Monthly Archives: March 2014


As part of the project Innovative Practices in Inclusive Urban Development and Poverty Reduction, described on the project page with this title, I’ll be joining colleagues at World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia April 5 – 11, 2014.

I’m looking forward to sharing Winnipeg stories and connecting with other researchers doing similar work with community-based initiatives.

Towards a Global Network of Inclusive Urban Development Labs

Although Winnipeg’s inner city has many challenges, they pale in comparison to the challenges that Medellin has endured. This article by Ed Vulliamy published in the Guardian in 2013 provides an excellent overview of Medellin’s violent past and how this city, once known as the most dangerous city in the world, has “reinvented” itself.

Some 10,000 people from across the world are expected to attend World Urban Forum 7.  It’s sure to be a great learning experience.

Thanks to our partner, the Manitoba Research Alliance, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for providing myself and colleague Lynne Fernandez with a grant to attend WUF 7.


Breaking Barriers – Building Bridges

The University of Winnipeg participated in the Spur Festival this past week by providing grade 11 and 12 students with an opportunity to participate in the Spur Young Scholars Winnipeg event. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about Spur but I agreed to participate by teaching a class  on Friday afternoon titled Introduction to Urban and Inner City Studies. 

In preparation for the class I tried to think of what might interest a group of students that I didn’t know anything about except that they would likely be 16-17 years old. Students tend to like visual presentations and I wanted to present them with something that they could relate to, so I decided to show a film produced by Carole O’Brien that captures a project that I worked on a few years ago through the CCPA Manitoba and the Manitoba Research Alliance. It remains one of the more memorable education projects that I have worked on for a variety of reasons.

It was a particularly challenging project. It involved bringing high school students from suburban schools together with students from the North End based CEDA Pathways to Education Program and Aboriginal Elders, to discuss some challenging social issues in our city. Without getting into the details, it was a complicated project that came to a surprisingly successful end with the gathering of students. teachers  and Elders at the Circle of Life Thunderbird House and the making of a fabulous film that captures as best as was possible, the power of the day.  The story is written up in the 2012 State of the Inner City Report titled Breaking Barriers – Building Bridges but the film that was produced really shows what is possible when we bring young people from diverse backgrounds and experiences together.

Tragically, months after the day at Thunderbird House one of the students actively involved in the project took his life. Shaun was bright and kind – a young person seen as a leader among his peers. This is pertinent to the story that follows because a few of his friends happened to attend my Spur class.  As the saying goes, Winnipeg is indeed a ‘very small town’.

We began the class with introductions. It was a small group. All but one student was from the inner city.  Interesting I thought.  Some of the students were from the North End and It immediately occurred to me that they may have known Shaun, so I made a mental note to deal with that after showing the film.  But first, we talked about perceptions of the inner city.  We talked about racism, poverty and the realities that our city is very much a ‘divided’ city.  They were a very perceptive and engaged group of students.

Then we viewed the film.  When Shaun appeared in the film I heard a few whispers.

Otherwise there was silence.

So, “what do you think” i asked when the film credits rolled.

“I like that idea of bringing students from different places together with elders”  said one of the students. Others nodded. “I would really like to do something like that” said another.

Then I confronted the elephant in the room.  “I am wondering if some of you might have known Shaun” I asked. Three of the students immediately said “yes” and they shared with the others that Shaun was a wonderful person and they were very sad that he had died. But they said that they were happy to see him in the film – a reminder of what a great person he was. We talked about that for awhile and one of the students asked if she could show a film that she made about suicide.  We watched it together and chatted a bit more about suicide, the inner city and other issues. I talked a bit about the Urban and Inner City Studies program on Selkirk Avenue. and before we knew it our hour was up.

As I packed up to leave one of the students approached me and asked me where she you could find “Shaun’s film”.  I gave her the link.  She went on to talk about what a wonderful person he was and how kind he had been to her. She said that seeing him in the film made her very happy because she wanted to remember him that way. She thanked me for showing it.

It was a powerful Friday afternoon. Thanks to all of the Spur students who attended my class. I enjoyed spending the hour with you.















Power From the Struggle: A Lesson From Lived Experience

It’s March 12, nearing the end of the term and I am overwhelmed with assignments to grade, papers to write, emails to answer, meetings to attend, and classes to prepare for. While I love to teach and look forward to discussions with my super smart students, I have to confess that when I woke up this morning thinking about all that I have on my plate, I had a fleeting thought that if I could skip class today I might get caught up a bit.

Of course I wouldn’t do that and especially not today. Some of the students in the Community Organizing class that I teach presented their term papers. I also had a presentation prepared. It was about an interview I recently read with the Greg Sharzer, the author of the book No Local.  Sharzer provides a Marxist analysis of the limitations of localism. I found the article a good fit with the course material on many levels but his message about the necessity of collective struggle and resistance was particularly pertinent.

The first student presentation was a critical assessment of a community-based organization that while providing important services to its ‘community’ falls short, or so it seems, when it comes to politicizing its constituency and advocating at a broader political level.

A second presentation focused on an organization that does quite the opposite. There appeared to be at least two fundamental differences between this organization and that in the first presentation. The first example was an organization that did not grow organically from the population that it served. Its mandate was essentially that of ‘helper’ and in order to ‘provide help’ it received funding from various state bodies. The second example was an international organization built from the struggle of peasants, small farm owners and farm workers – resisters of the neoliberal marketization of food.

A third presentation was interestingly “in between”.  It was the story of a local organization that grew from the struggle of disabled activists but had lost some of its activist steam along the way. A common reality for organizations that have come to depend on charitable and state funding but limited in what they can do—in effect silenced —through the confines of the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act

These were all great presentations (further demonstrating how super smart my students are!).

But a fourth presentation spoke to the power that can come from struggle in a different way.  It was a presentation about the private and collective struggle of individuals living with and fighting against the stigma that comes with having a mental illness. I was moved to tears by the student’s personal and extremely insightful story and her generosity. I was grateful that Jen selflessly and generously trusted the class enough to share it with us.

I was also taken with how her story of struggle is not completely different than the struggle described in the other presentations and in the interview with Sharzer.

Jen informed us that “in experiences of trauma, it is common for individuals to blame themselves for what happened and to believe that there was something they could have done to stop it from happening”.  And while she was referring to trauma of a different and deeply damaging kind, I couldn’t help but think of the billions of people living in abject poverty, those who have lost their jobs, their homes, their pride—all as a result of the unbridled neo-liberal global capitalism that Sharzer speaks of,  yet are conditioned to believe that they are to blame for their ‘misfortune’. Surely they could have done something to “stop it from happening”.

Jen’s final thoughts. which she graciously permitted me to share in this post,  articulate the power that she has found in her struggle.  What she may or may not realize is that what she has learned through her personal journey is also applicable to the collective struggle for social and economic justice. She says:

“…l know that the dialogue has begun to take place more and more between myself and others, and that we share a determination that is about far more than finding healing and wholeness for our own selves. It’s about walking and struggling with others…about listening to stories and telling our own.  It’s about ending the shame that suffocates people in silence. It’s about being able to step forward together and say.  “I matter too, as much as you, and this has got to change.”.

Thanks for the lesson Jen.





Joe’s Story: I Just Want to Have a Decent Home

The term ‘poverty’ is used often but rarely defined.   One of the most important lessons I hope students in my Urban Poverty and Policy  Class take with them is an understanding of how their personal beliefs and values shape the way they view poverty.

One tool I use to get students to think about poverty from the perspective of people who live it, is by sharing Joe’s Story with them.  “Joe” (not his real name) describes what life in poverty is like for him. Joe is in a situation that requires him to rely on the  generosity of others to survive.  Living in poverty, says Joe, is to “have no choices…I  hate having no choices”.

Joe’s story is a great way to get students to think about poverty in a different way.  To think about what it would be like to have to rely on charity each and every day.  To begin to understand the limitations of charity and the damaging effects that poverty has on a persons sense of self.  To begin to see poverty as a structural problem that cannot be solved by charity.

I met the man who has come to be known by my students as “Joe” after receiving a telephone call from him in the summer of 2009.  He found my contact information after reading a newspaper article that I was quoted in.  The article was about the shortage of safe and affordable housing for people living in poverty in our city.

Joe called to tell me his housing story.  Every once in awhile I get calls like this.  I feel terrible when I receive them because there really isn’t anything I can do except listen or refer them to various service organizations or government representatives.  I hate that it must seem to them like I am yet one more person passing them off to someone else.

I had quite a long conversation with Joe.  He was very articulate about his situation and had a solid analysis.  It led me to think that if he was willing, it would be useful to tell his story.  Joe was familiar with the “fast facts’ series that the CCPA produced.  Often these commentaries are picked up by the Winnipeg Free Press – the primary local print media.

So, I made the suggestion that he tell his story in a ‘fast facts’.   He said that he wasn’t much of  a writer.  “No problem” I said “I can help you with that”.  And to ensure his privacy I suggested we could refer to him as “Joe”.  He liked that idea.

A few days later Joe dropped by my office with his notes.  We worked together to type them up.  He ensured that I accurately captured the details he wanted to share.  We sent it out to CCPAs many ‘fast facts’ subscribers and the Winnipeg Free Press published it as well.  Joe was delighted.  He said it felt good to tell his story.

Joe kept me informed over the following months as he tried to find affordable accommodations.  He dropped by one day, thrilled to report that he had been accepted into public housing.  He would finally have a safe and affordable place to live.

I’ve seen Joe many times since then.  Not as much lately since i’ve relocated to the University of Winnipeg, but he continued to visit me every few months at CCPA, updating me on the events of his life.   While Joe continues to live in poverty,  life is better.  Stable housing has made a difference.

I decided to share this story in this post as a way of thanking Joe for sharing his story with me.  Joe doesn’t know that he has made a huge contribution to my student’s education.  I’ve never told him that and I should.

A note to self for the next time that we meet.






Learning to look at poverty and welfare through a different lens

The students in my Urban Poverty and Policy class are really beginning to understand how the dominant discourse on poverty has shaped their understanding of poverty.  All too often students begin with a view of poverty as an individual failing rather than a structural problem.  I really enjoy reading the reflections students submit each week. Many very openly share their thoughts about the course readings, lectures and class discussions and write about how they are beginning  to see the world through a different lens.   

Last week one of my students sent me a link to an amazing video written and narrated by Ananya Roy from University of California Berkeley and fabulously illustrated by Abby Vanmuijen.  Who is dependent on welfare? is loaded with powerful information.

I shared it with the class and  I will incorporate into the course content in the future.  It really is a great education tool.  Check it out and share it widely!

This is third time I have taught the Urban Poverty and Policy Class in the Urban and Inner City Studies department at University of Winnipeg.  Students seem particularly interested in learning about the differences between charity and social justice.  Most people have no idea what the difference is.  Not surprising really, given the media’s preoccupation with telling the stories of those who ‘help the poor and under privileged’ with no analysis of why we have so much poverty in the first place.

Tools like Who is Dependant on Welfare are extremely useful if we are to have any success in shifting the discourse. Thanks Ananya Roy and Abby Vanmuijen for making the video and thanks Iain for sending it to me.