Happy New Year! Here we are, one year after I wrote and shared my New Year’s Revolution/40th Birthday Manifesto. Whether you’ve been following along since day one or if you’re brand new here, thanks for joining in on this conversation. We’ve been talking about taking a justice approach to our work and how we can better talk about the work of the non-profit sector, exploring some “alternate narratives” along the way.
Since most of the motivation for this Disrupt For Good project comes from books I’m reading, I thought it would make sense to do a round-up of the books that have influenced my thinking (and writing) the most in 2021.
If you comment below by January 9, 2022 with your favourite post from 2021 and which book you’d most like to read from the list, your name will go in a draw for a chance to win that book!
I don’t know what it’s like in your community, but here, non-profit agencies (mine included) are almost tripping over themselves to make it known that they are not duplicating services.
Duplicating services has become a dirty term somehow...but only when we are talking about poor people, of course. No one seems insulted by the number of grocery stores, gas stations, cafes, or cell phone providers. But we’re mortified to think that there might be multiple agencies providing coats to the homeless, or that people needing a warm meal might have options. The inefficiencies! Gasp!
Questioning whether redundancy in the social sector is actually a problem is new for me in the last few months. It’s not a fully formed argument yet, but as a thought exercise, I believe it holds merit for us all so I wanted to invite you in.
Three main points that I want to look at here: Some choice is good for clients. Some redundancy is good for service providers. And a bit of competition is good for all of us.
It’s Living Wage Week! You know your girl is a big Living Wage champion, so this month’s rant will tackle a few of the most pervasive and harmful economy myths, especially those related to giving low-wage earners raises.
But first, let’s set the mood with a few words from our communications queen, Anat Shenker-Osorio:
“After everything that has happened, how is it possible that conservatives still win debates about the economy? Time and time again the right wins over voters by claiming that their solutions are only common sense, even as their tired policies of budgetary sacrifice and corporate plunder both create and prolong economic disaster.” - the front book flap of Don’t Buy It, by Anat Shenker-Osorio.
Ok. When I read that, my takeaway is that communication is key to this grand deception. Which means communication is--at least in part--our way out. Here we go.
Housing affordability dominated the conversation during Canada’s recent federal election, with each major party putting forward policy ideas and funding promises in their platforms. In the Vote Housing campaign, we urged voters to prioritize housing when they filled in their ballots. But with multiple, varied promises from each party, we were admittedly asking voters to do a lot of analysis.
It's very easy to think you need to be a policy expert to engage in this housing affordability conversation, but I would like to suggest that even if you don't have all the answers, a few strategic questions can disrupt the status quo and send the message that we are paying attention.
With our 44th federal election now underway, many charities are considering how to leverage this election to the benefit of the people we support through our work. Some, like those of us in Ontario, also have provincial and municipal elections coming up within the next 12-18 months, providing additional opportunities to engage with, and garner commitments from, political candidates.
So many of the issues we work daily to address are symptoms of bad policy: homelessness, poverty, deaths from substance use, climate change, and more. Bad policy led to these crises, and we get to choose the people who make those policies.
But even though the strict limitations of the CRA “10% rule” has been lifted for years now, advocacy still makes many charities nervous. We have, mostly out of necessity, prioritized treating the symptoms of bad policy over working to replace those policies with better ones.
If your charity is ready to take on not just social service, but social change—and I really hope you are–here are a few of my favourite pieces of advice on leveraging elections for change: Read the full article written for Charity Village here.
In part one of this pair of rants, I wrote about shifting the focus of the cause of homelessness back to where it belongs: onto the policies that put the right to housing out of reach for many. This is one narrative that needs to change as we work to end homelessness. If homelessness is understood as a personal choice or individualized failing, our calls for policy reform don't make sense. When homelessness is framed as the result of bad policy decisions, the need for new policy is more obvious.
In part two, I want to focus on the need to carry that alternate narrative, and it's flip side, consistently into our boardrooms, program planning meetings, and conversations with program participants. It's so easy to slip back into that belief that homelessness is the fault of the person experiencing it when it comes to assisting that person to regain housed status. On the one hand, we say homelessness is a policy choice and on the other, we name mental health and addictions as two key barriers to rehousing efforts, and treat shelter participants as if they don't know how to make good choices and take care of themselves.
Society already tends to shun the visibly homeless. We can inadvertently contribute to the social exclusion by layering on mental illness and addictions narratives, and undermining autonomy. This compounds what is for many the most profound negative impact of the homelessness experience. So much harm is done when a person is "othered" by society and social inclusion (aka community) is an often overlooked piece of the solving homelessness puzzle.
I'm fresh off our 3rd YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Week here in Barrie, so I've been giving even more thought than usual to messaging around affordable housing and homelessness.
I have two strands of thought on this:
In this post I'll address the first - some thoughts on an alternate narrative to homelessness as the fault of the person experiencing it. Stay tuned for part two...
"Social service work addresses the needs of individuals reeling from the personal and devastating impact of institutional systems of exploitation and violence. Social change work challenges the root causes of the exploitation and violence." (The Revolution Will Not Be Funded)
How many of us got into the non-profit sector to do social change work, but ended up doing social service work? How many organizations does this happen to as a reaction to funding structures rather than a strategic decision?
Because there is no money for organizing, only for programs and projects, preferably new or pilot programs and projects (not proven ones, those are boring), but only for one year at a time, and certainly no more than 10% on overhead expenses, and you'd better buLIEVE the mandatory quarterly reports will suck your will to live.
That's because the Revolution.
What is a narrative?
In its simplest term, a narrative is a story. In systems change advocacy, when we refer to narratives, we’re referencing the deeply held beliefs that shape people’s actions. It’s not any one story, it is the collection of stories, memes, tweets, videos, sermons, books, and dinner table conversations that either help maintain the status quo or give momentum to a change movement.
There is a growing acknowledgement of the power these stories can have. Isabel Crabtree-Condor is a knowledge broker for Oxfam, and she describes narratives as the invisible force that hold things in place and prevents change, even shuts down conversations about change.
So, as the story goes, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) -- a temporary income support of $500 a week during the COVID-19 pandemic -- caused the overdose crisis. Or at least contributed to it heavily. This story is used to prop up the idea that giving money to people who use drugs is not in their own best interest (I've even heard it called a "death wish") because they'll use that money to buy a whole bunch of extra drugs, and die.
Friends, this story is startlingly accepted as fact, even among those who work to support people who use drugs.
But it's just not true.
In this post, I'll point to sources that debunk this myth, explain why it is very dangerous, and suggest a new narrative. (Because by now we know that saying, "No, CERB didn't cause the overdose crisis" just gives that false story oxygen. We need a new narrative using new words.)