Just before the Alberta election last week, I was involved with Women Rising Up, a conference about ending poverty in Calgary. A small dogged committee worked on this conference for nearly a year under the leadership of Mary Sheridan, a member of Parkdale United Church. The United Way, the YWCA, the Women’s Centre, Women Together Ending Poverty and the Child Well-being Initiative
We all know charity is important. We also know it’s not enough. It doesn’t get at the systemic reasons for poverty, and it’s often humiliating for recipients. We planned a conference where participants would be a mix of people who had and had not experienced poverty. Any woman could come — there would be no entry fee, and bus tickets, meals and childcare would be free. It would be beautiful, with flowers, art, live music and theatre. We invited only women because women often speak more openly about sensitive issues away from men.
On the opening Friday night, Blackfoot elder Audrey Weasel Traveller blessed our gathering and spoke about women’s power. We learned from Lorna Crowshoe, the Aboriginal issues strategist for the City of Calgary, about poverty issues in the local Aboriginal community.
On Saturday, the United Way presented a two-hour poverty simulation exercise. We were given new identities, based on real people. It took a little time to slide into character and begin our lives together. I became a working wife, 39, with an unemployed husband and a pregnant 16-year-old. Our days were spent in line-ups at the Food Bank, the pawnshop, the employment agency — and for me — working at a boring job. Each simulated week lasted 15 minutes. Within two weeks, my family faced eviction. At the end of our simulated month, I was so focused on keeping our home that I was hardly speaking to my husband and daughter. I felt frustrated. The simulation teaches many things, including how little time and energy is left in a week for advocacy work. That lesson remains with me long after the experience.
Later, we heard from experts: three women with lived experience of poverty. One had lived on the street, been incarcerated and now runs an agency to help women after prison. Another was an optometrist currently living in a women’s shelter. The third was a war refugee. It wasn’t only that they told powerful and courageous stories, they did so in a circle, without notes, podiums or tables; they were vulnerable. In our program, we named them Truth Tellers.
We concluded with an afternoon Open Space Forum
focusing on how each of us will continue working to end poverty. A day later, on election night, NDP leader Brian Mason actually mentioned children in his election night speech. Conservative Premier Allison Redford has promised to end child poverty within five years. And the liberals have been talking about school lunch programs for years.
As we gather more allies and hold our leaders to their words, I dare to hope we’re making progress to eliminate poverty in Alberta. And of course, in Canada. Why not?
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