount of money from the Innovative Projects Fund -- a joint UBC-AMS fund -- that would cover the cost of childcare, food and bus passes." That conversation in the student pub led to a successful application for a grant of $15,700 to set up the first community-based, barrier-free post-secondary humanities programme in Canada, which would be followed by the establishment of diverse community-based humanities programmes across the country, each adapted to its specific context and location.

Class of 1998

During that inaugural year of the Humanities 101 programme at UBC, 25 students were admitted, with 17 completing the course. Because the majority of the students preferred to go out to UBC, the classes were held at the former Or Gallery at 112 West Hastings for the first month and then continued at UBC campus. The course had the support of certain key individuals, including the dean of arts, who facilitated access to campus facilities and library cards.

The curriculum the first year followed many aspects of the Clemente model (as set out in Shorris' article and his subsequent book, Riches for the Poor) augmented by additional texts and themes. Works of Plato and Aristotle were covered, as well as short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, speeches of Malcolm X and writings by Angela Davis among others. Guest speakers included Ken Lum, lecturing on 1920s Weimar German art and '60s American pop art, Clint Burnham and Jamie Reid on poetry, Jim Green on opera (with a field trip to hear Verdi's Tosca) and Richard Henriquez on architecture.

Johal, who is now SFU's community engagement coordinator at the Woodwards Building, distinctly remembers the very first lecture: "We were upstairs at 112 W. Hastings site in the Kootenay School of Writing space and it was hot. The lecturer that night was a police officer from Seattle named Jonathan Wender who taught a philosophy class on Plato. It got a really wild response and I remember the conversation being really charged. There was a lot of energy in the room and it was electric... It felt real and good and amazing. Everyone involved, from the students to the organizers to the professors, were all joining a community where we were all out of our comfort zones and learning together from each other on an equal footing. For some reason, it felt like nothing was going to be quite the same for any of us involved."

'I wanted in'

Alumnus Lou Parsons also remembers that initial year. "I was tired of my then-current position -- in terms of cultural capital, uncertain, demonstrably 'uneducated' -- and eager for some sense of intellectual challenge without really knowing what that challenge could be. I had read the article in Harper's about Earl Shorris, and when I saw the 'Free University' posters that Allison and Am had put up for the inaugural Hum 101 I was absolutely certain I wanted in." He recalls the first few lectures when the mere sight of the instructor opening his notes to speak instantly quieted the noisy room. After completing the course, Parsons participated on its steering committee for two years, and continued his postsecondary studies at Langara, UBC (obtaining a B.A. in geography) and SFU. For over five years, he has served as a volunteer teacher in the programme.

Peter Babiak was an instructor during that first year while he was teaching in the English department at UBC. He served as the academic coordinator of the Humanities Storefront in 2001, an educational outreach centre that operated for a period of time in the Downtown Eastside initiated by a group of graduates from the first year of the programme. Babiak then became the Humanities 101 academic director from 2002 to 2006.

After its inaugural year, the Humanities 101 programme differentiated itself even more from Shorris' original model, which had developed into a franchise called the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. Babiak moved the UBC programme away from the model's hierarchical aspects in both content and administration. He added more contemporary poetry, theory and semiotics to the curriculum, while continuing to stress the fundamentals of good writing and rigorous analysis. He ensured that the programme's Steering Committee would be composed of students and alumni, and would meet at the Carnegie Centre regularly to provide guidance to the programme and ensure its relevance to Downtown Eastside and Downtown South residents.

Babiak also brought in programme alumni to act as mentors and advisors to current students, expanded the role of UBC student volunteers, started a popular series of UBC student-led mini-classes (for example a Shakespeare reading group at the Carnegie Centre), began a Friday night public lecture series and instituted a Writing 101 course to provide students with solid written communication skills to supplement the lecture and discussion-based Humanities 101 course.

He noted, "It is typical to offer impoverished people 'training' courses of various kinds, and I do think that their importance shouldn't be underemphasized, but to offer this kind of education -- a humanities education, the liberal arts -- is genuinely radical... [R]esponsibility -- whether social or personal -- begins with the ability to respond. So in a nutshell, Hum101 makes a huge difference because it can offer people that core ability: the ability to respond (to speak, to write, to engage)."

Students arrive with wealth of knowledge

Margot Leigh Butler, an instructor in the programme since 2001 and its academic director since 2006, continues Hum's efforts to put into practice a model of barrier-free education, working with the Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable and expanding outreach efforts. Her background as an academic, artist, cultural theorist and activist enriches her teaching. "My education has been very interdisciplinary, and this informs the way I design Hum courses based in relevant, interdisciplinary critical and creative thinking practices."

The current approach of the Hum programme (as it is now called) questions the idea of the humanities as a foundation for getting along in the world. Having evolved completely away from Shorris' "Riches for the Poor" model, Hum recognizes that participants possess a pre-existing passion for learning, in addition to a wealth of valuable knowledge, skills and abilities that they contribute to the classroom. Many students have been already been involved in community projects and political activism.

"For 10 years," says Leigh Butler, "I've taught Hum classes which analyze photos of DTES women whom the photographer figures as heroin addicts and sex workers; there are often students who know or knew the women pictured, some of whom were murdered by Robert Pickton, and so we are able to see them from a different perspective, learn more about their lives (some were childhood friends, some best friends, some neighbours, some were neither addicted nor working), analyze the meanings and relieve some of the stereotypes which are so damaging."

How Hum works

In August and November, the programme holds several intake sessions at different locations in the DTES and Downtown South. This year there were 150 applicants for 70 spaces. Approximately two thirds of the students complete the courses and graduate at a ceremony held in April at the Museum of Anthropology. The students range in age from 20 to 80, and come from different parts of the world, with diverse backgrounds and knowledge. The programme has a small staff of a full-time academic director and full-time programme coordinator, assisted by four work study students. Teachers are public intellectuals from UBC and elsewhere who volunteer their time. UBC alumni and students and Hum graduates also volunteer to facilitate class discussions or run public programs.

Classes are held two evenings a week for eight months for the Hum courses. Last term's Hum course included a tour and workshop at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, a walking tour of downtown Vancouver architecture, plus classes on logical and critical thinking, study and research skills, the Canadian parliamentary system and federalism, historical consciousness, anthropology, law, First Nations land claims, education, and semiotics and cultural studies among other topics. The Writing 101 course runs one evening a week for 13 weeks and covers different types and genres of writing each week.

There are a number of public programs. Last year, Hum had six study groups running once or twice a month at different DTES locations: Shakespeare, rhetoric, freedom, gentrification, exploring cyberculture and nature, society and science. Alumna Colleen Carroll initiated a highly successful weekly documentary series four and a half years ago that she has continued to run every Saturday at the Carnegie Centre.

Because of the high level of interest, the programme has been expanded to include a second year course for alumni. Also, the programme received a donation last year to help finance further education for graduates. Butler commented, "It was exciting that about three quarters of our grads took courses, including First Nation Languages and Arts Based Inquiry at UBC, social work at Langara College, counselling and community interpreting at VCC, photography and drawing at Emily Carr University, adult basic education and critical thinking at Capilano University, plus other alumni upgraded their first aid and CPR certificates, and their job qualifications -- and one student entered UBC's Arts One Program as a full time student last September."

'My God, I'm supposed to be here'

Whether they have gone on to pursue further postsecondary education or not, the Hum programme continues to be profoundly meaningful and even life-changing to its participants since its inception 12 years ago. Alumnus Lou Parsons told me that "it allows people to present their thoughts as something worthwhile. It allows those people to take advantage of opportunities to engage with intellectual pursuits whether alone or with others."

Residential school survivor Sylvia Isaac, also one of the alumni from the very first Hum course in 1998, pledged to recover from her substance use if she got into the course, and then went on to become an advocate and counsellor.

Alumna Antonietta Gesualdi, who has been pursuing her education at Capilano University, UBC and elsewhere, donated part of an award she'd won in the programme to start a new award in honour of her late mother and young daughter, and presents the award annually to a new student at graduation time.

Another student, Ross Smale, was not able to come to his graduation ceremony because he was in a hospice on Powell Street. One afternoon, the Hum Steering Committee took a birthday cake, balloons and his graduation certificate to the hospice. Butler told me "the next time I went, I noticed that it was the only thing he had up on the bulletin board in his room. He told me he was so happy that he finally made it to university."

One year, I had the privilege of meeting Helen Hill who was participating in one of the Writing 101 classes I taught. During and after class, she told me about her difficult life -- ill-treatment by her parents, beatings from her elementary school teachers, dyslexia preventing her from being able to read until the age of 40. She eventually wrote about her experiences in an essay that was published in Geist Magazine, which also appears in the award-winning anthology, Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside:

"Going to Humanities 101 meant a lot to me... I made people cry in my graduation speech because I always say it took me a million miles to get here and half the time I was doing it in high heels marching backwards through fear and with two babies on my hips... The first time I was on campus getting my meal... I put my order in, gave them my meal ticket, went to sit outside and the next thing I hear is 'Helen.' This was on the UBC campus. I hear my name on the campus and I think 'My God, I'm supposed to be here.' I put that in my speech and all these people are crying and I'm crying. Afterwards one professor comes up to me and says, 'Humanities 101 is for people like you -- you should've had a chance the first time and we can only give you a little bit but we're here for you.' Then I cried because it was like having my dream fulfilled at things I could do while not worrying about someone calling me stupid."

An instructor's perspective

I have been a guest instructor at Writing 101 classes for six years, discussing and facilitating the writing of poetry. My first class had nine students. Some had English as a second language, a few were First Nations, one young fellow had been in and out of prison since his teenage years, some were well read and confident, others were very shy. But as we went around the circle to introduce ourselves, and after I shared a few poems I'd brought to break the ice, what struck me immediately was how attentive, receptive and open the students were, and how much they had to offer. They let themselves be vulnerable to me and to each other in a way other students in other contexts would rarely risk. Whether the poems they wrote and read out in class were tender or angry, funny or intellectual, they were written from the heart without pretence.

The classes gradually doubled, and recently tripled in size over the years. But that attentiveness, receptivity and openness never changed. In fact, those who confessed they disliked poetry or had never written it before sometimes wrote the most revealing and interesting work. Someone would read out a fabulously vivid description of a childhood memory, or a hilarious political rhyme, or an ode to their child and everyone would immediately respond. It was always gratifying to see the inner light bulbs of delight and insight go off. Ultimately, the most important thing I could do in class was to listen, to really hear their words, and they reciprocated with offering that gift back to me tenfold.

So it seems very fitting that the Hum programme's manifesto on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery's current exhibit, WE: Vancouver: 12 Manifestos for the City is entitled "Take the cotton out of your ears, put it in your mouth & listen, listen, listen." The students' video manifesto gives us all an opportunity to let down our barriers and learn through truly listening.  [Tyee]

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