EDI-based research project proposal

Pushing privileged pillars: A narrative study of university leaders’ beliefs about poverty-class students

Context and Importance: This doctoral research will explore university leaders’ (professors, advisors, administrators, alumni) perceptions of post-secondary students who grew up in persistent childhood poverty. Canadian higher education equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) leaders are grappling with diversity. Part of the difficulty lies with understanding leaders’ lay beliefs about poverty-class students—an under-researched area (Massey, 2016; Shields, 2013). Theoretically, those in academia understand that persistent poverty is a result of the intersection of structural forces (e.g., age, disability, gender, Indigenity, race, social class). However, predominant individualistic frameworks are also at play in shaping their decisions and actions (Greene, 1995; Haney, 2013; Iverson, 2013; McKenzie, 2015; Swanson, 2004). This research is timely: in 2016, The Right Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated the creation of the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy. This consultative, community-based initiative reports that poverty rates are increasing for the most vulnerable Canadian populations: single mothers, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, and Indigenous people (Government of Canada, 2016). Higher education is a crucial mechanism to reduce poverty and diminish the reproduction of poverty across generations (Government of Canada, 2016). The main goal is to explore university leaders’ perceptions about students who grew up in persistent childhood poverty in order to work towards socially just and equitable higher education.

I completed my MA degree at the University of Alberta in May 2017. My research consisted of a nine-month narrative inquiry into how persistent childhood poverty shapes undergraduate students’ experiences. Three central themes emerged: (1) Poverty-class students’ lived experiences are profoundly silenced in Canadian universities—and, absent in Canadian EDI policies and pedagogies; (2) Persistent childhood poverty shapes an entire life (Adair, 2001), and (3) The stigma and shame of poverty shape university experiences (Fraser, 2015; Tyler, 2013). My dissertation builds upon my MA by moving from the individual to the institutional to push the pillars of privilege through a critical investigation of how university leaders understand the structural pressures resulting from generational poverty—and, how these perceptions shape EDI policies. This is an important gap that, when explored, will help Canadian higher education systems realize their potential and play a critical role to foster equity and inclusion in Canada (Hunt & Bullock, 2016; Iverson, 2012; Pearce, Down & Moore, 2008; Reay, 2012).

In recent years, countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the USA have been engaged in higher education EDI initiatives (widening access to and participation in higher education). Canadian universities are beginning to expand their EDI efforts on the inclusion of Indigenous students, persons with a disability, racialised persons, and sexual and gender minorities. Yet, the intersection of social class—specifically poverty—with other social characteristics (age, ability, gender, race, Indigenity) is not visible in Canadian conversations (Ghosh & Adbi, 2013). As a result, EDI efforts continue to exclude the most marginalized: those whose lives are shaped by systemic childhood poverty (Burtch, 2006; Government of Canada, 2016). Also, the lack of an intersectional focus results in creating social characteristic silos (e.g., diversity and race versus diversity and sexual orientation), which results in policies that lack nuance (Adichie, 2009; Greene, 1995; hooks, 2000). By excluding poverty from EDI policies, Canadian universities continue to be sites that perpetuate privilege (Brady, Blome & Kleider, 2016). Compounding  these gaps in knowledge is that although diversity initiatives are increasingly common, what diversity means theoretically, and in practice, is a highly contested area (Ahmed, 2012; Archer, 2007; Berrey, 2015; Smith & Mayorga-Gallo, 2017; Michaels, 2006).

Objectives and Research Questions: My research seeks to understand three main questions: (1) How are poverty-class students storied in their interactions with higher education leaders? (2) How do these leaders conceptualize university landscapes and EDI policies for poverty-class students whose experiences they may, or may not, understand? (3) What are Canadian higher education leaders’ lay attitudes about social class, poverty, and poverty-class students, including their perceptions of social class in relation to EDI? The overall objectives are to determine (1) What are leaders’ beliefs about poverty, and (2) how do university leaders’ beliefs about poverty-class students shape EDI policies, practices, and pedagogies.

Methods: (1) I will conduct a qualitative analysis of secondary materials relating to EDI policies and pedagogies from universities in the UK, the USA, Australia, and Canada; (2) I will conduct an historical analysis of how social class has been shaped in Canada under colonialism through to neoliberalism. A point often overlooked is the centrality of social class in everyday lives—and, especially for those from persistent and often generational poverty (Sayer, 2005, 2002; Skeggs, 1997; Tyler, 2013). This analysis will be framed within larger capitalist and neoliberal discourses of the myth of the classless society (Sayer, 2005, 2002), the American Dream, and bootstrap dogma (Weiss, 1998); (3) I will draw on key theoretical frameworks that support a narrative analysis of complex research conversations (e.g., Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma); I will engage with the UK sociologist Tyler (2013) who is wrapping up a three-year project on the sociology of stigma; (4) I will conduct an extensive literature review of diversity debates in UK, the USA, Australia, and Canada in the context of higher education; (5) I will take advanced qualitative methods with Dr. Strega where I will develop my methodological position for my research, and (6) I will conduct open-ended and semi-structured interviews with leaders from universities in British Columbia, the prairies, central Canada, and the Atlantic provinces. Two to three research conversations will be conducted with up to 50 participants in person, over the telephone, and/or via Skype depending on participants’ locations and schedules. Conversations will be digitally-recorded and transcribed. I will conduct a narrative analysis using qualitative data analysis software.

Timeline and Degree Program: I am in the first year of my PhD in sociology at the University of Victoria. I will specialize in historical and contemporary sociology and qualitative methods. I will complete my candidacy exams by the spring of 2019, defend my research proposal no later than that fall, and obtain ethics approval. I will conduct fieldwork in year three. The final year will be the writing and defense of my dissertation, writing articles for publication, and producing a play and/or documentary in order to mobilize the research into the hands of frontline workers (e.g., student advisors, EDI committees, and university leaders).

Supervision and Access: I will be co-supervised by Professors Helga Hallgrímsdóttir (School of Public Administration) and Susan Strega (Social Work). Dr. Hallgrímsdóttir is currently appointed to Public Administration but supervising several students in Sociology. Human and Social Development is an interdisciplinary research-training environment, with research strengths in social problems, Indigenous issues, and educational policy, that emphasizes the application of research to transform public policy. University of Victoria is an ideal learning and research environment for my doctoral program, with its focus on Indigenous student inclusion initiatives and support for from/in foster care students.

Research Creation, Knowledge Production, and Social Change: Disseminating research, both inside and outside of academia, is of paramount importance. After I defended my master’s thesis, I engaged in conversations with the Canadian Poverty Reduction leaders in Ottawa. I subsequently sent a report with recommendations based on my SSHRC-funded master’s thesis findings for Phase One of this federal project. I have and will continue to engage in presentations and discussions with diverse audiences to continue to move my research forward. I will conduct workshops, give guest lectures, share my research via poster presentations, attend teaching and learning events, and work with those interested in reimagining higher education as sites of social justice and equity.

I will publish in open access journals such as the Canadian Journal of Sociology, Journal of Poverty, Educational Philosophy and Theory, and the British Journal of Higher Education) to share my research findings and methodological experiences. I will become involved in research creation through the production of documentaries, creative non-fiction, and plays to make visible to higher education change agents how profoundly beliefs shape EDI policies and pedagogies.

I am submitting abstracts to the Education Developers Caucus Conference (2018, University of Victoria), the International Society for the Study of Narrative Conference (2019, Spain), and the International Sociological Association World Congress (2020, TBA).

Program of Study: Works Cited

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Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press.

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Berrey, E. (2015). The enigma of diversity: The language of race and the limits of racial justice. University of Chicago Press.

Brady, D., Blome, A., & Kleider, H. (2016). How Politics and Institutions Shape Poverty and Inequality. In D. Brady & L. M. Burton (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of The Social Science of Poverty (1st ed., pp. 117–140). New York: Oxford University Press.

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Ghosh, R., & Adbi, A. (2013). Education and the Politics of Difference: Select Canadian Perspectives (2nd ed.). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

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Government of Canada. (2016). Towards a poverty reduction strategy: A discussion paper on poverty in Canada (Discussion paper). Ottawa: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. Retrieved from canada.ca/publicentre-esdc

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Massey, D. S. (2016). Segregation and the Perpetuation of Disadvantage. In D. Brady & L. M. Burton (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of The Social Science of Poverty (First, pp. 369–393). New York: Oxford University Press.

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Michaels, W. B. (2006). The Trouble with Diversity: How we learned to love Identity and ignore inequality. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Pearce, J., Down, B., & Moore, E. (2008). Social class, identity and the “good” student: Negotiating university culture. Australian Journal of Education, 52(3), 257–271.

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Sayer, A. (2005). The Moral Significance of Class. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Program of Study: Bibliography

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Archer, L. (2007). Diversity, equality and higher education: a critical reflection on the ab/uses of equity discourse within widening participation. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5–6), 635–653.

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Research Contributions

Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy Report: After defending my master’s proposal, I contacted the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy leaders in Ottawa and contributed to their website by uploading sections from my thesis in order to demonstrate how persistent childhood poverty shaped participants’ and my undergraduate experiences. As a knowledge mobilization strategy, I then followed up with a report that may be included as part of their Phase One recommendations. One of the powerful moments with taking this initiative is that team members kept in contact with me. It reinforces that there are many people who want to engage in these difficult conversations.

Move along: Outsiders telling the stories of Others (documentary): I co-developed this short documentary with Dallas Hauck, which is a compilation of abandonment and invisible lives on Edmonton’s inner city urban landscapes, as well as a reflexive composition of the experiences of being researchers intruding upon vulnerable populations. End Poverty Edmonton has published our documentary to make visible the injustice of people who use shopping carts to sustain their lives. Cart people taught Dallas and myself much about asking them to put themselves at risk and become visible.

Caste in a Box: Silencing Poverty-Class Higher Education Diversity Policies (poster presentation): This interactive event was open to graduate students and the general public. It made visible stereotypes that academics may have towards even the idea of poverty. In order for attendees to leaves their thoughts on sticky note, they first had to reach into a muddied, crumpled paper bag. The first thing their hand felt was wadded up kleenex. Hands instantly jerked as if the tissue was dirty. For those who came to visit my research poster, it was the first time we critically thought about how mainstream and/or personal beliefs sit in tension with theoretical understandings that poverty is the result of structural forces.

Experience as Knowledge in and out of the Feminist Classroom: As an undergraduate student, I stumbled upon the world-renowned poverty-class scholar, Adair’s (Hamilton College, New York) work. She writes how generational poverty, and as a single mother on Social Assistance, painfully shaped her university experiences. I thought her profoundly brave and also realized her work gave me the footsteps to follow. Her theory that systemic childhood poverty shapes an entire life was a cornerstone to the premise of my master’s thesis. I had the honour to co-present with her, and learn from her, at a conference in November 2016 in Montréal. While other panel members presented in highly theoretical terms, I chose to explain my research through storytelling. It was the regard that my tenured co-panel members had for the presentation approach I chose that I carry with me today in my doctoral studies.

Exploring how Systemic Childhood Poverty Shapes Graduate Students’ Experiences: As I was entering the final phases of my master’s thesis writing, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Graduate Studies Council meeting. The room was daunting; the exterior resembled a courthouse; inside resembled a miniature version of the UN. For the 30 minutes I was in the room, several things happened. First, I was yet again relentlessly challenged because I did not define poverty in terms of money. Second, a non-White attendee asked me if poverty affects White students; I was momentarily shocked; “Yes, it does. They are called White Trash or Welfare Queens.” I was able to confidently speak to how entering into graduate school does not erase systemic childhood poverty from your embodied being. I talked about what it would mean if graduate TAs (or those teaching classes) had “training” to help them support undergraduate students who come from poverty. We also had a candid conversation about how systemic childhood poverty can make graduate school that much more difficult in terms of social isolation, how students will experience paying rent, finding work, looking after children, etc. The most powerful moment was at the end when Dean Zwicker said that the university was not doing a very good job. I responded that no universities were doing a good job with students whose lives are shaped by persistent childhood poverty. To find out that my research is actually being used is monumental. It has been making a difference and I will not even have my parchment until November. This is what knowledge mobilization for social change and justice looks like. Not big moments; rather, little moments that can cause great shifts.

Aileen D. Ross Fellowship Supplement

I am requesting consideration for this fellowship as my doctoral research directly relates to the study of poverty grounded in a sociological framework.

Sociology and sociologists have studied poverty in various ways. This includes defining poverty, which is a highly contested area. In the research literature and with government and advocacy groups, poverty is often conceptualized solely in terms of economic theory. That is, individuals and families are designated poverty-class if they live below an economic threshold determined by government bodies. Sociologists often study the poor rather than the structures (policies) that maintain poverty. Further, sociologists talk to the poor rather than those who make the decisions that impact them.

As I did in my MA research, in my doctoral research I go beyond economic measures to consider poverty from multiple theoretical perspectives. This allows me to consider the intersectionalities that coalesce in social class, so as to contribute to our understanding of how poverty is experienced. My specific interest is in the links between poverty and post-secondary education. Extant research in this area is recent yet limited. Most current research focuses on the experiences of first-generation, working-class students, those who are socio-economically (SES) “disadvantaged”, in higher education. Further, this research often situates educational deficits or difficulties within individual poverty-class students, with inadequate attention to structural forces that contribute to persistent and inter-generational poverty.

My doctoral research will make an original and substantive contribution both in terms of understanding university leaders’ (professors, advisors, administrators, alumni) beliefs and perceptions of poverty-class students. Engaging in multiple open-ended and semi-structured interviews with participants across diverse geographic regions in Canada will provide in-depth insight into how theoretical understandings sit in tension with lay understandings. Also, the narrative analysis will make visible, beyond statistics, dominant narratives that are shaping equity, diversity, and inclusion policies, procedures, and pedagogies in higher education.

One significant aspect of my role as a researcher is that I am a student who comes from generational poverty. As such, my position locates me as an “insider” to this experience. How my own university experiences are shaped by generational poverty and how I experience encounters and interactions with university policies and personnel provide me with a unique vantage point.

If I am awarded this prestigious supplement, it will contribute substantially to my ability to complete and disseminate research into higher education challenges and barriers for poverty-class students. It is my intention to produce my research results in a variety of accessible formats to facilitate its usefulness not just for social and university policy makers, but also for poverty activists, so that both groups can make use of it to create change.


Personal Leadership Statement

My life is shaped by intergenerational poverty. This part of my embodied self is intertwined with positions of privilege: I am White; I am in school; my religious beliefs are not visible; my citizenship is never questioned; English is my first language.

A pivotal moment: I had moved across Canada, in part, to try to finally finish my first undergraduate degree. While I cleaned a house, the client played History Repeating performed by Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads. It was a strangely adrenaline-charged experience. In the moment of listening to the song, I realized that I had come full circle. From a young girl who cleaned, scrubbed, and served to survive, I had built a career and was now a woman who had returned to clean, scrub, and serve to survive. I began to understand that somehow I could not escape the experiences of childhood poverty. I wondered if my life, as generations before me, was doomed to history repeating itself. This was a pivotal moment: I sensed there was something more beyond the dominant narratives planted in me that poverty was a result of individual failings. I was on the cusp of a burgeoning, yet elusive, understanding of structural explanations of persistent and generational poverty. I shifted from an individualistic framework and started to question: if growing up poor affects me, it must affect others. This is the moment that forged my trajectory to graduate school and the research and studies I would undertake.

Academic tensions: I investigated inequality themes through interdisciplinary lenses (theatre, creative non-fiction, statistics, theory, online discourse analysis, case studies, photovoice). Inside and outside the classroom, conversations were silent—or dangerously superficial—on the issue of social class and poverty. As I researched and wrote, I became increasingly pained and shamed. My grades often reflected the tension between my personal knowledge of—and, desire to explore these topics versus what was implicitly required in the courses. Too often there is little place for my unique experiences and personal insight inside academia. Yet, this is part of my research. Part of my research also encompasses how those who grew up in abject poverty experience the financial costs of university.

Once again I find myself without adequate funding. This is in the context of post-secondary education and is an ongoing issue for many graduate students. Lacking lived access to personal support systems and resources requires that I approach my situation in two ways: (1) I must be resourceful and find opportunities to survive, and (2) I need to focus on what this can teach me about my research, inclusive higher education, and my experiences as a student. How participants and myself experienced precarious housing, food shortages, and looming tuition fee deadlines will be addressed in a paper for publication. Dominant diversity solutions for students from the working- and lower-classes centres on money. However, this solution fails to address how people experience social class. Yet, this is where I am currently situated. It offers an interesting opportunity to hear and experience first-hand university leaders’ perceptions about (poverty-class) graduate students.

Talking about it: Regardless of how difficult it is to make visible my lived experiences and my methodological approach to my research, I keep engaging in conversations, using diverse methods, on and off the university campus. I find people who want to engage in these dialogues; I find people who are not ready to engage in these dialogues; I am able to leverage my own experiences and passion for social justice to create inclusive conversations that can shift understandings. The ability to lead others comes from being self-reliant from a very young age. Yet, not a self-reliance that is at the expense of others. Rather, I am a community builder who harnesses reflexive thinking so I can suspend opinion and understand the standpoint of others. In the private sector, this resulted in my being able to work with diverse stakeholders: employees, committee members, volunteers, board members, and government officials. This is why I am comfortable moving from the individual to the institution level with my doctoral research.

Making connections: As a sociology undergraduate student, I found scholars who came from persistent childhood poverty in the research literature. I thought them profoundly brave and also recognized a shared experience. There are others like me whose experiences of systemic childhood poverty influenced how they approached and experienced higher education. There are others who have had different life trajectories who deeply care about injustice. In the early years of my sociology studies, I had found a way forward in which to take the first step—and I have not stopped walking. I reached out to these scholars and we have spent the last few years sharing our experiences and exploring how we can collectively make shifts towards inclusive and equitable societies. Regardless of trepidation, I do not wait for contacts to be brought to my attention. I actively seek out opportunities; this is part of how my life has been shaped. In turn, I share my experiences and knowledge with others through the dissemination of my research, mentoring undergraduate students, exploring wonders with colleagues, and supporting new international graduate students. In turn, I actively seek out opportunities to learn new theories, perspectives, and the experiences of others.

I am an introvert; public speaking and meeting new people is terrifying. However, I enrolled in MacEwan University’s Instructional Skills Workshop to learn to be more comfortable in front of a classroom. I subsequently received my Instructional Skills Workshop Facilitator Certification from MacEwan. I steep myself in the belief in my research and myself. I present from a place of wonders rather than from opinion. I constantly seek opportunities to present my research and learn new methods to engage diverse audiences.

Creating community: I see a problem; I seek a solution. Through my master’s research it is evident that students from persistent childhood poverty need a safe place to meet and be with supportive colleagues. Through my presentations, guest lectures, and conversations, it too has become apparent that universities leaders want to reimagine higher education as inclusive spaces. As a result, I have begun to bring together a group of “poverty-class” students at the University of Victoria. As a cohesive group, we are applying for funding to setup a “poverty-class” club. The findings from my master’s research demonstrate the need for community. For example, I recently engaged in conversations with professors at the University of Victoria’s teaching conference. After discussing my research findings, via my research posters, I was asked to come and give a guest lecture in the psychology department on social isolation and community. In my experience, this is part of living in relational ways. It is how collectively we can work towards a country where large segments of the population are marginalized and live the most abject lives.

Why University of Victoria: I specifically accepted University of Victoria’s offer because I wanted to study with Professors Helga Hallgrímsdóttir (School of Public Administration) and Susan Strega (Social Work). Both are deeply committed to social justice through their research, teaching, and methodological practices. They honour and respect the knowledge, teaching, and lived experiences that their participants make visible. We share a similar philosophy: we have a responsibility to make change via participants’ contributions. Like myself, they have an interdisciplinary focus and are able to traverse multiple disciplines, faculties, and landscapes. Second, the University of Victoria offers an environment where social justice is at the heart of creating student-centred learning that is inclusive. It is at the University, and under the guidance of my supervisors, that I feel I will excel as a PhD student and engage in and disseminate research that will cause shifts.

Creative strategies to reach audiences: My higher education has had a common theme: doing work for meaningful impact. As such, I have used my business and creative skills and experience to make visible social issues to audiences inside and outside of academia. I branded my master’s research so that recruitment and research findings had a cohesive look that was engaging—and, accessible. I continue to talk with people via my website www.echoesofpoverty.com. I create research posters with impact. I leverage my communications and marketing background to give guest lectures and presentations that are engaging and foster ongoing conversations. I seek innovative research creation strategies in order to foster knowledge mobilization; that is, present research in ways that are target market specific. If my research is accessible to, for example, frontline workers such as student academic advisors, they can use my findings to support students. In short, the use of creative strategies will mean my research reaches the public. As I progress forward, I will be looking for creative ways to disseminate my master’s and eventually my doctoral research.

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