We meet in a coffee shop in East London. Finding space at a single table for eight people isn’t always the easiest, but we manage to do it without setting off any security protocols. Our group is made up of students from Clarke Road Secondary School and we’re together to talk about poverty. At the request of the Mayor’s Panel on Poverty Reduction, Ward 14 LYAC Councillor Brandon Dickson brought us together to talk about poverty in the City of London. None of us are experts, but all of us have faced or are facing challenges and have spoken to friends about the challenges that they are facing. We agree to be open, direct, and non-judgemental in our conversation and to speak from a place of personal experience whenever possible. We decide to spend our time exploring our thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the challenges facing our communities rather than on critiquing the Panel’s approach to the topic of poverty. We might decide to critique at a later date, but before we can do that we have to orient ourselves to the topic. To use a metaphor, we know that we need ‘lenses’ or ‘sunglasses,’ constructed through an understanding of our personal experience, before we can begin to determine what we ‘see’ when we look at London’s approach to poverty reduction.
1. Poverty. Poverty. Poverty. What does the word poverty mean? What does it make you think of? This is where our conversation starts and the answers give us more than enough to lock in a solid atmosphere for a meaningful discussion. Here are some of the images and ideas that the word ‘poverty’ conjures:
- When I hear the word poverty I think about people that need help
- I can’t help but think about my career
- I think of third world or developing countries, not London (I know that’s not necessarily right, but that’s what I think of)
- I think of the families that I see when I coach gymnastics who don’t have enough money to pay for the next session
- It’s not ‘in our faces’ so it’s something that we can ignore
- When you hear the word ‘poverty’ you think of “the worst of the worst” situations
- I don’t think of good and bad, I think of ‘less’
- This person has ‘less’, but why do they have ‘less’?
Connect. In conversations about poverty it can be difficult to honestly reflect on the images and thoughts that come to mind. We had to work hard to create space for each person to feel comfortable working through their feelings out loud. Sometimes, in pursuit of a respectful conversation, we are quick to judge half-formed or initial thoughts. Our group accepted that each person understood poverty differently. We decided to accept and meet people ‘where they were at’ so that they felt comfortable articulating their perceptions next to people who were at completely different stages in their thinking about poverty.
2. Walking Without Resources. One of our participants works on Dundas Street and spoke about an encounter with a man who walked through her store. The man was speaking to himself and appeared to be struggling with his mental health. She said that she saw him as a man ‘walking without resources’. We discussed how easy it is to assume that someone in poverty always lacks money. While lack of money and mental illness often inform one another, this is not always the case. Someone struggling with mental illness might not need financial support, but they might need other resources.
Connect. We hope that London’s poverty reduction strategy recognizes that someone walking without mental health resources is just as important as someone walking without financial resources. People that we know often think that poverty is just about not having ‘money’ but we want London to recognize that poverty can be the ‘lack of’ anything that a person ‘needs’.
3. Fear of the Unknown. The arrival of Syrian refugees was on our minds at the time of this conversation. We talked about how attitudes towards refugees and newcomers can make or break a person’s experience in Canada. We built on this idea and talked about the way that attitudes towards cultures, religions, behaviours, etc. that we don’t understand can marginalize people in our communities.
Connect. We think that a lot of people in our communities are afraid of the unknown. As a result, we don’t always talk about things that we’re unsure about and end up avoiding what we don’t understand. This pushes people who need to be embraced further to the fringes of our communities. Over time, this lack of acceptance and understanding makes it difficult for individuals to obtain the economic, social, and cultural resources to participate in society. The absence of any of these factors is evidence of some form of impoverishment. At the core, we felt like many aspects of poverty have a lot to do with the absence or denial of ‘connection’ to others.
4. Are We Doing Anything? A consistent theme throughout our conversation was a recognition that we don’t really know what is being done to address poverty in our communities. We felt bad about not knowing, but we didn’t really know of a simple way to uncover the network of initiatives and projects that exist.
Connect. As a result of ‘not knowing’ we felt ourselves wondering if ‘anything’ was being done to help address the challenges associated with poverty. If we felt this way, we wondered if people in poverty might feel the same. We think that it is important for people in London to be aware of the various approaches to poverty reduction so that we can have a better idea of how to contribute to solutions (ie. with time and/or money).
5. Who Decides? This one really stumped us. Some people like to figure things out on their own. We can’t force people to accept ‘help’ just because we think that they need it. However, sometimes people don’t know that they need help and need someone to help them to see different possibilities for their present and future.
Connect. Poverty, almost by definition, occurs at the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization. As a result, it can be difficult to determine what supports are appropriate to ‘require’ an individual to access as a condition of receiving another. These linked supports often require people to buy into the value system of the organization or entity providing service. We have to be very careful about the kinds of judgements about what is right and wrong for each individual when we’re creating programs to support individuals in poverty. A poorly designed support might alleviate one aspect of poverty but unintentionally amplify another aspect.
6. A Lack Of [ ]. Throughout our conversation we found ourselves adding things to the definition of poverty; we started with a lack of financial resources and rapidly progressed to include things like lack of motivation, lack of relationships, and/or lack of acceptance.
Connect. When someone is lacking something other than money it can be hard to see their need as being as pressing as someone who is living in a state of economic marginalization, and perhaps it isn’t. If you don’t have enough money to meet first order needs, it is hard to make a case to prioritize supports that address more social and cultural determinants of health. However, we broached the subject of shifting the balance, perhaps slightly, to place a greater emphasis on providing social and cultural supports.
7. Poor vs. Poverty. After we opened the definition of poverty up to include more than just financial instability, we were left wondering: Can you be poor but not in poverty or are you always in poverty if you are poor? More controversially, can you be rich and in poverty or does having financial security disqualify you from being in poverty?
Connect. This might seem like an overly complicated thought, but we spent a little bit of time on it because it felt like an important topic. Money is really important in our society and sometimes financial standing is given too prominent a position in certain conversations. Obviously, our society is structured in such a way that we need a certain amount of money to afford our basic needs, but we wondered if maybe we’re doing more harm than good by using ‘lack of money’ as an overriding characteristic of poverty. There are people without money who have enough social and cultural support to live meaningful lives and there are individuals with lots of money who, for any number of reasons, lack the social and cultural support to live meaningful lives. This thought experiment isn’t meant to reduce the importance of making sure that people have enough money to meet basic needs, but it is meant to question how we assess a person’s location along a spectrum of poverty (and to suggest that there might be a spectrum).
8. Family Safety Nets. Extended family members, like grandparents, can be a major part of a family’s financial situation. These extended family members can play a number of different roles:
- Provide cash to meet expenses
- Provide a financial safety net that allows a family to take some calculated risks without fear of falling too far
- Provide in-kind services like elder/child/parental care
Connect. Families with extended family members who are present and able to help out have a significant financial advantage, but it is unrealistic to expect everyone to have this kind of support. As a result, we need to make sure that government and agency programs are structured in such a way that they do not assume that additional family support exists.
9. My Role. Children and youth have a role in determining a family’s economic, social, and cultural status. From a young age, many children are aware that they are an ‘expense’ to their parents and feel responsible for their family’s economic position. In some cases, young people begin to subtly modify their behaviour (ie. not participating in certain activities or eating less) as a way of alleviating financial pressure on their parents. Additionally, children sometimes make sacrifices in order to cover for a parent who is incapable of providing traditional parental support to siblings or spouses.
Connect. Children and youth are defined as ‘dependents’ until they reach the age of majority. Socially and economically, children and youth are positioned as entirely dependent until such a time as they are able to get a job. However, a child often becomes aware of his or her impact on the family financial situation before they are able to begin to earn money to support themselves. As a result of this economic marginalization, children can develop their financial consciousness as a ‘negative’ impact on the family bottom line. This leads many children and youth to make choices to reduce family expenses that negatively impact their opportunities for the future. Are there ways of giving children economic standing within the family unit?
10. Where Does The Money Go? This is a sensitive topic, but we think that it’s worth mentioning because it’s something that comes up in most conversations about poverty. We talked about the challenge of giving people what they need, but not always liking what people feel like they need. Put more bluntly, some participants in our group feel uncomfortable giving money to people who ask for money because it’s hard to know what the person is going to spend the money on.
Connect. It is a really human thing to want the money that you give away to be used in a manner that is consistent with your own values and beliefs. Everyone in the group understands that it’s unfair to expect everyone to believe what we individually believe, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the average person to stop wondering where their money is going. The reason we wanted to bring this up is because we’re relatively certain that this kind of thinking is in the back of most minds. We hope that the Panel creates spaces for frank and non-judgemental discussion about these feelings.
11. Harm Reduction. We spent a little bit of time talking about the concept of harm reduction. At first we talked about it in the context of drug use and safe injection sites. This was a really difficult subject to talk about and clearly made the group feel a little unstable. We’re fed a highly moralized ‘drugs are bad’ message from a young age so it’s difficult and scary to force your mind to contemplate a position that isn’t so black and white. The concept didn’t make sense until we created an alternative scenario that involved a bad breakup, a friend, and a tub of ice cream. We needed a way to talk about harm reduction that wasn’t so intimidating and this metaphor gave us a way into the idea.
Connect. We didn’t come to any conclusions about how we felt about harm reduction strategies, but we learned that we’re not exposed to conversations about them very often. This is important to conversations about poverty because non-judgemental harm reduction frameworks underpin many developing approaches to the many conditions that intersect with poverty. Despite the uncomfortable nature of these conversations, we think that more discussion about harm reduction need to happen in the London community.
1. Stop Defining ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’
Policies and procedures need to be evaluated to make sure that they don’t unintentionally judge, demean, or privilege certain values and beliefs about life. There is some limit to the amount of moral and value relativism that a society can permit, but we think that we can be more intentional about reducing the amount of moralizing in support programs.
2. Meet People Where They’re At
Conversations about poverty are difficult and stir up lots of unresolved feelings (for those in poverty and those who do not define as being in poverty). We need to meet people ‘where they’re at’ before we ask them to adopt the latest progressive ideas about poverty reduction.
3. Invest in Uncomfortable Community Conversations
Conversation groups like the North East Community Conversation (NECC) are performing necessary work in the London community. We need to be intentional about creating spaces for people to meet one another and to sort through really uncomfortable topics. That means creating and supporting the delivery of ongoing discussion programs before, during, and after periods of official public consultation. These conversations need to be led by highly trained facilitators who are skilled at creating spaces for individuals to share personal experiences from vastly different perspectives.
4. Talk About Poverty in School
Poverty needs to be discussed in the classroom. Local schools need to provided with information about the social, economic, and cultural makeup of London’s many neighbourhoods so that they can take responsibility for discussing the issues that face individuals and families in their school districts.
5. Give Children and Youth Money
Children and youth are significantly dependent on parents and families. The economic dependence of minors is an age old societal norm, but we could advocate for change. Children and youth could be given money to help give them economic standing and value within the family. This would make it possible for youth to make more independent choices later in life and would help to provide a basis for viewing children as contributing financial partners in a family.
Can a person living in ‘poverty’ be happy?
Are there different kinds of poverty and if so, do they require different approaches?
Can you have a house and be in poverty?
How can we encourage the media to cover different kinds of poverty?
Is it possible to develop a poverty reduction strategy with ‘love’ as the guiding principle?
Adam Fearnall, Facilitator, Report Writer
It’s amazing how exciting it can be to get a group of friends together to talk. Think about your own group of friends. When was the last time that you picked a topic, sat down around a table, and discussed? Unless you’re in a very unique group of friends, I doubt that you’ve done it recently. If you have time, consider trying it, because if done right you can learn things about each other that you didn’t expect.
I’d never met the group of friends that contributed to this report, but I felt like we left feeling like we knew something about one another. We talked about love (yes, love), relationships, money, acceptance, and our own personal struggles. We told stories that hadn’t been told before and explored topics that might have been left unexplored. Regardless of whether you took anything from the report, the conversation meant something to each of us.
Two moments stand out for me.
The first was when one member of the group said, somewhat sheepishly, “all you need is love.” After breaking into song for a brief moment we stopped to think about why that line sounded so ‘cheesy’. We sat in the ‘cheese’ for a moment and considered it. What would a policy or procedure written with ‘love’ or ‘connection’ as an overriding principle look like? What would a poverty reduction strategy based in ‘love’ look like? How would our policies and procedures hold up if evaluated against the concept of love? I suspect that we might find that our systemic approaches to poverty reduction are lacking a real commitment to love. Maybe we could take “all you need is love” a little bit more seriously?
The second moment was when one of our participants talked about the choices that she makes in order to ensure that her siblings have a chance to participate in the activities that they are passionate about. She spoke about supporting a parent in need, about changing her lifestyle to accommodate her new responsibilities, and about how she subtly adjusted to her family’s new economic reality. Her willingness to share this story meant a lot and reminded us to look for the hidden ways that young people contribute to the social, economic, and cultural structure of our communities.
I left this conversation feeling like we’d talked about meaningful things and thinking that we were all truly privileged for having shared time together.
Brandon Dickson, Ward 14 Youth Councillor
Allow me to preface my reflection by saying that I have known the individuals in this conversation for many years, and I assumed that I knew most rather well. Many of my friends in attendance were uncertain about what I did in my role as a “youth councillor” and most did not understand what they had to offer to a conversation which would result in complex motions and policy adjustments that few of us would understand. All of us were hesitant as we did not “know much about poverty” or it’s solutions. I cannot express in words how impressed I was with the conversation that took place amongst the group.
The part that stuck the most with me and I believe a vast majority of the group was that persistent little tune, “all you need is love”. To me, to say that poverty was about anything but money was a difficult concept to deal with; in fact, I am still trying to wrap my head around the idea. The fact that there are different ways to look at poverty, from definition to design, is a fascinating perspective that should resonate throughout our society if we are to make real lasting change.
One more idea that I want to emphasize that took place in the conversation was that the group continually said that poverty would be difficult to change because it was a not just a problem, but a stigma that keeps people there. I found this interesting for two reasons. The first was that we as a society can not fix poverty until we accept and understand it. Simply throwing money at the problem will not change the social stigma we have created around poverty. Secondly, I found it fascinating that this idea came from a group of teenagers in East London. Most of us have endured some type of harassment because we go to “Dirt Road”, the poor school. I have been told by a professor that kids from Clarke Road aren’t smart enough to go to university. All of us have been told at one point or another that we are too young to make a serious contribution. Yet through all of that, whether they know it or not, they are capable of making meaningful change. Their contributions to this conversation proved that they are able to do more than many imagine.
Casual conversation is an interesting thing in that it brings out the great ideas in people that they would not typically be willing to share. Around that table, I heard stories that had been buried for a long time, I saw and felt an example about ice cream hit home and I knew that with every word that was spoken, our ideas about this complex issue changed. I know the individuals in that group better than I could have imagined, strictly because of a conversation. I felt that if nothing else came from being at that table, if this report had not been written, that everyone at the table was satisfied with what we had accomplished and what we had said and learned about each other and poverty. They all contributed in their own unique, yet exceptional ways to the “elephant”, if you will, of the Clarke Road neighbourhood.They tackled an important issue, and learned the value of a good conversation that they can now teach to others. To think, all of this before they even turn 18.