Re-defining “anti-poverty activism” in Weston-Mt Dennis

by erinohsays

final draft…

This year I was hired by the University of Toronto as a community-based researcher to document “anti-poverty activism” in the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood as part of the Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL) project which explores how people become involved in organizing around such issues as affordable housing, commercial development, and youth employment.

As an outsider to the community I didn’t know about the specific issues residents are organizing around. I also didn’t know how people frame their involvement in community activities. Do they consider themselves community organizers? Engaged residents? Or as the APCOL project’s name would suggest, “anti-poverty activists”?

I spoke with one resident about his involvement in community organizing and how he considers his work:

“I think actually I should say from the get-go that when I see anti-poverty I see it in a large lens and hardly ever use the term ‘anti-poverty’. I like to see the work that we’re doing more in a narrow, issue-specific kind of way. We look at housing and tackle that issue, we look at employment and tackle that issue, and they all could fit under anti-poverty issues, right?

“The ‘anti-poverty’ piece has a negative connotation and people don’t want to get involved. So when we’re doing this work we’re primarily focused on young people, trying to improve programs and services in the local neighbourhoods but also trying to work on specific issues that might be affecting their families. We’re looking at issues that are affecting young people personally and also that could improve their situation at home.”

I also spoke with a youth outreach worker in the area who spoke of balancing the “addiction” of organizing with the need to build capacity within others to organize:

“If you’re an organizer, you’re an addict. Because one things leads to another, and if you don’t do anything, you literally go crazy. So you always look for things. If there’s a project coming up and I don’t have anything, I’m like “yes!” But it’s a question I ask myself: is there someone else who could do it and do it better?

“With titling yourself ‘activist’ you end up jeopardizing a whole group of people to actually learn and grow. Imagine if you had one activist who was ‘it’. And if that person falls, you’ve left 50-100 people who have no skills or access. So how do you maintain that balance of information, channeling and documenting that information, which is constantly changing and growing together versus growing as an individual?”

Both organizers talked about the importance of supporting individuals in their efforts to organize around specific issues as they define them and to avoid taking on too much as an individual organizer, when the real work is in taking a step back and creating space for others to step forward. As a “community-based researcher” it causes me question my own role in documenting “anti-poverty activism” and the power inherent in naming my activities. Throughout my own organizing work, I’ll challenge myself to ask: what are the actual issues at hand, and when should I take responsibility versus taking direction?