What was your experience of reading ‘Brother’ by David Chariandy?

For a second year, London Public Library invites the community to a massive, virtual ‘city-wide bookclub’ by proposing a book to read and discuss together. This year the title is Brother by David Chariandy. As many of us have discovered, this little book punches far above its weight class in size. It is concise, paced, and courageous. Set in housing complex in Scarborough in the summer of 1991, Brother weaves together a story about identity, family, and masculinity. Questions about the experience of immigration, criminiality, racism, poverty, precarious employment, and housing fill in the margins. In a very short and accessible read, Chariandy weaves together a story that is worthy of everyone’s attention.

In this discussion, four community leaders join Curious Public at Central Library to share their experiences and reactions to reading Brother.

The Panel

Melanie-Anne Atkins is the Wellness Coordinator at the Wellness Education Centre at Western University.

Kristen Caschera (@librariankris) is a Librarian at London Public Library. She is a program coordinator for the One Book One London initiative.

Marcel Marcellin (@MarcellinMarcelis the Director of Organizational Strategy at the City of London. He previously served as a Sergeant for the London Police for over 20 years.

Anaise Muzima (@anashakyss) is a Master of Laws graduate from Western University and is currently a settlement worker at Collège Boréal.




Humble Inquiry: or, How to circumvent the pernicious inclination to fix other people

An emphasis on problem-solving can be problematic. And dangerous. When you set out to solve a problem, you march forward with an arsenal of assumptions: you are already convinced that a problem exists, you believe you ought to fix it, and you believe your solutions will be superior to the current state of things. That is a lot of assumptions. One does not need to look very hard to find examples of ‘problem solvers’ who only left a trail of greater problems in their wake.

In describing the deficiency and prevalence of the problem-solving bias in management and development thinking, David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva propose an alternative approach: appreciative inquiry. The goal of appreciative inquiry is “discovering, understanding, and fostering innovations in social-organizational arrangements and processes.” Appreciative inquiry is about curiosity, not chasing solutions for their own sake, because “a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination…”

Consider how adopting appreciative inquiry approach might impact your approach to international development or addressing poverty. Instead of tromping into someone’s village or living room and proclaiming yourself as the fixer of their problems, you instead assume the permanent position of student. You prioritize their knowledge, not yours. Appreciative inquiry aims to expose the inherent blind spots that come with assuming you possess expertise on a subject.

This mode of thinking has profound implications for leadership and business management. How many times have you heard an executive describe their eagerness to respond to the concerns of their employees — only to hear their subordinates, in turn, express their hesitancy to speak up for fear of the potential cost to their careers or reputation within the company? How is such a chasm bridged? Appreciative inquiry invites one or more parties to approach the other in a spirit of seeking knowledge without ulterior motive or judgement.

To enact appreciative inquiry, one must assume an attitude of humility: it means learning from not giving to the other person. Asking, not telling. Edgar Schein defines humble inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Personally, I find this idea of ‘humble inquiry’ to be an indescribably liberating way of being in the world, especially in today’s ruthlessly polarized climate. It means I can discuss even the most contentious issues without needing to ‘correct’ other people’s ‘erroneous’ views. It means I can try to understand what makes other people tick, without trying to ‘solve’ the problem of their ‘delusions’ or ‘cognitive inability’ to see the truth. It means I value the process of ‘self-discovery’ for others as much as I do for myself, which means placing the utmost value on honest, curious questions. (For more along these lines, listen to And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question.)

In some respects, I feel like the ‘social innovation sector’ has significantly lost its way since Cooperrider and Srivastva wrote about appreciative inquiry in 1987. Today, we are all about solving problems. We are obsessed with problems — identifying them, describing them, researching them, and fixing them. The first thing we see when we look at a community is what appears to be wrong with it. Appreciative inquiry drags this unconscious bias into the light and invites us to rethink the way we describe community itself: not as a mire of issues to address, but as the source of a continually emerging future that we are constructing together. Don’t rush in to fix it, but humbly tip-toe in to ask questions about it.

Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

On Monday, September 18, I hosted a panel discussion with Helene Berman, Melanie Katsivo , and Warren Steele (see bios) on the topic of structural violence. The event was titled, Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? This framing question morphed into, Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

If you skim over to the Wikipedia entry on ‘structural violence’ you’ll read that the term refers to “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized adultism, ageism, classism, elitism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, speciesism, racism, and sexism are some examples of structural violence…”

In this podcast episode we attempt to drag the concept of ‘structural violence’ out of the academic world and apply it to our community. Who is served by the institutions of our society… and who is harmed in the process?

Poverty-Industrial Complex

As a nation, we’ve said many things about eradicating poverty and ending homelessness:

Let us affirm today, in this Parliament, that as a nation, by the beginning of the twenty-first century — only eleven years away — child poverty in this great Canada will be a relic of the past. (Ed Broadbent speaking to the House of Commons on November 24, 1989, on the motion to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. The motion was unanimously adopted.)

In my city, poverty has been the focus of much political discussion. In 2001, we said this:

By 2006 no resident of London will be homeless. (Community Plan on Homelessness in London, October 2001, pg. 40)

And in 2010:

Unlike previous plans, this Community Plan on Homelessness is a comprehensive reflection of the voice of the community. The Community Plan on Homelessness transcends any one funding program and is designed for alignment across a broad range of initiatives to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness. (London Community Plan on Homelessness, November 2010, pg. 15)

And in 2016:

The goal of these recommendations is for London to reach its full potential by ending poverty in one generation… Panels have been struck before, recommendations developed, plans made. Even with the best of intentions and efforts, we haven’t been able to bring about the big changes we are looking for. What makes things different this time? (London for All: A Roadmap to End Poverty, March 2016, pg. 2, 12)

Admittedly, cynicism comes easy. For others, a sense of aggravated pessimism and resentment is a default (and arguably justifiable) response to the past thirty years of political action on poverty. Broadly speaking, the last three decades of consultations, expert opinions, and academic research studies have all yielded pretty much the same outcome: an almost standardized, copy-and-paste list of recommendations never seem to get enough political traction in the real world. A 2008 discussion paper from my city’s research and planning department sums up the common recommendations that emerge from such processes:

…the general strategies for addressing poverty in a community are consistent: advocating for increased income through higher social assistance and minimum wage rates, taxation strategies, and child benefit levels; increasing access to community supports such as quality child care, adequate and safe housing, and transportation; increasing access to health supports; addressing issues that contribute to poor education outcomes and poor jobs… (Poverty Elimination in London: A Municipal Approach to Community Well-Being and Vitality, Social Research & Planning, April 17, 2008, pg. 47)

When it comes to addressing poverty, the kernel of our collective frustration is blatant: if we’ve been saying more or less the same things for so many years, why has so little been done? Every time yet another government consultation goes live — gathering yet more input from “people with lived experience” and community stakeholders — the indignation grows just a bit louder: we already told you what the issues are. As evidenced in community consultations of all kinds, we have a definite threshold for participating in public engagement schemes: the less implementation we see as a result of our previous input, the less inclined we are to accept future invitations to participate. Trust is a finite resource. In the end, for many, this circuit of consultations and research programs appears to be a circus of indifference and inaction:

Almost a decade of empty discussions about “poverty reduction” has shown that consultation is a diversionary tactic to avoid tackling poverty. (Let’s break the cycle of endless studies and consultations, Mike Balkwill, September 12, 2016, Toronto Star)

The following exchange is an imaginary dialogue to illustrate the situation:

“Would you be willing to participate in a research project to help us better understand the issues affecting people experiencing poverty?”

“What about the study you interviewed me for last year?”

“It was a great research project! And we thank you for your participation. Your insights helped us craft several important policy recommendations.”

“But nothing about my dire situation has changed.”

“Yes, unfortunately the government didn’t implement all the recommendations we proposed based on our findings.”

“So what was the point of the last study, then?”

“Well, we generated some terrific data. And we were able to win a another grant to this new study!”

“So, they have given you more money to ask me why I have no money?”

“Uh, well… If we can understand poverty, we’ll be able to make the system work better and more efficiently to serve people.”

“That’s what you said last time you asked me to be in one of your studies. I think my poverty might just be helping you stay employed.”

Let’s call this phenomenon the “poverty-industrial complex.” Like a military-industrial complex, it appears to be a league of elites devoted to funding one another’s pet projects. From the outside, at least, they might seem more interested in extracting money from one another than actually eradicating poverty itself. It is a system that appears to sustain insiders who are making names themselves on the backs of the impoverished: dissecting and commentating on the lives of their subjects — the poor — like laboratory rats. Many papers and resume-polishing articles are published for other elites to read. It all begins to look conspiratorial: nothing seems to change, but more and more public money is spent on the salaries of highly educated (and comfortably unionized) experts to research why nothing seems to change. The longer nothing changes, the more of them seem to be hired. And when a new political party promises to address poverty, what do they do upon winning office? They hire even more elites to do more studies. Another anti-poverty campaign. Another round of consultations. Another prestigious award for an upstanding in-group do-gooder. Another funding increase announced with fanfare and glossy brochures.

There are significant careers to be had and salaries to be made in professionally studying, talking, and theorizing about poverty. And yet there are still people desperately struggling in our city. I think it is the collision of these two realities where the breakdown of social trust snowballs into outright resentment.

One might think it would be alarming to everyone that the people we task as a society to study and address poverty are increasingly referred to as a social class of their own — the “poverty expert elites,” as it were. But perhaps this should be no surprise: accepting public money to study and comment on public social issues effectively makes one a public figure — and it leaves one’s motives and legitimacy open to scrutiny in the public sphere, much like a politician. (Except, unlike politicians, poverty experts do not have to seek reelection, which invites the public to be even more skeptical of their authority and position.) Ultimately, everyone who speaks to public social policy necessarily ventures into the public arena, which inherently invites criticism. (Expound this variable if your salary is linked to public money, and multiply it yet again if your career is directly linked to other people’s lack of resources, power, or social mobility.)

We often fail to recognize is the degree to which social heroism can be toxic for community.

Turning a blind eye to the realities and optics of this system is irresponsible and counterproductive to the stated cause of reducing poverty itself. The fact that the “fight against poverty” has created a socioeconomic tier from which people feel structurally and economically marginalized seems, in the long run, catastrophic to the struggle against poverty itself. And inasmuch as anti-poverty work is a struggle against inequality and systemic barriers to resources, anything that exemplifies “elitism” or resembles “insider trading” is more than just a problematic public image issue. Ignoring the real-life obstacles and inefficiencies that the poverty-industrial complex has created because we are “just too passionate about ending poverty to be distracted by the naysayers” is endemic to a willfully blind system caught in its own inertia.

(This post serves as an introductory ‘part 1’ of an informal, multipart reflection on the so-called poverty-industrial complex. I will explore the system from several angles. I am curious how it might be reimagined, circumvented, redeemed, or, perhaps, abolished. Full disclosure: I am presently employed part-time by a university-funded research centre that includes “Poverty and inequality” as an area of research. The extent to which I am personally implicated in the very system under critique is my driving motivation for this series. Like all writing and projects on this site, this work is composed entirely on personal time.)

Also see:

What is the Cost of Poverty for Everyone?

Imagine if we actually knew how much poverty cost us in economic terms. What if we could take everything into account — from the cost of shelters, to the strain on the health care system, to the lost economic productivity due to people not working — and then calculated a number? Gerda Zonruiter suggests that developing a common metric for measuring the economic impact of poverty helps communities make better and more strategic decisions.

Gerda Zonruiter is a researcher and evaluation consultant assisting human and social services organizations make evidence-based decisions. Prior to working independently, she spent 15 years working as a social policy researcher for the City of London.

Aesop on Privilege

The fable of the tortoise and the hare is famous. Like many, I heard this story in childhood. But I recently discovered that the interpretation I inherited when I was younger might not be intended ‘lesson’ of the story.

The so-called ‘American children’s book version’ of the fable praises the fortitude and dogged resolve of the tortoise. The ‘moral’ of the story is simple: stick to it, no matter what. The tortoise never gave up. The tortoise is the hero.

I recently read a full translation of the entire Aesop’s fables corpus. By the time I made it to the tortoise and hare fable, I had become acutely aware that the fables I heard as a child were significantly filtered through a sanitized, anglicized lens.

I was now reading the story again, for the first time.

When taken at face value, the fable appears to be more of a reprimand of the hare than a celebration of the tortoise. As an ancient commentator appended, “This fable shows that hard work often prevails over natural talents if they are neglected.” (Aesop, Fables 352, in Temple 1998:257, emphasis added)

It was the hare’s race to lose. The only reason the tortoise won was because the hare got lazy. There is little cause to praise the tortoise just because the hare failed to live up to the baseline expectations we have for hares. If the hare performed as hares are capable of performing, there would be zero chance of a tortoise victory.

Think about what this means for the tortoise: it’s only chance for victory is that the hare screws up.

This message is exactly opposite to the notion that sticktoitiveness wins the race. No, tortoises only win races against hares when hares get cocky and overly self-confident. Otherwise, tortoises are creamed every time. No matter how diligent, committed, and tenacious the tortoise may be, it has zero chance of winning — unless the hare chokes. All the tortoise passion in the world isn’t going to beat a hare. This isn’t an ode to David’s victory over Goliath — it’s a stern scolding to Goliath for his abysmal failure.

In the end, this post is not about Aesop’s fable itself, but about how we interpret it. In the American dream, the tortoise wins because of its diligence, not because of its luck. I don’t think this is what Aesop was trying to get at.

A kid who had wandered on to the roof of a house saw a wolf pass by and he began to insult and jeer at it. The wolf replied: ‘Hey, you there! It’s not you who mock me but the place on which you are standing.’ (Fables 106, Temple 1998:82)

People with lived experience

Many of us use the term ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’ instead of referring to people as ‘the homeless’. I think the rationale for this is good. It does not make sense to define the identity of another human based on their housing status. I do not define or label my so-called ‘housed friends’ by the fact that they can afford rent or pay mortgages. The state of ‘houselessness’ is a chapter in a person’s history of accommodations — like my own current address — and not a definition of their individuality or identity.

The intent for referring to ‘persons who are experiencing homelessness’ is to separate the individuals from the conditions. There has been an analogous movement in medicine for a long time: it is arguably more appropriate to say a person ‘has diabetes’ than to say a person ‘is a diabetic’: in the first case diabetes is a circumstance, in the second case it might be construed for an identity.

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and someone said that the proposal on the table would have an adverse effect on ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’. Another person grimaced and recoiled before going on to spew forth a litany of generalizations about these ‘people with lived experience’, in much the same way one might foolishly make universal assumptions about all people who have diabetes. I was taken aback: it was strange to hear someone use terminology originally intended to reduce stigma as a vehicle for stigma.

Then it struck me, the term ‘people with lived experience’ only changes semantics, not attitudes and assumptions. Whether you say people experience homelessness or are homeless, the fundamental question is what you presume and presuppose about the concept of homelessness itself. Psychologically speaking, the influence of our syntax is quite limited here: rejigging the subject and predicate of a sentence does not somehow automatically override the feelings and beliefs we have internalized about the nature of homelessness. Even though the new term grammatically reframes homelessness as a condition instead of an identity, it nonetheless continues to carry the assumptions, biases, and stigmas of its speakers and hearers.

Consider the implications here: the phrase ‘people with lived experience’ can easily be used as a cognitive-linguistic short-cut for an extremely complex set of circumstances. It can be as presumptive as the terminology it was created to replace; it can be as equally typecasting and prejudicial as referring to people as ‘the homeless’, ‘those people’. Given time, a phrase originally intended to reduce generalizations and identity-imputing stereotypes can itself become a plug-and-play term for conventionalizing and pigeonholing. Language is impossible to nail down: any description can become a label, and any label can become a self-fulfilling inference. What these labels mean in society, hearts, and minds is more than the sum of their syntax.

We swim in an ocean of these labels. Terms like ‘vulnerable populations’, ‘high-risk groups’, and ‘low income bracket’ begin as attempts to differentiate people’s circumstances from their personal characters, but they can just as easily grow into new labels for the same old biases. Automaticity sneaks up on us. What do we unconsciously assume about other human beings when we call them ‘vulnerable’? Will the people of the future consider our use of the term ‘high-risk’ to be pejorative?

The point is simply that any word (or sequence of words) can become stigma. No terminology is future-proof. No matter how well-intentioned, sensitive, or ‘politically correct’ it might be, no phrase is guaranteed to remain benign forever. We never permanently solve or reframe social inequities or injustices by simply changing our language: we only adapt our words as best as we can in the climate of interpretations and preconceptions we find ourselves. And our language, being human language, will inevitably be readapted again later.

So let us use words carefully — especially our carefully crafted, institutionally approved terminologies and definitions. These deserve the utmost caution. The more easily a phrase slides from our lips into the ears of others, the more we collectively, en masse, presume to know. May we occasionally dare to forego the temptation to bracket ‘certain demographics’ so that we might, instead, tell longer, more complex stories… stories that even our most grammatically sensitive terminologies leave unmentioned.

Even more important than our words is the manner in which they are interpreted.

We should pay as much attention to what people hear as we do to what we say.

There is no single ‘root cause’ of poverty

I was asked to present an overview of Donella Meadow’s thesis on ‘leverage points’ for the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty. The given timeframe (15 minutes) was tight, but it was a fun challenge to squeeze as much of a ‘systems introduction’ as possible into this window (as much as I hate trying to talk this fast). It was also an opportunity to brush up on Prezi.

This presentation is an inadequate and (honestly) futile skimming of the surface of its topic. I’m posting it here in case it might serve to spark some curiosity. If you want to explore these ideas further, I highly recommend reading Meadow’s paper in its entirety.

Using Facebook is a ‘Poverty Habit’?

According to a Business Insider article posted yesterday by Thomas C. Corley, poor people tend to spend more time on social media than rich people:

74% of those defined as poor spent more than an hour every day on the internet engaged in some sort of recreational activity, with 95% admitting to using sites like Facebook for recreational use… Only 37% of the wealthy in my study spent more than an hour a day on the internet engaged in recreational activities, and only 17% used sites like Facebook for recreation purposes.

Corley goes on to conclude that Facebook and “recreational Internet use” in general “has now become a Poverty Habit.”

But I really think Corley should have included a few caveats to this conclusion. He does not provide any explanation of the directional causation. Sure, poor people might very well use Facebook more than rich people, but that is only a correlation — it does not necessarily mean that using Facebook makes you poor.

Rich people spend more time on yachts than poor people, but I doubt that Corley would argue that yachting makes you richer!

Alternatively, there is another argument suggesting that rich people today have less leisure time than poor people. If this is true, we would expect “recreational Internet use” to be higher within lower income population (along with other low-cost leisure activities, such as watching television).

Corley, on the other hand, seems to assume that there is a direct, explicit causation here: “Our daily habits are the reason why we are rich, poor, or middle class.” I am sure Corley can find many people who will agree with this statement on an ideological level, but to superimpose this conclusion on a set of statistical correlations is really quite dubious. (It is probably worth pointing out that Corley’s data and results are not peer-reviewed nor academically published. His data comes from a personal study on the habits of rich people, from which, according to his website, he extrapolates insights to provide his readers with ‘the key to success and a happy future’.)

So, speaking of correlations, please remember this: adding a bunch of factual percentages and empirical graphs to your own presuppositions does not cause your presuppositions to be factual and empirical.

Thus endeth yet another rant on causation versus correlation. Thank you for listening.