Simply, it's effective

June 24, 2004, vol. 30, no. 5
By Roberta Staley

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Canada prides itself on its tolerant citizenry. Canada supports such documents as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out entitlements like access to education. Which, if you ask Debbie Bell, director of the community education program, SFU continuing studies, is easier said than done. Bell is the founding director of the community program, arguably the humblest academically at SFU, but one of its most important. The program “assumes that everyone is entitled to an education, while recognizing that education systems are structured to exclude some people,” says Bell. These include, Bell explains, individuals such as low-income earners, immigrants, or those who experience gender bias or racism. (Bell also points out that rising education costs and entry standards are now beginning to exclude large numbers of the middle class.)

Before joining SFU seven years ago, Bell was a consultant with the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia, helping develop community programs. One thing irked her; programs were consistently created without input from the targeted beneficiaries. “People of privilege were making decisions for those people who weren't,” says Bell.

She realized that traditional education structures couldn't accommodate the needs of the marginalized. SFU could offer a degree for free in such communities - or simply a beginner computer course -- but very few would take advantage of it because “the methodology and language is elitist and exclusionary.” Those from lower socioeconomic classes are often so focused on survival that education doesn't fit into their daily lives. Yet the correlation between income level and education level is so strong, there is an ethical imperative for universities to find innovative ways of education delivery, Bell says. “Education is key to enabling full participation as a citizen.”

The simplicity of the education model Bell developed raised eyebrows at first. It was simple but effective - address community needs and weave in education when the opportunity arose. One of Bell's first endeavours was helping the women of East Vancouver's Latin American community create a food-buying club. The women couldn't afford the beans that were the basis of a traditional diet. Bell helped them create a bulk-buying system, which allowed the women to package and re-sell the beans for profit. This taught them mathematical, record-keeping and business skills and refined their English. As a result, some illiterate women gained the confidence to take English reading and writing courses, others went on to post-secondary learning or jobs requiring managerial skills.

The food-buying club helped form the model for other initiatives. These have included HIPPY, the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters program, which provides low-income families with early childhood education instruction. She has also worked internationally, assisting Mexican communities develop family planning, nutrition and education development programs.

Bell is now in the early planning stages of a program for sex trade workers in the Downtown Eastside, addressing the needs of that community, including violence, poverty and advocacy as they relate to women. She hopes the program will eventually provide university credit courses. “The process of going from non-formal to formal education and from noncredit to credit education is a continuum that takes about five years,” Bell says. “It requires our intervention at various points, but evidence shows that we can construct a clear and solid pathway by starting where we haven't started before.

“It's about social action and social justice.”

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