Community Engagement

Supporting street-level research

Binners - learning exchange (web)

When you’re working at street level, research resources can be hard to come by. Unless you’re a binner in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

A growing group of these informal waste recyclers has connected with the Learning Exchange to access and develop research that will help identify economic opportunities and reduce the stigma surrounding their work.

The Learning Exchange has supported the Binners’ Project in a variety of ways. These include assistance from a UBC graduate researcher, providing an administrative base and meeting space, and serving on the project’s advisory committee.

“Having the backup and credibility of the UBC name makes a big difference to our group,” says Anne Godefroy, coordinator of the Binners’ Project. “And, there are qualified people on hand ready to help us as we find our way.”

One of those people is Alina McKay, a PhD student at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. Her research – conducted in the DTES – looks at the relationship between housing, home and community integration. She has also been involved in the downtown community for five years as a mental health worker.

As the Learning Exchange’s Graduate Research Assistant, McKay has focused on improving access to research in the DTES. Her connection with the Binners’ Project started in October 2014 during the Coffee Cup Revolution, an awareness-raising event where more than 160 binners demonstrated recycling possibilities by collecting upwards of 40,000 paper coffee cups for a deposit. McKay worked with the group to gather data from the event, document the project’s progress and explore funding opportunities.

The hands-on expertise has saved the group a lot of time, says Godefroy. “Alina has credibility and experience in the community so when she co-leads a project meeting she brings an understanding and sensibility that makes it easier for the group to exchange ideas.”

McKay and Godefroy agree that successful community-based research involves working with community members to support their research needs, rather than doing research on them. One of the key challenges of conducting research is to ensure that people are engaged and empowered through the process, says McKay. The binners bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table and McKay has been encouraged by seeing the group’s needs emerge as they identify future ideas and plans.

“I know the alleys but I don’t know anything else, like applying for grants,” says Mike Leland, part of the Binners’ Project Core Group. “Alina’s right up on all that stuff – the connections are invaluable.”

“We have reached a good level of trust in the group, says Godefroy. This project belongs to the binners – it’s their input that directs the activities, including research activities.”

The group is currently exploring the idea of Empties Shelves. Attached to laneway posts and garages, the shelves could carry recyclable bottles and containers and would be safer and easier for binners to access. And, by putting up a shelf, community residents could demonstrate support for binners.

“The Learning Exchange is a bridge between the inner community and our group. It’s a space for everyone to connect,” says Godefroy.

Programs at the Learning Exchange are funded by bold and generous donors who share our vision of thinking differently about community, social issues, and inner-city neighbourhoods. Support from the Carraresi Foundation in memory of Augusto Carraresi and the Kaatza Foundation has created the Learning Lab program, a place where residents of the Downtown Eastside engage with their community by identifying their passions and interests, building activities to further explore them, and inviting others to join them.