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Opinion

Real solutions start with lived experience

Published on 30/03/2016

Poverty is currently being addressed in Canada in a very real way. Poverty reduction strategies are emerging in almost every provincial and territorial government. The federal government has indicated its commitment at a national level. And, at the community level, many cities are also enacting poverty reduction strategies.

We know that affordable housing, income, employment, transit and the breadth of supportive programs that include quality public childcare, education and recreation are core elements that can alleviate and eliminate poverty. To make sure these elements are part of any strategy, those responsible need to pay close attention to who gets to shape the solutions at the local level.

Build within a framework of human rights

At Maytree, we’re advocating for an approach that looks at how a focus on human rights can contribute to and enhance work on poverty. We’re interested in moving beyond consultation towards a collaborative and ongoing process where people with lived experience of poverty are engaged in shaping the strategies, policies and, ultimately, programs and services that lead to healthy, safe and prosperous lives.

It is critical to a rights-based approach to poverty reduction that people with lived experience of poverty are included and engaged in the decision-making processes that affect their lives and those of their communities. They should be seen as key contributors, not as a “nice to have” component in the process. Seeing people with lived experience simply as identifiers of needs and validators of concerns and potential solutions undermines their position, voice and experience.

While it is easy to agree to this in principle, how “inclusion” and “engagement” are defined and how this is done varies across processes and players.

We need to keep in mind that everyone can contribute to the development, implementation and monitoring of a successful poverty reduction strategy. For this to happen, people with lived experience must have their voices and experiences respected as equal and valuable by everyone involved throughout the process.

Identify and challenge inequitable power dynamics

People with lived experience of poverty are often disengaged from local and systemic decision-making processes, which can result in limited real or perceived power to affect the change they want to see. Groups in charge of poverty reduction strategies have the ability to address this apparent lack of power and influence by moving from a service delivery based model, where people with lived experience are seen as service users, to an approach in which they are allies and contributors to decision-making.

In Toronto, this transition is beginning to take shape in the local poverty reduction strategy, albeit mid-process, through the development of a Lived Experience Advisory group which will contribute to the ongoing “effective development, measuring and monitoring of poverty reduction initiatives.”

An approach that positively addresses power dynamics would move beyond seeing people as defined by poverty and reinforcing stereotypes that come with such a definition. Challenging the stereotypes of people with lived experience as poor people without the capacity to either support themselves or engage in critical and informed conversations is essential to achieving a meaningful engagement strategy.

Start at the beginning and stay consistent

Strategies that start engaging the community mid-way through the process often face a number of challenges and frustrations from people with lived experience. Rather than being involved with the whole process, they may only be asked to comment on initiative-specific topics or process points or put their name to something they don’t agree with or see value in.

The people whom the strategy intends to support need to be meaningful contributors in the framing of issues and processes, as well as the language used. In addition, they can help identify needs and inform potential solutions throughout the process.

At Toronto Community Housing, engagement has been a slow and often contentious but vital process. With the support of its current Resident and Community Services team, tenants have led a consultation process exploring new models of tenant participation and engagement, yielding record setting participation and feedback from tenants in recent years.

It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the risk

Engaging more people with lived experience of poverty in formal decision-making processes and poverty reduction strategies is vital. But it is hard work and comes with a certain level of risk.

Some institutions may be wary that engaging a broad group of stakeholders, especially people with lived experience, may disrupt the flow of the conversation. However, through meaningful, consistent and ongoing engagement, where people with lived experience are shaping discussions and decisions through collaboration with other stakeholders, the potential for positive long-term outcomes is enormous.

If meaningfully engaged, people with lived experience can provide a solid foundation for building the healthy, safe and prosperous communities we are all working towards. Done well, it will enable the creativity and leadership of a significant portion of our communities to engage in ways many people haven’t before.

Topic(s)

Human rights, Poverty

Summary

Including people with lived experience of poverty in decision making processes is critical to a rights-based approach