Making sure research taking place in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) engages and empowers community members is something Alina McKay is passionate about.
A student in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, she has been involved in the community as a mental health worker, a Learning Exchange Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) and is now conducting PhD research in the DTES.
She first learned of the Learning Exchange in 2008 when studying for her master’s degree in Sociology at UBC. But it wasn’t until her GRA work in 2013 that she really began to understand the Learning Exchange’s role in the DTES.
She points to its unique relationships with the university and DTES communities – created by bringing people together to learn from each other.
“It’s incredibly valuable to UBC because the connection is not based on extracting information and resources,” says McKay, “There is a welcoming space and a trust here.”
Her GRA work involved improving access to DTES research. Based at the Learning Exchange, she first identified and reviewed published DTES studies. She then spoke to community members about their needs.
That’s where she found a disconnect.
“Often research results are published for an academic audience or policy makers – the results don’t get relayed back to the people who were the subjects of the study.”
Information collected in the project has triggered discussions with the UBC Library and others about making research results available for everyone to use. It’s part of the Learning Exchange’s commitment to link the DTES with university resources, making sure new knowledge comes back to the community to inform discussions about change.
McKay also supports the research needs of The Binners’ Project. The grass-roots movement aims to improve economic opportunities for street-level waste recyclers (binners). In 2014, in a successful demonstration called The Coffee Cup Revolution, binners recycled thousands of discarded paper coffee cups in return for a deposit. (The deposit depot was organized as part of a series of events that marked the Learning Exchange’s 15th anniversary.)
Matching her research expertise to the needs of the group, McKay gathers data, documents the group’s work and explores funding opportunities.
“My involvement in The Binners’ Project keeps me inspired – it’s a constant reminder of how resourceful and strong people are,” says McKay.
That inspiration helps fuel her PhD research. She is exploring the relationship between housing, home and community integration for people in the DTES who have experienced homelessness.
“I think when housing brings support, independence and status – then people can develop a sense of home,” she says. “That’s when lives improve, through feelings of security and the resilience to face challenges. It’s the environment needed for community integration – for maintaining social relationships in the community that contribute to well-being.”
McKay says the Learning Exchange has contributed to her research – through its strengths-based approach to people in the DTES and a commitment to changing negative stereotypes.
“If researchers take the opportunity to spend time in places like the Learning Exchange, it will strengthen their work and pave the way for future projects that build trust and capacity.”