It’s a common question—a staple of introductory small-talk. It’s a generally inoffensive and well-intentioned question intended to open the floodgates of conversation. It’s also a question loaded with privilege. News never covers it like this, but it’s shameful in our capitalist society to be jobless.
Unemployment and underemployment is a concern for all Canadian cities, but Peterborough is worse off than you might suspect. Although the numbers have since improved, last August Peterborough had the highest unemployment rate in all of Ontario.
For some, there are insurmountable barriers to obtaining meaningful employment. Factors such as lack of education, criminal record, or disability can disadvantage those competing in the job market. Already marginalized individuals face additional prejudice, and get caught in an unemployment shame-cycle, unable to answer, “Where do you work?”
Ralph Gutkin, a local community activist, is trying to prevent that embarrassing statistic from repeating with by taking part in a project to bring a “Working Centre” to Peterborough.
The project is based on a model currently operating in Kitchener. That city’s Working Centre was established by Joe and Stephanie Mancini in 1982 to address the area’s unemployment and poverty. Today, Kitchener’s the Working Centre is a non-profit organization that offers training and other tools to assist residents in finding work; it organizes its projects into six areas: the Job Search Resource Centre, St. John’s Kitchen, Community Tools, Access to Technology, Affordable Supportive Housing, and the Waterloo School for Community Development.
Gutkin is a member of a committee that is attempting to establish a Working Centre here in Peterborough. The project will be a resource network assisting unemployed and impoverished people, providing access to community services such as skills training, and connecting these individuals to local employers.
In his blog series published on PeterboroughDialogues.media, Gutkin describes his prospective centre’s activities as combining social enterprise and community service in order to build community; ultimately, the goal is to invite people to become involved in building community here in Peterborough. Gutkin describes an environment in which marginalized individuals are drawn out of isolation and offered the opportunity to be part of a team, working to fulfil a public need. In this environment, the vulnerable populations are not shamed for their lack of work, nor are they othered by those providing public service; rather, in this model, both parties collaborate towards a common goal.
Gutkin credits Working Centre founders Joe and Stephanie Mancini for his interest in this project, stating in his blog that he had “the privilege” of attending a three-day summer symposium with them. In June the couple will be in Peterborough for a two-day workshop to address these issues. Gutkin is not alone in his admiration for their work: the couple were awarded an Order of Canada in 2016 in recognition of their contribution to the Kitchener-Waterloo region.
Thankfully, we may be witnessing a shift in ideology away from shaming the unemployed. According to a recently published article in Maclean’s, there is growing momentum behind the universal basic income movement, which could be a reasonable solution to the unemployment shame cycle of the disenfranchised.
In the meantime, however, hope rests with community leaders like Ralph Gutkin, working to increase poverty awareness and close that shame cycle. Perhaps someday the question “Where do you work?” will not be such a measure of worth, and we can get back to every Canadian’s favourite topic of small talk, the changing faces of weather.
Stephanie and Joe Mancini of Kitchener’s The Working Centre will be in Peterborough for a two-day workshop June 14 and 15 (more info).
Images courtesy The Working Centre in Kitchener.