It has been a busy four months since the last time I wrote to you. Over those four months, we have faced some challenges, but we have also enjoyed our share of success. As always, we continue to work together – in the office and with the community – to address the literacy needs of people in British Columbia and build a culture of community based literacy and learning. I would like to thank everyone for their commitment and support during these times!
I am also proud to announce that after months of hard work and input from our partners, friends and supporters, we have launched our re-branded and re-structured website. The new site has a modern look and feel, improved functionality and navigation, and it now features a robust donor section. The site is designed with you in mind and it models the practice of clear language and design. We have tested the new site in the field and we have received some very positive reviews – take a tour and see for yourself. Your feedback is welcomed and appreciated.
And last but not least I am happy to announce that after a year of planning, meetings and strategizing we have developed a British Columbia Workforce Literacy & Essential Skills Strategy. The strategy was developed by an advisory committee made up of senior leaders from the private, public and non-profit sectors. The goal: address the projected labour shortage in our province and provide future generations of adult learners with literacy and essential skills to thrive in the modern workforce.
In the coming months, we have some very exciting events and activities coming your way, including our Literacy is Life Letter Contest! I sincerely hope you will join us or help spread the word.
I encourage you to contact us with any suggestions or comments regarding our communications, and our work.
Brenda Le Clair
Imagine living in another country, working hard every day to achieve success; you then find someone special from another country, move to that country, and find that all of your hard work has been in vain. The tools you possess aren’t recognized and you must start all over again. What do you do to regain that success?
Eric Yang has lived this story. Born in Sichuan, China, he obtained a degree in Civil Engineering in 1995, and worked as a project manager, finding success building major projects such as a municipal reservoir. After moving to Guangdong province for a change of pace, he met and married a Canadian partner, and decided to make the move to Canada to live with her.
“When I moved here, I thought I would be self-supporting – I thought I could be just like everyone else, getting a regular job, driving to work every day,” he says. “But I just couldn’t do it.”
He found that the tool he was most lacking to find success was his language skills. “I saw some people who came here with PhDs, and they were driving taxis,” he says in disbelief.
Instead of worrying, Eric decided to act. “I found out that in Canada, you get a second chance at learning,” he notes. “I thought: ‘oh no, I’m done school’…but I found out that adults here are given many chances and resources to keep learning to always upgrade their skills.”
He researched the adult education system in his community, and found out that there was a provincially-funded community adult literacy program offered to new residents of BC. “I dropped into a few classes and started liking it,” he says. “Especially the language part of that, [because it’s] what I needed to speak in day-to-day life.”
With encouragement, Eric also began seeing an adult literacy tutor. The tutor, who also became his mentor, convinced Eric to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, a well-known English proficiency test to improve his chances at finding a job in his field. By studying hard and with much interactive learning, he passed this difficult test on his very first try.
Eric still needed to support himself while studying. “I was chopping vegetables in the basement of a Chinese restaurant for a year while I was getting tutored.” He realized that without his newfound skills, this type of job would be the extent of his job success in Canada.
Though passing TOEFL helped, Eric was determined to fully overcome his language barrier; the test was only the first step in Eric’s journey to regain success. His Canadian family and friends also convinced him that school is important and that he should go into the field he was originally trained in. His stellar TOEFL results helped him to gain admission to the full-time BCIT Civil Engineering diploma program, where he eventually graduated at the top of his class.
“I graduated from BCIT with honours, and I found a job right away…I learned so much because of my experience from before, and I achieved so much,” he notes. Eric has worked on such high-profile projects as the rebuilding of the Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, as well as the Highway 1 Improvement project in Metro Vancouver.
Eric attributes his job success to his mastering the English language through his tutor and through provincially-funded literacy programs.
“Language is such an important part of daily life,” he declares. “If you don’t understand what people are saying about how to use the tools, how are you going to succeed at work?”
Still restless about achieving further life success, Eric would still like to gain site inspection experience, and move back into project managing large projects.
“Life just gets better and better, just because I got over the language barrier,” he says. “If you don’t have the language skills, you can’t do anything. For people who are born in Canada, it’s nothing special, but for immigrants, it’s everything.”
Eric credits the adult literacy program and his literacy tutor for regaining his sense of self-respect, success, optimism – and most importantly, happiness.
“If it wasn’t for the adult literacy program, I would probably still be chopping vegetables in a basement,” he said. Although, he laughs, “my chopping skills are really above average.”
From the Field: Changing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
There are few people in British Columbia who haven’t heard of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver. One of Vancouver’s most infamous areas, consisting of the city’s first urban neighbourhoods – Gastown, Chinatown, Japantown and Strathcona – it is often referred to as Vancouver’s poorest postal code. The area is featured prominently in news stories and documentaries – and much of the coverage is negative.
William Booth is among a group of adult educators who see a very different side of the DTES and who are working hard to change that image.
“In the eyes and words of the people who live here…this is a community of enormous strength, cohesion and activity,” he says. “The ‘founding neighbourhoods’ pride themselves on insider knowledge, lived experience, volunteerism, social justice efforts, multicultural diversity, unity and support.”
Working as a Literacy Outreach Coordinator (LOC) in the DTES, William feels that literacy is a key to achieving success for area residents, many of whom are vulnerable low-income, Aboriginal, and immigrant populations.
“Believe it or not, there is more discrimination in the Downtown Eastside towards literacy than there is towards addiction,” he says. “Literacy and writing is an opening for many of these individuals. Increasing levels of individual literacy can address the needs and aspirations of low-income learners and those with learning differences, and ultimately, it will strengthen the community as a whole.”
The DTES is a perfect venue for William’s skill set. As a former Community Liaison Manager with Simon Fraser University’s Literacy Lives Project, William has worked in evaluation, project design, implementation and monitoring of local community-based issues…so getting involved in community-based learning and literacy programs in the neighbourhood was a natural fit for him.
As an LOC, William is responsible for achieving the goals laid out in the DTES literacy plan, which is written in consultation with community members. This collaborative effort is led by the Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable, a unique group of adult educators who come from more than 45 community support and educational organizations across the community – specifically to strengthen literacy in the DTES. Each member of the Roundtable, including William, broadly understands literacy as not just reading.
“Literacy is having the knowledge, skills and confidence to participate fully in one’s life,” he notes. “Reading and writing are only part of literacy, but they are useful tools that open up opportunities to learn and engage more.”
The Carnegie Learning Centre is where William sees most of the interaction between learner and educator. The Centre is supported by 50 volunteers and it offers small group and one to one tutoring in reading, writing, math, basic computers and English as a second language, creative writing and the First Nations Journeys program.
“We build community inside and outside the classroom and support learners connecting to their neighbourhood. [At the Learning Centre,] the true work that’s being done here is by the people…the volunteers,” William says.
Attendance is increasing at the Centre, as there are more and more individuals seeking aid.
“I work with creative and committed colleagues who are change agents in their own right,” William notes. “Volunteer mentors and tutors are committed to assist community members improve both literacy and essential skill capacity – our goals are self-determination and working together.”
Clients also see the benefits of increased literacy, and most are able to better participate actively in education, employment and community activities. “Witnessing a learner become a leader in their own community makes me very proud for them,” he says with a smile on his face.
“Five years ago, I came to the DTES, materially destitute but spiritually rich and happy,” one volunteer writes. “Carnegie Learning Centre upgraded my computer skills…since becoming a regular volunteer here, I have felt a stronger connection to this…community.”
William is one of 102 literacy outreach coordinators in B.C. making a difference in peoples’ lives. Each builds strong people, strong families and strong communities. Decoda is grateful for the work our LOCs do, and the results they demonstrate.
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