PovNet goes to school: musings on academia and community

Several months ago I was approached by Michael Cooke, the President of the Carold Institute, the organization that awarded me a community fellowship in 2008. He said that Carold had embarked on a new partnership with St Paul’s University College at the University of Waterloo, and their Principal, Graham Brown had invited me to be there inaugural visiting fellow for a week. I was to engage with students and professors, give a public lecture, speak to classes, and write and reflect.

“Sure,” I said. I figured it would be a break from staring at soul-destroying funding cuts budgets and reports. I was going to be in Ontario anyways for a national colloquium on access to justice. And I’m interested in how academia and community organizations can form productive and mutually respectful relationships with each other.

I arrived in snowy Waterloo on Monday February 3 and the next morning my first event was an interview about PovNet for an online coast-to-coast Masters of Social Work class “Knowledge Mobilization and Evidence-Based Practice”. I was asked whether PovNet was a knowledge mobilizer; I had no idea what knowledge mobilization was. But the two professors who interviewed me were interesting and interested, and quick to modify their pre-determined questions to accommodate my somewhat less than academic sensibilities. We liked each other, and we had fun.

Over the course of the next few days, I met with students and professors in international development programs who were going to be going out into the field. They wanted to know about our work with marginalized communities – they were interested in how we used technology for social change.

I was invited to the Aboriginal Education Centre for soup (actually it was really good chili) and bannock (baked and fried, both) to talk a bit about our work at PovNet. A warm and welcoming place – I went back the next day as I had a bit of extra time and chatted with the co-ordinator, Luane Lentz. I had brought with me as a gift for the Centre, several copies of a poem called “Remember,” about residential schools, written by Jacqueline Oker, an Indigenous writer and published by Lazara Press (the author had given me permission to distribute the poem).

I gave a public lecture to a fairly small segment of the public (there was a snowstorm that night) about “How Digital Activism Can Help Make Poverty History.”

A couple of the anti-poverty activists whom I had invited braved the storm to come from Kitchener to the talk. I recognized them right away even though we hadn’t met – it was good to have allies from my own community sitting at the back of the room.

I went back to Kitchener on Friday morning. Trudy Beaulne, the Executive Director of the Social Planning Council Kitchener-Waterloo had organized lunch at a local Greek restaurant and invited Greg deGroot-Maggetti, People in Poverty Program Coordinator of the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, Rev. Michael Hackbusch from the House of Friendship and Charles Nichols an anti-poverty activist in the areas of homelessness, welfare and disability rights and a self-advocate.

Anti-poverty groups and academic institutions traditionally have a rocky relationship. In some instances, we are working to form respectful peer relationships with each other. We travel carefully in each other’s very different countries, sometimes exploring each other’s languages and cultures. Seeing if and how we can connect.

But community activists want to write our own histories — we don’t want people from the outside speaking for us in a language that we don’t use.

We do write our own histories.

We tell our own stories. We produce analysis about the systemic “poornogrophy” of poverty. We are poets.

We even write murder mysteries set in our own communities.

But our research is called grey literature and is somehow not as legitimate, according to the experts.

We get help from academics to archive our histories. But the grant runs out, and our archives are not complete.

The last night I was at the University of Waterloo, I had dinner with a couple of social work professors and a PhD student. I was talking about the struggle we were having with finding funding for PovNetU. One of my hosts asked if we had considered partnering with academic institutions. I replied that we had, but that we are committed to offering courses to advocates who wouldn’t necessarily be able to pay fees, and that didn’t work with an academic partnership model. He disagreed. We will stay in touch.