From Mentor to Ally

Working my way out of the poverty business

When I was first employed in the poverty business, an industry that employs tens of thousands of Canadians, I was told that it was my goal to work myself out of a job.

The idea was that if I was effective in my work, I would eliminate the need.

Eliminating poverty however, I soon realized, would mean those tens of thousands of poverty workers would be unemployed. I had to wonder “Is it really in their best interests to solve the problem?”

To treat the root causes of poverty, instead of its symptoms, would unplug the great social-service machine that is fueled by people’s neediness. Addressing what causes that neediness is not in the interest of the wheels of government, or those at the levers of a labour market that benefit from keeping “the wolf at the door” of a workforce.

The poverty industry machine continues to run — employing me — and so many others. Taxpayer’s dollars — not unlike the ten billion our government poured into GM to keep Canadians working — continue to feed this dinosaur industry of another era.

  • What if those taxpayers became personally involved in creating an alternative to the poverty machine?
  • What if poverty’s “clients” became leaders instead in the growing of an organic model of shared prosperity?
  • What if people from all walks of life came together as neighbours to imagine how a local economy could fully employ every person in meeting needs currently unmet?

It is citizens that could take this scenario from some academic dream theory into reality. It is ordinary people whose interests would be served.

“Whatever the problem — community is the answer.”
— Margaret Wheatley

But if you ask, “Who wants prosperity for everyone?” then we might also ask, “In whose interests would this be?”

In an upper room of a downtown Peterborough church there’s a small social experiment growing solutions — one relationship at a time.

Seeded by church and foundation dollars, started by church workers — based on an educational construct developed by academics — ordinary people are creating something that has the potential — if not to replace the poverty machine — to transform our relationship with it.

Peterborough’s Bridging Out of Poverty Teams bring together under-resourced people living in poverty with volunteer mentors who have resources to share. On one level you might say it’s a system of resource re-distribution. But beneath that surface, there’s something much more radical happening.

Lynn, my life partner, and I were invited to join the team for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration. It’d been six months since we’d finished our work with the team as the paid staff animators of the team.

About 18 months earlier we’d invited this group of strangers into the experiment. What might happen if people from different walks of life came together weekly to share a meal, tell stories, have fun, study poverty and chip away at the work of stabilizing the lives of the under-resourced people in the team?

Key to the experiment was that the participants who were living in poverty were considered the lead problem-solvers. With staff support, they planned the sessions. They chose the curriculum. They evaluated the group’s progress. And they determined the pace.

Staff offered both streams of participants training. Under-resourced folks in poverty were given tools of social analysis and critical awareness. Mentors were given lessons in asking questions instead of offering advice (Can you teach old dogs new tricks?). We called the mentor training “From Mentor to Ally”.

Early in our research we attended a session at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre. A young Indigenous leader told us that no one can claim to be an ally. “It’s a title that has to be given to you by those you seek to work with,” she explained. “No one can call themselves an Elder — the community names its elders.”

Over food, stories, and fun we get to see into each other’s lives.

So, we invite participants to come as mentors — to learn from those who solve poverty’s problems every day of their lives. And to learn how ask good questions before offering the good advice that’s worked for them and which starts from a place of privilege.

We spend a lot of time building trust and learning before we even get to the “helping” stage. Over food, stories, and fun we get to see into each other’s lives. It’s a slow process and patience is required.

By then we all begin to see how change is a product of relationship. And we see how all of us need help with the change we all aspire to.

Over the nine months the group gradually began taking on the various roles and responsibilities to keep the team going, like eating, learning, evaluation. Then the paid staff pulled out.

And the team kept meeting.

Staff continued to meet weekly in a parallel internship program with three of the under-resourced leaders. These three had chosen to become trained as Bridging Team facilitators. As part of their training they took on the leadership of the first group with the support of mentors.

So, when Lynn and I, as the staff who had started the experiment, were invited back to join the team for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration — I couldn’t help but give them an evaluation task before the celebrations began.

Each member of the group was asked to complete a sentence beginning with, “We are a group of people who…”

The following is how members of the group ended that sentence:

“We are a group of people who…”

“Believe people in poverty are problem-solvers.”

“Believe by building resources there is a way out of poverty.”

“Would love to help people get out of poverty and stabilize their lives.”

“Have grown together, removed “class” barriers, love and support each other!”

“Are of leaders, learning, sharing and spreading our wings, soaring to new heights.”

“Love community building, love meeting others who have different, yet same in most ways, histories.”

“Believe social capital needs to be built and expanded.”

“Have learned from and taught each other about our differences and our similarities — basically the same but unique.”

“Became family and friends.”

“Support one another in mutuality, mutual caring, sharing, learning, laughing, loving, and eating with each other.”

“Are teachers and students.”

“Go beyond a room and a meeting place. We are friends!”

“We are family.”

“Believe people have unlimited talent that sometimes just needs to be set free.”

“Are friends who meet often to eat each other’s delicious food and share our resources with one another.”

After nearly 30 years working in the poverty business, I had a new experience. For the first time — I felt like I’d worked myself out of a job.

Photo by Yvonne Hollandy


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Allan David Smith-Reeve

Allan David Smith-Reeve

Allan Smith-Reeve is an innovator of community projects that draw diverse peoples together with passion, creativity, and hope to reveal uncovered potential like dandelions in the midst of empire's decaying sidewalks.