After peering through the window of Vancouver’s iconic Carnegie Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside, Mike entered a room where students from the University of British Columbia’s Applied Ethnomusicology course were hosting a gamelan music workshop. At first hesitant, he later joined me behind the xylophone. We each took one mallet and together played an improvised piece. At first, I followed his pattern, and then he followed my pattern, but by the end we were in unison and dialogue—we were playing the same pattern.

Here I was, an admittedly over-privileged Vancouverite who had spent nearly my whole life in the affluent Kitsilano neighbourhood sharing a traditional Indonesian music experience with a resident of the Downtown Eastside—the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. It was at that moment that I truly felt part of the city I loved so much. I was sitting, teaching, learning in a neighbourhood that I had been told was a vibrant community for the struggling “others” in our city—a basic contradiction I had never taken time to grasp.

In the fall of my senior year, I had a life-changing opportunity to participate in a one of a kind “community-service learning” course called Applied Ethnomusicology. I took the course on a limb, intrigued by a term I had never heard before and, as did many of my fellow students, I thought that the course was a guaranteed GPA booster. I did not expect to have a learning experience that truly transformed my perceptions of experiential learning as well as the city that I call home. 

Along with twelve of my fellow students, I helped organize a gamelan workshop for Downtown Eastside residents in efforts to use music and art to help enrich the atmosphere of the Downtown Eastside. The gamelan is a traditional Indonesian instrument that has recently been adopted in Western environments for therapeutic purposes. Led by our team leader Rod, a Masters student who specializes in the study of gamelan’s therapeutic benefits, we met for weekly rehearsals to learn how to play the gamelan’s various gongs, drums, and xylophones. At the same time as we were learning the instrument, we were organizing the workshop, reaching out to Downtown Eastside residents and finding community sponsors that would provide us with the necessary food and space for the four-day workshop. After weeks of rehearsals and planning, we were finally ready for the big week.

On the first day of the workshop I met an individual named Mike. He told me about how he had lost his arm after being electrocuted by a wire, an incident that occurred just a few blocks away from the Carnegie Community Centre.

For those who have never visited Vancouver before or for those who have visited but were told to avoid a street called “Hastings”, the statistics will probably shock you, but even so, they only scratch the surface of the pain and suffering taking place in this neighbourhood.

What was once the city centre of Vancouver in the late 19th and early 20th century is now known as the “poorest postal code in Canada”. According to a 2009 Globe and Mail estimate, the average income for a single income-earning individual living in the Downtown Eastside is just under $7,000 per year, compared to the Canadian average of $21,000. The United Nations has found that the Downtown Eastside has a Hepatitis C rate of 70 percent and a HIV rate of 30 percent—comparable to the HIV rate in Botswana. The neighbourhood is also home to a disproportionate number of Aboriginals, who make up an estimated 15 to 30 percent of residents. Aboriginal women have especially fallen victim to the drug trade and prostitution rings operating in the Downtown Eastside. Most notably, in 2007, serial killer William Pickton was found guilty of killing 26 of the 49 women. A large number of these women were Aboriginal sex workers.

The various levels of government have attempted to provide resources to the residents of the Downtown Eastside—but often through questionable measures. For example, the Globe and Mail estimates that 1.4 billion dollars have been spent on the Downtown Eastside, but when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, the homeless in the area were rounded up and sent on one-way buses out of the city limits.

Despite all this suffering, there are many rays of hope. Individuals, such as Dr. Klisala Harrison and Savannah Walling have inspired movements that utilize art, music, and theatre to help in the healing process. Women’s shelters, legal aid organizations, and food banks operate on tight budgets and little financial incentive in order to protect the poor. The examples of these service providers is what brought my classmates and me to the Downtown Eastside to participate in both learning and teaching, sharing and healing.

While Mike did not end up staying for the whole four-day workshop, meeting Mike on the first day of the workshop made me realize that more people need to know about initiatives such as our gamelan workshop. It is an uplifting story and the experience gave me many insights into the possibilities of community service learning, and of how to break the barriers that exist within my city. My hope is that in the future, Vancouverites will succeed in taking down the walls of “difference” between the wealthy and the poor. To accomplish this, many more youth will need to broaden their perspectives, a few more community service learning projects will need to be made available, and a lot of support from all levels of government will need to take place. 

Mahatma Gandhi may have said it the best: “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” I can say from being a part of this project that the potential for positive change in the Downtown Eastside is undeniably there.