A core belief in the Bridging Teams program is that those who live in poverty are considered the lead problem-solvers.

When I was first employed in the “Poverty Business” (which employs tens of thousands of Canadians), I was told that it was my goal to work myself out of a job. The idea was that if I was effective in my work I would eliminate the need.

However, I soon realized that eliminating poverty would mean tens of thousands of poverty workers would be unemployed. I had to wonder, is it really in their best interests to solve the problem? Treating the root causes of poverty (instead of symptoms) would unplug the great social service machine that is fuelled by people’s neediness. Addressing what causes that neediness is not in the interest of the wheels of government, or those at the levers of a labour market.

Taxpayer’s dollars continue to feed the Poverty Industry Machine, a dinosaur of another era. What if those taxpayers became personally involved in creating an alternative? What if poverty’s “clients” became leaders instead? What if people from all walks of life came together as neighbours to imagine how a local economy could fully employ every person and meet needs currently unmet?

It is citizens that can take this scenario from some academic dream theory into reality. It is ordinary people whose interests would be served. If you ask who wants poverty, you also need to ask, “Who benefits from poverty?” But if you ask who wants prosperity for everyone, then we need to also ask, “In whose interests would this make sense?”

In a downtown Peterborough, Ontario church there is a small social experiment that is growing solutions one relationship at a time. Seeded by church and foundation dollars, started by church workers and based on an educational construct developed by academics, ordinary people are creating something that has the potential—if not to replace the poverty machine—to transform our relationship with it.

Peterborough’s Bridging Poverty Teams bring under-resourced people living in poverty together with volunteer mentors who have resources to share. You might say it is a system of resource re-distribution, but beneath that there’s something much more radical happening.

Late in 2018, my partner Lynn and I were invited to join the team for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration. It had been six months since we had finished our work as the paid staff animators of the team. About 18 months earlier we had invited them into the experiment: What might happen if people from different walks of life came together weekly to share a meal, tell stories, have fun, study poverty, and chip away at the work of stabilizing the lives of the under resourced people in the team?

Key to the experiment was the belief that the participants who live in poverty are considered the lead problem-solvers. With staff support, they planned the sessions. They chose the curriculum. They evaluated the group’s progress. And they determined the pace.

Staff offered both streams of participants’ training. Under-resourced folks in poverty were given tools of social analysis and critical awareness. Mentors were given lessons in asking questions instead of offering advice. The mentor training was called, “From Mentor to Ally Training.”

Early in our research a young Indigenous leader at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre told us that no one can claim to be an ally. “It’s a title that has to be given to you by those you seek to work with,” she explained, “No one can call themselves an Elder — the community names its elders.” So, we invited mentors to join a journey of discovery, to learn from those who solve poverty’s problems every day of their lives. And to learn how ask good questions before offering advice that has worked for them, starting from a place of privilege.

Once the two training streams finished and the two groups came together, we spent a lot of time building trust and learning. Over food, stories, and fun we got to see into each others lives. It was a slow process and patience was required. Gradually we began to see how “change” is a product of relationship, and how all of us need help with the “change” we envision.  

Over nine months the group began taking on the roles and responsibilities needed to keep the team going. Circles of Support were created to work with under-resourced participants goals. Teams were created to look after hospitality, learning, and evaluating. Then the paid staff pulled out. And the team kept meeting.

Staff continued to meet weekly in a parallel internship program with three of the under-resourced leaders who had chosen to become Bridging Team facilitators. As part of their training they took on the leadership of the first group (supported by a steering committee of mentors).

When we were invited to join the team for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration, I couldn’t help but give them an evaluation task before the celebrations began. I asked them to complete a statement. Here are some of their responses.

We are a group of people who…

  • believe people in poverty are problem-solvers
  • believe by building resources there is a way out of poverty
  • love to help people get out of poverty and stabilize their lives
  • have grown together, removed class barriers, love and support each other!
  • are a group of leaders, learning, sharing, and spreading our wings, soaring to new heights
  • believe social capital needs to be built and expanded
  • have learned from and taught each other about our differences and our similarities — basically the same but unique
  • support one another in mutuality, mutual caring, sharing, learning, laughing, loving, and eating with each other
  • believe people have unlimited talent that sometimes just needs to be set free

After more than three decades working in the poverty business, I experienced something new! For the first time I felt like I had worked myself out of a job.

— Rev. Allan David Smith-Reeve, Project Coordinator and Host at Bedford House, and Coordinating Minister at Greenwood United Church, both in Peterborough, Ontario. He is an innovator and creator of many collaborative community projects, and has served both urban and rural congregations. He is passionate about bridging class, religious, and cultural divides.    

Read more from Rev. Allan Smith-Reeve:

A Hero with Many Questions: What Bend in the River Does your Heart Call Home? (Nov. 2019)
A Failure of Imagination (Sept. 2019)
Poverty’s Not the Problem (Aug. 2019)
 

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