Organizing to Eliminate Poverty–A Lesson from Canada

We continue our exploration of how Retake might develop a kind of community education and organizing tool kit that can support advocacy at the state level. Today we examine how that tool kit might include a framework for local advocacy focused on addressing poverty….

Events and Actions .

  • Asylum Seeker Relief Update.  click here to find out the latest on how best to support asylum seekers in ABQ and Las Cruces.  And a big heads-up to all our ABQ readers. The link includes information about Monday’s City Council hearing where the Council will vote on a resolution allocating $250,000 in critically needed funds to house and support the asylum seekers. Advocates are concerned that the Council may not approve that allocation, so those councilors need to hear from their constituents. The link includes a link to contact information for all city council members. The link also includes updated information on how to make financial contributions to Las Cruces relief efforts where far more asylum seekers in need of temporary housing, supplies, transportation to sponsors and other supports.
  • Santa Fe Actions and Events. Click here to find an array of events in Santa Fe over the coming week including today’s 8:30 am Retake radio show, New Energy Economy’s Supreme Court hearing opposing PNM (again), a Retake Our Democracy Input and Strategy meeting, and more.

A Canadian Local Collaboration Process that Fosters Shared Perspectives, Evidence-Based Solutions & Elimination of Poverty at the Local Level. Worth Exploring in NM?

In the last two posts, I’ve been writing about ways to educate and motivate, to change hearts and minds and to galvanize and organize communities to address climate, economic, and political issues. I’ve proposed a strategy aimed at building individual and community capacity to more confidently communicate about issues  and then to motivate people to seek out opportunities to share their understanding and build and expand existing and new grassroots groups focused on advocacy at state and local levels

At the state level, advocacy revolves around a legislative strategy focused on bills introduced into the Roundhouse and the election strategy focuses on supporting candidates who will better support bills promoting different forms of justice.. But a third wheel to Retake advocacy has been focused locally, and to date largely in Santa Fe, our home. I had been mulling how Retake might add value to local advocacy in other communities, wanting to honor that most NM communities have their own grassroots groups already focused on local issues, but wondering if there might be some value added that Retake could provide to support their work. That thinking has been informed by a NY Times piece by David Brooks, a generally thoughtful and reasonably compassionate Republican, not a common combination. He wrote a piece on how in Canada, local cities and townships had developed a planning protocol focused upon eradicating poverty. It seemed to be worth examining more deeply in the context of the last two posts and continued pondering of how Retake might support local advocacy.

Brooks starts from a space familiar to most policy advocates and political leaders.  Communities typically address social and economic problems in a fragmented way with local charities providing resources to projects favored by their donors, government doing what it can, but in needing to respond to political pressures from many stakeholders, is generally unable to address challenges from a systemic perspective. It is the ancient parable of the elephant in a room surrounded by stakeholders who see the elephant from only one vantage point.  And so, Brooks, departs.   From the NY Times:

About 15 years ago, a disparate group of Canadians realized that a problem as complex as poverty can be addressed only through a multisector comprehensive approach. They realized that poverty was not going to be reduced by some innovation — some cool, new program nobody thought of before. It was going to be addressed through better systems that were mutually supporting and able to enact change on a population level.  So they began building citywide and community wide structures. They started 15 years ago with just six cities, but now they have 72 regional networks covering 344 towns.”

The process is utterly simple.  Each community identifies about 100 people, 25% or more of whom live or lived in poverty.  Others come from business, non-profits working with the poor, and local and regional government. They meet for a year to achieve a more research-informed understanding of poverty and rather than focusing on making a life of poverty easier–say with expanded soup kitchen operations–they seek to identify strategies that address the root causes of poverty. Remarkably one of the most common policy outcomes achieved through these processes is an agreement to raise the minimum wage and in these communities, at the end of these processes, businesses agree that these increases are important rather than lobbying fervently in opposition, as if the sky would collapse on all small businesses with a $2 raise in minimum wage.

The town plans feature a lot of collaborative activity. A food pantry might turn itself into a job training center by allowing the people who are fed to do the actual work. The pantry might connect with local businesses that change their hiring practices so that high school degrees are not required. Businesses might pledge to raise their minimum wage.”


The plans involve a lot of policy changes at the town and provincial levels — improved day care, redesigned transit systems, better work-force development systems. By the time Canada’s national government swung into action, the whole country had a base of knowledge and experience. “

The important feature of the plans is that they were developed in a grassroots manner with all constituencies at the table, not in a political context of competing stakeholders each fervently advocating for their priorities.  Reading about how businesses had cohered around a minimum wage increase in so many communities gave me pause. I thought of one very recent and one not so distant local Santa Fe initiatives, each of which was designed to advance economic justice issues. The first was the real estate transfer tax that was to generate increased funds for affordable housing but was crushed at the ballot box with real estate lobbyists heavily opposing the initiative.  The second was the recent soda tax designed to increase funding to expand early childhood education options in Santa Fe. It was also soundly trounced and criticized broadly for being a top down, paternalistic proposal that would have taxed low-income residents more heavily as they consume greater amounts of soda than the general population.

I couldn’t help but wonder: what if both the desire to raise funds for affordable housing and to expand quality early childhood programming had emerged from a year-long, research-infused process that brought the impacted communities and the business and non-profit communities to the table to weigh and debate options. When concerns arose, say from realtors about a transfer tax, research could be done to identify the degree to which a small increase in transfer fees impacted housing sales. Maybe there is a sweet spot where the level of increase has a negligible impact on sales. But maybe together an entirely different funding source is identified that all can agree upon.

This could well have been the result had the soda tax initiative been developed as part of a larger effort to reduce or eliminate poverty. Imagine also how a process like this could reduce the impact of Not In My Back Yard knee jerk reactions to locating any affordable housing in any neighborhood. If a citywide plan were adopted that proposed affordable housing in every neighborhood in the city, no one neighborhood would feel beset upon but rather would see the project located in their neighborhood as part of a larger effort with the entire city sharing resources and responsibilities. Through such a process a local cultural transformation could be possible from having competing stakeholders who defend their turf, to collaborating shareholders each seeing their role in a broader community. In this context, planning on all manner of community problems could be done in the context of seeking the common good by sharing responsibility.

The process sounds a bit idealistic, but it has grown exponentially in Canada and has a significant influence on national policy as communities lobby for national policies such as an increase in the child tax credit, perhaps the most powerful known policy for eliminating family poverty.

I decided to read a few of the comments that followed the article. There were 1220 of them, but one caught my eye.

My cousin is European. When a friend of mine asked him if he objected to the fact that his taxes pay for the health care of others, my cousin could not understand the question or the problem. My friend had to be specific: do you mind that someone else receives health care because of your taxes? My cousin was incredulous. “Of course not.” My cousin calls US for profit health care “barbaric. “

And herein lies the rub. American culture and to a significant degree our values have been forged by the Protestant ethic. Those who work hard succeed; those who don’t, suffer the consequences, with the unspoken and all to often spoken message being: the poor deserve to be poor and I deserve all I’ve accumulated for me. In that context, many are suspicious and reluctant to develop resources for poor people and poor people have become cynical of the sincerity of politician and governmental expressions of concerns about their well-being.

No doubt this uniquely American cultural dynamic of valuing self sufficiency over group sufficiency serves as an obstacle to any planning process focused on shared responsibility, shared goals and sharing resources.  But I suspect that this barrier could be overcome through a process  where you assemble people around the table for a year and poor people develop an understanding of the needs of business, business people learn more of, the difficulties of exiting poverty, more personally, not  just through data and then all involved are provided evidence-based research on policy options that can benefit both the poor and the business community.

The beauty of the process is that a coalition of stakeholders enter the process with a shared goal: eliminating poverty and by having all stakeholders involved, you can see the elephant from every vantage point. This is profoundly different than having each siloed constituency reacting to a new policy or tax generated by a politician who then must convince varied stakeholders of the wisdom of the initiative. In that dynamic, stakeholders are more likely to dig in their heels and look out for their own narrowly circumscribed interests. In the more collaborative process, the stakeholders arrive at solutions together and emerge as a unified force to advocate for those policies.

Yesterday, I posed the notion that to achieve the kind of radical change that is needed in NM and, indeed throughout the world, work must be done to change hearts and minds. The education and organizing effort described in those two posts could well be the antecedent to the kind of community process employed in Canada. There is more thinking to be done on how this might be achieved or even if it is achievable. But many here in the US are prone to dismissing policy successes in other countries. One need look no further than political resistance to universal healthcare, a policy that so obviously delivers better healthcare to more people at lower costs than does the current health system or any of the policies employed in the past.

Moving the needle on national policy is far beyond the scope of Retake Our Democracy, but perhaps teasing out how a local community based planning process could unfold, developing tools, protocols and evidence-based research to support these local processes is within our reach. Our strategies have always been focused locally, perhaps it is time to explore how to more effectively organize our communities and our stakeholders to shift the dynamic from stakeholders fighting to protect their turf and advance their priorities to shareholders working together to achieve the common good. It is worth considering.  Your thoughts?

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

Categories: Economic Justice, Community & Economic Development

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5 replies

  1. In my view, there are valuable lessons in this article and in the Canadian example. However, the real issue is that a capitalist system trumps all other local, state and national attempts to combat the enormous downside to the widening gap between rich & poor. Thus, I tend to think that what we really need is systemic change – capitalism in its most extreme forms has to go and be replaced by another system that is more equitable. Otherwise, we’re just spinning our wheels in the end. Best, Linda

    • Linda, I believe that this very process described in Paul’s blog post – the community members coming together from all sides – is in fact the beginning of the systemic change you rightly call for.

  2. This is a small community, and no one is examining how this topic has been co opted, and distorted here. No one is analyzing how media and advertising are contributing to this deliberate mis perception. We have tax payer funded food deserts, and no transparency at all. No one is looking at how corporate funding is interfering with everything form healthcare to child well being. We are all being Gas Lighted! No one is looking at the role of the so called non profits in all of this either.

    As an example look at the laws about health marketing, prior to 1980 there were actually laws. The last straw was the removal of 1996 law that allowed pharma companies to direct market to Americans on TV. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance around here due to unregulated health marketing. According to the administration, healthcare is a “choice,” so they can market anything any time. There were 2 cases of AIDS in Albuquerque, from facials, and yet our DOH failed to act. The state refuses to regulate the marketing of medical marijuana, allowing the industry to regulate itself.

    The state AG chose corporate help, to deal with marketing to children. The most effective corporations at child marketing are being asked to regulate themselves. Whether it is vaping, which they marketed as a health product to kids, anti vaxx misinformation, or outright lies about the status of our healthcare system, it is all a choice. The FTC is not regulating online content marketers, and our state refuses to even study how this is impacting health. The NIH did not study the impact of alcohol marketing, because they could lose funding from the alcohol industry.

    The NIH did however post unscientific and biased studies of acupuncture on their site. Universities rely on corporate funding, so there is no research on anything to do with marketing. Of course the corporate media is not going to mention any of this. This company was sued for false advertising, yet a physician appears to be endorsing the product. This physician sits on a state board and advises our legislature on health issues. There used to be laws against this kind of product endorsement. Here in New Mexico anything goes, any false claim, or deceptive product placement.

    This was really evident during the sugar episode, and a deeper look tells us how physicians mislead their patients about sugar intake at the request of the sugar industry. The facts are even worse now, but no one is counting. The sugar, and grocers industry succeeded in misinforming the clever people in Santa Fe. Of course here we subsidized the very stores that contributed to this. At every check stand at these low budget stores are periodical peddling the latest unhealthy diet, to counteract the effect of all of that high fructose corn syrup. Physicians are not supposed to discuss this with patients, because it interferes with “beliefs,” promoted by the alternative health industry.

    The well heeled and comfortable (mostly white) folks in Santa Fe are for the most part insulated from this non stop deluge of marketing. The higher end stores are not as deceptive with their product placement, it is another kind of deception. They are exposed to periodicals that promote expensive wellness, meditation and another versions of pseudo science. Health and wellness are a choice, so the people who are suffering under this regime, must have brought that on themselves. The same false narrative the sugar industry promotes. Along those lines poverty is a choice also, hence the need for financial literacy courses for the disenfranchised.

    It does not appear that any of this is breaking the thrall of people around here. For many the most profound problem we face is “wireless.” Some pretty shocking things have happened here, that got national attention. The shooting of Mr Benevidez, the poor young man turned away from our local religious non profit. That corporation funds a lot of advertising, and public relations, to counter the facts. No one asked how the administrations new “Religious Freedom Regs” would effect healthcare around here.

    That corporation is expanding their business model to Mexico, Not a peep about these activities right here in the city different, In fact they are funding our politicians, while spending millions on marketing here. The privatization of healthcare in Mexico, is their main goal. They offer a more expensive ‘”choice” for people with money. Taking the American healthcare model to other countries.

    The US has the worst outcomes and most expensive healthcare, in the developed world. It looks like the so called non profits have a big stake in defeating Medicare for All, and women’s healthcare. There has been no real attempt to track the outcomes, or look at how any of this is affecting our politics. There are elected representatives doing testimonials on their advertising page. There used to be laws, but not anymore.

    Our legislature approved licensing naturo paths, at the same time the measles epidemic was peaking, There were physicians marketing themselves promoting alternative health, including anti vaxx ideology. This is what happens when religious organizations, libertarians and free market capitalists promote healthcare as a choice. Communities with no physicians now have a choice of alternative practitioners. No research has been done on any negative impacts, postponement of medical care or the financial aspects. They are promoting this as a less expensive alternative to medical care. Thanks to the efforts of their marketing organizations, and the lack of reliable research, our legislators are promoting this.

    There are still a few FTC regulations hindering physicians and certain kinds of marketing, but not anything limiting these alternative practitioners. One thing that gets left out of the Medicare for All or the Universal Healthcare discussion, is the necessity to do a fact based analysis of all of this. Removing corporate interests from healthcare research and marketing would be huge step to

  3. I highly suggest that anyone who is involved in immigration issues read David Frum’ s article “How much immigration is too Much” in the April Issue of the Atlantic Magazine. It is thought provoking and balanced. Moreover, it could serve as a starting point for developing a policy on immigration that both liberals and conservatives could find acceptable

  4. This is right on. A tenet of critical thinking is that it takes orders of magnitude more effort to debunk bullshit than it does to create bullshit. In this instance, the bullshit is our cherished mainstream (and surging right-wing/fascist) memes & stories. If people from different parts of our communities sit down for a year and work out solutions – for ANY problem – the bullshit will be dispelled, and with clarity restored, we can indeed come up with innovative solutions.
    You are right – we need a culture shift. And this is one very promising route to that shift.

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