PovNet goes to school: musings on academia and community

Several months ago I was approached by Michael Cooke, the president of the Carold Institute which awarded me a community fellowship in 2008. He said that Carold had embarked on a new partnership with St Paul’s University College at the University of Waterloo, and their principal, Graham Brown had invited me to be there inaugural visiting fellow for a week. I was to engage with students and professors, give a public lecture, speak to classes, and write and reflect.

“Sure,” I said. I figured it would be a break from staring at soul-destroying funding cuts budgets and reports. I was going to be in Ontario anyways for a national colloquium on access to justice. And I’m interested in how academia and community organizations can form productive and mutually respectful relationships with each other.

I arrived in snow - u of wsnowy Waterloo on Monday February 3 and the next morning my first event was an interview about PovNet for an online coast-to-coast Masters of Social Work class “Knowledge Mobilization and Evidence-Based Practice”. I was asked whether PovNet was a knowledge mobilizer; I had no idea what knowledge mobilization was. But the two professors who interviewed me were interesting and interested, and quick to modify their pre-determined questions to accommodate my somewhat less than academic sensibilities. We liked each other, and we had fun.

Over the course of the next few days, I met with students and professors in international development programs who were going to be going out into the field. They wanted to know about our work with marginalized communities – they were interested in how we used technology for social change.

I was invited to the Aboriginal Education Centre for soup (actually it was really good chili) and bannock (baked and fried, both) to talk a bit about our work at PovNet. A warm and welcoming place – I went back the next day as I had a bit of extra time and chatted with the co-ordinator, Luane Lentz. I had brought with me as a gift for the Centre, several copies of a poem called “Remember,” about residential schools, written by Jacqueline Oker, an Indigenous writer and published by Lazara Press (the author had given me permission to distribute the poem).

I gave a public lecture to a fairly small segment of the public (there was a snowstorm that night) about “How Digital Activism Can Help Make Poverty History.” DSC_1020 (1) A couple of the anti-poverty activists whom I had invited braved the storm to come from Kitchener to the talk. I recognized them right away even though we hadn’t met – it was good to have allies from my own community sitting at the back of the room.

I went back to Kitchener on Friday morning. Trudy Beaulne, the Executive Director of the Social Planning Council Kitchener-Waterloo had organized lunch at a local Greek restaurant and invited Greg deGroot-Maggetti, People in Poverty Program Coordinator of the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, Rev. Michael Hackbusch from the House of Friendship and Charles Nichols an anti-poverty activist in the areas of homelessness, welfare and disability rights and a self-advocate.

Anti-poverty groups and academic institutions traditionally have a rocky relationship. In some instances, we are working to form respectful peer relationships with each other. We travel carefully in each other’s very different countries, sometimes exploring each other’s languages and cultures. Seeing if and how we can connect.

But community activists want to write our own histories — we don’t want people from the outside speaking for us in a language that we don’t use.

We do write our own histories.

We tell our own stories. We produce analysis about the systemic “poornogrophy” of poverty. We are poets.

We even write murder mysteries set in our own communities.

But our research is called grey literature and is somehow not as legitimate, according to the experts.

We get help from academics to archive our histories. But the grant runs out, and our archives are not complete.

The last night I was at the University of Waterloo, I had dinner with a couple of social work professors and a PhD student. I was talking about the struggle we were having with finding funding for PovNetU. One of my hosts asked if we had considered partnering with academic institutions. I replied that we had, but that we are committed to offering courses to advocates who wouldn’t necessarily be able to pay fees, and that didn’t work with an academic partnership model. He disagreed. We will stay in touch.

Crossing Roads


I was invited to the Canadian Social Forum 2009, hosted by the Canadian Council on Social Development — it took place in May in Calgary. Pam Shime, the founding director of the Global Advocacy and Leadership Initiative and I spent some time getting to know each other via Skype as we were co-faciliating a workshop on advocacy in hard economic times.

The forum organizers had made some serious effort to bring together diverse communities working in the anti-poverty field. They particularly made a point of offering subsidies to advocates and poor people in marginalized communities. But, as Athena McKenzie Lothian asks in her blog post, “Where are the People Living in Poverty”? There were real attempts to give marginalized anti-poverty participants a voice in plenaries and workshops, but the roots of the problem lie deeper and are grounded in the kind of event it was. I had tried to talk a couple of anti-poverty organizers from Vancouver into attending, prepared to do the negotiating re: subsidies, because they would have been a dynamite addition to our workshop, and to the conference as a whole. But they both politely and extremely firmly declined. They were too busy on the ground.

And so, my thoughts on why a conference (or a forum) is not the best way to go when you’re trying to alleviate poverty:

ARRIVING AT THE HOTEL: I didn’t have a working credit card (although my room had been paid for, there was a mixup with information being faxed) and so immediately was put in the position of most people attending conferences without credit cards, of being told to sort it out before I moved into my room.

THE RECEPTION AT THE TELUS CONFERENCE CENTRE: Massive, alienating space, lovely to see some friends from all over Canada (and BC), free h’ors d’oeuvres (my fellow advocate from BC and I cursed having already had dinner!). Went to line up for a ticket for a glass of wine. Eight dollars. I clearly reacted; a friend behind me offered to buy me one. I declined; the wine suddenly wasn’t the point.

THE FOOD: After our first lunch, when it was clear that there was going to be a pile of food left over, I talked to the staff at the hotel about what happened to it all. “It gets thrown out.” I asked if there was any way it could be redistributed. The person I talked to said that the conference centre used to have the food distributed to poor people, but someone got sick and so they don’t do it any more. Apparently there’s no organization in Calgary that picks up food. I could have gone and got plastic containers, at least for the sandwiches (we’ve done that before in Vancouver). I didn’t. Someone brought it up at the town hall at the end of the forum; she was talking on behalf of a co-worker in a local organization who was too angry to speak herself.

THE STAFF: One of the issues that came up over and over again at the conference was the Living Wage Campaign. It’s a campaign that points out that a minimum wage is not a living wage, and that:

“A living wage allows lower-income families to avoid having to make impossible choices, such as whether to buy food or heat the house, feed the children or pay the rent. The living wage calculation includes basic expenses for a two-earner family with two young children (such as housing, childcare, food and transportation), and government taxes, credits, deductions and subsidies. It finds that each parent would need to work full-time at an hourly wage of $16.74 in Metro Vancouver and $16.39 in Greater Victoria in order to pay for necessities, support the healthy development of their children and participate in the social and civil life of their communities.” (from a September 2008 press release from CCPA).

There was much enthusiasm and support for the Living Wage Campaign (and indeed it’s one that makes a lot of sense.) Someone got up at the town hall and observed that the staff at the Telus Conference Centre were not making a living wage.

It’s easy to criticize after the fact. It’s clearly important to engage all levels of concerned people when it comes to alleviating poverty. That includes researchers, academics, community workers, advocates, workers (both organized and unorganized) and poor people. And they were all there. But it’s hard to make that engagement real when the power balance isn’t equal. And it’s usually money that tips that balance, be it wages or glasses of wine. A friend and I talked after the conference about the idea of holding “A People’s Forum” across the road (metaphorically speaking) like they do at international consultations. But then, how do we cross the road?

Something happened on my way back to my hotel after the conference was over. I was walking up the hill from the C-train, and I saw a homeless man (I assumed by the shopping cart) also struggling up the hill. Two cops on bicycles accosted him as we all reached the top. They started asking him questions about where he was going, what he was doing. He tried to cross the road as the light changed, and they told him “they weren’t done with him yet.” I stopped. The cops looked at me; I made a snap decision that I wasn’t going to get directly involved because I could leave town, and the homeless man couldn’t – and they knew his name. Brian, it was. I crossed the road and stood watching on the other side, making sure I stayed in their line of sight. Eventually, they let him go and he crossed the road. The police officers got on their bikes and took off. So did I; I figured Brian likely didn’t want to talk about it.

Homelessness from the ground up

The second national conference on housing and homelessness: “Growing Home: Housing and Homelessness in Canada” took place in mid-February at the University of Calgary. I didn’t manage to get to all of the conference — the sun dogs took a large bite out of my hamstring when I was in the Yukon — but people who gathered there had stories to tell.

The first person I met was Jen, one of the stars of Laura Sky and Cathy Crowe’s new film “Home Safe Calgary”. When the film was shown at the conference, Jen and other people whose stories were in the film were at the screening, and fielded questions after the film was shown.

When Jen and I talked, the evening before the conference started, she told me about another project she’s been working on — a cookbook called “101 Recipes from the Hamper: Cooking on a Limited Budget” as part of her Kitchen Magic project. I like the interactive part of her web site — interactive means suggestions about how to get together with people to talk about food. cookbook-calgary2

It’s not your traditional cookbook — recipes include lots of “cheater” ones: chili, casserole, stuffed potatoes, stone stew (and we’re not talking children’s book stories here), mock alfredo, sorta jam and flaked chicken replacement. There’s also a recipe for tortierre, bannock, and yorkshire pudding (maybe I’ve finally found my mother’s secret).

This description of making syrup particularly struck me:

“Despite a hamper program [food bank]’s best intention, due to its inherently fragile nature, fresh fruit is often in rough shape by the time it reaches a recipient. … Step 1: Pick through the fruit well. Cut out or pick out any rotting or questionable parts/pieces. …”

A telling description of how people in this country are making ends meet.
I attended a workshop about research that had been done about northern women and homelessness — a cold story on many levels. The report was called “You Just Blink and it Can Happen: Women’s Homelessness North of 60″; the facilitators were community organizers from Yukon and the NWT.

And as always, we had a PovNet meeting while I was in Calgary — advocates and community workers gathered and we talked about their work, issues in Alberta, and setting up an online resource to facilitate networking around the province.

Sun dogs watching

The CBC is a warm welcomer in smaller communities. I was invited to come and talk about PovNet and the event to be held at the local library for the local afternoon show. After I’d adjusted my mike so I could actually see her through the glass, the host started into asking me about PovNet, what kind of things work online and what doesn’t. And plans for the future — where was PovNet going. Which led into a bit of talk about the fellowship, and I was doing this year, thanks to the Carold Institute. She was pleased I was staying for the weekend to go to the Frostbite music festival (I later saw her as one of the evening MCs).

My hosts and I arrived at the public library after picking up coffee from a local coffee place. We pulled the “bad for you” store-bought cookies out of the bag and onto a plate (I wouldn’t let L make homemade brownies — I did have a bit of a budget after all).

M arrived first — was wasn’t connected with the Anti-Poverty Coalition — she was moderately new in town — from Watson Lake. She’d seen an ad in the local paper about this session, and was curious. We talked about some information she needed, and D gave her some ideas about who she could get in touch with locally and who might be able to assist her. She helped herself to a cup of herbal tea, but no “bad for you” cookies — she has diabetes. I usually do bring fruit too, but I had forgotten this time.

Members of the Anti-Poverty Coalition trickled in, shrugged out of parkas and mittens and helped themselves to coffee and cookies. Then D officially introduced me and we started to talk about PovNet — how it works for advocates in BC and other parts of the country. And other online organizing ideas.

I asked people to introduce themselves and talk a bit about their experiences using online tools for organizing. We talked about the sophisticated use of the internet in the Obama campaign and whether or not we could “steal” some of their online toolkits. Someone said that the Anti-Poverty Coalition was talking about fixing up their web site, which precipitated a discussion about how important is the actual web site compared to getting people together to talk about what information they want on it, and how to organize locally.

I talked a bit about how we’ve expanded the PovNet site and particularly about RSS feeds which allow the site to pull in poverty information from news sources around the world. I threw out my anti-poverty book club idea; L said that CBC was doing something like that with “Canada Reads” — I noted to myself that I should check in out; maybe we could use the same format to get people using the interactive components of the web site.

M talked about how she used public access sites, and how they can limit getting online, as they’re not always available and the lineup at the public library is long. G said that the women’s centre had a public access site that wasn’t as busy.

I let people know about some of the PovNet email lists that they might be interested in joining — north of 55 and the older adults list, as well as the national CPP, EI and issues lists. We shared some ideas about how the revitalize the north of 55 list — perhaps if advocates took time to post once a week or so in the territories and northern parts of provinces. But advocates are busy, I know …

As we were leaving, someone asked me how you post to the lists. I was reminded, yet again, that technology is neither obvious nor intuitive, even on PovNet.

I gave the women’s centre the rest of the cookies for a meeting they were having the next day. My hosts and I went for dinner and debriefed.

And now, two days later, I’m sitting at the kitchen table in “the cabin” (as it is modestly referred to) at Crag Lake. It’s 30 degrees outside (which, I now know, means 30 degrees centigrade below zero). I’ve just put another log in the wood stove. The sun is shining on the snow and it’s spectacular out there, through the window. Later, L and I will go out and get more wood and I will look for sun dogs. There’s no internet of course; I will post this once I get back to Whitehorse.

Next week I go off to the second national Housing and Homelessness conference in Calgary. Homelessness in this part of the world is about couch surfing, not sleeping under bridges like at home in Vancouver. But it’s just as bad, and the cold beauty of this frozen place doesn’t hide it.

Poetry to ponder over the holidays …

Two poems surfaced over the past few weeks that relate to the particular kind of percolating being explored here. One is from anti-poverty activist, SD, who read it at our forum the other week, with apologies to William Shakespeare:

Who is PovNet? What is she? That all these friends commend her

A news place, an ear trumpet
to catch
the rumble of the rabble
a butterfly net to snag the thoughts of the thoughtful
and all the rages

What is PovNet? Who is she?

An archive
Like the quiet deep stacks in the library
Where is that old report
Stashed it somewhere but
Who knows where in the mess of files
The ones that moulded
Or got folded into something else,
PovNet! She is there.

Who is PovNet? What is she?

A community
Of people who care
About poverty and housing and social assistance
And pissy governments who cut taxes
And think that infrastructure
Is only about roads and bridges
Not welfare
and health care
and child care

A community of people
Slumped in front of their computers
Groaning in unison
Across the province
When politicians lie
About how much housing they are going to build
Right here in Inlet City

A community
Ready to burn their sweaters
Just because
Especially blue ones
Hold no promise
Of a compassionate government

A community
That knows that
Hope is not a feeling
But a discipline
A community that reconstructs hope
Over and over again
Sweeping into it grief and disappointment
But reconstructing hope
We know we can
Do better

What is PovNet? Who is she?

The other is older, by Bertolt Brecht, and was given to me by Ursula Franklin as we talked about this project a couple of months ago:

Bertolt Brecht
translated by Scott Horton

To what end goodness
If the good are immediately struck down, or those
To whom they are good
Are struck down?

To what end freedom
If the free are forced to live among the unfree?

To what end reason
If only stupidity puts the bread on the table
That each of us needs?

Instead of just being good, make an effort
To create the conditions that make goodness possible,
And better still
That make it superfluous!

Instead of just being free, make an effort
To create the conditions that liberate us all,
And that make the love of freedom

Instead of just being sensible, make an effort
To creat the conditions that make the stupidity
of the individual
Into a bad deal!

— Bertolt Brecht, Was nützt die Güte (1935) in Gesammelte Werke, vol 4, p. 553

“Hope is not a feeling, but a discipline”

Taking advantage of a Legal Services Society training forum in Vancouver, and with a special grant from the Law Foundation of BC, anti-poverty advocates who were in town from around British Columbia converged last week at a forum/dinner to talk about PovNet: past, present and future.

We had posters on the wall including poems from PovNet’s “poetry bashes” at previous training conferences, photographs and articles old and new. What the walls told us: the PovNet web site has been voted “best activist site” in the Georgia Straight’s “best of Vancouver” competition twice now. It was interesting for me to see that what I said in an article in LSS’s “Community Law Matters” 10 years ago was still very relevant — that PovNet is not about computers and technology, but about the advocates who are helping poor people access their rights and about getting information out to them.

We had journals scattered on the tables, so people could talk about how they see PovNet 10 years from now. Some of their thoughts:



“I grew up with activist parents. Fighting causes and promoting social equality has always been part of who I was and who my family was. In spite of this … I knew little about how poverty advocacy worked and how advocates organized in BC. I got a job helping with the PovNet web site one summer. Working at PovNet taught me so many different things… about how people apply for assistance, changes to government legislation that affect people living in poverty, how many individuals and groups are working to help Canadians living in poverty. And how important PovNet is in connecting them…”


“What is the possibility of establishing a political component? We all have clients whose real problems arise because of the current state of the law. For example, injured workers whose access to WCB benefits have been severely curtailed . It is hard to persure them to write or call their MLA. But what if we had a blog or something wher they could comment briefly and easily? Could this be a mechanism for conveying comments to government?”

“PovNet needs to be shared with marginalized people. It would be great to see and meet people at the workship who live lives of poverty. People living in poverty are very misrepresented and misunderstood. To bring our communities together and gain a better understanding of people living in poverty, we as advocates need to be educated by those living and hoping every day for a better future. … by empowering people, they become their own advocates.”

“In 2020 I hope Canada has made changes to its programs and services that eliminate all the procedures and policies that discriminate against women and contribute to entrenching poverty”

“I hope that in 10 years’ time we’re getting together to celebrate the fact that there is a decent wage for everyone, housing for all and that maybe, just maybe, we can all retire because our phones stop ringing once in a while.”

“I look forward to the day that we are all out of work because we run out of clients.”

We had people talking: Michael Clague from the Carold Institute described the fellowship (and announced that next year’s application would soon be available). Diane Brennan, our former PovNetU training co-ordinator talked about her six years at PovNet and how much she continued to learn from the advocates.  I talked about how I wanted to engage the advocacy community in being part of what I was creating while on my fellowship. And I read a message from Alayne, a founding member of PovNet who couldn’t be at the event because she is ill. She spoke about the past:

“It just seems it was so long ago that most advocates didn’t have computers never mind internet access and would spend hours on the telephone to get information needed to help people. Sometimes it would take days to get the necessary information.  Although there were anti-poverty communities back then and provincial organizations such as End Legislated Poverty and federated anti-poverty groups of bc, dialogue and information sharing among individual advocates and activists was cumbersome. PovNet facilitated those connections, enriching what some would call a virtual community.

PovNet has become more than a virtual community, in my view it is flesh and bones with a real heart, it is organic and if the internet failed tomorrow, connections that have been made provincially and nation-wide would endure.”

And because this was a group of people who are always working, there was an announcement about a provincial housing initiative and contact information. And the inevitable refrain: “watch the PovNet housing list for more information.”

There were no computers invited to this party — only all of us — the people who use them.

How Many Faces of Poverty?

I spent two days last week at a conference at the University of Winnipeg called “Two Faces of Poverty: Making the Law Work for Indigenous Peoples and Women”. The conference was based on a report called “Making the Law Work for Everyone” –described as a “framework for legal empowerment focusing on indigenous peoples, women and vulnerable groups, with four mutually reinforcing pillars: access to justice and the rule of law, property rights, labour rights and business rights.”

As always at these events, the conversations in the halls and the connections I made with allies were the high points of the conference.

But I want to highlight one workshop called “The Inner City and I” — a session about a local community in Winnipeg, where A… got up and talked about her life — how she had ended up on welfare and how she was treated by people once they knew she was on social assistance. In a powerful and moving narrative, she spoke of how it had affected her and her family.

Her story precipitated another woman to speak. L… said that she was no longer on welfare, that she hadn’t been for ten years, but that A…’s story had brought back the anger she didn’t know was still in her when she thought about struggling to live while she was on welfare and having to cope with the daily poor bashing that people (even friends) often unthinkingly engage in.

Both women were in tears at some points as they told their stories. Around them in the audience, perched on couches and sitting on the floor, were high school students, there for the conference, who had probably come to hear stories about poverty in “far off places”. But they too were moved and silent as they listened. We all listened.

Someone recently in Vancouver in response to the municipal government’s “civil city” initiative, said that they didn’t want a civil city, they wanted a just city. It may be time to redefine our terminology; I, for one, am not inclined to be civil these days.

Learn, Grow, Connect: Practicing community legal education in a diverse Ontario

Public legal education was how I started in the anti-poverty community where I have been working for many years, and so I am always interested in seeing how it has grown as a resource for “turning straw into gold” (as I have always described making legal issues accessible to people who need them).

So when CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario) invited me to come to this event and be on a panel to talk about PovNetU, I was pleased to come to reconnect with old friends, and make new ones.

Armed with a powerpoint presentation created by PovNet’s creative and imaginative techie (I have historically been allergic to this particular technology, but I was determined to try), I found myself in very good company, with other community-minded adult educators who were trying out online teaching and learning methods and an audience who was receptive and interested in what we were trying to accomplish online. There was a great deal of interest in PovNetU, and we’re on the way to connecting with other community advocates interested in online learning and sharing resources.

A particular focus of the conference which is of ongoing interest to us at PovNet was discussions about access to information of any kind in rural and remote communities. Although the provinces are very different from each other, the problems that surfaced in workshops and plenaries about problems with transportation (for example, getting to a welfare office when there are no buses).

CLEO’s new “Six Languages Text and Audio Project” was highlighted — materials are available in Arabic, Chinese, Somali, Spanish, Tamil and Urdu.

This was a creative bunch of people, and one of the workshops was on popular theatre as a medium for getting legal information into the hands of the people who need it.

SH/IM/E/HIM is a puppet also known as Shim and Shimmy. Shim emerged from the capable hands of injured workers on June 1, 2006, and was conceived as a way of dramatizing the long-standing slogan “No More Cap in Hand”. Shim is a universal injured worker representing men and women of diverse backgrounds. Operated by three people, Shim walks with a cane and doffs a cap marked “justice”, refusing to accept the pennies offered by the crowd.

“To become lively or active. To spread slowly or gradually.”