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UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2008

Map Project Definitely Not Another Day at the Office

By Sarah Walker

Monday morning, first day of Reading Week. Instead of sitting at my usual desk on campus, I found myself walking up to the secured front door of a Kitsilano transition house for women who have experienced abuse in their intimate relationship, Munroe House. I was about to meet up with four UBC cartography students, Munroe House residents and staff to work on a mapping project for a community service-learning project (CSL).

CSL is a model of experiential learning that combines voluntary community service with classroom learning. UBC’s goal is to engage 10 per cent of UBC students in CSL each year. These four, enroled in an advanced cartography course, signed up to create a set of maps for Munroe House as their final course project. They wanted practice with a community group in the mapping process, from needs analysis to finished product.

The residents, who had been using ad-hoc, hand-drawn directions from the front desk, have nine months to find alternate housing and register for appropriate support -- often with little knowledge of Vancouver, its neighbourhoods, amenities and services. Many are new to Kitsilano or Vancouver; some have language issues or little experience navigating transportation or bureaucracy. The students, a little nervous themselves, put their creative mapping skills to work to generate maps of the surrounding area and other neighbourhoods where the women may find housing and services to ease their transition process.

My role as project leader was through UBC’s Community Learning Initiative Leadership Program, a professional development opportunity offered by Organizational Development and Learning in Human Resources to UBC staff, graduate students and alumni. After five days of leadership training alongside 14 other leaders, my job was to facilitate the planning and logistics of the project as it unfolded.

“I don’t know what to expect,” wrote one of the students in a journal entry on the first day, “but I’m looking forward to trying out my skills outside of class.” I didn’t quite know what to expect either, but was already confident the project would invite me out of my comfort zone, as I was about to meet a community that was previously invisible to me.

The women who live here have various levels of education and literacy, from university degrees to near map illiteracy. Many transition houses accommodate a high percentage of immigrant women, as this population often has little other recourse given that their extended families usually do not live in Canada -- a statistic that surprised me our first day.

The emotional intensity that surfaced after an introductory session on the diverse faces of abuse was also unexpected. We viewed a film which depicted various types of abuse: verbal, financial and emotional, as well as physical. Watching abuse unfold was physically difficult, and highlighted how subtle and widespread it can be. Taken aback by these ugly realities, we debriefed through an analysis of gender roles and pressures. Uncomfortable, yes. Key in getting us thinking about the bigger issues behind the project? I think so.

We met with residents and the manager to brainstorm what kind of information and maps would be the most useful. Maps can be a real tool of empowerment: I watched that process begin as the residents grew confident in sharing their needs and the students got excited about transferring the relevant information to map-form. After the emotions of the morning, it was very powerful to be trusted to meet with individuals and put faces to the statistics.

After weeks of hard work, the students ended the semester with a presentation of a pile of brightly coloured, photocopiable maps complete with icons, bus routes and more information than the residents could have dreamed. I sat back and let the students run the show, watching the faces of the residents as they delightedly explored the wealth of information now available to them. “I didn’t realize what a difference the maps would make,” said one of the students. For the students, the realization that their work offers these women new opportunities to take control of their lives was truly satisfying.

Back in the office, I have a deeper understanding of my city, society and university. I am more aware of the students who make this university tick, and the impact of linking academic work with relationship and concrete outcomes. My eyes were opened to realities I rarely make myself see. This community let us into their lives for a season, and I am honoured by their trust.

Sarah Walker is an Executive Assistant in UBC’s Public Affairs Office. She was released from her work for the equivalent of two weeks to participate in this CSL opportunity.

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Last reviewed 04-Jun-2008

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