Essay submitted by Dr. Tyler Pearce
Executive Director, Local Investment Toward Employment
Beautiful and surprising things appear when people are placed in the centre and play a deep role in shaping the places they live, work, and love.
In Winnipeg, thanks to a generation of Indigenous leaders, allies and social activists, we’ve been gifted the Neechi Principles of Community Economic Development (CED), a list of interwoven values that center human dignity and practices that support, inter alia, employment, skill development and building local economies.1
These principles form the “DNA” of many community-based organizations that, together and walking alongside one another, seek to create economies of care and healing in response to intergenerational poverty, the legacies of residential schools and colonialism, and the structural inequities in our city. Training and employment, and increasingly self-employment, are a big part of the economic and development parts of CED.
But ironically, today’s CED approaches, which aim to give people the tools to get out of poverty, are becoming ineffective because of the all-encompassing and overwhelming burden of poverty. For example, a woman with young children who accesses social assistance and wishes to enroll in healing or pre-employment programs can be stymied by her monthly budget gap. How does one focus on healing or upgrading when they need to find a way to feed themselves?
There are ways of closing the gap; accessing more than one hamper program, for example. And there are less pleasant ways, but they mostly involve people putting themselves in danger.
The CED organization I help lead is increasingly offering “harm reduction jobs,” which allow people to show up, make a product and earn money then-and-there. These jobs offer low-barrier access to income that can help participants solve budget gaps.
This is helpful, but it’d be better if we didn’t force people to make up the gap in the first place.
Our ability to offer harm reduction jobs is wholly dependent on donors. And too often, the imagined needs identified by philanthropists pre-determine what programs are offered to low-income communities.
“We really want to provide children with a good meal,” a philanthropist told me recently, after I pitched support for harm-reduction jobs.
Children do need meals. Parents, particularly single parents and those with two or more young children, struggle to put enough on the table. But for parents worried about the gap between paying rent, Hydro or food – a gap that carries the risk of having their kids being taken by Child Welfare – a nice meal is just a nice meal. It is not problem-solving. Income is what makes it possible for parents to focus on learning and life skills.
Today, we live in a society that feels comfortable helping children (but not parents), giving out bagged lunches (but not providing a parent with gift cards or the opportunity to earn income in a non-standard job to purchase food for their children), or paying foster parents (but not topping up social assistance or providing a minimum income to everyone). The common denominator is a distrust of the very people many say they want to help – moms, parents, families. Indigenous moms. Brown dads. Poor families.
When donors insist on helping in ways that those living and working in community-based programs don’t propose, donors are using their power to keep families from having the chance to get out of poverty. Today, many charities are too polite to say “boo.” Many have simply given up asking for charitable contributions that would allow them to impact more than the passing moment.
In the next 100 years, I dream of a philanthropy so infused with the values and ways of working developed by the Neechi Principles, that Winnipeggers could hardly understand what philanthropy looks like without them.
We have a long way to go.
Dr. Tyler Pearce is the Executive Director of Local Investment Toward Employment (LITE), which creates 400+ job experiences a year for people held back from participating in the labour market by social or economic circumstances, and works to support community economic development through social enterprise development. Tyler previously worked at BUILD, a training program social enterprise, and was a part of a team of people who helped create the Social Enterprise Centre on Main Street. Prior to that, she was a social housing advocate with Right to Housing, and worked on provincial policy and communications with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Winnipeg. She holds a PhD in economic geography.