Engaging People with Lived/Living Experience in Poverty Reduction

BY: Alison Homer

Engaging Living Lived Experience

Multi-sectoral collaboration between governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and people with lived/living experience of poverty has been recognized as a core principle of effective poverty-reduction work since the establishment of Vibrant Communities in 2002.

People with lived/living experience deeply understand the realities of poverty. Their stories and experiences serve as powerful tools for building compassion, and for disrupting and clarifying a community’s understanding of its root causes and scope. The invaluable expertise of these individuals adds strength and resiliency to poverty-reduction work, and their first-hand knowledge of systemic barriers is invaluable in co-creating innovative solutions to overcome them.

The recognition of people with lived/living experience as context experts alongside government, business, and non-profit counterparts challenges power imbalances and counters the tendency for practitioners in leadership positions to dominate agendas, discussions, and ultimately, decisions.

10 - Engaging People with Lived/Living Experience was written to support the social justice and human rights imperative that people with lived/living experience of poverty must be included as equal partners in the development, implementation, and evaluation of solutions that affect their lives.

Succeeding 10 – A Guide for Cities Reducing Poverty and 10 – A Guide for Businesses Reducing Poverty, this practical guide responds to a strong demand from Cities Reducing Poverty members across Canada who have expressed interest in deepening their practice in meaningfully engaging people with lived/living experience of poverty.

Content for this guide was generated primarily by the 10 Lived/Living Experience Advisory Committee – a team of experts with lived/living experience of poverty and their Cities Reducing Poverty counterparts from across the network. It was also informed by workshops and discussions held at last year’s Cities Innovating to Reduce Poverty events in Vancouver and Peel, and by various Tamarack online learning opportunities, such as community of practice calls and peer-input-process sessions.

10 - Engaging People with Lived/Living Experience attempts to capture the momentum and leading evidence-based practices from the field in a very practical way. It includes:

  • A tool for poverty reduction groups to assess their readiness to meaningfully engage people with lived/living experience in poverty reduction
  • 10 highly effective ideas for engaging people with lived/living experience, including recommendations on how groups can reflect on, refine, and develop inclusive processes and practices
  • 10 stories that illustrate how Cities Reducing Poverty members are meaningfully engaging people with lived/ living experience across Canada.
  • 10 really useful resources including tools, guides, case studies, protocols, and policies
  • 10 ways for groups to get started
This guide celebrates the potential that can be unlocked when people with lived/living experience are included and empowered to drive antipoverty work. It was developed to highlight leading practices, inspire new thinking, and serve as a reminder of how critical engagement of these individuals in poverty reduction truly is.
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Download 10 - Engaging People with Lived/Living Experience.


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Finding the Right Mindset for Engagement


Community Engagement

Increasingly, we are all recognizing the need to include people with lived or living experience in the design of systems, services, and changes that affect them. But this presents a challenge for changemakers: How do we show up to engage in helpful and respectful ways, particularly with equity-seeking populations? With the recent release of the 10 Guide to Engaging People with Lived/Living Experience, I’ve been reflecting on some of what I have learned over the past years engaging groups and community leaders across North America.

Show up vulnerable and ready to learn

This one is hard, particularly for those of us who represent large institutions. It is scary to admit that we may not know the right words to say, or that we might offend people without meaning to. However, this fear makes us closed to feedback, guidance, and engagement that doesn’t happen on our terms. Being open to getting feedback and learning from communities themselves is a starting point for a real relationship. It also sends an authentic message that you truly want to learn from the community, as opposed to just hearing what you want. What might be possible if we showed up with our communities not as ‘experts’ but as beginners and learners, ready to learn and grow with our communities?

Treat people as unique human beings

Be cautious about seeing community members only through the lens of labels. While there are many good resources our there for engaging specific populations (a few of which are listed at below), these resources can’t tell you about the specific lived experience of the person in front of you or how that person would like to be engaged. Defaulting to best practices on engagement without asking individuals themselves on how they want to be engaged reinforces existing power structures. I have seen many different engagement initiatives scuttled for fears of being seen as tokenistic, leading to no engagement at all.  While recognizing tokenism is important, what if we instead asked the community themselves how they would like to be engaged, and worked to make that possible while being candid about our limitations?

Broadly, these mindsets speak to the need to find ways to show up open and curious. When we start from this position, might we be better able to seek reciprocity in our engagement, or share power with those we engage? Might we be able to reduce the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them?’ Importantly, these mindsets not easy.

Instead, they give us an aspiration to strive towards and provide a starting point for reflecting on how we show up when we engage others, particularly equity-seeking populations. But ultimately what is most important is the guidance your community can give.How do you think your community would like you to engage them?

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Loneliness and Social Isolation are Public Health Issues


social isolation

Loneliness and social isolation are now being recognized as public health issues in Ontario. Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David D William, released his annual report in February 2019 called Connected Community Healthier together. The report highlights the growing evidence that loneliness and social isolation affects our health:
  • Six out of ten residents say they have a very or somewhat strong sense of community. Only four out of ten know many or most of their neighbours.
  • Has negative effects on the body, mind and soul.
  • People who are lonely are more likely to be in the top five percent of health care users.
The report also discusses and highlights the need to understand how community structures have shifted over time and why residents don’t have a stronger sense of belonging:
  • Change in family and social structures - families are smaller and more spread out, and the increase in divorce rates and single parenthood is causing smaller and weaker networks.
  • Work and time pressures - there has been a shift in the workforce, more two income families, more contract work, multiple part-time jobs and less stability. These demands can lead to a decrease involvement in all forms of social and community life.
  • Cost more to be socially connected - the costs of social activities have become expensive and less accessible. It is cheaper to stay home.
  • People spend more time in their cars - urban sprawl and community design have led to an increase in drive time leaving less time for social activities
  • Technology (TVs, Smartphones, Computers) - Before technology became popular people used to go out and socialize at the movies or gather at each other houses to play games. Now technology has made it so that we don’t have to leave our homes to watch movies and we can now do so online.
The information in the report is very important and valuable for groups and organizations who are working in neighbourhoods to deepen the sense of community and building neighbourhood plans based on an understanding of the community context and content. Ontario Chief Medical Officer, David D William recommends three key ways that people in Ontario can build more connected communities.
  1. Being connected to other people and part of the community are essential to our overall wellbeing
  2. Complex systemic issues fragment community and threaten our sense of belonging
  3. Strong resilient communities are an effective way to tackle social isolation

A key takeaway from the report is that increasing connectedness and sense of belonging is a complex community issue. It requires organizations, groups, governments and citizens to work together. No one sector working alone can effectively address complex community issues.

Vibrant Communities – Cities Deepening Community has been working with cities and organizations across Canada for the past couple of years to address loneliness. We have built momentum within communities to bring residents together to create a necessary foundation for positive community change and to deepen community resilience. To learn more about how Vibrant Communities – Cities Deepening Community can support you in addressing the recommendations in the report visit our website.

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The Opposite of Boring: Eight Things to Care About When Hosting a Community Consultation


Finding the Right Community Engagement Mindset

I think I might be experiencing some consultation fatigue. When an in-person consultation comes up in my community I have full intention of attending. I have opinions I am eager to share. I even RSVP. But I mostly don’t end up going. Then the full effects of cognitive dissonance set in. 

I recognize the consultations as important, just not high enough priority based on my other commitments and energy levels. I find that often we can be less engaged than we think, and that consultations in general can be far less compelling than we’d like them to be. 

As I reflected on the best community events I’ve attended, I quickly realized that almost all of them were run by one person - Hilary Abel. Currently working on Downtown Community Development at the City of Kitchener, Hilary and the team develop experimental programming, marketing and engagement for Downtown Kitchener residents, business owners, and building owners.  

Hilary is the kind of person who oozes creativity. Surrounding her creativity though is a straightforward and humble way of thinking that puts the community first, always. So I asked her on a smoothie date to pick her brain about how she approaches community consultations as a community organizer.

Read the 8 takeaways from our conversation 

The most inspiring thread throughout Hilary’s thoughts and comments is also the simplest: Think of the person, not the support or information your initiative can gain from that person’s participation. What do they find interesting? Where do they gather, so that we can come to them? How can we thank them for their participation? While these questions work towards respecting the autonomy and dignity of community members, you’ll find that this people-first approach will actually improve your community engagement and insights as a result.

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Rethinking How We Evaluate and Use Data


tyranny of metricsEveryone, regardless of if you consider yourself an evaluator or not, uses metrics. We track our finances, look at gas mileage and so much more. In a community change context, we often find ways to track the performance of things like marketing and communications, program delivery, and budgeting. 

In a recent article, evaluation expert Mark Cabaj reviewed The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z Muller. In his book, Jerry takes on three underlying assumptions about how we typically use data:

  • Outcomes and performance can be reduced to standardized measurements even in complex challenges

  • Making metrics public or transparent increases the chances that institutions will be accountable for their actions and results

  • The best way to motivate people is by attaching financial and reputational rewards and penalties to their ability to meet quantifiable performance targets

Mark's review of The Tyranny of Metrics highlights some of the practical issues that come up when an organization becomes over reliant on simple metrics to track and manage progress on complex issues. For example, an emphasis on a simple key performance indicator (KPI) may cause an organization to focus more effort on supporting the work that directly impacts that KPI at the expense of other work that may ultimately be just as important, but is not closely monitored. Mark, and ultimately Jerry Muller himself, is quick to explain that it is not the data or the desire to collect it that is the issue here, but rather the "inappropriate, excessive, and simplistic application of standardized metrics to decision-making" that can creep into our work.

Both Mark Cabaj and Jerry Muller are ultimately concerned with ensuring that organizations are intentional about what and how they are measuring progress and impact. Bad faith reporting, where an organization does not believe a metric has any relevance or impact but continues to report it, leads to lower morale, lost staff time, and bad decisions. This review is a great introduction to anyone who wants to dig deeper into this problem and equip themselves with the information it will take to do something about it.

If you're interested in learning more about the role of evaluation in the context of complex systems change, we're hosting a unique two-day workshop Evaluation + Design: Evaluating Systems Change in Ottawa, ON from May 22-23. We'll talk in depth about the challenges of measuring impact on complex systems, and equip you with the practical tools, principles, and resources needed to truly make an impact.

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Citizens at the Centre: A Community Engagement Thought-Leader Series

Halifax, NS | May 1
Ottawa, ON | May 2
Toronto, ON | May 3
Calgary, AB | May 6
Vancouver, BC | May 7

Citizens at the Centre is a brand new one-day workshop designed to build your Community Engagement capacity. Max Hardy, a leading voice on the use of deliberative democracy in community change work, will be joining Tamarack's Liz Weaver and Sylvia Cheuy all the way from Australia, to share his insights and experience to help you develop your Community Engagement toolkit while taking a people-first approach. 

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Evaluation + Design: Evaluating Systems Change

May 22-23 | Ottawa, ON

Evaluation + Design: Evaluating Systems Change is a two-day workshop designed to help you integrate innovation and design techniques with developmental evaluation. By combining both design and evaluation techniques, you'll return to your organization with a diverse toolset that will boost your capacity to drive and evaluate changes to the systems that form the base of complex community challenges. This event will feature a special guest address from evaluation pioneer Michael Quinn Patton.

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ABCD: Healthy Neighbourhoods, Healthy Cities

May 28-30 | Edmonton, AB

ABCD: Healthy Neighbourhoods, Healthy Cities will bring together Canada's premier community and neighbourhood development practitioners to explore the use of Asset-Based Community Development and explore leading neighbourhood revitalizing techniques.The workshop will feature masterclasses led by world-renowned thought leaders in the field and the opportunity for learners to earn a masterclass certificate in either ABCD or Neighbourhood revitalization.

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Community Change Festival - Save the Date!

September 30 - October 3 | Vancouver BC

Join changemakers from near and far to deepen your knowledge of the 5 practices needed to move your community change agenda from idea to action to impact. Learn the latest thinking, understand your role as a changemaker, and replenish your toolkit with practical ideas and tools you can use in your own community. Save the date to be the first to keep informed about the Community Change Festival and get first access to registration!

Save the Date

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Upcoming One Day Events

Respectful Engagement: Strategies for Engaging Equity-Seeking Populations

May 14, 2019 | Guelph, ON

This workshop will provide an opportunity for you to learn more about the theory and practice behind engaging equity-seeking populations in your community, identify the community connections and relationships that are required for effective engagement, and share resources and learnings with each other.

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Upcoming Webinars

Caring Counts: A Celebration of Natural Caring

Date: April 9, 2019
Guests: Vickie Cammack and Al Etmanski
Vickie and Al Webinar

The End of Working Poverty: Effective Public Policy

Date: April 11, 2019
Guests: Jeff Loomis, Garima Talwar Kapoor, and John Stapleton
The End of Poverty Webinar #2

Principles and Practices of Asset-Based Community Development

Date: April 30, 2019
Guests: John McKnight and Cormac Russell
John McKnight and Cormac Russell Webinar

Building Inclusive Communities

Date: May 9, 2019
Guests: Jim Diers
Jim Ders Webinar

Overcoming Power and Privilege in Community Change

Date: May 28, 2019
Guests: George Aye
2019 Webinar Overcoming Power and Privilege in Community Change