Even The Wrong Question is Worth Asking
Irina Rueda is a Master’s candidate in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo. Irina is completing her internship in social enterprise development with LEDlab, as a Project Coordinator with ReBuild.
As an Ecuadorian, I had never experienced a community like the Downtown Eastside (DTES) before coming to Vancouver. Walking on Hastings from Carrall to Princess was shocking to me. I found myself questioning the impact of the many service delivery organizations currently working in the DTES. From what I heard and saw, I got the impression that the problems I was seeing had been in existence for a long time, and that nothing had really changed. However I also recognized that, having been here only a short while, I was far from having a complete picture of what had been, and what is.
Eager to understand, I started asking service providers for facts, experiences and opinions. I asked these questions of everyone who was willing to talk to me. My opening questions were: Why do we work here? What are we trying to accomplish? Who or what are we trying to change?
My inquiries received diverse answers. Of them all, one in particular stood out for me: “We are not trying to change anyone. We are working towards creating opportunities where otherwise there were none”.
The idea of creating opportunities made sense to me. However, when discussing these opportunities with people who were not directly involved with the DTES, some were not shy about expressing a different point of view. I often heard comments like these: “that’s a waste of resources”; “they are lazy”; “they deserve what they have”; and, “I don’t know why we waste our money on them when there are people in other places who actually deserve to be helped”.
When beginning my inquires I was struck by the words “creating opportunities”. After being exposed to other points of view, another two words caught my attention: “deserving opportunities”.
Therefore, I began a new set of queries: Are some more deserving of opportunities than others? And if so, who exactly deserves opportunities?
During my travels, I posed these questions to a researcher at one of Canada’s most renowned universities, who is passionate about social justice. I called her to discuss this topic. I was not expecting what I heard. When asked who deserved opportunities, she said, “I often doubt that myself. But in a slightly different manner. I ask myself: Do I really deserve an opportunity? And how many more opportunities do I deserve?”
After a long silence, she continued… “Nothing really motivates much. I fight a feeling almost every day. A feeling of throwing myself in front of a bus. Or putting heroin into my veins so I forget about everything – forever… No one really knows this. Many intelligent high achievers surround me. And when I see them working countless hours and accomplishing remarkable things, I ask myself, what is wrong with me?”
Her choppy voice, talking about opportunities and the DTES, said things I will never forget.
“I wonder how many people lying in a corner in the DTES are like me. Like me, but were not born into my family. Like me, but with nobody to pay for their studies or take them to a therapist week after week. Or without someone sitting every morning next to them making sure that they eat. Like me, but without access to all those things I have the privilege to have. What if someone is just like me, but never had someone to believe in them?”
“Those who have been blessed with the gift of mental health will never understand how it feels to fight demons every morning. They would never imagine how it is to recite, as a mantra until I brainwash myself, all the things that make me worth living. I repeat them until can I fall asleep. Until I can get out of bed. Until I can wash my face. Until I can get dressed. Until I can eat. Until I can get to work. Until I can smile. And until I can appear like everything is all right… You ask me, are some more deserving than others? Am I more deserving than any other? I don’t think so.”
The last thing she said was, “Irina, you are asking the wrong question! You should be asking: How many opportunities can you provide? Because let me tell you, we need as many opportunities as we can get.”
After these experiences I realized that even the wrong question is worth asking. Inquiring, for me, has opened paths to deeper understanding, and each question has constituted the heart of new, more interesting one. Now, my journey is taking a new direction towards discovering how we can provide more income generating opportunities for people in the DTES.
The person I spoke with kindly let me share parts of our conversation, but requested I keep their identity private.
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