Can conversation, storytelling and relationship-building help to alleviate poverty?
One community group in Peterborough believes they can. And with funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and other sources, they’re aiming to build connections between individuals who live in poverty and members of the middle class so they can learn from one another and offer mutual support.
The group is called Bridges Peterborough, and it grew out of earlier initiatives spearheaded by Greenwood United Church and Bedford House Community Ministries.
The core program the group offers is something they call a “bridging team.” In a bridging team, about 15 community members from different class backgrounds meet weekly to connect, share life stories, learn from one another and pool resources.
“Bridging Teams create broader social networks across economic class lines, improve attitudes, open social and economic doors, and change the conversation about poverty,” states the organization’s website.
A major objective of the teams is to tap the community’s own resources in responding to the problem of poverty, rather than rely on institutional or professional interventions. “We question the power and advice of poverty professionals,” the website states.
“We’re not social workers,” says Allan Smith-Reeve, who along with his wife, Lynn, helped to shape the initiative in its early days. Allan prefers to consider Bridges Peterborough as a group of “passionate amateurs.” This is “really hearkening back to neighbourhoods,” he says, “and a time when people knew their neighbours and there were more opportunities for people to help each other out.”
Two bridging teams have been run so far. The first one started in 2016 as a pilot project run by Bedford House and hosted at Trinity United Church. Following that, a second team was hosted at the Mount Community Centre.
In 2019, seed funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation allowed the group to hire low-income participants from the first bridging teams to develop training materials and document the model so it could be replicated throughout the community, and maybe even further afield.
Now, with a renewed Trillium grant, Bridges Peterborough is ready to support other groups in the community who want to run their own bridging team.
And that’s already happening: Bridges Peterborough is supporting a new team that just started meeting via Zoom in February.
“COVID threw us all for such a loop,” says Lynn Smith-Reeve, but now that a new team is up and running “it feels like the energy is building again and we can see a way forward.”
‘Mutual learning from one another’
Lynn Smith-Reeve’s own experience transitioning out of poverty informed the development of the bridging team model. For much of her life, Smith-Reeve and her family depended on her former husband’s ODSP cheques to survive. Her husband entered long-term care about ten years ago and later passed away. Without his ODSP payments, Smith-Reeve had to find a new way to make ends meet. “My future looked pretty scary,” she says.
But Smith-Reeve managed to stabilize her life, pursue a career and reinvent herself as a member of what she now calls a “middle-class family.”
How did she do it? She partly credits the mentorship and support she received from a small and informal group at her church. They were all members of the middle class, and they helped Smith-Reeve to identify her potential, set goals and begin to move with confidence among people who had more resources than her.
Bridging teams aim to recreate for others what Smith-Reeve experienced. But the support isn’t meant to flow in only one direction. A “mutuality” happens when low-income and middle-income earners engage with each other, she says. There’s “mutual learning from one another.”
Margie Sumadh is one of the so-called “mentors” in the current bridging team, meaning she comes to the group as someone with resources. In the context of her anti-poverty work, Sumadh doesn’t like to think of herself as a helper. “Help is an ugly word for me,” she says, “because it demonstrates difference.”
“I find it a very jarring expression — to say we’re here to help you. Really, we should be saying we’re here to learn.”
Laura Warren was one of the low-income participants of the second bridging team, and she’s helping to facilitate the current team. She says that during the sessions “the mentors come to understand how many skills it takes to live under the poverty line. And how many different creative solutions we have to come up with under the varying stresses that are just a part of our lives.”
“It takes courage every day to live in poverty,” Warren says, and that courage is a gift that low-income participants bring to the teams.
To recognize the contributions that under-resourced members of the bridging teams make, and to reduce barriers to participation, $25 gift cards are provided as payment to them at every session.
Todd Coombes was one of the low-income participants in the first bridging team in 2016.
Coombes says that after years of being treated badly and looked down upon by people with more money than him, he had become “biased on how middle class people treat other people.”
He brought those biases into the first bridging team meeting, he says, but soon they dissipated. “I had my doubts and everything at first,” he remembers, “but these people seemed to be wanting to help.”
For Coombes, the first bridging team was a turning point. “Part of my problem was that I was isolating myself away from people,” he says. “So just having people listen to me was the best thing I could have at that point in my life.”
Coombes says he was struck by the way no one in the bridging team tried to tell him what to do with his life — which is what he had come to expect from middle class people. In Ontario Works, he says, “They love telling you everything that you should do.”
Instead, members of the bridging team asked Coombes what he himself wanted to do. “No one had ever really asked me that,” he remembers.
Through his explorations with the group, Coombes came to the realization that he wanted to be a teacher, and he had some skills that would help him in that role, too. It was the first time he had developed any kind of career ambition since he was a teenager, he says. While the pandemic has temporarily derailed his pursuit of that profession, it’s still something he wants to do in the future.
For now though, Coombes is continuing his involvement in the bridging teams. After the first team wrapped up at Trinity United, he helped to facilitate the second one at the Mount Community Centre. Along with Warren and four others, he’s currently a paid facilitator of the third bridging team that launched in February.
Coombes is excited by Bridges Peterborough’s plans to train other groups in the community to run their own bridging teams.
But he wants the group to be even more ambitious: “I keep telling Lynn and Allan that my goal is to help them get bridging teams worldwide!”