Community Lessons from Canadians Fighting Poverty

Community Lessons from Canadians Fighting Poverty

Note: This post originally appeared in the Gather Community Consulting Newsletter. Get future newsletters by subscribing at the form below this post.

From 2015 to 2017, Canada accomplished the seemingly impossible. The number of people living in poverty in Canada dropped by 20% in just those two years. It’s an incredible feat, and community-building underpinned the entire effort.

In a recent David Brooks opinion piece for The New York Times, he describes how Canada has reduced poverty so drastically. The foundation for the change happened over 15 years, with many small victories along the way. This is what long-term community returns can look like. 

How did community-building efforts help reduce poverty to its lowest rate in Canada’s history?

Let’s break down Brooks’ description of the process:

“They started 15 years ago with just six cities, but now they have 72 regional networks covering 344 towns.”

Principle: Start small and humble. Don’t think of yourself as a creative savior. You're not saving anyone.

“They begin by gathering, say, 100 people from a single community. A quarter have lived with poverty; the rest are from business, nonprofits and government.”

Principle: Solve with your members, not for your members.

“They spend a year learning about poverty in their area, talking with the community.”

Principle: Don’t rush to solve. Rush to listen, learn, and connect people to one another.

“After a year they come up with a town plan. Each town’s poverty is different. Each town’s assets are different. So each town’s plan is different.”

Principle: Unless your community is just getting started, it’s unlikely that your community plan will be simple or linear. Build for people with multi-faceted needs and backgrounds, which will require you to update or create new plans regularly.

If you’re building a community that gathers people who live around the world, take note: Embrace the existing structures of community that are already in place. That means you need to build relationships before solutions. Take your time.

All of this sounds so obvious in theory. In practice, many - not all - community builders operate like lone wolves. You don't have to. Your members are your partners. Treat these folks like co-conspirators, not as passive participants. Look for ways you can partner with your community and allow them to change you and your behaviors, not the other way around.

And keep this in mind: “The process of learning and planning and adapting never ends,” Brooks says.

Enjoy the journey. There are no shortcuts on this one.

P. S. I want to thank Mara Zepeda for bringing this David Brooks article to my attention in a conversation last week. You should know Mara: She is co-founder & CEO of Switchboard and leader of XXcelerate Fund, Business for a Better Portland, and the Zebras Unite Community working to dismantle exclusive, outdated economic infrastructures. Yes, she's a badass. Follow her on Twitter.

P.P.S. I also want to give a shoutout to my former client, PovNet, whom I know is part of this anti-poverty work in Canada! You can follow this link to donate to their efforts to connect legal and social advocates fighting for those living in poverty in BC, Canada.

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