What could authentic rights-based participation look like?
Published on 18/12/2019
Over the course of the year, Maytree has explored the role of people with lived or living experience of poverty in finding solutions to poverty. Using a human rights approach to poverty requires the participation of those affected in all stages of the decision-making process. While in principle, there is a growing acknowledgement that people should be directly involved in shaping the decisions that affect their lives, there are still many unresolved questions about how to do this in a meaningful, impactful, and consistent way. We wanted to explore those questions, and look for answers from people who come at these questions in different ways — people with lived experience of poverty, anti-poverty activists and advocates, and community organizations.
For the most part, decision-making processes still have a power imbalance in how they’re structured and how people participate within them. While those responsible for organizing or creating these processes might be unaware of this power imbalance, it challenges the meaningful engagement of those individuals who have less access to these processes, resulting in engagement that is episodic and consultative, rather than ongoing and inclusive at all stages.
Throughout the year, we invited guest authors to contribute their thoughts on what meaningful participation looks like and how to do this better. We hoped to move beyond notions of mere participation, and sought ideas on what structures and environments would enable the authentic participation of people with lived or living experience of poverty.
To begin, Maytree Fellow and research consultant Emily Paradis wrote about the need to challenge exclusion in how experts with lived experience of homelessness are engaged in policy processes. She argued that in order to transform policy processes, we need to address questions about the purpose of participation, and think about who is invited to participate, acknowledging for instance that no individual can speak for everyone facing homelessness. She also invited readers to think critically about what processes would enable people directly affected to actively influence the way policies are planned, implemented, and evaluated. Some of her suggestions for correcting power imbalances included challenging conventions like jargon-infused language at meetings, unspoken dress codes, and power dynamics that amplify some voices while diminishing others.
From there, Carmen Smith, Toronto Community Housing’s former Manager of Community Revitalization and Renewal in Lawrence Heights, reflected on what housing practitioners can learn from tenant leadership and participation through her time with Toronto Community Housing and the Lawrence Heights revitalization. Carmen concluded that ongoing tenant participation in local revitalization — which included a decision-making role in the developer selection process — made for better processes and outcomes in the community. This was made possible by deep tenant leadership and involvement in the process as well as strong internal staff advocacy throughout the process, which amplified tenants’ roles as key stakeholders.
Patricia Smiley and Kyle Vose, co-chairs of the ODSP Action Coalition, wrote about the importance of lived expert leadership in advocacy networks and offered four strategies on strengthening this leadership. They wrote about their deliberate commitment to creating democratic structures and processes for the coalition so that those with lived or living experience could join as equal partners in decision-making. They also pointed to their effort to strengthen the self-advocacy and conflict resolution skills of those in the coalition and a commitment to encouraging local leadership.
We then interviewed Wendy Porch, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto. Wendy talked about how the non-profit sector could integrate accessibility into its processes, and offered recommendations for ensuring the participation of people with disabilities. Embedding accessibility within any process is foundational for ensuring the meaningful participation of people with disabilities. It requires a stronger understanding of accessibility, the resources required (including data and targeted funding), and hiring people with disabilities as staff to support this culture change year round.
Joeita Gupta from the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA) shared some insights about the importance of informed participation when tenants fight for their rights. Her piece looked at how FMTA’s Tenant School offers an opportunity for tenants to build their individual and collective capacity for sustained and effective civic engagement and community organizing. The Tenant School provides tenants with a stronger understanding of their rights under the law and a greater sense of their own power drawn from shared lived experience. This supports their ongoing participation in processes that impact not only their housing but also their lives as a whole.
From there, Bee Lee Soh shared her advice on how governments and organizations could design better practices for the participation of experts with lived or living experience of poverty through six concrete ideas on designing advisory councils. Her ideas spoke to the inclusion of experts with lived/living experience who have the ability to engage other lived/living experts; respect for lived/living experts shown by cultivating direct relationships with them and not with intermediaries; commitment to empowering experts with training, support, and resources necessary to participate; and transformation of process that involves more advance notice of materials and meetings to ensure greater participation.
To close our series, Sree Nallamothu from the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres (TNC) wrote about a new TNC initiative that focuses on shifting the culture in non-profit agencies towards people-centred civic engagement. Sree reflected on the culture-change work that TNC is exploring to expand and deepen people-centred practices to facilitate ways in which people are not only at the centre, but have more opportunities to be at the forefront of the change they want to see.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of rights-based participation with this blog series. Because there are many ways to approach this concept and practice, we have explored participation in multiple venues and processes, from those led by governments and institutions, to the role of non-profit agencies and collective action with peers. Yet, the right to participation is much more complex and cannot be reduced to a small number of experiences and reflections.
We know that participation is not just about showing up to a consultation or meeting held by someone in government. People have the right to be part of the processes that will impact their lives, beyond simply the consultations that inform the development of a strategy or program; they must also be included in implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. Rights-based participation must challenge the power dynamics of our current system.
This will require time. It will also require that we be deliberate about naming and addressing systemic oppressions. As we wrap up this series, we’d like to thank all of our contributors for sharing their ideas on how we can start to do this work. We look forward to continuing this exploration as we move forward.