The Colour of Anti-Poverty Activism in Toronto

by erinohsays

First draft of an article I just wrote for OPIRG-Toronto’s Action Speaks Louder magazine.

The Colour of Anti-Poverty Activism in Toronto

This year I was hired by the University of Toronto as a community-based researcher to promote and support anti-poverty activism in the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood as part of the five-year Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL) project. Now in its third year, APCOL is a community-university research initiative that uses participatory research methods to explore how people become involved in a number of anti-poverty issues such as advocating for affordable housing, promoting access to nutritious food, and increasing youth employment opportunities. APCOL is active in eight of the thirteen neighbourhoods that have been designated as “high priority” by United Way in terms of poverty challenges in Toronto.
As part of the APCOL project I’ve worked closely with a small team of community organizers and residents who are based out of the Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC) centre in Mt. Dennis. Established by United Way in each of the “priority neighbourhoods”, the stated goal of the ANC is to build local leadership and engage people in developing their communities for the better.
Since becoming involved in this project, it’s now clear that doing anti-poverty work in any capacity requires an analysis and understanding of how poverty is racialized. In Toronto, communities of colour experience ongoing, disproportionate levels of poverty and are more likely to have related problems such as poor health, lower education, and fewer job opportunities than those from European backgrounds. Racialized communities experience individual and systemic racism which means that they are less likely get jobs when equally qualified and are likely to earn less than those with white skin privilege. Systemic racism also means that communities of colour are more likely to live and work in poor conditions, have less access to healthcare and social services, and be victims of police violence. A few statistics point to how poverty disproportionately affects communities of colour*:

  • Racialized (non-European) families in Toronto make up 37% of all families, but account for 59% of poor families;
  • Between 1980 and 2000, while the poverty rate for non-racialized (European heritage) communities in Toronto fell by 28%, the poverty among racialized communities rose by 361%; and
  • 32% of children in racialized families and 47% of children in recent immigrant families in Ontario live in poverty.

Clearly, poverty in Toronto is racialized. But what does this mean for residents and community organizers who want to fight racism and build better communities through anti-poverty work? As a white woman participating in anti-poverty activism in the largely racialized community of Weston-Mount Dennis, understanding how white privilege functions in Canadian society is central to developing answers to this question.

In Understanding White Privilege Frances Kendall defines white privilege in the following way:

White privilege is an institutional rather than personal set of benefits granted to those of us who by race resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions. One of the primary privileges is that of having greater access to power and resources than people of color do. In other words purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people.
The work of white anti-poverty activists must be informed by an understanding and ongoing interrogation of how racism (white supremacy) and other forms of privilege operate throughout the interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels of society. This begins with self-locating based on identity factors such as gender, class, and ability, but it’s important to keep race as the central lens through which we view these other forms of identity.

For example, the study The Three Cities Within Toronto released in 2007 by the University of Toronto reports on income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods from 1970 to 2000. The report states:

It is common to say that people “choose” their neighbourhoods, but it’s money that buys choice. Many people in Toronto have little money and thus few choices.

Although the report challenges the idea that everyone has the privilege to choose the neighbourhoods they live in, it fails to emphasize the ways that poverty is racialized. Challenging research that is presented as race-neutral is just one way to disrupt patterns of white supremacy in society.

So what does my own anti-poverty activism look like? As a white researcher with APCOL in the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood, it means understanding when to take on a leadership role and when to take direction. As an individual with institutional power in society based on race, it means calling out “objective” knowledges and disrupting racism in dominant spaces. As an outsider in a racialized community it means naming my privilege and taking direction from communities of colour in delegitimizing white supremacy.

*all statistics from