A New Project Tackles the Challenges and Opportunities of Implementing A Living Wage and Sparking Social Change. Led by Carleton Researchers, the Community First Venture Serves As A Bridge Between Academic Inquiry and Community Development.
Governments and non-profit community agencies often speak of their plans to eradicate poverty, yet the problem is extremely complex. Rooted in multiple overlapping causes, with unique manifestations across a wide range of demographic and cultural groups, poverty can be difficult to quantify. Everything from stress and social isolation to poor housing and health is part of the picture, and perceptions vary greatly. The multi-generational cycle of restricted opportunity is hard to break.
Universities are well equipped to help deconstruct and confront this challenging issue, but many researchers are reluctant to use such phrases as “the common good.” Objectivity and neutrality, after all, are two of the main principles of the scientific method. In their book Research for Social Justice: A Community-Based Approach, however, Karen Schwartz and Adje van de Sande, associate professors at Carleton University’s school of social work, argue that academic inquiry in their field need not be value-free. “Just as social work is committed to social justice and social change, that should be the aim of social work research,” they write. “We also believe that schools of social work have a responsibility to leave the ‘ivory tower’ and stay connected to the community.”
For years, Schwartz’s and van de Sande’s students have worked on research projects driven by social service organizations that lack the capacity to evaluate and refine their programs on their own. This led to a series of conversations on campus about the nature of these engagements. What are the benefits to community groups, some professors asked. What ethical factors are at play? Is there a power imbalance? How can these partnerships be designed to maximize their value to non-profits?
These questions and conversations begat a national Carleton-led research project called Community First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE), which launched in fall 2012, supported by a $2.5-million, seven-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The project is aligned with Carleton’s strategic plan, specifically its emphasis on building sustainable communities. Mostly, though, its intent is to facilitate campus-community collaborations that spark progressive change.
CFICE (pronounced “suffice”) is divided into five self-managed hubs: poverty reduction, co-helmed by Schwartz and Donna Jean Forster-Gill of Vibrant Communities, an offshoot of the national Waterloo-based charity Tamarack; food security; environmental sustainability; violence against women; and knowledge mobilization, which will really get rolling in 2016 as the other hubs shift their focus from research to policy change at all three levels of government.
Universities have long sent students into community placements, with internships and co-ops more common in certain areas, such as nursing and social work. But there’s a new view in the academy, says Schwartz: “We need to prepare students to be better social citizens, and we as universities need to be better social citizens. We are part of the community, and this is one way of giving back.”
CFICE research assistant Natasha Pei, who will receive her master’s degree in social work from Carleton at fall convocation, feels that universities often have resources they can share: space, students, access to grant money. “As the income gap gets wider,” she says, “research that we do could help a large number of people.” Joining this project, Pei adds, affirmed that she’s in the right field.
The main campus of McMaster University is located in the leafy west end of Hamilton, in the lee of the Niagara Escarpment, beside a verdant bird-rich wetland called Cootes Paradise. The city’s neediest neighbourhoods are in the gritty downtown core and the industrial east end. Students and professors must travel five kilometres downslope to get there. The divide within Hamilton is mirrored by the divide between other parts of the province and the port city at the western terminus of Lake Ontario, where the economy has been slow to recover from the erosion of manufacturing jobs. “I’ve seen tremendous progress,” says Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction (HRPR), “but we still have a long way to go.”
The average income of the wealthiest one percent of Hamilton’s population is 13 times greater than the average income of the bottom 90 percent, compared with nine times higher in 1982. Roughly 80,000 people (about 15 percent of the population) live below the poverty line, including 30,000 working Hamiltonians and 22,000 children— nearly enough kids to fill the new football stadium. In the downtown L8N postal code, where 46 percent of residents live in poverty, life expectancy and other health indicators resemble Third World levels.
One of the ways that Cooper and the HRPR are trying to tackle the inequality and create a more inclusive city is by campaigning for a living-wage policy. A living wage is the pay that two parents in a family of four must earn to cover basic expenses such as food, shelter and utilities if they work 37½ hours a week. Based on the local cost of living, the rate in Hamilton is $14.95 per hour. Research shows that people who make a living wage are happier and healthier than they would be at minimum wage and hold the same job longer. This helps their employers reduce training and recruitment costs and lost productivity from absenteeism, in addition to all the other socio-economic spinoffs. “It’s really about enhancing community well-being,” says Cooper. Yet convincing companies to see the benefits can be an uphill battle.
Now, however, Cooper has some help. Supported by CFICE, the HRPR has teamed up with researchers at the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative and the university’s DeGroote School of Business to explore the implications of instituting a living wage. The empirical evidence generated by this work is helping Cooper make a compelling case.
In March 2013, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board declared itself a living-wage employer, a move that will boost the salaries of hundreds of custodians, groundskeepers and other staff. A local fabrication plant and a fitness club are also on board. And this is only the beginning. The lessons learned in Hamilton will be shared across Canada through CFICE, and the campus–community collaboration at the heart of this leap forward will serve as a model to guide other universities into research partnerships with non-profits in their own backyards. “CFICE is an important tool,” says Cooper. “It has helped us develop ideas, and what works in Hamilton can have an impact in other communities too.”
Another spoke in the CFICE poverty hub is based at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus (UNBSJ), where faculty and students are trying to help youth in two of the city’s priority neighbourhoods through the Promise Partnership mentoring program. Part-time teachers hired by UNBSJ tutor high school students on campus, and 185 university students do one-on-one academic and social mentoring with youth at Hazen White–St. Francis, a kindergarten to Grade 8 school a five-minute drive away. “We want to try to help them persist through high school,” says program manager Tracey Chiasson, citing high dropout rates in the two neighbourhoods, “so they will graduate and have more options.”
When funding from CFICE allowed Chiasson and her colleagues to conduct research into the efficacy of Promise Partnership, several questions sprang to mind. Do residents of the city’s impoverished neighbourhoods want to interact with the university? What do parents of the mentees think about the university? And what are the differences between UNBSJ students who volunteer and those who don’t get involved?
Some of the mentee parents, says Chiasson, summarizing the research findings, did not even know there was a university in their city. Others thought it was not a sensible goal for their children—until they were shown statistics on the earning potential and career paths open to people with post-secondary degrees. (“That’s profound,” Schwartz says about the attitude shift. “You can do all the mentorship you want, but if you don’t have the parents on board to support their children, it’s much more challenging.”) The mentees’ grades are being tracked as they progress through school, to reveal which subjects tutors may need to stress. “It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the day,” says Chiasson, “but we need data to know if we’re achieving our goals.” And funders usually want to see data before they commit.
The mentors, meanwhile, are getting more than superficial impressions of the youth who live on the fringe of campus. In fall 2014, for the first time since the inception of Promise Partnership four years ago, there was a waiting list of UNBSJ students who wanted to sign on. And as with the living-wage work in Hamilton, the lessons learned in Saint John will be disseminated throughout Canada and used to push for policy change. “Education can help break the poverty cycle,” says Chiasson. “All of us who do this kind of work have the same end goal. We’re just approaching the problem in different ways, from different places.”
Vibrant Communities was a natural choice to co-lead CFICE’s poverty reduction hub. Community engagement and collaboration are at the heart of its anti-poverty efforts. So is a long-term, comprehensive outlook, says project manager Donna Jean Forster-Gill. Solutions can be found only by bringing together government, business, academia, social-service agencies and their clients; by reflecting on and learning from approaches that are working; by using “assets” that already exist, such as food banks and recreation centres; and by letting frontline services deal with the immediate effects of poverty, focusing instead on larger systemic changes that will take time to implement. “If you’re talking about policy change,” she says, “you have to have the research behind it.”
Working in tandem with university partners is relatively new to Forster-Gill, but the experience is not unfamiliar. These collaborations, like all Vibrant Communities projects, are built around relationships— mutually beneficial connections that both parties steer.
“If you try to impose an idea from above, without input from people at a grassroots level, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” says Schwartz. “This isn’t the university coming in and saying, ‘Let’s do this.’ It’s ‘Let’s sit down together and generate a plan.’ This is incredibly important, because it’s bringing all the players to the table and getting everybody to agree, ‘This is what we’ll do to fight poverty,’ rather than have everybody run off in different directions. If you really have grassroots buy-in, you can be that much more effective.”
So effective, in fact, that you just might help close the gaps between rich and poor, between campus and community, in Hamilton, Saint John and beyond.