As the co-founder and former Executive Director of The Doorway, Marilyn Dyck has spent many years building community and supporting young people in Calgary. She recently sat down with volunteer Dan Kostka to discuss the concept of ‘belonging’ and how it relates to community building, especially with regard to assisting youth on the street. Listen to her and Dan’s conversation on Dan’s Podcast Calgary In Depth or read the full conversation below.
Dan: When you think of the word ‘belonging’, what first comes to mind? And can you tell, for the people who don’t know you yet, what your background is in terms of your work in community building and working with youth?
Marilyn: I think that I never even would have understood that there was such a thing as belonging. I was born into a small farming family who were diligent their whole lives in providing for the children and we all worked together to make the little farm work and all those things, so I don’t think that I really ever understood that there were people that were not belonging somewhere because I’ve never felt that I didn’t belong.
So, when I had the opportunity to begin at The Back Door, I began to see really clearly and hear clearly that young people on the street believe that nobody cares about them, they believe that nobody understands them and that they don’t belong anywhere. And that’s kind of bottomless, because how do you tackle that, as them?
So, I listened and listened. And I think that one of the key pieces to understanding belonging, which I learned by experience, was you listen to people and you understand because you’re listening beside them, you’re not sitting at a table manufacturing ideas or strategies for them. You’re just listening. And you listen and you listen, and your shared humanity becomes the strength of knowing how to understand and how, then, when some young person is talking to you, they really believe that you are listening and that you do understand and then that’s the basis of any full exchange.
Dan: This realization that they lacked a sense of belonging, was it something you were aware of right away or is it something, over time, as you met with more and more young people, that you realized they didn’t have this sense of belonging and do they express it explicitly to you or did they say it in indirect ways, how they don’t feel they belonged anywhere? Do you remember some young people saying to you, ‘I don’t feel like I belong anywhere?’
Marilyn: Oh yes, absolutely. All of the above. There’s various times in their lives when they feel more in control of what’s going on and they might say, ‘That’s cool with me, I’m okay on my own,’ that kind of stuff. But one of the ways that young people who think, ‘I really would like to get out of this lifestyle,’ it’s a difficult thing because what’s necessary for them to re-enter society is that society will accept them and welcome them and that is not the case in our city. Our city is very happy to pay money to give food, to give clothing, but there’s still judgment and there’s still prejudice and there’s still belief that anybody that’s out there, it’s their own doing and probably they’re a bad person because they’ve done wrong things.
Dan: When I asked you that question, I was thinking it’s not easy to admit that you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, because it’s an admission of vulnerability, isn’t it? Isn’t it admitting that you need other people, to say, ‘I don’t feel like I belong anywhere’? Aren’t you saying, ‘I need other people and I’m not connected to them’? Is that an admission of vulnerability?
Marilyn: Yes, but I’m not sure that they would use the word ‘vulnerability.’ They would say, ‘Oh, in this place, I feel like people like it when I come here and they respect me and they don’t judge me and that’s a world of difference for them because they are outside on the streets where they are judged all the time. They’re monitored, they’re accused, they’re whatever. And they’re the first suspect, always. Those kinds of things.
Dan: I assume they feel very judged, as you said, when they’re out in the community. People look at them differently, treat them differently. Their guard is up. How, with The Back Door, which now is known as The Doorway, did you try to create an environment where they did feel like they belonged there? What did you do?
Marilyn: We started on that premise. Prior to The Doorway opening its doors, Carl DeLine (co-founder of The Doorway), director of the food bank at that point, a very early food bank, hired me to help him, and for six months we discussed this opportunity of a philanthropist who wanted to know why young people were on the street for so long and if there was some new idea or approach that could help them get off the street, because the current initiatives were not helpful in any way in helping them. That was the groundwork. So, Carl grew up in poverty. He understood it. And so he taught me so many things in that first six months about the culture of the people that live in poverty and so we made rules for our environment, like a participant, a young person, will always be the most important in the room. And from day one, that’s the approach that The Back Door and The Doorway takes. They are the most important people. They come there to an environment that is staffed, or offered, by community people who do care about young people and the exchange is never about what’s going on in your life, that kind of stuff. It’s about being a person with other persons with a different life experience and over conversations, young people are making plans to make change. Those conversations are just casual sharing of the culture that mainstream belongs to and is there saying, ‘I accept you, and you might want to think about this, because this is what I’ve learned in my life.’ That’s the way young people start to learn that, A, people care enough to be there and, B, ‘That’s not so hard, I could do that.’ And they begin to understand that inside of them there is a relaxation of resistance and the wall that they have to put up when they go back out on the street to protect themselves physically.
Dan: Can you help me understand a little bit more about how the concept of belonging ties into the factors that lead to a young person ending up on the street.
Marilyn: I probably imagine first it’s families because there are families that don’t care about their kids, there are families that love their kids dearly and their kids still end up on the street because other things inside their home haven’t made sense, and we all understand the dynamics of adults who abuse children, those kinds of things. That isn’t everybody. But a young person who doesn’t feel like they have a trusted ally.
I think one of the profound things about young people on the street is that the people in their community, their context, whatever, have destroyed their trust. And once that trust is gone, then who do they believe, and what do they believe, and how do they not know that, if they’re going to make something of their life, it has to be up to them. And they can’t do that in the context that they’re in, so they move away. And that happens at different levels and different ages. Kids who can’t make it in school, they get ostracized at school because they don’t have the right shoes and they don’t have the right jeans and they get discouraged and then they get defensive and they’re angry. And so that piece becomes, ‘I don’t belong here, I’m quitting.’ It’s that kind of stuff.
Dan: Obviously, with an organization like The Doorway, the idea isn’t, of course, to make life on the streets easier, it’s ultimately to help them reintegrate to mainstream society, but how do you restore that trust so that they feel like mainstream society is something worth belonging to, or that it’s a place that they’ll ever be accepted? Isn’t that a big part of it, that they don’t feel like they can be themselves and ever be part of mainstream society — they’ve lost faith in it?
Marilyn: Absolutely they have, but The Doorway has managed to be a consistent place where people feel trusted and trust. The Doorway isn’t a pushover. The Doorway isn’t like, ‘Oh, you’re a good person now all the time.’ It isn’t anything like that. It’s about, you’re accepted as who you are, and if you want to change that, how do you think you could do that? So, the trust is always, ‘I’m standing beside you, I believe in you, and you can do it. And so the rediscovery of [the fact] they have agency and they have power in themselves to make different choices, that’s part of that safety that is involved in a safe place to go and think, which is what The Doorway offers.
Dan: Now, this is a very big question, but what does society need to do more of so that fewer young people end up feeling that they don’t belong and that the street is an option or the street is where they have to go to get away from all these negative things they’ve grown up with?
Marilyn: I’ve spent 30 years on that question. I think that the simplest answer is one person to one person, and listen and respect and understand that difference isn’t to be afraid of, that difference is something that you can learn from, and then it’s who’s on your block, who’s the kid on your block that you see not going to school, or whatever?
One young man told me one time, in my community I knew there was a guy who was working on roofs in our community, and he said, and I didn’t go to school, I walked around my district every day, and he said one day the guy came down off his ladder. He said, ‘I’ve noticed that you’re walking around and whatever, whatever,’ and they began to engage in some conversation but at the end of the day, Michael ended up at The Back Door at that point and with the support of one person on his block that believed in him, he began to recognize he could change what was going on in his life. He had choices, he really did have choices. A lot of young people have no idea they have choices. They think, ‘Well, I’ve sort of screwed up everything and I’ve left everybody that might have been around for me and so this is it, I’ve got to navigate this culture. And the street is a dangerous [place]. We do not understand how dangerous the street is.
I remember one morning a young man came in with a clipping of a young person who had died on the street that week in Calgary and he said, ‘People don’t get it. Every day that we’re out there, we could die.’ That’s how it is to live on the street. So you have to protect yourself in the ways that you know, and sometimes that’s anger and sometimes it’s aggression and sometimes it’s hiding, but you’re responsible for your life every day. It’s not just about finding food and a place to lie down, so that you’re not going to get robbed in the middle of the night. That happens a lot, because that’s the economy of the street.
Dan: I think some people might be surprised by you saying that they feel like they could die at any time because the general sense is that young people feel Invincible. They’re the ones who are racing their cars around and engaging in dangerous sports and bungee jumping and other things, thrill-seeking, that they feel invincible at that age. Are you saying that young people on the street don’t have that same sense of invincibility that other young people seem to have?
Marilyn: No, they don’t. If you imagine being on the street with a pair of shoes that has holes in them, you have no money, you have one set of clothes, and you might have a blanket hidden somewhere that’s going to try and keep you warm at night because you’re going to sleep outside because you don’t want to be in the facilities where other people are that could harm you. That’s all you’ve got, and so the invincibility would be with, and I don’t know a lot about the structure of the street, I’ve just listened to stories, but I know there are people on the street that are called enforcers, and they’re the people that beat up people for other people, and that often involves money, that you’ve agreed to do something for some money and then you owe money… and so there are all these unpaid debts that are settled with violence. It’s an ugly, dangerous place.
And still young people will choose not to go to facilities because there’s another set of things there that are not attractive to them. They still feel some sort of autonomy when they’re making the choice to stay where they are.
Dan: I think obviously it would be terrifying for any parent if they had a teenager whowas starting to rebel, as they all tend to do for some period, but maybe starting to perhaps get into drugs, maybe starting to hang around with kids that you worry about. So, if there were parents who thought, ‘Oh my God, I hope my kid would never end up on the street,’ what things could they do to reduce the chance that that could ever happen?
Marilyn: I think it starts with your own kids, when you listen to them, and that you talk to them back and forth. You trust their choices. You let them make mistakes and learn from their failures. In my kind of long life now I have observed that parents that engage with their children as persons all of the time that they’re growing up — you’re not my property, I’m not in charge of you, it’s not power based. It’s, ‘I’m learning from you how you’re living your life and if I can help you, I will.’ Those kinds of ways of holding your children close work, because if your children can trust you not to lose it and say, ‘I can’t believe you just told me that, you’re going to be penalized.’ Those kinds of things don’t work. That young person is growing into an adult and they need the space to figure out what they should do and what they shouldn’t do in a safe way, and I think that’s the biggest gift that parents can give their kids: to allow them to understand themselves, to recognize that they have personal power, and then to guide them in the choices that they’re making, without authority, but with suggestion and with wisdom and gentleness and ‘You’re always accepted’ and that kind of stuff. That may sound like pie in the sky, but I really believe that’s the only way. It’s the way that The Doorway would be sort of at arms-length. It would be that we just accept you and we trust you and you can do it. And young people embrace that, and it’s like a relief: “I could do this, and there’s somebody that believes that I can, and if it doesn’t work, I can figure out another way to do it and start over again tomorrow. That’s kind of a safe strategy for young people to build their lives forward.
Dan: Where do you draw the line? Like, if you want to make a young person feel accepted, how do you make someone feel accepted without necessarily accepting all the decisions that they’re making? Where do you draw that line? Because I think maybe some parents feel like if I, and again it comes back to the issue of control that you mentioned, they’re afraid to be too accepting of them and their autonomy because then it’s like saying, ‘Well, you’re then free to do whatever you want,’ and they’re afraid that some of those decisions are going to be bad decisions. And, obviously, when some of these young people come into The Doorway where you know they’ve made bad decisions that led to where they are, and they may be continuing to make bad decisions regarding drug use or crime or whatever, how do you make someone feel accepted without saying necessarily that you’re condoning some of their decisions?
Marilyn: Because, at The Doorway, you see the person that they will become. You see the potential and they always know that you see their person not the stuff they’ve done. They know all that. They don’t need a repeat. They don’t need to make a list for you. They know that you believe in who’s really inside.
One of our volunteers said one time — I thought it was such a wise statement — she said, ‘It’s our job to see them as they can be, until they can see that for themselves.’ And you can do that with your kids too. See them as they can be.
It’s ridiculous to think that they’re not sorry for a whole bunch of stuff that has happened. Some stuff happens in survival that’s awful and they are very sad that they had to make that choice, but in the moment that choice had to be made. Those kinds of things happen. But there’s still a person in there, there’s a measurement inside of them that says, ‘That isn’t me.’ And, so, their journey about change is to discover the ‘me’ that they respect and that we see in them every day when they walk through the door. Because it’s in there. It’s in there. No baby is born to be an ugly, violent person. I don’t believe that. They learn.
One of the hugest pieces of insight that one of our volunteers said one time, he said, ‘Marilyn, people keep asking what’s wrong with our young people.’ He said, ‘What’s wrong with our young people is that they reflect who we are. Adults in this society are appalling, in a generalized state. There is so much adult negative in our society that young people, who are they going to follow? Who are they going to call?
I think that the strongest sociological insight is that every second of every day, a baby, a child, a young person is watching the adults of their lives. And you’re teaching them by the way you react to stuff, the way you react to them, your values. All of those things. Your child is absorbing mountains of material every day, and you have younger kids, so you know how quickly little ones learn, and it’s in there, and their brains are fashioned by what they see in their society. And, so, maybe we’re looking around today and saying, ‘What’s wrong with our society?’ Maybe we need to be afraid of that. We have not done a good job.
Dan: When you look specifically at the community of Calgary, what do you see? In what ways is this community strong? And in what ways could it be stronger, particularly regarding young people? In what ways could our community be stronger and better for our young people?
Marilyn: I think Calgary is a generous, loving, caring community for young people. I think there’s not understanding about how to make a tangible opportunity for young people who are on the edges of society to change. I don’t think that any of our programming is doing that really well. We do programming that teaches some stuff and makes them safe from being on the street, which is awesome, but at the end of the day I think that one of the star pieces of what the doorway does is that they offer a place to come, just who you are, accept you, and allow you to make the transitional changes out of your own choices and you recognize that everything that is changing, it was possible because you were led to yourself, to discover your own agency, and that you can make your own decisions and they can be good decisions. And no matter whether you’re on the street or not, we all make bad decisions sometimes, but we also have the grace of people around us to believe in us, that we can make a good decision, we just need to try again.
You’re never out. Tomorrow is a new day, and you start over.
Dan: Did your approach with young people evolve over time? And did you feel like you got better over time with connecting with them, or did you feel at the beginning that you connected well with them?
Marilyn: From the beginning, we nailed it. It just worked. It worked for young people. They gave us consistent feedback about how differently they saw themselves now that they had the opportunity to think about themselves in a different way. No, we hit the road running.
Then it was a struggle to be funded, because people — we do an incentive process, which was new in those days — and people didn’t want to give us funding because they didn’t want to hand off money to young people.
It took about ten years before people started to believe in our process, so we struggled with that. We had a vending business that we did with used machines for several years, so we could pay the incentives to young people.
But, always, the strategy stayed exactly the same. You walk through the door, you’re welcome, you have an opportunity for 24 months – one month at a time — to figure out the changes that you want to make in your life. Because you walked through the door and said, ‘I want to change.’
So, it’s always you. Always you. Always you. It’s not us. We’re just here because we believe in young people. So, The Doorway, the essence, is community helping young people.
Dan: What kind of feedback from young people meant the most to you when you’d hear it? What really struck a chord with you when someone would say something to you?
Marilyn: I think probably the strongest emotional impact would be that they couldn’t believe that there was a place that would accept them and believe in them. Again and again, I heard that.
One young lady, I remember she was doing her planning when I was talking to her, and this is right at the beginning when she started, so that’s the context. I was guiding her to write down her own ideas, and she looked up and she said, ‘You mean I can just think about my own life here?’ And she started to cry. That’s a strong one.
Dan: Yeah, wow.
Marilyn: Because in programming, you’re always mandated to do whatever it takes to make the program work, because they have to look good on the piece of paper that they send to the funders so they can get more money. So, there’s no focus on just you. The focus of a program is, well, we have figured out what’s wrong with you and you can work on it while you’re here.
Dan: So, for her to say that, there must have been a narrative in her that she didn’t matter.
Marilyn: Oh, yeah. Again and again.
Dan: And this was a counter-narrative, saying you do matter, and that was sinking into her that, ‘Oh, maybe I do matter’ and that’s why it struck a chord with her.
Coming back to how the community here is doing, I think a lot of people would just, anecdotally, say it seems there are more people on the street. I don’t know. Do you think things are getting better?
Marilyn: I think, in terms of the economy, no. Because there is less access to employment for young people and the gaps for education or training or whatever, those things — the government tries again and again to set up programs.
When we started, we thought we would take a government program to give an incentive to an employer to hire young people coming off the street, and we learned immediately that there’s no point because they do not have the stability in their lifestyle to be able to go to work every day, because they don’t have a place to live, that kind of stuff. So, we learned that upfront. We didn’t try that again.
It feels to me like the development of technology further puts young people in this situation, further away from success, because education is more and more critical, and that’s not happening. And we have a school system that years ago decided they didn’t want to talk about apprenticeship in school anymore, they wanted everybody to go to university, and that has been a really powerful negative for young people, because when young people in Calgary are put in a vocational school… they believe that they’re stupid and that’s why they’re there, because everybody that’s smart enough goes to university. And that’s a prevailing thing that they have learned from the adults in our society who haven’t lauded the trades as the best way to make money. Nobody’s taken on that role.
Dan: I recently read a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft and the whole premise is that the trades are undervalued. The author is a man who was well educated, he has a university education. He was working at a think tank but he went back to the trades that he had grown up learning because of the tangible rewards of it, and he talks about how in society in general there’s a lot of people who would benefit and have a more fulfilling life if they embrace the trades.
I just seems to me that, if someone has grown up with a lack of structure or a very unhealthy structure, that having tangible rewards and tangible results of your efforts are even more important, that it’s maybe hard to go from very unstructured environment into a work environment like an office environment where the outcomes are very difficult to measure exactly and there’s a lot of politics and manoeuvring, whereas when you’re on a job site, or you’re working with your hands as a carpenter or a mechanic or whatever, the outcome is clear. You either made it work or you didn’t. You either made something functional or you didn’t. And I think there are a lot of people who need that tangible result of their work. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, our society couldn’t run without people being extremely competent at these trades. So, it’s messed up that we undervalue the trades.
Marilyn: In 2005, I went to the World Urban Forum. It was in Vancouver, and there’s like 10,000 delegates internationally at this thing and the last morning, the closing thing, there were maybe five or seven thousand people in the room, and there was a platform full of speakers who each had a little bit to say, and a woman from South Africa, she was the president of their, what do they call them, a camp of homeless people that lived outside the city, and she’s happy at the podium, and she lifts up these little pieces of paper and she said, ‘This is my notebook.’ And she said, ‘Look around this room. There are thousands of you here talking about how you can help poor people.’ She said, ‘You know? If you talked to us, we could help you with that.’ That’s one of the strongest statements in my career, hearing her say that. It’s exactly so.
And she pointed out that the people that do the real work of the city they lived beside, travel on a train in the dark into the city, late evening, and they work all night to make your city presentable for the following workday. And then we go home and sleep.’ And she said, ‘All of these people are invisible to you. We’re making your life work every day and you don’t pay us well and you don’t know us because we’re not you.’
So, the real work of the world is critically important. And what you just said about apprenticeship and about learning trades, is the same kind of analogy. It like, we want somebody to build a beautiful house for us, but we really don’t want to send them to school for it. I don’t think we think about that. I think we’re so captured into the level that starts with offices and thinking about that. I think we don’t think about that next sector. That’s a huge gap, I think, in our society.
Dan: We need to value each other and our contributions and maybe it’s hard for some people to value the contributions of people doing certain jobs, because frankly they wouldn’t want to do the jobs themselves and they feel guilty about that, that someone else is cleaning the streets and making their meals in the restaurants and washing the dishes. They’re a little uncomfortable with that. They feel a little guilt. They don’t want to face that.
Marilyn: And you either continue to give a big tip because you feel guilty (laughs), or you don’t tip at all because, hey, that’s their problem.
Dan: Yeah, maybe. Maybe.
Maybe: I think one of the things I’d like to emphasize is that real help to real people is a human process. It’s not specialists. That’s another thing that we’ve been taught, that we need specialists for every area of our lives because, hey, they got a degree in university and they wrote a book about it and so they know better than we. That is not so. Our humanity is the groundwork of who we are as a tribe, as people. That’s our thing. And we have lost that piece. We’re part of a big machine that creates industry and supports the economy and all that stuff, but this other piece of community is essential to our own humanity, and we haven’t figured that out yet as a society.
Dan: Any signs that give you hope in that regard?
Marilyn: Well, there are pockets of people that have figured it out. I don’t know how that spreads. I think one of the hopes of The Doorway is that it’s spread in that one spot.
It’s people, it’s people. And somebody that pays attention to you. They don’t have to know you. But you’re touched, by somebody that pays attention to you. It’s a part of what our humanness is.