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 achieve 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 of 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 one of the venues where William sees interactions 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.  

As a non-profit organization, we rely on your generosity, the generosity of other individuals, corporations, and the B.C. Government to support literacy and learning in British Columbia.

Make a difference in your community, please donate today.

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