Having meaningful intentions is one of the key aspects of doing service learning through the vulnerable sector. When working in places that are foreign to you, the intent to mean well is what brings themes and individuals together. In the article “With Best Intentions: Yoga, Gentrification and Solidarity in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside”, the ideas of appropriate language and Vancouver’s gentrification are explored.
I personally was unsure of the meaning of gentrification and needed some definitions to be clear on what is meant by the term and more specifically, where our group would be seeing it. Here are a few:
- The restoration of run-down urban areas by the middle class (resulting in the displacement of low-income residents).
- The buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.
- Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle-class buyers.
Typically, the renewal and revitalization of these neighbourhoods are not always warranted or requested by those who reside within the construction areas and the decisions often lay with public or corporate figures. The question that is asked is whether the terms that often get partnered with gentrification can negatively reflect the population being affected. In this particular article, the author states: “In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind [an] ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is “urban renewal.” This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment.” With the assumptions linked to this term of urban renewal, we come into potential conflict of what this can depict or presume. Another term that is discussed in this article that has the ability to inaccurately represent the Downtown Eastside is “Lower East Side”. It is these terms that can be debated and it is up to us to consciously research and inform ourselves of the potential to offend or distort the people and/or areas that we will be travelling into.
So what makes these statements wrong? Is it the people that should be offended that have been repressed by the continuous inaccurate terms? Or is it for the common good of humanity to restrict vocabulary that permits further abuse of particular themes? These are some questions that remain constant and should be taken into consideration if you are unsure of a phrase or term.
To be mindful in these situations will be a very useful tool. Despite the words of hate or reprimand that we may come across, we should keep in mind that our use of language can be quite different than another’s. To give an example of unintentional condemning of the DTES: “We have walked around East Hastings several times, treading carefully around its edges as if not to wake a dragon. The sights are indeed lamentable: homeless, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes stumble mindlessly from one side of the street to the other, some silent and lost in thought, others raging loudly against the world, some mumbling incoherently and some intimidating outside voyeurs with defiant looks.” For some, this would be a very accurate way to describe these areas. But, if you examine further and think about how these individuals would feel if they read this, there are a few problems. Does it depict the “masses” of DTES as respected or untouchable? Would this description make them feel even more ostracized by society? Should there be a separation between the served and the ones serving? The idea that our words have power to illuminate such a difference can change the perception of those in which we choose to relay information to. As students and present individuals in society, we carve a pathway to future success in the field of acceptance. The words that we select can indicate a variety of meanings. If we are describing a certain group of individuals, lifestyle or living quarters, our own awareness of the appropriate terms are crucial.
We will be entering a world that we are unfamiliar to and we must remember that these are fellow humans. They may act different, have chosen a different path or look a certain way. But, it is important that we develop a keen sense of acceptance for the environments we will be placed in. In this piece, she describes that a fellow author had dehumanized and degraded the people of the DTES that she was trying to describe. Whether this was intentional or not, the author of the article may have encountered the problem that most of us face: misunderstanding. I have personally used words for the people that I have seen on the street that have labeled them and used preconceived notions to place a particular depiction of them in my head. Having not understood or taken the time to evaluate their story or situation, it is unfair to simply ‘call them names’.
The way this blog author puts it, “The tone of this piece reminds me of someone going to the zoo to cautiously view wild animals. It’s eerily similar to racist depictions of Indigenous people by European colonizers when they arrived in the “new world”. By placing these tags on people that have foreign lifestyles, it can be seen as a “racism deeply institutionalized to the point that it is the norm in White North American society.” She brings up the importance of recognizing our status as outsiders. When you assume they need your help, there is a tendency to impose solutions on the people you are trying to help – solutions they may not need or even be open to. To avoid such conflict, it is important to consider the pressure and the type of attention that this neighbourhood is surrounded by. “The Downtown Eastside is constantly swarmed by outsiders, who claim to have good intentions, but are usually much more predatory than they appear. This neighborhood has a rich history of community organizing and resistance against predatory condo developers and the opportunist governments who work in partnership with them.”
We, as volunteers from a foreign area, are outsiders, entering a realm of unknown. It is up to us to consider, research and ruminate our own values in order to depict the themes and messages that we choose to involve ourselves in. This trip will test these boundaries and make you reevaluate the terminology that has potential for biases. “Despite the purity of our intentions, in our fumbling infancy we sometimes accidentally cause harm where we mean to be helpful.” This author doesn’t claim to know all the answers and neither should we. Remember, everyone’s got a story and no one is perfect. This goes a long way when you think about it. The slogan “live with intention” plays a big part in how we should go about this trip. This doesn’t mean that if you slip and state a term that could be deemed offensive or that you’re all the sudden unfit for the position. This is why we learn. It is important to challenge yourself and to enable your own ability to perpetuate true intentions. For me personally, I know this will be a huge learning opportunity to be mindful. To go into this with pure intentions of solidarity, connection and empowerment, you will fulfill an alliance and create a path for your own experiential learning development.