New research project: “Pushing Privileged Pillars: A narrative study of university leaders’ beliefs about poverty-class students and poverty”

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. 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; 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 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, and (3) The stigma and shame of poverty shape university experiences (Fraser, 2015). 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 and pedagogies. 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 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 (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; Berrey, 2015; Smith & Mayorga-Gallo, 2017).
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 (i) what are leaders’ beliefs about poverty, and (ii) how do university leaders’ lay beliefs about poverty-class students and poverty shape EDI policies, practices, and pedagogies.

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