Founder: www.ShoestringInitiative.com. This is the first-of-its-kind grassroots solidarity movement creating communities of mentorship, belonging, support, intercultural connectedness and advocacy for Canadian university students from a poverty-class heritage.
Graphic design for impact: Elaine J Laberge knowledge mobilization and translation (iKMb/KT) & graphic design portfolio
A doctoral dissertation
APA Citation: Laberge, E. J. (2021). Pushing privileged pillars in Canadian higher education [Unpublished Dissertation, University of Victoria, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Faculty of Education]. www.echoesofpoverty.com
Pushing Privileged Pillars in Canadian Universities
Elaine J Laberge
M.A., University of Alberta, 2017
B.A., University of Alberta, 2015
B.A., Dalhousie University, 2012
Diploma, Lethbridge College, 1992
Diploma, Grant MacEwan Community College, 1985
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction
© Elaine J Laberge, 2021
University of Victoria
All rights reserved. This thesis may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by photocopy or other means, without the permission of the author.
Pushing Privilege Pillars in Canadian Universities
Elaine J Laberge
M.A., University of Alberta, 2017
B.A., University of Alberta, 2015
B.A., Dalhousie University, 2012
Diploma, Lethbridge College, 1992
Diploma, Grant MacEwan Community College, 1985
Dr. Kathy Sanford, Supervisor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Dr. Budd Hall, Co-Supervisor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Dr. Darlene Clover, Outside Member
Department of Educational Psychology & Leadership Studies
This seven-month community-based participatory action research project used conversations, focus groups, case studies, and integrated knowledge mobilization. Research Sisters, Canadian women with lived experiences of poverty who accessed an undergraduate degree at a Canadian university, explored: 1) Why they are an important demographic to Canadian universities, and 2) How university leaders can create non-deficit-based and decolonial WAP for poverty-class people. Four key themes were discovered: First, conversations centered on the voices of participants through the building of trust and the creation of the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, based upon the late feminist scholar and activist María Lugones’ (1987) theory of “world”-travelling with “loving” versus “arrogant” perception. Second, research Sisters refused to justify their social class worthiness to be in university (Phillips, 2021). Third, knowledge democracy was central to honour the knowledge systems and cultures of poverty-class students. Fourth, research Sisters used their experiences to work towards creating a grassroots social innovation model to teach university leaders how to create sustainable WAP solutions that address structural classism and poverty discrimination from an intersectional framework.
This research demonstrates the need for radical imagination in crafting WAP solutions for poverty-class students. There are four spaces that might inform WAP initiatives: 1) Radical imagination space, 2) Emotional and spiritual space, 3) Material, cultural and social support spaces, and 4) Epistemological space. These spaces must be created by and for those with lived experiences of poverty. Furthermore, the (gendered nature of) poverty discrimination in Canada must be addressed through legislation where social class is included in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) mandates.
Keywords: Canada, CBPAR, community, gender, radical imagination, poverty, universities
Table of Contents
Supervisory Committee ii
Table of Contents iv
List of Figures and Tables viii
Chapter One: Wow it Began 1
Imagining Otherwise Had to Start Somewhere 1
Shoestring Initiative 7
The Shoestring Initiative Foundation 8
The Shoestring Initiative PhD Model 10
Practical Support 10
Global Engagement 11
Alternative Futures 18
Exemplars: Amarillo College and CampusRom 19
Solving This Long-Standing Problem is Long Overdue 20
This Story Needs to End 24
Longest Invisible Ellipses 25
Chapter Two: Framing the Research 26
Class Matters When You are at the Bottom of the Ladder 26
Social Class is a Messy Business 27
Underclass Gaslighting 28
Intersectionality and Identity Politics 29
Identity Politics 30
Troubling Poverty Definitions 33
Conceptual Framework 34
“World”-Travelling and Poverty-class Women Learning to Love One Another 35
We are Unconditionally Equals 38
Knowledge Democracy 39
Radical Imagination 40
Chapter Three: Methodology and Methods 43
The Research Sisters 43
Rationalising a Community-Based Participatory Action (CBPAR) Approach 44
Outlining CBPAR 45
Bracket the Community? 46
CBPAR Features 46
Research Conversations with Poverty-class Women 50
Focus Groups 51
Knowledge Mobilization and Translation 51
Chapter Four: What We (Un)Expectedly Found 53
The Research Sisters 53
Milk Toast 54
Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity (USS) 59
Building the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity 60
Radical Imagination Space 61
Defining Community 61
We Defined Poverty: An Intertwining of Community and Sisterhood Lived Experiences 63
Privilege and Lack 66
The Flabbergasted Elephant in the Room 68
Wrapping Around Each Other for Support 71
There’s Safety in the Proverbial 72
Women Committing Violence Against Women 72
Colonial Charity Models are Good Student Recruitment Fodder 74
A Simple Decolonial, Non-capitalist, Non-shaming Solution 75
The Price of Admission: Assimilation 76
Moving Past the Redemption Arc 77
Radically (Re)Imagining Canadian Universities…? 78
Identity Politics is Classless 80
An Apple and a Rosebud 82
Emotional and Spiritual Space 83
Some Time Had Passed; Some Time Always Passes 84
The Sisterhood is About the Little Things 85
Flaws and Faults 86
Trauma-informed and Peer-Engaged Lenses 87
Suffering in Silence: We’ll Just Figure it out Like We Always Do 90
We’re Imperative for Cultural Safety and Safety, Period 92
The Trauma-informed Should Inform the Spaces 92
Motherhood and Poverty 94
Material, Cultural, and Social Support Spaces 95
Natural Women; Natural Relationships 95
Figuring Out Connections. Strengthening Relational Networks 98
We Have to Prove Our Parents’ Worth, Too? 105
The Money Shot. 106
Gendered, Classist Mental Health Abuse 109
Epistemological Space 110
They’re All Our Children 110
Whose (Kind Of) Feminism? 111
Consequential Knowledge Gaps 112
Innate Knowledge and Systemic Assumptions 113
We Need Our Role Models and Guides 114
Reading Our Lived Experiences 114
Our Flaws in Your Eyes 115
Hustle. Hustler. Hustling. Beyond Academic and Cultural Semantics 116
My Hustle is my Rigour 117
Beyond “I” and “Me” 118
Epistemic (In)Justice 119
Chapter Five: Implications and Impact 121
We Won’t Justify Our Worth 121
Jail, the Dole, or No Taxes 122
Epistemic Justice or Killing Poverty-class Knowledge 122
The Personal Why—Not 123
A Poverty-class Student’s Back is Against the Classed-academic Wall 124
Reading the Poverty-class Student’s Body 125
The Social Why—Not 126
Radical Imagination 128
A Radical Imagination Exemplar 131
It’s Not All Apples and Rosebuds 132
The Underclass Sisterhood cof Solidarity 133
Communities of Solidarity 134
We Have A Lot of Community-focused and Community-based Social Capital 134
Social Capital and Poverty 136
Chapter Six: Towards a Social Innovation Model 139
Invoking Radical Imagination 139
Class-based Language in the Academy 140
If You Won’t Call Us, Then Don’t Call Us Low-SES 144
Defining Poverty 145
Are You Thinking…? 145
Students Cannot Carry the University’s Responsibilities 145
Building a Community of Solidarity and Support 147
Epistemicide of Poverty-Class Knowledge: The First-Generation Case 148
Just Say it Already: Poverty 151
Get to Know Your Students—Even the Poverty-class Ones 151
The Canadian Dilemma 152
No Name, President’s Choice WAP Solutions 153
Moving Past the Redemption Arc 154
Ditching Colonial Charity Models 155
The Great Equalizing Fallacy: Student Loans 156
Financial Aid “Officers” 158
Enforce-her Loans 158
The Financial Illiteracy Trope 159
Canadian Higher Education Financial Model Reinforces Canada’s Class Stratification 159
Poverty-class, Trauma-informed Community 161
Hey, Need a Buck, a Meal, a Friend, a Sense of Belonging…? 162
When a Lift Up Out of Poverty Means Assimilation 163
Chapter Seven: Wrap it Up or Now What? 166
Appendix A: Social Class Narratives Research Poster 177
Appendix B: Caste in a Box Research Poster 178
Appendix C: Recruitment Poster 179
Appendix D: Recruitment Script 180
Appendix E: Third-Party Recruitment Email 182
Appendix F: Consent Form 184
Appendix G: One-on-One Research Conversation Script 190
Appendix H: Focus Group Guiding Questions 191
List of Tables and Figures
Figure A1: Social Class Narratives research poster
Figure A2: Caste in a Box research poster
Table 5.1: Classed-based Language in the Academy
Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations
Decolonizing Knowledge: Also called knowledge democracy or knowledge equity.
First-gen or First-generation: Refers to a student who is the first in their family to attend university.
Heritage: Binns (2019) uses the term “heritage” instead of class to respect that working-class academics in the UK have a culture that needs to be honoured and that class is not only about economics.
Knowledge Democracy: Also called knowledge equity or decolonizing knowledge.
Knowledge Equity: Also called knowledge democracy or decolonizing knowledge.
María Lugones: As a form of decolonial feminism, both of her names are used rather than the traditional academic norm of only using an author’s last name.
Poverty: Is subjectively defined by research Sisters.
Poverty-class: This is a generic term used to describe research Sisters and students whose lives are shaped by persistent and often generational poverty.
Sisters: Are the research Sisters.
Sisterhood: Refers to the research Sisters as a collective.
Underclass: The term we used in this research which is specific to the group of research Sisters: the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity. Underclass refers to those from/in abject poverty. That is, those with lived experiences of persistent poverty.
“World”-traveling: All references to “world”-travelling are attributed to María Lugones (1987). The quotation marks around world are kept ensuring the reader is attentive to María Lugones’ understanding of “world”-travelling, which is metaphorical and/or physical. That is, women do not have to have money to “world”-travel to other women’s worlds.
CBPAR Community-based participatory action
EDI Equity, diversity and inclusion
EDID Equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization
EEA Employment Equity Act
PCS Poverty-class students
USS Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity
WAP Widening access and participation
To Clara Mary DeBock Laberge who, as a young girl, was denied an education by Alberta social services and social workers.
For Maureen, Melissa, Charity, Jes, Milk Toast and Alexandra who are the most powerful, loving and generous women. Together, we demonstrate the power of an Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity. May our collaboration and community-based research reverberate across every Canadian and transnational higher education landscape.
The graduate student advocate. Stephen Evans. From the first day I plopped down in your office, devastated at the shocking reality facing me, you were there every step of the way. You have always been the most amazing advocate for students and profoundly attentive to class discrimination in Canadian universities and how poverty shapes students’ lives. I would not have survived without your mentorship and kindness. All the boxes of Kleenex, cups of tea and shared baked treats were medicine for my shattered self. I can’t thank you enough for your support of other poverty-class students who only finished because of your advocacy and mentorship. If there was an award I could give you I would do so in a heartbeat. May the university know what a gift you are for students. I hope these few words can convey how important you are to students, the university and world.
The saviours: Catherine McGregor and Budd L Hall. Catherine, remember when I was in sociology and showed up for the Association of Graduate Education Students’ annual conference with four (!) research posters? You asked me to sit with you over the lunch break and invited me to take your leadership class. It was transformational and I found a home in the community you created in our class. Oh, the tears I shed; Oh, the friends I made. Hiring me to graphically design knowledge mobilization and translation materials fed my artistic self and helped sustain me. And we laughed—a lot. Budd, you took my email and over a cup of tea decided I had something really important to contribute. The poetic shenanigans we entangled in as your students engaged in social justice work through a myriad form of storytelling on and off the university landscape. You were always there; you were there in the final hours. You were the balm to my faltering self when I couldn’t see the finish line—when I was so utterly exhausted, I couldn’t write another word or put together themes. You brought me knowledge democracy and radical imagination—game changing education. You taught me to feed my rage! Catherine and Budd you’ve been my champions and didn’t falter as I pushed the privileged pillars in Canadian universities. You took me in when I had nowhere to go and enriched my life.
The supervisor. Kathy Sanford. You took on this student who you didn’t know. A sociology student no less than. I’m grateful that you trusted me that I could do this research and guided me through the maze of academic regulations. I appreciate the conversations that centred the uncomfortableness of social class and higher education in Canada. Thank you for organizing the research session and putting up my larger-than-life research poster in the hall. This event was crucial for visually seeing my research and creating community.
The artist educator. Darlene Clover. I wrote my dissertation with you alongside me. Knowing you would respect and honour the art that needed to be in the manuscript was crucial with every page that flowed across the screen. I thank you for your generosity and kindness in the defense and for making me feel heard and respected. Also, I am grateful you understood my research proposal and how brevity wouldn’t have worked as I made sense of my journey to this topic. Most importantly, thank you for sharing part of your own educational journey.
The external. Dr. Marjorie Mayo. I couldn’t have imagined that an external would be picked who would truly make the defense a transformative, exhilarating and reaffirming experience. From across the pond, via the zoom waves, you instantly created a space to have the most engaging conversation and lay the foundation for many more conversations to come. Your wit and sense of humour helped ease those moments when I thought the dam might burst. I look forward to collaborations and learning how to get this research out there.
The social classy librarians. Tina Marie Bebbington and Pia Russell. What would education be like without librarians like you who understand how poverty shapes students’ experiences and understandings of the machinations of universities? Your teaching gifts students who come from class marginalized backgrounds and echoes across lives. My gratitude for all your support in my bringing social class to university tables. Yes, librarians are students’ best friends and magic happens when you learn with librarians.
The “world”-traveller with loving perception. Janice Huber. You brought to me the teachings of María Lugones that underpins this research and which the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity is founded. I am forever grateful for the community of love and belonging you created in your classroom. I miss our conversations of how poverty-discrimination shapes every landscape in this colonized nation. I miss your generosity of spirit and relational way of being. You are the most profound narrative inquirer I have had the honour of learning from and alongside.
The artistic educational collaborator. Katy Bigsby. You recommended and hired me to do graphic design. I needed the work and needed the art for my soul. You are the most brilliant collaborator. The amazing things we did together…. Designing your research poster was truly a labour of collaborative love. It was an honour to attend the presentation of your research and learn about your profound learning model. Only someone as caring and brilliant as you could do their presentation in song. Thank you for being there during the most difficult time I went through this year. Sitting by the ocean and listening to your earth-shattering voice, lyrics and guitar playing was the best medicine made from love and care. Until we collaborate again…!
The wise ones. The PhD OWLS. This is an exemplar of what an academic community can be. It is a community that transcends and removes borders. I can’t imagine how much learning I wouldn’t have had without the OWLS. I will always remember how the OWLS came together to rant, rage, cry, and celebrate each and every community member. At the 11th hour so many of you helped dry my tears, calm my fears and remind me of why this research and me are so important in this world. My time in this community has been the most amazing experience. What a hoot!
The Peasant Academic. Danuta Charland. Thank you for being a Shoestring guest. Thank you for your friendship and trust. Most importantly, thank you for the Lady in Panes and our poetic collaboration.
Inter-cultural teacher. Chelsea Thomas. You reached out and connected with me. In each other we found people who look like us. You brought the poverty-class cultural piece that is so integral to this work. Thank you for being there and listening. What an honour to have been together on this journey. May we continue to bring social class injustice to the centre and forefront.
The frontline mentor. Karen McKenzie. Throughout you have been an ice-tipped, sun glistening mountain of support and mentorship. Each visit to the graduate “office” you made me feel welcome. Thank you for always listening and helping me navigate a landscape that just doesn’t become more comfortable for me. You’re my shero.
The retiree. Big Pink “Bill” Sunberg. I know this isn’t what you planned for your retirement. But you were there as I was seeing no way out and no way forward for the first two years. I thank you for all you did to help found and build the Shoestring Initiative. Your stew will always be a memory of this university and being invited to the First Peoples House. In the next part of my journey let’s keep Occupying University Quads and baking thousands of cookies.
The love bug. Emma Sunberg. You’ve been there, day and night, for all of my grad journey. Those 3:00am panic writing sessions were made all the more bearable with you by my side and often times making me take a break to love you.
The social class warrior. Meagan Pal. We met through baked treats. My baby banana loaves in particular in support of gender discrimination. #MeToo. You have been instrumental in supporting the Shoestring Initiative, my research and advocacy and raising awareness of social class inequalities and inequities. My deepest gratitude goes to you for asking me if I really needed to talk about research methods for 30 pages. Most of all, I thank you for supporting Jes.
Across the pond friend. Fé Mukwamba-Sendall. Stumbling upon you and the mature student group you were leading started a most magnificent friendship that transcends time and geography. I can’t begin to express how much I value our friendship and your mentorship and support. I wouldn’t have been able to do this research or finish without you. One day… Maybe one day… We’ll get to meet in person. Until then, Burtie Feline take pity.
The sociological poet. Anastasia Christou. I presented my poem, “No Landscape for a Good Underclass Woman” at the First International Working Class Academics” conference in 2020. I was petrified of the repercussions. And guess what happened? You. You heard me and deeply felt my words and drew close to my lived experiences. You reached out to me and asked me to be a guest lecturer for the “Pedagogies of Hope” series at Middlesex University. Oh, my, a university in England, a place I’ve never been. And this was the beginning of a sister-friendship that fills me with such hope and joy. You’ve been there supporting and contributing to the Shoestring and other events I organize centring social class and injustice. To be able to collaborate with you from a place of love, rage, fear, hope and community is humbling. I’m honoured to be your sister-friend and am damn grateful that you reached across the pond to connect. You are truly an amazing human.
The little sis. Charity Slobod. Where to begin? It’s always been us since the first encounter sharing how poverty shapes our lives. You were the catalyst for my getting Vanier and Lougheed. You’re the one who taught and encouraged me to bring this research from the trenches to the grassroots level. Every step of the way you invite me into your communities. You create opportunities to share Budd’s teachings on knowledge democracy and radical imagination. You are the one who I know will never judge me as I fumble and stumble. You, my little sis, are an amazing woman and sister-friend. I can’t wait to see what trouble we get into as we continue to push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities and society. In solidarity. I love you.
Writing this dissertation was far more difficult than writing my master’s thesis “The Echoes of Poverty: Composing Lives in Higher Education” (Laberge, 2017). While the research was sociological, the focus was on lived experiences and how lives were being lived. It was gut-wrenching research and painful writing. Yes, the research was transformative for participants, but it left gaping wounds in my soul that would not heal. The story was not finished. What changed with this doctoral research is that I brought my master’s research from the trenches to the grassroots level. We not only explored our lived experiences as women from/in poverty but also critiqued Canadian universities and those who perpetuate poverty discrimination and exclusion. That is, those who keep social class inequalities firmly in place in universities—and, Canadian society. In our journey to push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities, I was as petrified as old growth forests when I tried to write the following pages. Sleepless nights and fretful days made me bark, “Will our words be palatable, or will they be shredded and used as kindling?”
These worries jarred my mind like the driving force of a chainsaw. Omnipresent was the terror that our conversations would not sit easy with readers who have never felt the sting and burn of a life shaped by poverty yet benefit from Canada’s caste system—terror magnified by inherent yet uncalled-for power imbalances in Canadian university graduate programs. How, I wondered, could I possibly explain these tensions and fears that became waking night terrors? Being bereft of class contingent academic agility, I did not see a way to do fancy code-switching footwork that would honour research Sisters’ lived experiences and knowledge as we set out to address structural classism and poverty discrimination in Canadian universities through community based participatory heavy-on-the-action research. We did not stop at critique; we provide in-the-meantime and structural solutions to address the colonial exclusion, erasure and silencing of poverty-class women in Canadian universitas. Let’s face it: This petrification was amplified by time.
August 31, 2021, threatened like a prairie summer thunderstorm. My time was running out and bearing down with a pelting force. My scholarship, which had prevented me from being pushed out of this doctoral program in my first year, was coming to an end. It would take two years to dig myself out of the debt of moving to attend this university and the realities I could not have anticipated. How could I know what awaited me? I did not have the mentorship or support for being able to breathe long enough to make this life-altering decision as a middle-aged, poverty-class women to pull up stakes yet again and stake all on something impossible for me to imagine. My bootstraps are too frayed to pull on anymore. I had tried building a career for the last four years, and yet I am still looking down the barrel end of the gig economy gun. It is not for lack of superhero efforts—through networking, building the Shoestring Initiative, an initiative I founded to support university students from poverty, and integrating knowledge mobilization and translation into the research life cycle, all the while caring for community and family, facing ageism, sexism and generational poverty, having to relentlessly apply for jobs and post-doctoral positions was killing me. Another semester, two semesters, any more semesters in the doctoral program was not feasible. I did not have the capacity or resources to extend my time in the program. I was clear: This was never going to be an option. The ways forward in the writing and analysis seemed heartless. I had to prioritize productivity over reflexivity. Slow scholarship is for the tenured-of-heart. I felt cruel. Assimilation and silencing are cruel. It is deeply tied to language and whose language matters. I draw on the American poverty-class activist and grassroots organizer Linda Stout (1996) who writes that she never learned to assimilate to the middle-class higher education language and ways of writing (pp. 23-25). I am a storyteller; I am not a middle- or upper-class academic. Like Linda Stout (2010), I can become “class bilingual”; however, this dissertation must be accessible to my mother had she lived to experience the beauty, magic and power of the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity. But she died in an Edmonton, Alberta, Canada palliative care unit February 1, 2021, under COVID and in poverty—six months short of seeing my lifetime of advocacy, research and activism come to fruition. August came and went. More begging and pleading ensued. Much more gig and contract work was undertaken. I continued to chase an elusive career—a place to land so I could move to a safe place not under the threat of evictions, demovictions, and renovictions.
How can we bring about the desperately needed change through our stories when universities are being eaten alive by neoliberalism or, I argue, neofeudalism? How can we tell our stories and demonstrate how to fix the problems without being eaten alive by the very systems and structures that deny us entry and full participation?
The problem of anonymization reached new critical ethical heights in this research, and I could not get my petrified soul to budge. I knew that pseudonyms alone were not sufficient for anonymizing research Sisters. How could I cull “data” without culling research Sisters the way poverty-class students are culled from the middle- and upper-class herd (if we even make it here and then not subsequently pushed out)? Perhaps I needed to erase all that I had learned at academic tables where I was an interloper. I knew that I needed to temper, maybe erase, myself as a participant. How, I wondered, could I possibly explain these classist academic and ethical tensions? Just as with my master’s research, partners needed to be “protected beyond institutional ethical considerations of anonymity” (Laberge, 2017, p. 52). Participation in this research is audacious but as a former sociology teacher said to me, “Elaine, audacity, that’s how we get things done!” Participation is also courageous and exhausting. Participation is an act of activism and resistance. Moreover, coming out of the social underclass closet is the pinnacle of peril in a colonized country that despises and fears the (un)deserving poor. I am used to the poverty-discrimination hits inside and outside of academia. Sometimes I refuse to accept the hits; sometimes I can take the hits; sometimes I silently let the hits leave imperceptible and muted wounds. Research Sisters were doing this in a multitude of ways, but this has not been their public battle for the last seven years. I do not want them to take these hits. When it came to names, the protection and going public I speak of created a crisis.
First, many research Sisters chose to use their real names as a way of resisting the relentless silencing and stigmatization of being poverty-class humans. Publicly coming out of the social underclass closet, particularly in any academic setting, is daring. While gutsy and important, for example, as a way for Other poverty-class students to find them, it puts the Sisters of the Sisterhood in jeopardy of censorship and punishment in ways that we cannot imagine. Second, pseudonyms are not a guarantee that a research Sister might not be identifiable to readers of this dissertation. In the last dissertation days, the women of the underclass Sisterhood chose to (sort of) use pseudonyms to ensure all Sisters were protected, as we were living our lives both inside and outside of higher education. This is such a stark and bleak expression of how toxic and violent Canadian universities are for poverty-class women. While research partner protection was a constant companion, it was sometimes an intruder.
There is much that cannot and/or should not be made public at this time. It is too risky; it is not the place; it is not the right time. Yet, as with my master’s research, I did not “seek to sanitize” anyone’s voice (Laberge, 2017, p. 52). However, I would not “glamourize experiences” (Laberge, 2017, p. 52) by creating salacious “poverty porn” (Lowrey-Hart, 2021) to satisfy elitist academic voyeuristic curiosities. As I have in the past, I called upon narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) and marginalized feminists in my sense-making.
I draw on the wisdom of Anzaldúa (1999) who writes, “Soy nopal de castilla like the spineless and therefore defenseless cactus […] I have no protection. So I cultivate needles, nettles, razor-sharp spikes to protect myself” (Anzaldúa, 1999, p. 67 as cited by Laberge, 2017, p. 52). I, too, used protective mechanisms in the findings and analysis through a beyond pseudonyms approach wherein I employed needles, nettles and razor-sharp spikes to fictionalize research Sisters and myself (Caine et al., 2016, p. 217). This is not a “writing off” of partners but a “writing in” of voices. It is one strategy that was not as dire as massive black felt marker redactions. It is my hope that this and the many approaches used to craft this dissertation created a space where the reader can establish their own relationship with the research Sisters, rather than through my “not quite white” (Wray, 2006) lens.
Perhaps the tapestry that follows will help readers to “world”-travel (María Lugones, 1987) to our worlds as we once more call on university leaders and Canadian society to accept this hard truth and why it must change—Canadian universities currently are not inclusive and welcoming educative spaces for underclass women (Steedman, 1987).
None of us are coming out of this unscathed and this includes you
I was so wrong.
This research started in death
Death before I was born.
Death of dreams.
Death of poverty-class women empowerment.
Death of poverty-class women emancipation.
Not the death you think.
The Death of Our mother.
Part way through the Death of Our nephew by society’s hands.
The coming Death of Our baby nephew. Then his death.
The Death of our belief in university as a/the salvation.
Faux hopes died and dead.
Death of women from generational poverty.
Death of a soul.
I can’t prove my worth as a poverty-class student.
You want me to prove my worth.
How can you not care for me as a woman—
a woman who can never be an elite academic—
A woman who has come to love herself enough to admit she doesn’t want to be the academic – I
A woman who must care about us—community—first?
I’ve been so wrong.
I’ve been so painfully wrong.
A wrongness I knew.
A wrongness I drowned in sorrow.
A wrongness I drowned in work.
A wrongness I tried to erase and correct with university fancy schmancy language—
language that Our Mothers can’t read.
I’ve been so wrong.
I’ve been whipped
Into a frenzy
And you’re uncomfortable
I’m too tired to code switch to make you comfortable
I ran out of your elitist masks a long time ago
They never fit anyway.
The story begins in death and lives in death.
Death-in-the-making of Our poverty-class mothers, Sisters, aunts and nephews:
—just this pandemic year so far away
Loved ones who’ll never see the seasons transform landscapes
See the transformation of our research
Loved ones, lives born into poverty
Died in poverty.
Who can afford to heal? Afford hope? Afford to accept gross poverty injustices?
We won’t justify our worth!
The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity!
Invoking radical imagination!
Setting knowledge democracy free!
We’re not dying on your hill
Chapter One: Wow it Began
“Somebody’s been hurting my people and it’s gone on far too long and we won’t be silent anymore.” Rev. Dr. William Barber, II (MSNBC, 2020), June 20, 2020, Poor Peoples’ Campaign – A National Call for Moral Revival, USA
Imagining Otherwise Had to Start Somewhere
I was a quiet and furiously hard-working student from grades one to eight (for reasons unknown, I did not attend kindergarten). I intuitively understood that I would have to work harder and diligently strive to prove myself worthy to be in school. I was also proud of my work ethic and my giving nature. I inherited these cultural traits from my mother. Yet, it did not matter. I was storied as destined to become nothing more than a little girl who would grow up and live off “the system” and be a drain on and to Canadian society. Yet, I tortured myself with trying to fit in on community and education landscapes all the while pretending that my skeletal frame was not quivering from hunger, loneliness and aloneness. I could not hide that I lacked basic educational necessities such as scribblers, clean clothes and food for my battered lunchbox. I did not expect a modicum of kindness or a speck of being visible in non-Othering ways by teachers, principals, school bus drivers or classmates. Someone taught me relational ways of being were not for the likes of me. In grade nine, at the mere age of 15, I escaped our fractured trailer park “home” and set out on my own. Fortunately, in the countryside, I was able to get a job working in a highway café at age 12. Thank goodness for being able to work underage! I wonder what might have happened had I lived in the “big” city? It still terrifies me to imagine otherwise.
But the days of being a good little student were over. Once I was officially a child-renter on my own, I constantly fell asleep and was disconnected in class from a laundry list of stressors: exhaustion from working evenings and weekends, begging for shifts at the restaurant, cleaning houses whose kitchen wall were stained from gas stove fumes, being shunned in the hamlet where I lived, fretting around-the-clock of how to pay rent, fearing being evicted from the room I rented in a dilapidated, single-wide trailer on mainstreet across from the lone bar, cowering from actual and perceived violence as a child without family protection, struggling with malnutrition, and literally lugging my laundry to the laundromat only to learn I did not have enough change to clean my clothes. The laundry list is too extensive to list.
Poverty was my constant companion. I had little in the way of any other companions because I simply could not relate to kids my age. I had shifted from being a stereotypical trailer park kid to being the village pariah because I was “immoral” and a supposed promiscuous runaway girl. This translated into being fair game for abuse and neglect by educators and community. My new status had repercussions for others. My family lost a bread-winning contributor, cook, cleaner and familial caregiver—things that go on behind semi-closed doors.
I still attended school as best I could. It did not occur to me that I would not complete junior high or high school. It did not occur to me that I would complete junior high or high school. I just existed in the vortex of a poverty-laden nightmare. No teachers or school counselors reached out to help me. No one noticed that I struggled to hold a pen because my fingernails were worry-torn to the quick or that my finger joints were bleeding from the ravages of commercial kitchen cooking and cleaning. No one noticed I struggled to see because I could not afford nor access eyecare. I would not have even known how, anyway. I wish I would have known to ask Debbie so many things.
Debbie was a woman who lived at the end of mainstreet with her husband and young children. She cared about me. She taught me some things. When multiple communities on this rural landscape tossed me to the curb, she pulled me in close. She never worried that she would be ostracized because of her association with this run-a-way. We shared our experiences in drying clothes on a line, laying flooring and using root vegetables to feed a large family. She demonstrated acceptance of and trust in me when she asked me to look after her children when her mother had a heart attack. She taught me, although the lesson did not settle deeply into my embodied being, that I am an important person in this world.
Debbie did not formally teach me about formal education or social class. Although, there was this one time where we broke into an abandoned building and absconded with tattered but salvageable linoleum. We ran from the building with our ill-gotten gains and installed it the bathroom floor of the trailer I was living in. This was in the hopes that my landlord might lessen her rage against me. Debbie and I both knew that if I was evicted there would be nowhere to go but back and this simply was not an option. My entire being would have withered away. I ran away to survive.
I learned to have fun with Debbie. In her own way, she was teaching me to resist the big things in this village and in life. Debbie was the first person to plant the seeds of what decades later would become the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity in this research and my activist way of being.
I do not know what Debbie knew about me. I did not talk about poverty, my poverty-class family or my poverty-classness. I did not discuss why I ran away. I did not talk about my fears and stressors. I learned early on in familial, community and educational landscapes to keep my mouth shut. Poverty was violence and the power people in power held over us was violence. This violence was overt as when social workers threatened to remove my sisters and me from our mother. This violence was subtle as when teachers and school counselors assumed I would be a drop out or get a college diploma and become a sort-of-educated minimum wage worker. Educators had no hopes for me and they demonstrated it from day one of grade one.
These are specks of my lived experiences that speak to my epistemic privilege in relation to this research and understandings of the structural problems with Canadian universities. I was born into generational poverty. I was raised by women born into generational poverty. Poverty shapes every step I take in this world and my educational experiences. My own lived experiences and understandings of poverty and how it shapes higher education experiences are not a mirror image of poverty-class women who came before me, the women who I came alongside in this research nor the women who must come after us. However, my lived experiences of how poverty shapes my life in the making are the foundation upon which this doctoral research is built.
This research started long before I entered the world. It started with silent stories of injustice across every landscape my family and I inhabited as transient beings: community, education, health care, and social services (welfare in those days). Too often hands-to-mouth were empty. The sting of poverty was palatable but no more so than entering onto the childhood education landscape as Other. This sting is wrapped up in an abrasively uncomfortable truth. This is a truth that is as cruel as welfare-prescribed, gunny sack-type blankets: Poverty shapes an entire life. No amount of education erases being born into poverty. It inextricably draws me to this sociology of higher education research.
I never imagined researching social stratification and inequality in Canada. I only knew living it. In essence, like the women before me, I lived a hand-to-mouth existence. After working and accruing two back-breaking student loan-based college diplomas, the idea of a university degree took root, since without that venerated piece of paper, sustainable career and secure housing doors were barred to me. Without a university degree my body, mind and spirit would continue to be ravaged by food and housing poverty and a lack of dental and mental healthcare. In my academic travels, I have learned that the colonial capitalist-cum-neoliberal/neocolonial Canadian university is no “landscape for a good [underclass] woman” (Steedman, 1987). This is not a revelation. Education promised a way out of poverty; Canadian universities broke their promise of being the great equalizer and continue to break this promise by not creating widening access and participation initiatives for poverty-class students (Adair, 2008, 2001).
In my academic travels, I have learned that the colonial capitalist-cum-neoliberal/neocolonial Canadian university is no “landscape for a good [underclass] woman” (Steedman, 1987). This is not a revelation. Consider, instead of being sites for activism and social justice to tackle and dismantle systemic poverty, Canadian universities, and much of Canadian higher education research, exclude social class from their equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) frameworks. These institutions refuse to look in the mirror and fail to acknowledge the class-based inequality and inequity reflected in the literature and to which I can personally attest through lived experiences and my research. They do not acknowledge this class-based historic problem, let alone that they play an integral part in it (Burtch, 2006; Lynch, 2019; Mountford-Zimdars & Sabbagh, 2013). All the while, poverty-class students live in the shadows and margins of the higher education landscape—that is, if we make it here and if we are not pushed out. To exclude a social class analysis is to cut a swath through the population and to continue the ongoing exclusion of those unlucky enough to be born on the wrong side of the social class tracks (Sayer, 2019, 2005, 2002) from accessing, surviving and thriving in university. Consider, after thirty years of fighting classism in the UK higher education system, defeatedly Reay (2018) writes, “The way class works in education shifts and changes over time, but what do not change are the gross inequalities that are generated through its working” (p. 8). Canadian universities are no exception: They continue to preserve universities as sites of privilege that contribute to perpetuating injustice, inequality and social stratification (Brady & Burton, 2016).
As Brady, Blome and Kleider (2016) say, the same holds true for social science and humanities scholars “who are not exempt from contributing to unresolved issues regarding poverty” (p. 1). I go further and suggest that Canadian universities are complicit in perpetuating more than class elitism: They are complicit in perpetuating (generational) poverty. This has not mattered for Canadian universities for far too long and is hyper-exacerbated by historic and contemporary problems. Put simply, we are “in a world of crisis […] amidst an [accelerated] apocalypse” (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2010, 2014, p. 1; Khasnabish & Haiven, 2012). Specifically in relation to this research, poverty is the pandemic. Regardless of how statistics are spun by political groups, the have and have-not cavern was made painfully visible to people in poverty and those teetering on the brink of poverty during COVID-19. Every single regional, national and global crisis facing all of us impacts those in poverty the greatest. From the housing crisis spreading like wildfire in Canada to the rampant opioid poisonings to precarious employment to unaffordable daycare to the environmental disaster, people in poverty bear the brunt. Why? Because we do not have the resources (economic, social, cultural) to be protected from these social and environmental ills. To be blunt, people in poverty have always been and are considered expendable.
In contending with “neoliberalism’s war on higher education” (Giroux, 2014), the shift from a war on poverty to a war on the poor (Santiago, 2015), the relentless “poor-bashing [and] the politics of exclusion” (Giroux, 2014; Swanson, 2004), austerity’s dismantling of social support systems, neoliberalism’s insatiable greed and unsustainable student loan debt combined with a gig economy, generations of people struggle to find any semblance of hope for the escalating inequality and inequity that is shattering every nook and cranny of the world and its inhabitants. In particular, trying to push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities to widen access and participation (WAP) in higher education for poverty-class students (PCS), to get the elite university masses to understand there is no intersectionality without social class, seems as futile as Waiting for Godot (Becket, 1954). How can WAP policies and practices matter when the world is figuratively and literally on fire? When the hatred of the poor—and usury of our bodies—is unabated? When every piece of poverty discrimination legislation has been shut down by all political parties? When there is a refusal to begin to confront that this nation and its universities were built upon colonial racism, sexism, ableism and classism? When there is a complete lack of awareness of the dominant social class narratives (e.g., American Dream, bootstrap, rags-to-riches, meritocracy; see Appendix A) that shape legislation, policy and our society by all social classes? As such, there is no escaping the dominant colonial-based social class narratives that swirl around all of us in Canada like the omnipresent 24-hour “news” cycles. The myth of meritocracy, imbued and embedded with the American Dream and bootstrap dogmas (Nackenoff, 1997; Weiss, 1988), is central to beliefs of the deserving and undeserving, particularly in relation to poverty-class folks. These narratives have immense stigmatizing and exclusionary power. The Nigerian storyteller (Okri, 1989) explains:
One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves…. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (p. 46)
Therefore it is essential, as Nackenoff (1997) says, to “overcome the silence of generational poverty” (p. 11) if we are to begin to interrupt these dominant narratives and find decolonial ways forward to attend to the exclusion and injustice experienced by poverty-class students. These decolonial ways include, for instance, rejecting deficit-based notions of poverty-class students, honouring lived experiences and familial teachings and respecting cultures.
Education is crucial to mitigate (generational) poverty (Burtch, 2006) and create civically engaged citizens (Freire, 2016; Porter & Jackman, 2014). Or, as Fischer (2019) notes, “The only thing that mitigates intergenerational poverty is higher education [….] But you have to get it.” (n.p). Getting it, a university education, for people whose lives are shaped by persistent poverty remains elusive and fraught with structural inequality and inequity that echoes across a lifetime and generations.
Based upon my lived experiences and master’s narrative inquiry research, how growing up in persistent poverty shaped students’ experiences as they worked towards an undergraduate degree, I arrived at the University of Victoria (UVic) prepared to keep my research and activism alive. Because there are no widening access and participation (WAP) initiatives and programs for poverty-class students at Canadian universities, I was determined to rectify this. The goals were to create supports for poverty-class students and to demonstrate to university leaders, politician, communities and society of this neglect and why it matters to poverty-class students and Canadian society itself. What transpired from the inception to the founding of this initiative to its growth during my doctoral research journey is the second piece of the foundation of this research.
“But what I’ve learned about generational poverty is that if I want to improve the outcomes for students inside the classroom, I have to be intentional about what happens to them outside the classroom” (Russell D. Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College cited by Mangan & Schmalz, 2019, n.p.)
The Shoestring Initiative foundation. “So, then I said, ‘Well, if Power won’t take me seriously, I’m gonna apply my research and build a table.”
I drew on President Lowery-Hart’s “culture of care” and “no excuses” mandate when I created opportunities at UVic to bring social class and poverty discrimination (and stigma) to tables. After sitting on plentiful upstairs tables and being excluded from EDI-based tables, I knew that I needed to build a table. With the encouragement of UVic’s Equity and Human Rights (EQHR) and the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), in 2018, I launched the Shoestring Initiative (www.shoestringinitiative.com). This is the first-of-its-kind grassroots initiative at a Canadian university to create communities of mentorship, support, belonging, advocacy and inter-cultural connectedness for students with lived experiences of persistent poverty. Based on research, Shoestring was designed by and for communities based upon a model I developed (see Figure 1.1): 1) Collaborate with students, 2) Engage at the local-level, 3) Get support at the institutional-level, 4) Advocate on behalf of students at the provincial-level, 5) Push for social class inclusion at the federal-level, 6) Educate, inform and engage society on this injustice.
From the outset two things became clear: First, there is a need for a Shoestring-type initiative. University community members with lived experiences of generational poverty and those committed to supporting these folks attended events, contributed, learned and became engaged in a myriad of ways. What I learned, however, is that it needs to be institutionally supported akin to the International Student Services with proper resources, capacity-building and infrastructure. But not assimilated or colonial co-opted by higher education institutions. It cannot merely be a student-led club that may be here one day and gone tomorrow. How, I asked, can universities expect poverty-class students, who are already under immense pressure to survive, build and maintain such an endeavour?
Second, the foundation model was not embraced; I swiftly learned it was never going to be a collective vision. It is therefore not surprising that things were askew from the onset. Disparate agendas rapidly collided. For instance, there were working-class/poverty-class divides (Adair, 2005), student-professor power imbalances, Shoestring was used as an academic career booster, the misappropriation of my research, the onus of building and sustaining Shoestring fell to me, and there appeared overall colonial and neoliberal institutional creep. I was pressured to register Shoestring as a student club, which might then be tucked away in a student union building basement; that is, if there was space. The logic expanded to the belief that there would be an influx of poverty-class students eager to volunteer, or more aptly articulated, willing to perform unpaid labour—if only there was a space. I was pushed to register Shoestring as a charity (which costs money short- and long-term). The reasoning was that I could spend more time with my hands outstretched begging for donations. I knocked on a lot of doors and was never able to secure space to build and support a community. As a result, I lacked the capacity to even host asked-for meager monthly gatherings.
Even those who are cognizant of social class inequality and inequity at universities were not willing to take on another service role, particularly if it was not directly related to their research focus. I worked full-time trying to build and sustain Shoestring as an unpaid student alongside a heaping plate of my own responsibilities and challenges. In short, the financial and non-economic costs remain staggering.
Finally, I came to realize that no matter how many letters I wrote, conversations I had, evidence-based presentations I gave, hiring committees I sat on and contributions I made, I lack the economic, cultural and academic clout to see any intersectional EDI shifts that might get WAP for poverty-class students to any table. This does not mean the actual or imagined idea of a fulsome WAP-based initiative for PCS at Canadian universities is hopeless. I “just” needed a different approach. I “just” needed a different way to imagine otherwise. I “just” needed a way, as Greene, (1995) advocates, to release the imagination. I “just” needed a way to engage in and with “radical imagination” (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2017). This radical imagination came in the form of getting messages out there and demonstrating what WAP for PCS at Canadian universities can look like in practice.
The Shoestring Initiative PhD model. The second iterative model (figure 1.2) was developed by my doctoral co-supervisor Dr. Budd L Hall, which demonstrates the impact of my activism and integrated research knowledge mobilization (which will be discussed in Chapter 2) throughout the research life cycle. I will address each element as follows: practical support, global engagement, advocacy, and alternative futures.
Practical support. The Shoestring Initiative’s grassroots work started with providing practical support. The everyday things that poverty-class students need, for instance, food. The launch of this initiative started with a home cooked meal with plenty of leftovers and to-go containers. However, food was not enough. An environment was created where students could feel comfortable going for seconds and were supported and encouraged to take food home. The goal was not only to provide nutritious food made from love but also to establish a different relationship with food on the university campus. For the first time, many poverty-class students did not need to worry about empty bank accounts and empty stomachs. Because of my advocacy and activism, laptops were given to Shoestring which I was then able to give to students in need. Students reached out for support in how to navigate poverty-unfriendly professors and financial aid, for instance. I held special “Magic Happens When You Learn With a Librarian” sessions specifically developed for poverty-class students. We had a picnic with homemade food and live music as part of occupying the university central Quad area as resistance to being marginalized.
Sometimes students just needed someone to talk to who looks like them and respects how challenging it can be for us in university. There are so many practical supports that students need, from housing to paying for phone bills to getting dental care, that Shoestring could not meet because of a lack of resources and institutional backing. But students (and even professors) came to understand that Shoestring provides hope—a hope that did not exist before.
Global engagement. At the first International Working-Class Conference organized by a motley group of volunteers, mostly in the UK and held online, I presented, for the first time, my research-in-progress with an international community. It was an epic poem entitled “No Landscape for a Good Underclass Woman.” I was petrified of potential repercussions, but this did not stop me. After this, sharing my research and the efforts of the Shoestring Initiative became second-nature, albeit exhausting. This poem caused ripples. For instance, I was asked by a conference attendee to be a guest lecture in their sociology class about my activist research and Shoestring as part of their pedagogies of hope series. In the last three years, I have given over 30 presentations, given guest lectures and organized conference sessions that have brought to light poverty discrimination in Canadian universities and Canadian society. The impact of this global engagement is profound, daunting and humbling. The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, which readers will learn about further on, has been taken up internationally. Sometimes the “underclass” gets dropped by those who are uncomfortable with social class but nonetheless it is resonating globally. The most powerful demonstration of global engagement is portrayed on the following pages through art and poetry.
Danuta Charland, who was a guest speaker at a Shoestring “String it Together: Finding Togetherness on the Education Digi-scape” free webinar series, took a photograph that became a powerful metaphor for poverty-class women in universities. For several months, the “Lady in Panes,” as we co-named her, was present in our doctoral lives. Danuta, who was born into generational poverty and is a doctoral student in the USA, applied different filters to the photographs she took daily. Charity, a research Sister, then helped me assemble the images for presentation in this dissertation. Danuta and I co-wrote a poem about the Lady in Panes who we did not want to leave but eventually she moved on to help other poverty-class women in universities. This is what we like to imagine happened. These are but a few examples of the global engagement via the Shoestring Initiative and speaks to the reverberations of this grassroots movement and this research.
The Lady in Panes
Written by Elaine J Laberge and Danuta Charland
She came to us
Everything washed away
Out of the drenched air
The Wretched Poverty-Class Woman in University halls
She was still
She’s still with us for how long?
The Wretched Poverty-Class Woman in University classrooms
Why did she come to us?
Why does she stay with us?
My vision blurs obscures
What does she need me to see?
To close my ears to hear?
My embodied being is heavy
Weighted by a lifetime of burden
So weathered by university by academia
Shoulders drooping from the weight of arms
Eyes scalding from silenced tears
Ears begging, “Turn off world!”
The Wretched Poverty-Class Woman in University offices
She doesn’t leave
Why does she stay?
Weeks pass and meld
She stays with us
Solidarity through nature
Solidarity through Sisters
She’s still with us for how long?
“Please don’t you leave us,” Lady in Panes
Advocacy. As noted above, advocacy is central to Shoestring’s mandate. As a sociologist, my concern is with not only the well-being of individuals but is also focused on the structural reasons for the lack of WAP for poverty-class students. I have relentlessly, but tiredly, been dogged in approaching university leaders and professors, politicians, higher education-based associations, end poverty associations, the media, and Universities Canada. For instance, I am a thorn to Universities Canada who purports to be “the voice of Canadian universities” but refuses to address social class in their “intersectional” EDI mandates and data collection. Every webinar I can possibly attend I am there bringing up poverty and social class. Poverty-class students ask me to advocate on their behalf and at times I advocate for those who do not know they can have a voice. I learned about advocacy for poverty-class students while doing my master’s degree at the University of Alberta. I brought this knowledge with me to this doctoral program. In order to be an advocate for poverty-class students and myself, I kept finding ways to learn how universities work behind the scenes and between policy lines. This meant sitting on hiring committees and performing unpaid labour, for example, and being the voice of poverty-class students who are never heard let alone acknowledged.
Alternative futures. Imagine an international conference where Canadians are talking about social class: “Canadian Working in Class.” Imagine so many submissions were received that two sessions had to be held at the Canadian Sociological Association conference at Congress 2021: “Identity Politics Needs Some Class.” Imagine poverty-class students coming together for the first time in solidarity and support and imagining how universities can be supportive and students seeing themselves beyond deficit-based lenses. Imagine professors standing up in front of crowds telling poverty-class students in attendance that they are there to support these students in any way they can. Shoestring has become symbolic of alternative futures and these futures are ones that honour poverty-class students (and professors, administrators, staff, etc.). Imagine poverty-class students shedding the stigma and shame and demanding alternative futures for themselves and those who will come behind them. What exactly these alternative futures will look like is a discovery process that is shaped by the audacity to imagine otherwise.
Exemplars: Amarillo College and CampusRom. Two case studies from my doctoral candidacy, Amarillo College, Texas (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018; Lowrey-Hart, 2021) and CampusRom, Spain (Aranda et al., 2017; CampusRom, 2018; Marcias-Aranda, 2021), informed this research. I invited both groups to present at Shoestring online webinars. What I learned from these intimate conversations and experiences not only helped me understand the complexities of the WAP challenges for poverty-class students in Canadian universities, but they are exemplars of how WAP works in specific geographical and cultural contexts. What I learned complemented the readings about each organization’s efforts as they continuously work to address structural inequality and inequity and poverty discrimination in their respective institutions from an intersectional lens. Moreover, what Amarillo College and CampusRom representatives brought to the conversation, by way of the Shoestring Initiative, was transformational for attendees, myself and this research. Briefly I will explain what makes each educational institution an exemplar. In Chapter 6, I draw deeply on their respective initiatives to shape the social innovation model that the research Sisters and I co-created.
Amarillo College can best be described as actually doing something. For instance, the president said that the College operates from a place of love: they love their students to success (Lowrey-Hart, 2021). They no longer hide behind bureacracy as an excuse to push students out. Hidden curriculums have been put aside and replaced with responsive course designs that respect the realities of how students’ lives are shaped. They trust their students. If a student says they need $40 to pay a utility bill they are not forced to jump through institutional hoops. The money is given. If the student needs long-term support, which most do, social workers support students in caring and loving ways. In essence, Amarillo College centres their students each and every day.
CampusRom created an education initiative that is truly decolonial. CampusRom was created to support Roma/Gypsy students to be able to have enough education to pass university entrance exams and succeed in university. This is a massive undertaking because Roma/Gypsies in Europe are historically and contemporarily a persecuted race. CampusRom is by and for the Roma/Gypsies and is trauma-informed. Peer-engagement translates to students being mentored by students and professors, familial engagement in education is central, how lives are shaped by culture and poverty are honoured, advocates are engaged with universities and the Spanish government, culture and their native language are held sacred and gender discrimination is being tackled. CampusRom is demanding places in universities. CampusRom has a saying: “Yes, we want and we can. Roma/Gypsies in Spanish Universities. Sí, queremos y podemos. Gitanos y gitanas en las universidades españolas” (Macias Aranda, 2021). This reflects a push up against the stereotype that Roma/Gypsies do not want an education and are incapable of being educated in the formal Eurocentric sense.
Solving this long-standing problem is long overdue. There cannot be a greater time than now to problematize the exclusion of PCS from Canadian universities, which I contend is a human rights violation (Jackman & Porter, 2014). Canadian universities, who have been grappling with relentless government funding cuts, are now finding themselves in a financial dilemma of their own making because they embraced business models that heavily rely on international undergraduate tuition fee revenue, which dried up when these students could not attend because of COVID-19. Perhaps this might be an opportunity for Canadian university leaders to look at the underserved and underrepresented domestic populations they have historically ignored: people from (generational) poverty not as a group to replace international tuition fees but from social justice and education equity lenses. Further, with the revered middle-class being pushed down the rickety class ladder, this once counted-on demographic is disappearing. Who will be left to recruit? The one-percent? Canadian universities are either going to cling to their current economic and colonial models, hoping for a return to “normal,” or take this opportunity to embrace fundamental change. This raises opportunities in relation to my research and WAP for PCS.
Specifically, how might universities shift their focus to “resurrect[ing] the public university” Robin (2020)? Or, as Goddard (2018) suggests, regional universities need to ask, “not only what a particular university is ‘good at’ in term of quality of its research and teaching (as reflected in national and international ranking tables) but also what is it ‘good for’ in terms of its active contribution to the wider society globally and locally” (p. 355)? How might publicly-funded Canadian universities become good for poverty-class students? I suggest that we must ask, “Who are Canadian universities good for beyond the historic middle- and upper-classes”? To answer these questions, I contend that it is high time that the let poverty-class students eat cake strategy be abandoned by Canadian universities, as part of breaking capitalism’s-cum-neoliberalism’s stranglehold on our institutions and society. Moreover, I ask, “Where does the hope lie in this morass of apocalyptic hopelessness?” Perhaps the way out of this hopelessness lies with this hope-filled research. That is, this research holds the potential to teach and demonstrate how to create WAP for PCS in Canadian universities and educate students who must become part of solving the innumerable crises facing this nation and world.
Universities are on the brink and in a world of trouble. Reay (2018) speaks to the urgency for change in higher education: “Many emotions drove me to write Miseducation – sorrow, guilt, pride, anger, righteous indignation, regret, anxiety, and fear. But above all a sense of urgency and desperation that, as a woman approaching 70, time was running out” (p. 453). The International Commission on the Futures of Education (2021) also speaks to the “urgency of changing course” (p. 2) in higher education because the same-old, same-old never worked and today we are facing global crises on multiple fronts from rampant poverty to a climate catastrophe.
We, all Canadians who are part of a global citizenship, urgently need an education capable of valuing the public and common dimensions of the world and strengthening the ways we learn together. Certain approaches to education have run their course such as a focus on higher education for the middle-class who is losing its social class grip. Despite efforts such as EDI mandates, current university strategies have failed to ensure equal educational opportunity for all. They are even less likely to address new challenges. The International Commission on the Futures of Education (2021) reports on the status and state of higher education:
Education must be regenerated as a public good and a collective global responsibility, with education as a human right the central axis. Only such radical reframing can strengthen our common humanity and ensure sustainable relationships with others, with nature, and with technology. We cannot continue to just do more of the same if we want to address ecological and technological disruptions and reach 2050 with a world where people live well together and with the planet. (p. 2)
Systemic poverty must be addressed and from a sociological perspective. Blaming the individual has contributed to the oppression and suffering of masses in Canada and around the world. The current dominant narrative, which emerged during Occupy Wallstreet, the 1 percent versus the 99 percent has never included the underclass. Without access to higher education, particularly for poverty-class women, how can all people live well together and with the planet? Simply put, when masses of people in poverty are disenfranchised then it ripples across societies and the earth.
Likewise, Fleming (2021) lays bare how and why public universities are dying: “Corporatisation [and mass commodification—hyper neoliberalism—have] been so exhaustive (on a financial, organisational, individual and subjective level) that reversing it in the current context feels nearly impossible” (p. 5). Additionally, Fleming (2021) states that regardless of the occasional occasion of unified tenured voices, “There’s a general sense that the overall war has been lost and higher education is teetering on the brink of something much worse” (p. 10): Death. Death by a thousand budget cuts, usury of international undergraduate students to balance budgets, erosion of public faith in supporting public universities, the profound misery of the exploited inside the Ivory Tower, a new academic underclass (i.e., precariously employed contract instructors), bloated upper administration and marketing budgets selling an ideal to “customer” students, the inability of collective action and radical imagination for a takeover of the ‘corporate public’ (a disturbing linguistic juxtaposition) university (Fleming, 2021, p. 10), the relentless exclusion of masses of populations including the poverty-class and a thousand more ailments that eat away at foundations that never were that solid to begin with. What has changed or perhaps speeded up the demise of Canadian (and transnationally) public universities is the pandemic. COVID-19 ripped the veneer off the public neoliberal university with its insatiable need for greed and exclusion over public good and human rights. Now universities are scrambling to make up for lost (international) student revenue streams because the gravy train business model is empty.
There is a fourth voice that is equally important in this research conversation—poverty-class students, current and former. I argue that those who have lived experiences of systemic poverty yet whose knowledge systems are ignored, dismissed and written off by those who benefit from the historic and contemporary classism in Canadian universities (Hall, 2018; Hall & Tandon, 2017) bring hope in this morass of apocalyptic hopelessness. These very people have the knowledges to fix the problems in Canadian universities that directly impact them and society. They also understand that the status quo bureaucratic hands up ‘change moves at an iceberg pace’ in universities can no longer be the go-to excuse. Poverty-class folks know that there is an urgency to address poverty discrimination in Canadian universities and likewise in society. We must be part of solutions to address the national and global crises. Nonetheless, our voices are absent at university administrative tables, in the literature and in the classroom.
Whether the public university can be saved is not at issue in the context of this research that focuses generally on developing a WAP model for Canadian universities to support PCS. Perhaps it can be saved; perhaps it cannot be saved; perhaps it is not worth saving. “We” may need hope. However, there is no hope if Canadian taxpayer-funded universities continue to whole-heartedly embrace, at every level, the neoliberal corporate agenda over responsibility to its citizens and nation. The hope is that hope lies with this research that sought to discover, “What can the collective knowledges and radical imagination of women from a poverty-class heritage, who have accessed a Canadian university education, teach university leaders about the why and how-to widen access and participation for poverty-class students?”
This Story Needs to End
My literature review in Chapter 2 on the problems with English-speaking, western universities and their elitism is dense and tiresome. Publicly-funded universities remain immortalized as elitist institutions that serve their own ends and ensure a legacy of generational wealth that is as solid as the brick and mortar structures. The adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” has a particular meaning within these institutions. That is, it takes an academic village to raise a class privileged student. Thus, this solidarity-based research (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2017) sought to discover how poverty-class people, who have attended a Canadian university, can come together to be the outliers imagining otherwise in and for Canadian universities.
Longest invisible ellipses
You refused to hear our voices under capitalism
You wouldn’t hear our voices pre-neoliberalism
You ignored us under neoliberalism
You refused to hear our voices under neofeudalism neocolonialism
Under so many —isms
You won’t hear our COVID-19 voices
How will you hear our voices post-COVID-19?
No, you market your institutions as all about decolonisation
Interchanging the words
About equity, diversity and inclusion
Keep the colonial privileged pillars in place
But there’s seismic fissures
Social class ladder breaking under the weight of growing masses
The sacred middle-class free falling
Tired of your let-them-eat-cake economic models
Your worn-out records:
It’s always been this way …
Universities move at an [pre-climate change] iceberg pace …
It’s the way things have always been done …
The policies and procedures say …
If poverty-class students can’t handle it …
Fake it ‘til you make it …
Assimilate the middle-class higher education culture …
Why should we accommodate poverty-class students…?
Keep playing the tired old colonial higher education record
Your institutional inertia’s got you in a bit of a bind
So, you’re gonna hear our voices now
You’re gonna hear our collective voices now
Chapter Two: Framing the Research
Class Matters When You Are at the Bottom of Ladder
We know that disadvantage can come from your gender or ethnicity; your sexual orientation or your disability; your age or your religion or belief or any combination of these. But overarching and interwoven with this is the persistent inequality of social class – your family background and where you were born. Action to tackle inequality must be based on the most robust and sophisticated analysis of its roots and how it affects people’s lives. (Harman, 2010, pp. v-vi; Hills et al., 2010)
hooks (2000) tells us that “class matters.” Class has always mattered, albeit largely ignored in Canada by politicians, poverty reduction coalitions, higher education leaders and society. Nevertheless, as Sayer (2002) rightly says, social class “continues to figure centrally in people’s lives, especially for those who, as Beverley Skeggs so pointedly puts it, lack the privilege to be able to ignore it” (para. 1.3). Adair (2003) echoes the centrality of social class in lives:
In “Tired of Playing Monopoly?” (1998), Donna Langston challenges us to conceptualize class as more than a question of economic status. For Langston, class affects “the way we talk, think, act, move,” look, and are valued or devalued in our culture. “We experience class at every level of our lives,” Langston reminds us, so that even if our status changes, our class marking “does not float out in the rinse water” (Langston, 1998, p. 128; Adair, 2003, p. 25).
No one from poverty has ever had the privilege to be able to ignore class regardless of the ubiquitous myth of a classless society. Yet, in Canada, there is an odd class binary. On the one hand, historically, social class was a cantankerous subject in terms of higher education. For instance, Burtch (2006) writes, “Access to education has attracted great controversy in Canada” (p. 84) post-WWII. They note, it was argued “that increased accessibility to postsecondary institutions [for the lower classes would] generate lowered standards for admission and completion, thus embedding mediocrity in university programs and preventing any Canadian university from becoming ‘truly outstanding’” (Bercusson et al., 1997, p. 47, as cited by Burtch, 2006, p. 84). Conversely, today, there is a unambiguous exclusion of social class in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, a lack of widening access and participation (WAP) for poverty-class students, an absence of student socioeconomic status statistics (Tamtik & Guenter, 2019) and a fixation on marketisation and international rankings (Hemsley-Brown & Oplatka, 2006).
Social class is a messy business. Sayer (2002) argues that “what is a fraught and highly sensitive issue for many people has all too often become, in the hands of the sociologists, a dry academic debate about social classification schema” (para 1.2). As an illustration, Savage et al. (2013) published their findings from their “BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment” (p. 219). The research was intended to provide a “new model of social class” because they state that “[w]e are now entering a third phase in the analysis of class and stratification” (pp. 219-220). Traditional social class schemas (upper, middle, working, lower, under classes), they argue, do not reflect contemporary inequality and inequity particularly considering the growing wealth disparity and resulting social stratification and inequality (p. 220). As such, they suggest that their “third phase” class categories (elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and the precariat) are more reflective of present social ills (p. 230). I contend this is not the case, particularly for the poor. Increased social class classifications do not equate to an increase in understanding of structural poverty nor a decrease in the hatred of the poor because poverty is seen from a personal rather than structural framework. As Giroux (2014) notes, under neoliberalism, “poverty is not seen as a social problem but as a personal failing, and poor people have become the objects of abuse, fear, and loathing” (p. 12). This argument is supported by Tyler (2015) who states that there was a “well-documented ‘retreat from class’ within sociology in the 1990s” as a mechanism to “decouple class from the inequalities effected by neoliberal reforms” (p. 487) thus shifting to a blame-the-individual culture.
Tyler (2015) echoes the notion that “[s]ociety can no longer look in the mirror and see social classes” (pp. 497-498); our world is understood as “capitalism without classes” (pp. 497-498). This myth of the classless society is exemplified in Canada. The Liberal government’s Employment and Social Development Canada (2019) mantra “supporting the middle-class and those working hard to join it” (n.p.) and the historic appointment of a middle-class minister of prosperity, makes visible why trying to bring social class into an intersectional framework, EDI and WAP initiatives and policies feels futile to me: Where is the poverty-class minister of prosperity? There is not one. The Federal government’s messaging is clear: You are either middle-class who “needs” governmental support or you had better pull yourself up by your bootstraps and climb the social class ladder to join them. Thus, the Canadian government tells us there is only one deserving class in Canada—the middle-class. This is why, in this research, social class was central and poverty was in the centre of the table.
Meritocracy. Sobuwa and McKenna (2019) discuss the “obstinate notion that higher education is a meritocracy” (p. 13). The power of meritocratic beliefs in higher education cannot be overstated. Xiana and Reynolds (2017) define meritocracy and the “meritocratic society as one in which people get ahead because of their own individual and honest efforts” (p. 622). As such, this discounts all social factors that shape lives including social class. In this way, meritocracy shapes whether people and institutions justify social stratification and inequality—and, in countries like Canada, shed light on why poverty discrimination legislation continues to be rejected (Reynolds & Xiana, 2014). Mijs (2015) also speaks of the problematic nature of meritocracy as the “unfulfillable promise of meritocracy in education” (p. 14). Crozier (2018) is more direct: They describe “meritocracy as white middle class privilege” (p. 1239). Brown and Tannock (2009) raise an alarm: Under globalism, internationalisation and neoliberalism, there is a “new global meritocracy” that heightens the historic concerns of educators, which embraces and promotes “social, economic and educational inequality” (p. 377).
Underclass gaslighting. Sweet (2019) defines gaslighting as “a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel ‘crazy’” and one rooted in “an abusive power tactic” (p. 851). They argue that gaslighting needs to shift from the psychological and be “understood as rooted in social inequalities” (p. 851) particularly in relation to gender. I extended their theory of gender-based gaslighting to intersect with poverty in the university context. A rereading of Sweet’s theory in relation to this research defines gendered-poverty gaslighting as “consequential when perpetrators mobilize [the intersection of] gender-based [and poverty-based] stereotypes and structural and institutional inequalities against victims to manipulate their realities” (p. 851). For instance, a poverty-class single mom student is struggling to meet middle- and upper-class hidden curriculum expectations and is told, in a myriad of ways, they are not a good student. Gaslighting is more than making the victim feel that they are losing their mind. Sweet (2019) notes that gaslighting is “consequential” in that “such tactics damage victims’ sense of reality, autonomy, mobility, identity, and social supports” (p. 852). I add to this that it prevents the ability of female poverty-class students to create solidarity and build communities with other poverty-class women in university. I draw on Adair (2003) who explains how poverty is written onto the female poverty-class body:
As a child, as an adult, and even as a single-parent college student (attempting to rewrite my story and value as one of transformation and mobility), I was read and punished as a poor woman even as I disciplined my own body to patrol my physical presence in the material world. Yet it is also true that, although I was marked as deviant and pathological, I eventually learned to resist and work against debilitating class and gender markings. (p. 28)
Formal education and community is therefore crucial to resist underclass gaslighting because in essence, isolated poverty-class students start to believe that they are not worthy or good enough to be in university, that their academic struggles are a result of their unwillingness to pull themselves up by their bootstraps on a supposed level meritocratic higher education playing field, that their financial stresses are a result of financial illiteracy and bad judgement and that they are too stupid to be in university. In desperation they reach out to middle-class power in the university and divulge how poverty shapes their life and what they must do to survive. They are told in multiple ways, from silent glares to outright condemnation, that they should know how to navigate the middle- and upper-class university system and its rules and laws, understand the hidden curriculum, access financial aid, utilize the foodbank, have secure housing and reliable transportation and a solid financial budget with contingency plans. The (un)intentional gaslighting becomes utterly devastating. Their “reality” becomes so distorted they believe that they, not the elitist institution and its actors, are the problem and are pushed out. They silently leave and leave too often with the heavy burden of insurmountable student loans and other debt. As Sweet notes, “gaslighting becomes not only effective, but devastating” (p. 852).
Intersectionality and Identity Politics
Emba (2015) raises important questions and debates regarding intersectionality and identity politics both within and outside of academia:
Some critics believe that a fixation on intersectionality resurrects and empowers “identity politics,” reinforcing harmful structures of gender, race and class that the progressive movement was meant to break down. Others say that the term is leading to infighting within the feminist movement, encouraging “privilege-checking” as a form of bullying and silencing. And yet others say that the movement for intersectionality remains all talk and no action — while the need to recognize different identities spawns thinkpieces aplenty, intersectionality still isn’t reflected in law, policy or day-to-day action. Are these concerns valid? What does intersectionality look like outside of the academy, and why — if at all — does it remain necessary?” (n.p.).
In my own research journey, I have seen far more moments of inner-fighting than solidarity in tackling structural inequality and inequity. Poverty is too often not addressed from an intersectional lens. For example, poor White women versus poor Black women discourses abound rather than the intersection of women and poverty. I am both a critic and advocate of intersectionality and contend that, as Crenshaw (2016) says, there is an “urgency of intersectionality” (n.p.) even when contending with the pitfalls of identity politics and the rampant bullying and silencing (i.e., call out culture) because of labels.
Identity politics. What fueled the turn to identity politics and away from democracy is contested and certainly complex. Gagnon & Beausoleil (2017), in speaking about the wholesale failure of democracy or “disaffection with the democratic status quo” (p. 1) has resulted in “the focus of representative politics that has moved from tackling class-based material concerns to ones around recognition and identity “(p. 1). In Canada, class really never was in fashion save briefly for Porter’s (1965) landmark “The Vertical Mosaic” (Hamilton, 1996; Helmes-Hayes & Curtis, 1998). Michaels (2006) says, “we learned to love identity and ignore inequality.” They argue that “we love race—we love identity—because we don’t love class” (p. 6). That is, we learned to embrace diversity but we cannot embrace or honour the poor (p. 6). Dean (1996) advocates for a relational and reflexive way of being that supersedes binaries that pit ‘us against them’, which brings about the potential for shifting taken-for-granted boundaries where “each individual views group expectations from the perspective of a situated, hypothetical third” (p. 3). Dean calls for a “reflexive solidarity” because of the inherent dangers that manifest in identity politics which can result in “egocentric interests always on the verge of disruption” (p. 3) and the “rigidification” of identities (p. 5). In essence, Dean suggests that through reflexive solidarity, identity politics is not weaponized. In this research, the research Sisters not only were cognizant of identity politics and the need to ensure we were not demonizing the middle- and upper-classes in Canadian universities. Simply put, poverty-class students need allies in solidarity with other social classes to push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities.
Intersectionality. Crenshaw (2015) defines intersectionality as “an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power” (n.p.; Crenshaw, 2018). Hill Collins and Bilgre (2016) note that at the heart of intersectionality is that multiple “major axes of social divisions in a given society at a given time […] operate not as discrete mutually exclusive entities but build on each other and work together” (p. 4), for instance, how race and gender intersect to shape interactions, lives and “who is advantaged or disadvantaged within social relations” (p. 7). As such, embedded in intersectionality is power relations and the resultant oppression or emancipation. Intersectionality offers a framework to understand and address power and systemic inequality and inequity but it is also taken up in troubling ways by university administrators who are currently instituting EDI mandates that exclude social class and in particular poverty. To illustrate, Tamtik & Guenter (2019) conducted a ”policy analysis of equity, diversity and inclusion strategies in Canadian universities” (p. 41). In their analysis they focused on equity-seeking groups as defined by the Government of Canada (2019) Federal Employment Equity Act: women, Indigenous people, racialized minorities and persons with disabilities. Their analysis therefore excludes social class and any critique of this exclusion.
Simply put, when certain social characteristics are included/excluded, seemingly homogenized groups are created with the assumption that hierarchies do not exist within any particular social characteristic such as gender, race or sexual orientation. Rather, intersectionality is how race, class, gender, etc., intersect, not pile on top or together. To put it another way, intersectionality can be employed in the research literature and the everyday as Oppression Olympics and “the battle of the oppressions” (Chang & McCristal Culp, Jr.,2002, p. 487). Abrams et al. (2020) raise “epistemological concerns and additive thinking” concerns (pp. 1-2) and Yuval-Davis (2006) highlights how intersectionality is taken up in feminist politics in relation to “additive intersectionality model[s]” (p. 197). I term this homogenization of groups of people as “social characteristic silos” and contend that the exclusion of social class has created faux-intersectionality frameworks.
Faux-intersectionality can create binaries. For instance, gender and race versus class and race. This means that groups are homogenized, without a critical understanding of the inherent hierarchies and major axes of social division. The term intersectionality is used in EDI strategic plans and lauded in marketing materials yet in actuality, it is little more than selective intersectionality at play and one that excludes social class. For instance, in 2019, Universities Canada released their inaugural “Equity, diversity and inclusion at Canadian universities: Report on the 2019 national survey.” Universities Canada claimed to have collected “intersectional data” (Universities Canada, 2019, p. 5) yet did not address social class. In their statistical analysis, they stated they illustrated the “importance of accounting for intersectionality” (p. 12) when, in fact, their definition of intersectionality, is based on the Canadian Federal Employment Equity Act with sexual orientation added, homogenizes groups and uses an additive approach which lacks the nuances of the axes at which oppressive and exclusion occur. The literature sheds light on the complexity, and I argue susceptibility of intersectionality to political, social, and cultural influences, of employing an intersectional lens. For instance, Hindman (2011) asks if we should “rethink intersectionality” in favour of framing inequality and inequity through a “discursive marginalization” framework (p. 189). I draw on Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, the co-founder of the American Poor People’s Campaign (2020), who calls for an intersectional approach if we are to tackle the violence of systemic poverty. As an educated Black man and evangelical preacher, he leverages the term intersectionality in a powerful way to bring all poor people together regardless of Indigeneity, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, geographic location, age, and ability. In this way, the poverty masses are united.
Troubling Poverty Definitions
Defining poverty remains the most highly contested area of my research. Inside and outside of academia, I am confronted by people who want a palatable definition, one that is black and white, one where individuals are either above or below an arbitrary threshold determined by economists. As such, the most common academic, governmental and societal definition uses an economic framework. In the poverty literature, Hannum and Xie (2017) state that “poverty is typically measured by comparing resources to needs, and families or individuals are considered poor if they fall below some threshold…. Income is a common choice, the use of which may be justified on the grounds that income is essential in societies with market economies” (p. 1). Conversely, in discussing the history of the American Dream, Weiss (1988) defines poverty based upon the industrial-era belief that people were poor because of a lack of virtue and overabundance of vice (pp. 108-110). Adair (2005), however, makes a clear distinction between poverty-class and “working-class” people inside and outside of higher education and defines ‘poverty’ inside academia as “a distinct class identity, positionality, experience and concomitant consciousness and epistemology” and that outside of academia, “poor [women] … share distinct experiences and understandings of poverty with others who constitute a common consciousness and a class” (p. 821). Appiah (2018) states, however, that “[r]eal poverty … is about social isolation as much as material deprivation” (n.p.). Brady and Burton (2017) draw attention to how poverty definitions are territorial in academia. They argue, “Poverty research is segmented into academic silos that rarely engage in conversations with each other” (p. 2). For instance, poverty research in sociology versus education versus economics tend to favour specific definitions of poverty without considering overlapping or contrary understandings and frameworks. However, Hannum and Xie (2017) state that there is “an emerging conceptualization of poverty as encompassing an interrelated set of circumstances” (p. 3). The American poverty activist and grassroots organizer Stout (1996) defines poverty based on her lived experiences of generational poverty and being pushed out of college. She writes:
I often define poverty as a lack of options. What I became aware of early on was that for me and other low-income people, many doors are closed. I didn’t start thinking that was true. But it is. Middle-class people […] don’t understand that it is a privilege to have options, and that a lot of people don’t have that privilege. They also cannot understand the intense pain and shame of not having […] options available to you. (p. 25)
McKenzie (2015) provides a compelling argument against defining poverty and contends that “definitions [of poverty] have led to specific and often negative understandings of poor working-class people, and it is through these negative definitions and damaging narratives that policies have been prescriptive. (p. 17). Thus, McKenzie does not define poverty and, as an ethnographer, draws on lived experiences.
Accordingly, poverty is not defined solely through my White, western lens or any colonial lens. As such, in this research, poverty was open to subjective definitions by the research Sisters to respect their lived experiences, their intersections of oppression and privilege and ancestral and kinship knowledges.
I preface the conceptual framework with a brief yet critical discussion regarding framing this research. First, the proliferation of research on social class and higher education is disheartening. In the UK, for example, decades of research and billions of dollars have seen few shifts in increasing access to higher education for low socioeconomic status students (e.g., Reay, 2018). The research is further disturbing in the hands of elitist academics and university leaders who lack nuanced understandings of how students experience the violence of historic and contemporary class discrimination, exclusion and assimilation in Canadian publicly-funded universities (e.g., the Canadian academic Lehmann, 2007, 2009, 2013). This plays out in “classificatory struggles” (Tyler, 2015) where underclass students, the imagined Other, become, in a way, caricatures for those who dare to rise above their station in life by attending university. Far more insidious, and in relation to this research, poor female students and particularly poverty-class single mothers trying to obtain a university education are vilified and scorned (Carlson, 2016) or ,as Adair (2001) writes, “branded with infamy” (p. 451) in the higher education literature and on the university landscape.
I also drew from the profound work of deeply respected higher education scholars, and whose work I honour, such as Adair (2001), Reay (2012), Tyler (2013), Fraser (2015), Burke (2012) and Skeggs (2012). In the higher education literature on low socioeconomic status students, research findings generally support capitalist-neoliberal grand western theories (e.g., Bourdieu, Foucault, Marx). In essence, the raison d’être of academic research further supports these colonial theories and can be central to the researcher’s academic career agenda (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). To subscribe to this colonial theoretical and conceptual framing of research is contrary to how I understood and approached this research. For example, I could have chosen to ground this research in Bourdieu’s (1979) forms of capital theoretical framework. This is logical given his theories were developed to understand education and social class. However, I was drawn to wondering about how poverty-class people might theorize and conceptualize their own lived experiences, knowledges and imaginations and this research “problem” that both the research Sisters and I crafted collaboratively as much as we could in a doctoral community-based participatory action research project (Bacchi, 2012). Moreover, I was attentive to the potential of creating “elitist frameworks” (Bombaro, 2016, p. 1), reproducing social class elitism and engaging in “epistemological exclusion” (Boyce & Greer, 2012, p. 108). Likewise, I paid attention to how my positionality and topsy-turvy sense making of my privilege and entitlement (and lack thereof) shaped the framing of this research. Given these points, I drew upon the interweaving of the following theoretical and philosophical frameworks to inform the research focus, two-part research question, research findings and social innovation model created from this research: 1) María Lugones’ (1987) philosophy of “‘world’-travelling” and poverty-class women learning to love one another; 2) Phillips’ (2021) theory of being “unconditional equals” when we demand equality and equity; 3) Knowledge democracy (Hall & Tandon, 2017); and 4) Radical imagination (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2014).
“World”-Travelling and Poverty-class Women Learning to Love One Another. María Lugones (1987) brought to feminism the philosophy of “playfulness, ‘world’-travelling and loving perception” (p. 3). That is, women learning to love one another inside of, or despite, colonial and patriarchal structures that pit women against one another. Poverty-class women are too often taught that we are not sisters. The concept of sisters and sisterhood in this research did not come from any particular academic literature that I can cite. Rather, it is a philosophy that I learned throughout my journey: All women should be my sisters because their welfare is my concern and vice versa. Part of my understanding of a Sisterhood comes from being often raised by my Great Aunty who was related by marriage not blood. She cared for me and taught me so much that has shaped my life. The idea of sisters comes from teachers inside and outside of academia and particularly those who are engaged in decolonization.
The idea that the research participants (i.e., the research Sisters) and I could stand together in Sisterhood and “world”-travel to each other’s worlds to learn and grow together so we might stand in solidarity to combat systemic poverty was unfathomable to me. Thus, María Lugones’ theory of ‘world’-travelling and loving perception is critical to an intersectional lens for this research. What brought the women together in this research is that we are women with lived experiences of persistent poverty, who accessed a Canadian university education and want something different for poverty-class women who come alongside us and who will come after us.
María Lugones brought to me a profound awakening of the understanding of patriarchy’s power. She helped me to frame and justify why I wanted women participants: María Lugones teaches that women are “taught to abuse women” (p. 6) and that women cannot be “whole” without loving one another (p.7). She speaks about how women of colour are forced to travel to “hostile White/Anglo worlds” (p. 11) out of necessity whereas White women such as myself, a White generational settler, need not consider how or where I travel. “World”-travelling also relates to María Lugones unlearning her “constructed” understanding and disdain for, and dismissal of, her mother who was a poor servant (p. 8); she never wanted to be like her mother (pp. 5-6). As María Lugones says, this learning requires “a separation from” mothers and learning to construct our mothers and other women as Other (pp. 6, 18). María Lugones theorizes this as “loving” versus “arrogant” perception. Arrogant perception relates to a “failure to see oneself in other women who are quite different than oneself” (p. 7). In relation to my research, poverty-class women are taught to, particularly single mothers (Adair, 2001; Polakow, 1993), fear, despise, report on, surveil, condemn, ridicule, punish, stereotype and erase each other. In brief, we are taught to arrogantly perceive the female poverty-class body (2008, p. 1656). ‘Arrogant perception’ is the learned/taught behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that are “systematically organized to break the spirit of all women” (p. 4). It is a “failure of identification and a failure of love” (p. 4). It is White women knowingly or unknowingly erasing women of colour “while we are in their midst” (p. 7). Arrogant perception is the “patriarchal construction” of women (p. 18) that results in women marginalizing and blaming each other while ignoring the effects of systemic misogyny. Conversely, loving perception is the ability of women to identify with each other by travelling to each other’s worlds, for poverty-class women to love each other, come together in solidarity and to break down and push up against systemic racism, ableism, sexism and classism in Canadian universities and society. Loving perception is a feminist decolonizing philosophy that I contend is intersectional and provides the potential for poverty-class female students to reframe how they are storied and imagined on the Canadian university landscape and society (Rimstead, 2001). Arrogant class perception matters: poverty-class students/people are constructed as subjects: revolting (Tyler, 2013), disgusting (Lawler, 2005), illegitimate (Haylett, 2001) and wasteful. Thus, loving perception allows women to shift how we construct, empower and love each other (p. 18). I draw on Clover (2020) to reinforce María Lugones’ philosophy:
We must also come to see how the explicit and hidden curriculum of patriarchy works to sustain multiple injustices that have divided women, setting them apart and against each other by continually throwing up more complex hierarchies to scale, and deeper cracks to traverse. As bell hooks (1984) reminds us, it has made it “easier to ignore, dismiss, reject and even hurt one another.” (p. x)
In this research, poverty is what connects us; the Sisterhood is what makes us respect and honour our multiple axes of oppression. In this research, as women with lived experiences and knowledge of the gendered nature of poverty, we “world”-travelled with loving perception as we grappled not only with the echoes of poverty across our lives but also with how patriarchy has been planted in us and social class critique has been denied to us. Yes, there are welfare queens but no welfare kings. The gendered nature of poverty is as resilient as dandelions and seemingly as unavoidable as thistle. The selective EDI strategies and nonexistent WAP for poverty-class students, the majority of whom are women trying to claw their way out of intergenerational poverty, is as firmly entrenched as colonial grass and concrete.
We are unconditionally equals. Phillips (2021) argues that as soon as we make a case for why we should be seen as equal, we have lost the battle and the war. In “Unconditional Equals” (2021) she contends that we should understand equality not as something grounded in shared characteristics but as something people enact when they refuse to be considered inferiors. At a time when the supposedly shared belief in human equality is so patently not shared, the book makes a powerful case for seeing equality as a commitment we make to ourselves and others, and a claim we make on others when they deny us our status as equals” (n.p., italics added).
On May 24, 2021, the London School of Economics (LSE) had a free webinar with guest speaker Anne Phillips about her new book. I posted a question in the webinar chatroom: “In my research we’re trying to demonstrate to Canadian universities why people whose lives are shaped by systemic poverty are an important demographic. After listening to you I’m wondering if we should be trying to justify why we should be allowed entry to publicly-funded universities….”
Anne Phillips’ abridged response:
All the arguments that we’re making for better policies, for better ways of engaging with people, better ways of doing things, of course, we’re in the business of trying to demonstrate. You have to do it this way rather than this way because you’ve excluded people who ought to be included. You have policies that are discriminatory against other people.
It’s a particular kind of demonstration that I want to challenge, which is the current demonstration that brings in this notion of showing that these people who’ve been excluded are just as human as those who are currently included. I think that there’s something about that form of argument, which is really problematic. There are certain kinds of ways of trying to make the case about why people who’ve been ignored, who’ve been excluded, who’ve been marginalized ought to be taken more seriously. It’s not that you don’t want that to happen, but there are ways of arguing that that seem almost a kind of concede the inequality in the way in which they’re doing it.
So, I mean I’m sure that isn’t at all, what you’re doing in your arguments but that the, I mean, that’s, that’s the only sense in which what I’m saying is, is at odds with what you’re trying to do, I think, just that one needs to be careful that one is falling into the form of arguing, which is saying, you know, these people are just as good as, just as human as, share the same fundamental human characteristics as. Therefore, which is kind of such an argument for weakness it seems to me, though, so it’s perfectly understandable why, over the decades and centuries, it’s been employed.
In this moment, I realized I had spent a lifetime trying to demonstrate why I am worthy enough, human enough, to be granted access to an education, to be allowed onto the sacred higher education landscape. The why, why, why “I am human enough to exist.” Her theory turns demonstrating human worth—worthy of equality, human rights, justice and full participation in education and civic society—on its head and into the bin heap where demonstrating our worth justifiably belongs.
Knowledge democracy. I define knowledge democracy (knowledge equity, decolonizing knowledge) as trying to solve 99 percent of the world’s problems with 1 percent of the world’s knowledge. Hall (2018) writes that “knowledge is the star” and that in every story, “knowledge is central. Knowledge is the star of each drama. Knowledge is the dynamic, active, engaged and linked to social, political, cultural, or sustainable changes […] knowledge is co-constructed” (p. 89). Hall & Tandon (2017) explain that it is the generally accepted practice of higher education to “exclude many of the diverse knowledge systems in the world” (p.6). In relation to this research, this exclusion includes the lived experiences and ancestral and kinship knowledges of poverty-class students (and professors, teachers, administrators).
Hall & Tandon (2017) define knowledge democracy as “an interrelationship of phenomena” (p. 13) with three salient features. First, all “ways of knowing” (p. 13) constitutes knowledge and does not exclude the knowledge of, for instance, those who live in the shadows and margins of the higher education landscape and society. Second, knowledge does not have a singular look and feel. For example, knowledge in this dissertation is “created and represented” (p. 13) through story, prose, poetry, art, dialogue, wonders, and revelations. Third, knowledge is action-oriented and “a powerful tool” (p. 13) for creating change. Fourth, knowledge must be accessible to everyone. It must not be hidden behind paywalls nor stored in places and spaces that are only accessible to a fraction of the world’s population. That is, knowledge democracy can only exist if it is openly accessible.
For this research, knowledge democracy is where the hope lies if we are to create any in-the-meantime and structural change for poverty-class students. It is the research Sisters (research partners in community-based participatory action research language) who have the knowledge that is desperately needed by Canadian universities, communities, and societies. Yet not only are poverty-class students’ knowledge systems excluded from the curriculum and textbooks, I argue it is difficult for academic institutional power holders to imagine that we even hold knowledge that could possibly be in service of something greater than ourselves. Consequently, without knowledge democracy, as poverty-class people we must battle the relentless “epistemicide […] the killing of [our] knowledge systems” (Hall & Tandon, 2017, p. 6).
Radical imagination. Radical, sociological, every day, research, cultural, shared, situated, intersectional and class imaginations intersect with social class and are the heart and soul of this collective exploration. It is where hope and imagining otherwise lies. Imagination extends to concepts of “imagined” and “unimagined” or in relation to this research, yet-to-be imagined communities (Nixon, 2011, p. 151). Wright Mills’ (2000) sociological imagination provides a promise that “enables us to grasp history and biography and the relation between the two” (p. 4) because, as he writes, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both” (p. 3; the “Sociological Imagination” was first published in 1959). The sociological imagination, therefore, helps shift from blaming the individual and internalizing inequality and inequity to understating the structural reasons for exclusion, marginalization and violence. Imagination is part of “envisioning real utopias” (Wright, 2010). Imagination “can ‘reconfigure what is possible’, providing a ‘resource that opens up new vistas” (Boyce & Greer, 2012, p. 107; Burawoy et al., 2000, p. 32). Boyce and Greer (2012) explain that if we combine our lived experiences with the “power of imagination,” we “can produce more precise and meaningful ways to think and act that are relevant to both real lives in the present, and to imagined—but possible—futures” (p. 107). The hope of imagination is to “generate alternative worlds” and, in relation to my research, a widening access and participation higher education social innovation model that will push the elitist privileged pillars of Canadian universities and that will teach university leaders and Canadian society how things can be different if only we imagine otherwise. But, as Haiven and Khasnabish (2014) contend, imagination is not sufficient; we need radical imagination or “we are left only with the residual dreams of the powerful, and for the vast majority they are not experienced as dreams but as nightmares of insecurity, precarity, violence and hopelessness” (pp. 3-4). They define radical imagination “not as a thing that individuals possess […] but as a collective process, something that groups do and do together” (p. 4), “an analytic category or sociological process” (p. 6). I add that the power of radical imagination is that it provides a way for those in the centre to “‘world’-travel” (María Lugones, 1987) to understand and empathize with foreign landscapes, experiences, knowledge, and ways of being. However, the idea of “world”-travelling with loving versus arrogant perception does not entirely mesh with their radical imagination theory because, as Khasnabish and Haiven (2014) posit, “radical imagination often emerges most brilliantly from those who encounter the greatest or most acute oppression and exploitation, and is often stunted and diluted in those who enjoy the greatest privileges” (n.p.). Simply put, the marginalized engage in the process of radical imagination because they must do so to tackle the oppression inflicted upon them by those in the centre. However, we are all complicit:
Robin Kelley reminds us that our collective imagination may be the most revolutionary power available to us, and yet as intellectuals we have failed miserably to grapple with its political and analytical importance. (Kelley, 2002 as cited in (Ginwright, 2008, p. 14).
Radical imagination is not “one universal thing” (Haiven and Khasnabish, 2014, pp.6-7) nor is it static and bounded. It is shaped by our positionalities and the intersections of race, gender, class, etc. That is, a “situated imagination” (Yuval-Davis, 2006, p. 315), an intersectional imagination. Radical imagination, “on a phenomenological level […] is the product of difference: it is sparked and grows when we encounter the unexpected, the foreign, the new” (Haiven and Khasnabish, 2014, pp.6-7); the unwanted, the unwelcome, the uncomfortable. We engage in radical imagination when we “revoke silences and confront the clamour of common sense” (Emmel, 2015, n.p.) and turn the status quo inside out and upside down within and outside of institutions, from the margins and the centre. (Boyce & Greer, 2012) explains:
The force of imagination can only be realised if individuals and collectives are galvanised in ways that do not treat the status quo as pre-given, natural, eternal, and unalterable. Of course, it is the capacity of imagination to conceive of that which is not that places the status quo under threat. (p. 108)
In this research, we engaged in radical imagination when we stopped accepting the tired cliché, “You know that change happens at an iceberg pace in academia” when, as poverty-class women, we know that this means the ongoing perpetuation of social class elitism in Canadian universities and intergenerational poverty. The power of radical imagination with this solidarity-based research is that individually and collectively we are tired of history repeating. In solidarity, as women with lived experiences of persistent poverty, armed with radical imagination, we created an imagined and possible future where poverty-class students no longer need to live in the shadows and margins of the Canadian university landscape—nor, be forced to assimilate—fake it ‘til we make it (Ivana, 2017) or fade away.
Chapter Three: Methodology and Methods
The Research Sisters
Originally, I had thought to use “purposive sampling” and seek six to eight participants (under the COVID-19 British Columbia health guidelines, indoor gatherings were limited to six people). Gentles et al. (2015) suggest that the term “sampling” is problematic as it implies a generalizability to a population in qualitative research. They draw on Yin (2014) and state that Yin “consistently uses the term selection, and mindfully avoids descriptors that imply knowledge of an overall population, such as unique or typical (2014, p. xxiv as cited in Gentles et al., 2015, p. 1777; italics added). I was not comfortable with “convenience sampling” (aka haphazard or accidental sampling) (Etikan et al., 2015, p. 1) as it could have been constructed to mean that I would have, for instance, picked the most accessible and easiest to find research Sisters. Potentially, this might have required that I would need to broaden my requirements for participation and thus, be less focused and ignore the gendered nature of poverty. In essence, convenience sampling would get the job done but would misshape the research purpose and questions. I preferred the term “purposive invitation” as this is what I planned on doing and was more appropriate for CBPAR. I leveraged the reputation I developed in addressing social class inequality and inequity in Canadian universities. I invited Canadian women from four time zones in Canada who have lived experiences of persistent poverty and who have accessed a Canadian university education. Individuals could either be current students or recently completed, left or were pushed out of their undergraduate studies. Race, age, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, etc. were not factors for participation. Where a poverty-class woman is or has studied was also not a consideration. Research Sisters could have gone to multiple universities or transferred from a college program.
I was attentive to, as Shaw and Crowther (2017) ask, “Who is considered to be ‘the community’ and who is not? Who benefits and who loses out” (p. 3)? This research excludes groups such as poverty-class international students, men, tenured professors, academic administration leaders and graduate students (yes, I’m aware of the irony) as these are different research projects. This doctoral research was realistic, bounded and doable. In relation to who benefits, early discussions were held with individual research Sisters and collectively as to how the research findings would be presented and when. We were in agreement that I would translate the knowledge during the research and after. As discussed in the introduction, I actively looked for and created opportunities to share this research with regional, national and international audiences. Some research Sisters agreed to be part of public events (e.g., webinars, conference sessions) to share their lived experiences of being a poverty-class student in Canadian universities. These are research Sisters who chose to use their real names in the research.
A methodological synopsis. This research was always going to be community-based. I just did not have the language or formal methodology education to articulate the why. I did not seek an approach because it was new to me. Rather, I knew I needed something where research participants and I would be partners, we would come together as a community through our shared lived experiences as women from poverty, where our knowledges would be valued and where we would create something that might benefit those who are coming alongside us and those who will come after us. This research also needed to be a transformative—perhaps even a healing—empowering experience. The research Sisters, all women with lived experiences of persistent poverty who accessed an undergraduate degree at a Canadian university, needed community.
Rationalising a community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) approach. To justify CBPAR as a methodology for our research, I draw on Burtch (2012) who writes:
The critical researcher aims to pay particular attention to the truths of those who have been silenced, excluded and pathologized through the colonizing, regulating, normalizing and paternalistic gaze of some of the hegemonic forms of social science research and policy. (p. 71)
Using a CBPAR approach held the potential for poverty-class women, who accessed a university education, who hold the truths, knowledge and know-how, who are engaged in WAP-type initiatives for poverty-class students in unseen, unheard and unrecognized ways, to collectively come together to teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how to widen access and participation for poverty-class students. These are the very women who understand the urgency of this emancipatory, empowering and social justice research project. These are the women with lived experiences, defined by Ibánez-Carrasco, Watson and Tavares (2019), as having “personal and intimate knowledge and practice” (p. 2)—epistemic privilege—of persistent poverty, what it means to face a lifetime of poverty history repeating itself but also what it means to have the hope and imagination that things can be otherwise in terms of WAP for poverty-class students, “unimagined community” in academia (Nixon, 2011, p. 151), in Canadian universities pre- and post-COVID. With a CBPAR orientation, participants were central—essential—to this rare, moment-in-time WAP conversation in Canadian universities rather than the object of academic research (Adair, 2003).
Outlining CBPAR. While community-based research goes by many names (e.g., CBPAR, participatory action, participatory action research (PAR), community action research; see Etmanski, Dawson & Hall, 2014), it is a methodological “orientation to inquiry” (Boyd, 2014, p. 1; Etmanski, Dawson & Hall, 2014; Minkler, 2004; Shaw & Crowther, 2017). At its most basic level, CBPAR is defined by Lenette et al. (2019) as “a process whereby people with lived experiences of the topic of study are co-creators of knowledge” (p. 161), “including those who do not have formal education and the most excluded or oppressed” (Krumer-Nevo, 2009, p. 280). With respect to power, PAR does not centre the researcher or institutional agendas as it emphasizes “analysis, critique and deconstruction of structures, subjectivities and discourses tied to complex and unequal relations of power” (Burke, 2012, p. 71). Additionally, Lenette et al. (2019) describe PAR is “a sensitive and appropriate tool to uncover gendered perspectives in collaboration with community-based researchers” (p. 164) to which I add the intersection of gender and class, and more specifically, in relation to my research, women and poverty. Krumer-Nevo (2009) argues that “PAR, like feminism, is not a research method, but an attitude […] or [a radical] epistemology [… and] is very specific in targeting critically the question of where knowledge resides” (p. 280). For the moment, what is most salient in these descriptions of CBPAR and feminist PAR is the inclusive nature of the research process and how poverty-class research Sisters carried the knowledge that shaped the process, exploration, findings, analysis and knowledge mobilization—regardless of the level of formal education they have attained (Frocker, 1999; Osborne, Anderson & Robson, 2020).
Bracket the community? With CBPAR, the “topic to be investigated comes from the community” (Minkler, 2004, p. 687). Yet, with this CBPAR-based doctoral research, I generated the topic. On the other hand, I connected with enough poverty-class people across Canada, with lived academic experiences, to know that the research problem I proposed was an urgent one, and it needed to be problematized by poverty-class people so as to be visible inside academia and beyond. In essence, while I had thought to bracket CB from PAR, I argue that a community did exist, albeit in an informal sense. Given what I have learned about the lack of WAP for low socioeconomic status students in Canada, it would be impossible to find an existing formal community of poverty-class people in Canadian universities. Above all, I contend that as we all have shared lived experiences of persistent poverty and trying to access Canadian university education, we are a community. Moreover, as “we” came together through methods such as focus groups, inevitably a community was created not only because of poverty but through a combined commitment to social justice and addressing the systemic classist inequality and inequity foundations of Canadian universities. In the end, there was no need to delineate CB from PAR.
CBPAR features. Liebenberg (2018) succinctly describes PAR as “action combined with participation and research that is intended to bring about social change” (p. 2). Leavy (2017) defines CBPAR as involving “forming research partnerships with non-academic stakeholders to develop and execute a research project based on a particular community-identified problem or issue” (p. 224). As Boyd (2017) notes, to address the complex and structural issues confronting society today, “multiple stakeholders in the research process” must be included “not as subjects but as co-investigators and co-authors” (p. 2) in the “knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE) process” (Ibáñez-Carrasco et al., 2019, p. 1; Knowledge Translation Program, 2019; Liebenberg, 2018; Matheson & Malcolm Edwards, 2016; St. Michael’s Hospital, 2019).
CBPAR is a relational approach to research where all participants’ lived experiences, wonders, hope and imagination are honoured at every step of the research process (Boyd, 2017; Leavy, 2019). However, as a doctoral student, due to institutional requirements (i.e., research proposal, ethics, and doctoral process), I defined the research questions and overall research problem at the outset (Southby, 2017). This did not preclude participants from shaping/refining the topic and questions. Nor did this mean that I did not draw upon the knowledge and experience of my committee as part of the research team (Leavy, 2019).
Leavy (2017) lists salient CBPAR features: the valuing of “collaboration, power sharing, and different kinds of knowledge” (the everyday to the academic); it is grassroots in that each stage of the research process includes the community “whose lives are most impacted by the problem at hand” (those with lived experiences of persistent poverty who have accessed university), the goal is to create collective solutions to create change (to demonstrate the why and how to WAP for poverty-class people), is “problem-centered or problem-driven” (poverty is the pandemic, ‘poverty-class’ students are excluded from EDI plans) and necessitates “flexibility” and reflexivity both for myself as a student-researcher and research Sisters as we came alongside one another and learned together (p. 224). Ibáñez-Carrasco et al. (2019) describe three additional CBPAR descriptors. First, there is a requirement of “constant disclosure” (p. 2) of, in relation to my research, lived experiences of persistent poverty with our co-investigators. This self-disclosure does not translate to forced disclosure within, or outside, of the group, which would be unethical. When conducting CBPAR with oppressed people, particularly those who face relentless stigma, exclusion and violence, then the work becomes much more difficult. For instance, the more visible one becomes, the more challenging it can be to come out of the social underclass closet particularly on landscapes such as higher education. From personal and research experiences, I can attest to the complicated nature of coming to class consciousness and of speaking for the first time about experiences in universities as a poverty-class student. Second, Ibánez-Carrasco et al. (2019) describe “engaging in emotional labor” (p. 2), which they define as “the work that people do in ‘performing’ feelings […] within normative organizational and social contexts [e.g., universities]; and as the ‘work’ that these practices do in constructing and reflecting social realities, identities, relation and institutions” (p. 2) including the intersections of oppression such as gender, race and social class. Third, my personal and research experiences have taught me that when we personally choose to share our participation in this kind of work, we start to connect with Other poverty-class people—inside and outside of academia—who may ask us to advocate on their behalf.
With a CBPAR orientation, research Sisters and I did, as Shaw and Crowther (2017) contend, made “critical and creative connections” by “lighting the fuse of imagination […] to imagine democracy […] to engage with it, defend it or struggle over it—to develop a democratic disposition—to see how things could be different” (p. 47). In this way, CBPAR allowed for the intersection of imaginations. First, sociological imagination, which is the ability to see the personal in relation to the wider structural inequalities and inequities in Canadian universities. Second, narrative imagination, “the capacity to locate one’s own biography within” (Shaw and Crowther, 2017, p. 48) each of the community partners’ (marginalized people) biographies—historical and contemporary. Third, “[r]eflexive imagination […] the capacity to see oneself, one’s identity and traditions, as simultaneously part of both the problem and the possibility of democratic life” (p. 48). This I saw as not only “multiple ways of knowing” (Boyd, 2014, p. 3) but also multiple ways of (re)imagining.
What is clear in the literature are the justifications of CBPAR; that is, not only the social, educational and political but the practical (and personal) implications (Leavy, 2017). As Leavy (2017) writes, CBPAR “has a real-world goal beyond creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge” (p. 240). Stoeker (2008) writes that the “ideal [CBPAR] project is one that serves community-identified needs, is sensitive to the cultural understandings of the community, and supports action around some community-identified issue” (p. 50). Thus, both the why and how of this research must remain central to our community-based inquiry. Cammarota and Fine (2008) grounded my run-away train thoughts: They write that “PAR knowledge is active and NOT passive” (p. 6; Leavy, 2017). That is, in my view, ‘data’ written up and dumped into pay-walled academic journals or placed to collect dust on shelves. They further say, “Research findings become launching pads for ideas, actions, plans, and strategies to initiate social change” (p. 6). As such, they state that using CBPAR shifts epistemology to “a critical epistemology that redefines knowledge as actions in pursuit of social justice” (p. 6). With this research, for instance, we/I created a social innovation model that demonstrates how to create WAP initiatives for poverty-class students for university leaders to consider whether they are willing to address systemic institutional poverty discrimination, the lack of WAP for poverty-class people and the exclusion of poverty-class students from full access and participation in higher education. Although Stoeker (2008) highlights salient university “institutional barriers to community-based research” (p. 49) such as how dissertations must ‘look,’ the co-created and co-directed knowledge mobilization is only restricted by institutional ethics.
In this research, four methods were used: one-on-one research conversations, focus groups, art, and integrated knowledge mobilization (iKMB/KT). This research was conducted over a seven-month period beginning in January 2021. Due to the pandemic, all conversations and focus groups were held via Zoom. Seven women participated in this research plus me as a researcher-participant, based upon certain criteria.
To participate, participants had to be women who are/were considered domestic Canadian students with lived experiences of persistent poverty who: a) are close to completing their undergraduate degree, or b) have three plus years’ experience as an undergraduate, or c) have completed an undergraduate degree in the last 10 years at a Canadian university. Only women, who are/were considered domestic undergraduate students, are included irrespective of race, ethnicity, Indigeneity, age, language and ablebodiedness. International students were not included as this adds another dimension which was beyond the scope of this research. Men were excluded as this research focuses on the gendered nature of poverty, which continues to disproportionally impact women and single mothers. This research excluded tenured and tenure-track professors and academic administration leaders to mitigate power imbalances. In Canada, there is a poverty- and working-class divide (Adair, 2005). Poverty is embedded and imbued with stigma and shame and working-class is not. Poverty for this research was open to subjective definition by research Sisters to respect their lived experiences and knowledges.
The recruitment process plan had three phases. In Phase 1, I used personal contacts to connect with prospective research Sisters. These people were contacted a single time by email. A post was added to my research website, http://www.echoesofpoverty.com regarding the call for research participants. It was anticipated that given my advocacy and activism in my research area on poverty and Canadian universities that there would not be a need for additional recruitment strategies. That is, word-of-mouth and invitations would be sufficient, which was the case. In Phase 2, if not enough participants signed onto this research project, an email would be sent to the Shoestring Initiative email list. Also, a call for participants would be made via the Shoestring Facebook page which I administer and moderate. In Phase 3, if not enough participants signed on, I would expand the recruitment outreach across social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
Research conversations with poverty-class women. I use the term ‘conversation’ versus ‘interview’ as the former connotes a relational, collaborative way of meaning making, versus the latter which is researcher driven and centric. A research conversation is guided not by a prescriptive set of questions but rather conversation cues that keep the focus on the research topic and research questions. Oakley (2003) uses a feminist perspective to explain the problematic nature of “women interviewing women” (p. 252): Interviews are about power imbalances and hierarchies, devoid of Sisterhood, thus, women interviewing women really is about “objectifying your sister” (p. 252). As such, in this research, conversations flowed organically and were foundational to building relationships of trust, reciprocity and equity between myself and each research Sister. In turn, this relationship building was a bridge to creating a community of care, support and curiosity with the entire research Sistership team.
I had one to three conversations with each research Sister. The conversations, which were not rigid in structure, were shaped by the following list of guiding questions:
1) What draws you to this research project?
2) Respond to a hard truth with “honestly…”
3) What shapes or shaped your undergraduate education experiences?
4) What have been the biggest things that have impacted your undergraduate education?
5) What will/did you take away from your undergraduate degree?
6) What would you tell a poverty-class person about Canadian universities?
7) What would you tell a poverty-class student about getting an undergraduate degree?
8) What have been the biggest impacts on your education?
9) How is your education shaping your life?
10) What are your hopes for this project?
Focus groups. Abrams and Gaiser (2017) state, the “purpose of a focus group is to enable a researcher to evaluate ideas in a group setting” and within “a more natural setting for gathering data” (p. 2). Focus groups are focused on a particular phenomenon and the group shares a common (vested) interest in an issue. The group sessions are facilitated by someone with experience. Focus groups can serve a variety of purposes from pre-research information gathering to “focus groups in the service of radical political work designed within social justice agendas” such as “consciousness-raising groups […] deployed to mobilize empowerment agendas and to enact social change” (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2011, p. 550). Because CBPAR is by and for community, focus groups “allow people to speak in both collective and individual voices—creating space for traditionally marginalized groups” and “often produce data that are seldom produced through individual interviewing […] and thus yield particularly powerful knowledges and insights” (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2011, pp. 552, 559). Focus groups, therefore, provided an unparalleled opportunity for individuals to come together and explore their radical imagination on the how and why of WAP for poverty-class students. The research sisters and me met three times.
Knowledge mobilization and translation. Integrated knowledge mobilization and translation (iKMb/iKT) was part of the entire research life cycle and a central part of knowledge democracy. That is, getting the research out there in ways to create change (e.g., influence policies). The Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR, 2012) defines knowledge translation and mobilization as “raising knowledge users’ awareness of research findings and facilitating the use of those findings” beyond traditional academic journals. The CIHR (2012) defines integrated knowledge mobilization and translation as “an approach to doing research that applies the principles of knowledge translation to the entire research process” (Government of Canada, 2012, https://cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/45321.html). The goal of iKMb/KT is for research to have an impact beyond an academic career. Through the research life cycle, iKMB/KT took the forms of national and transnational seminar and conference presentations; guest lectures; conference and special event organization; webinar series creation, organization and promotion; building and raising awareness of the Shoestring Initiative; weeks-of-welcome student orientations; unpaid graduate student representation committee work; international collaborations, and mentoring students. Part of how I integrated knowledge mobilization also was to map the impact of this research within Canada and transnationally.
Chapter Four: What We (Un)expectedly Found
For poverty-class folks, as a rule, our lives are usually no paint-by-number ‘scapes. Rather, point A to point B is a disorder of happenstance. Sewn together, I wonder what imaginations otherwise would come to life. What pastiche might we weave together?
The research Sisters. The Sisters spanned four time zones across Canada. Elaine, the student-researcher, hosted the sessions, was a researcher/participant and was technically the facilitator. What became evident in the research is a focus on community. Not a single Sister spoke of educational and civic engagement to get rich. The Sisterhood collectively spoke of being in service to others.
In the first focus group gathering, Elaine tried to get straight down to business by focusing on the research question. However, after a 14-hour workday, she was comfortable with Milk Toast, a natural and seasoned facilitator, leading the conversation. Milk Toast taught us to “pitch the conversation” to someone in the group in the same way a person pitches a baseball. All quite organic; no fancy rules. Milk Toast gently suggested we start with “our experiences within the post-secondary machinery.” She asked the group to begin with the positive and leave the negative for later. The negative side of experiences are, for the most part, absent in this dissertation. These experiences were explored in one-on-one research conversations, influenced the social innovation model in Chapter 6 and will become part of future knowledge mobilization that perhaps might include a documentary. These are things that were on my wish list but I simply lacked the resources to be able to produce at this time. Readers will see a smidgeon of who the Sisters are as each one is introduced.
Milk Toast led the “getting to know each other” part of the conversation. When it was time for Charity to pitch, she forgot to unmute. Charity teasingly captured the essence of the COVID-Zoom era: “Well, I feel like we should be really good mouth readers by now. Because how many times we have been talking on mute for the past year?!”
“That mute button is the bane of my existence!” Elaine says.
She asked, “Why isn’t it in the middle of the screen?” An off-topic question. We quickly moved on with Milk Toast’s direction.
Milk Toast. My experience in university was one where I went to an overachieving high school. I assumed I’m just going to move into this institution along with all the rest of my peers. I had no real sense of what I was getting into. I am kind of grateful for it because I managed to get through my first degree without knowing what I was really doing because everyone else around me was overachieving. I thought that was normal. A positive from that is I still have lifelong friends from that experience. It’s really quite bonding to have folks you go through that emotional roller coaster that is the post-secondary way.
Melissa. I guess my first experience with university is I did two bachelor’s degrees. I did one in in what was at the time Women’s Studies but now it’s now Gender Studies and then one in English. I worked in the private sector completely unrelated to anything I’d studied in school—in shitty jobs for several years. I returned to a university campus because I got a union job on the campus running the Student Union bookstore. Now I work for a union representing groups of workers. My most positive experiences from post-secondary are marked as a student and the work I can do. It’s often quite negative because people bring me negative. That’s what I deal with. But there’s also some amazing positives that come out of that work. Gains are made. I get a lot of job satisfaction from what I do. I come close to loving my work some days and I think that’s a pretty good thing. I have a very different perspective on post-secondary as somebody who works in it. I find that I get my positives out of what I’m able to change.
Charity. My undergrad—that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. Doing my masters was a positive experience. So moving towards a PhD was not an option because it would have been too much of a competitive space. I merged right into outreach work and then created a community connect programs for grad students. I make community partnerships and help people disseminate and mobilize knowledge in a different way. I’m looking at community-based research and trying to develop programming that looks at diversification of what research can look like. I’m so very motivated just like Melissa. So, I’m getting a little shy talking too much about stuff here. But I do feel rewarded every day. I’m sorry, I talk about a trifecta of meaning: 1) You’re motivated by people or supporting others or connecting people. It’s a strength. 2) Being a connector. 3) You want to help and support people and you don’t necessarily need to be front and centre. That’s motivation. I’m grateful. I don’t get paid the big bucks. That doesn’t matter. I have what I need right now.
Jes. I guess a favourable memory of undergrad… it was kind of interesting for me because I was one of those students in high school that had a hard time consistently applying myself. If something was interesting, I was into it 100 percent. If it was boring, I had a hard time getting to class. Because of that I knew I really wanted to focus on social related stuff. But I didn’t know that much about post-secondary being one of the first people to go to university in my family. My parents tried to pick my degree. [Slaps her forehead with her palm] They’re pretty like militaristic African parents. They said, “We didn’t get the opportunities, you’re getting them, you’re doing it the right way!”
They tried to make me do pre-law because I had taken a legal class and gotten the award for it. I thought, “Oh, wow, I guess you can learn things.” But I figured out that law wasn’t for me. I took sociology as an elective even though I didn’t even know what sociology meant at all. I completely fell in love with it. Being able to study something the way that I already questioned things randomly was great. I would say that my undergrad experience was actually a pretty good kind of learning. I love to learn.
Sarah. I went to a university as a mature student. I think I was about 26 or so. I was a single parent and my daughter had just turned nine. And so off I went to university. It swallowed me up—so many aspects—positively. I finally got connected with an activist crowd. I got connected with people who knew how to connect with resources and get things done. We were able to raise money for a sexual health centre. We were able to protest different things and organize around environmental issues. It felt really good because I hadn’t been connected to those communities before, in that way. It was really nice when I was studying political science and human dimensions of climate change. I had gone to protests but I never had organized them. So, moving into those spaces was really good.
Maureen. I’ve had actually a lot of unbelievably quite good experiences in college and university. I went to school when I was pregnant with my fourth child. I got into university because one university was in the process of being taken over by another. It was a satellite school. I hadn’t graduated high school. I got pregnant at 15 and dropped out in grade ten. You were allowed to register as a non-matriculated student. As a mature student I was on probation. If I took six classes and was successful, then I could actually become a “student.” So, I did that. I’m like, “Cool,” cuz I was living in low-income housing and the university was five minutes from my house. Great, I can run down there while the kids are in school and run back. I had this plan: I took a couple courses. I just took whatever they had. I took math and English. They had basic first year courses. So, I thought, “I’ll take finite math, sure, just because I had kids and it was local and so close.” So, I didn’t get swallowed up. I only had twelve people in my class. And the teacher was amazing. He put all the formulas on the board, right before the exam and then erased them because he said, “I’m retiring. I want all my students to be successful. I want to look like a good teacher.” He wanted us all to pass. It was bizarre. That was fine. I ended up working in support services for a while. I’m taking a course a semester because I have kids. I’m super busy and I can’t afford anything.
Then the program that I was running in my agency job ended and we all got laid off. I remember my last day one of the ladies said, “Oh, you should really take the Indigenous family support work program. That was at a college. So I left university and went to college for a year. That program was amazing. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is how you indigenize education.” So, we would sit and talk about something theoretically like the Indian Act and then we would sit in circle and debrief: “What does that mean for you and your family?” We would cry, we would process but actually we were able to do some of the healing around this traumatic information. When I went back to university, I realized they’re doing everything wrong. When you bring up those issues, they’re really traumatic for people who are…. I mean, I have family members who were in residential schools. These people leave with damage. And then they have to process that on their own.
I got into the social work program and most of it was amazing. I was in the Indigenous social work program. The Indigenous instructors were very much like that. They were giving us space to work through what we were talking through and writing about. But then the non-Indigenous classes were, for example, “Let’s talk about trauma.” In an addiction class, the prof says, “Write about somebody you know who’s an addict, yourself or your own experience with addiction.” I’m thinking, “But we never debriefed this. Why are you asking?” I think when I had all of these amazing experiences with the Indigenous instructors, that’s when I really started to critique my experiences with the non-Indigenous ones.
Alexandra. I’m currently doing my masters at an eastern university. It’s been very interesting. It’s all online because of the pandemic. So, a whole new world there. Prior to that, though, I was at a university where I studied history and applied ethics. Probably my favorite experience as an undergrad was being involved with the Student Union. I was the person who was responsible for running the food bank there. And it was just amazing. We had really good working relationships with marginalized student groups. Together, we were actually able to work on this culturally appropriate food program. It was just beautiful to be able to have a tangible impact on people’s lives and to have these relationships in this community. And I was really, really grateful for that at the university.
Elaine. When I was an undergrad student, a teacher of a professional grad development class arranged for me to meet someone they worked with. They said, “Well, maybe this is somebody who wants to talk to you.”
I went and met this person. I sat down and was shaking. I felt such shame. But they spoke my language! This person, who is one our Sisters, ended up writing a federal scholarship reference letter for me. They’ve written several reference letters. If it wasn’t for that moment when they told me I wasn’t a freak…. I wasn’t alone…. In my master’s research, it had a huge impact. Professors were also sending students they thought were from poverty to me for mentorship and support. I think about those moments that were life changing. I’m thinking about these unexpected connections and wonder, “How does this echo across lives?” I wonder about all the ways we are connected that we don’t know about—yet.
We set out to answer, “What can the collective knowledges and radical imagination of women from a poverty-class heritage, who have accessed a Canadian university education, teach university leaders about the why and how-to widen access and participation for poverty-class students?” What is exciting to me is that the resonant threads in the following findings are radically surprising. As we progressed through the research lifecycle, it became clear that the two-part research question was decidedly and deliberately taken up in ways I had not anticipated. After a long hard journey, I believed that I had crafted a strong research question. I got the research question so “right”; I got the research question so “wrong.” This is and remains fascinating to me and radically exhilarating how we poverty-class students can push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities.
In what follows, four overarching themes surround the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity: radical imagination space, emotional and spiritual space, epistemological space, and material support space. As Figure 4.1 depicts, these themes are not demarcated by hard lines. Rather, all themes intersect and overlap. That is, the themes are as messy and intertwining as our lived experiences, wonders and journeys. Moreover, the concept of “space” in these themes does not refer to any particular physical space although at times, throughout the research, some Sisters were physically connected. As with our understandings of community that is not rooted in physical structures, space is what was, what was not and what could be. Space in the context of this findings model relates to imagined spaces that we occupied over the seven months we spent together including how we created spaces of solidarity over Zoom. I imagine this model as five pieces of different coloured playdough. It was gifted to me and then I played with it. Each time I played with the model something new was created.
Figure 4.1: Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity Themes
Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity (USS)
Melissa explains the why of this research: “You know that the reason you have an amazing group of women around you is that you brought this group of women together. You’re the common tie between everyone in this this room, why we’re here. You brought us together and we’ll continue to find common ground because I just feel like, you know, people are drawn to people for reasons. I think we’re together for a purpose.”
No dissertation would be worth anything without operationalizing terms. There is no easy or neat and tidy definition that will be provided for the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity (USS). I asked the research Sisters to send me a written definition, if they had time, of what the USS means to them. Melissa brings us closest to the radicalness of what this means and its profound potential. She explains what the Sisterhood means for this research and for developing our social innovation model to push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities:
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes— Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses. James Oppenheimer
The fight for bread and roses may be rooted in the history of the Labour movement but the message resonates far beyond. For women in poverty, the battle has never ended. We are somehow undeserving of dignity and respect in “higher” educational institutions. It’s shocking, offensive, and abusive how our precious lived experience gets pushed aside because somehow lived experience isn’t “valuable” data without statistics.
To me, the lived experience of the Sisterhood draws a vivid picture of the struggles faced by women from poverty to succeed in the world of academia. I don’t think you can underestimate the power of a group of women working together with a singular objective. Those of us in the group who have found some stability financially and/or otherwise are able to use our voices to amplify those that are not yet able to yell about all the bullshit. We’re extremely diverse both in our actions and opinions, but we were brought together because of our dedication to change and a conviction that we have the right to participate.
I knew what the USS meant to me, at least in the abstract. I forgot to create space to world-travel to explain what my meaning making of this concept and space meant personally and academically. Moreover, I forgot to create space for exploration and learning. Quite frankly, I realized, “I’ve been in school too long and just thought it was self-explanatory.” The Sisters, without hesitation, brought their understandings to our virtual tables. Underpinning our individual and collective understandings was that we are (and were) natural women in natural relationships.
Sarah shares her understanding of the USS: “The Sisterhood of Solidarity for me, when I think about this and my role, I feel like it’s like a space thing activity. We’re creating the space that we never had and generating ideas about what this will look like and what this would mean for Other students.”
Maureen explains what the USS means to her: “It relates for me, too, Elaine, you bringing in cookies so that we can send them out to students that are struggling. And a lot of students are living by the absolute poverty line. I mean, to me, the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity is about supporting each other to get through these experiences.”
Building the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity. The USS is not a registered charity or non-profit. It does not have staff or volunteers. It certainly does not have financial support. It is not well-known. People do not sign up for memberships. Membership is too simple for formalities. We certainly were not interested in being gatekeepers or willing to engage in gatekeeping. There are no strategic plan, bylaws, constitutions or formal mission statements. There is no bank account nor a social media presence (yet). There is no office. There is no physical space—period. Unless, that is, one thinks of Elaine’s sans-university office “space” as the Sisterhood’s location. It is a minimalist space: A cramped, shared one-bedroom apartment Elaine has resided in for the last four years as she worked on her PhD and conducted her doctoral research. These points lead some to argue that this research was not, in fact, CBPAR. Arguments hinged on the assumption that “community” is defined by physicality and organizational structures. That is, “community” must look a certain way to be defined as a community. At the most basic, there are arguments that hinged on the USS lacking door hinges. Maureen asks, “Why do universities and academics get to define community? Why can’t we use our own definition?” The USS created our own definitions.
Radical Imagination Space
Maureen: “It just occurred to me there’s also strength and solidarity, right?”
Sisters in unison: “Yes, strength, it’s huge.”
Defining community. Milk Toast asks Alexandra to start us off by defining community.
Alexandra says, “Community is active relationship building and collaboration and this kind of supportive network. In the past, I would have defined community as a physical thing, located in one specific region. But I think COVID has really impacted this and shown that community is something that is by no means limited to one geographic region, which I guess is one of the few positives from everything.”
Alexandra says, “I used to run a food bank at a university. For me, at that point in time, community was very much around having the ability to put on physical events, share meals together and to provide food. To be able to provide tangible resources. Whereas now, I would say, you know, us together on Zoom is community. I’m across the country, but there is still community here. And there is still this network and support. So, I think for me, it’s really been an evolving definition. And it’s something that I’m very grateful for.”
Milk Toast says, “I like that it’s an evolving definition.”
Jes says, “I’ve been struggling with this definition in my own work, too. The definition that you just gave Alexandra was incredible. It’s definitely interesting. I picked it up as maybe being a process. People coming together and creating networks. In a way that can be a community in of itself. I’m still wrestling with a definition too. I think I will go with community being a process of engaging with people and creating networks.”
Milk Toast says, “Jes, I like that you said it’s a process. It implies that it’s not fixed. It also relates back to what Alexandra said: It’s not spatially or geographically fixed either. In my work with a politician, who is a warm, community-minded person, I’ve gotten a sense of their rhetoric and language that makes me think a lot of the semiotic term ‘your floating signifier.’ Community is actually undefined on purpose so that you can define it to suit your needs. This is both a beauty and a danger: It can be co-opted.
Melissa explains her definition of community. “I totally love the idea that community isn’t something static. Community is dynamic. Community to me has always been about sharing resources. There’s always something I’m not gonna have that I need and might not have the money for. You create this network of people where you can pool food or other resources. Community can be coming together physically and sharing this food. Ya, community is about sharing resources. Community is shared experience, too, and shared burdens. All of this helps build community. The other part of community for me is reciprocity: When I can’t hold myself up very well there are people in my community that are going to help prop me up and vice versa. So, the idea of sharing resources isn’t just a physical thing. For example, this group of women are helping Jes apply for a job. We have some resources that will help strengthen that and so we are going to share those resources, our knowledge and our experiences. As women, we carry the bulk of emotional labour. With that comes, I don’t know, some intrinsic knowledge or power that we share with each other. I’m more likely to go to a group of women to ask a question about something than a group of men.”
Elaine’s definition of community is informed by her lived experiences and the research life cycle. We were community before the USS came together for this research. There was a collective, often unspoken, understanding that the Sisterhood has an actual home: The Sisterhood resides, lives, breathes, plays, rants, rages, agitates and loves in our hearts and collective spirit. We were willing to demonstrate that we are a community. However, we were not willing to prove our worthiness to be considered a community. Indeed, when it comes to doors and doorways, and understanding what a “community” is in relation to this research, we were not idle. Maureen explained that we are prepared to run through doors when they open and break them down when they are closed as we push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities.
I live in a scarcity mentality. You can’t take that from me. Milk Toast
We defined poverty. An intertwining of community and Sisterhood lived experiences. On an early prairie winter morning in February, -30 something below, blistering winds scratched Elaine’s face. Elaine wildly tossed her stuff in the car as, exposed, she plunged headlong into the merciless prairie winter to numb her embodied self. Elaine did not dare shed a tear, whether a drop or a waterfall. It was not for fear that the salty drops would freeze on her manic-panic taunt cheeks. Rather, Elaine did not want to feel the sting of the reality that her frenzied journey to escape a western coastal island to be with her dying mother was another abrupt and callous cut. There was no time for mourning or grieving. Each second longer meant more hardship. She was dead; Elaine had a degree to finish; they both were broken. Flee flee flee back to the island, a two-day hard drive, to a place Elaine only ended up at because she went left instead of right, to pursue a degree she did not imagine for herself. Back to the façade tranquility in an overpriced and summery touristy hippie-esque world that could never be home. But run back she did. For the first time, in over three years, she experienced all the seasons over a two-day drive. She ran to Sarah. Elaine didn’t think of why Sarah but she needed why-Sarah. The first one-on-one research conversation Elaine conducted upon her unheeded journey’s return.
“You know, before we talk about when we first met, it really is tragic that I couldn’t reach out to my underclass Sisterhood about what I was going to have to go and deal with. And when I saw this woman, my mother, dying from and in poverty, that is really, really tragic.”
“Way to embark on this work. I mean, I’m really sorry, Elaine.”
Elaine did not tell Sarah that she conducted two one-on-one research conversations in the over-priced shithole of a hotel she was staying in while her mom lay dying in palliative care. It would take months before the utter disgust and shame would hit Elaine that she, in that moment, had put academia—that venerated piece of paper, her terror of university culture, and all the poverty discrimination violence and underclass gaslighting she had witnessed and experienced—above her mother’s final days. Those precious moments she treated like underclass garbage—gone forever. Elaine’s mom was in-the-moment; Elaine was not in-the-moment. Perhaps Elaine had assimilated the middle-class higher education culture beyond recognition and repair? Assimilated the elitist ways of being? The deadline to completion was imprinted in Elaine’s psyche and banged about in every cell of her body. More than this, Elaine struggled daily with the dominant narrative that she wasn’t good enough to be here, that she needed to prove her worthiness every fuckin’ sleepless and waking moment as a poverty-class woman in Canadian universities. She had tried but knew that she dare not say, “Hey, I’ve been hit by a dump truck full of agony! I need something more than folks hiding behind bureaucracy and stoned cold silencing inhumaneness.” Elaine couldn’t afford to press pause on this repression and suppression, although it was what her profound loss needed. Perhaps pushing through the field research was just another hustle she did, encased in armour, to prove she shouldn’t be pushed out of university.
Elaine could not catch a breath like she could not ever catch a break. She whispered down at her frayed fingertips and red worn hands, “Thank you, Sarah. It’s just I don’t want this to ever happen to little Sarahs and little Elaines.”
So much hidden in these few words. But Sarah and Elaine know all the veiled and hidden stories. They speak the same language.
Sarah does a mic drop across Zoom: “We have an idea of what poverty is. It’s one that’s generated by society and society says what poverty looks like. It makes it hard to connect sometimes on these levels about these things, too, because it’s like…. I wouldn’t have reached out to Shoestring people because there’s been, there’s like stigma on our own.”
There it is. In this moment Sarah makes visible how suffocating definitions of poverty are imposed upon us. In the breath of her brevity, Sarah bears and shares this crushing weight. Her profound understanding of the poverty political machinations and the relentless jockeying for definitional superiority is a testament to how little anyone really knows about us—the Other: In the media we are the (un)deserving poor, the freeloaders, the system users, the Welfare Queens. In Canada, we are now defined by the Liberal government’s ill-conceived Market Basket Measurement (Heisz, 2019). Under Conservative regimes, it was about statistical and arbitrary income thresholds. In higher education, as noted in the introduction, there are academic tussles and diatribes constantly afoot over who has the “right” definition. As McKenzie (2015) explains, no matter the definition, it is always at the expense of the poor. Elaine shared a bleeding bloody mess of how one these societal definitions is enacted in our Canadian taxpayer-funded health care system:
Her mother was transferred to a different palliative care system because there was not enough room at the other hospital. The doctor walks in and says, “Well, why haven’t you made the room look like a home like other people do?”
Elaine did not say, “Well, she’s been in here like two fuckin’ hours. Nobody knows what’s going on. It’s the middle of winter under a fuckin’ pandemic. Neither of us are from this city—anymore.” Elaine wanted to say this and wanted to rage at how violent the medical system was growing up to her and her family because they were poor. But she was too terrified to say anything.
“But I don’t understand this woman,” Sarah says.
“Power. Yeah. And the second time she came, she just stood outside the door with her purse clutching her pearls. ‘Hi, this is Dr. Whoever.’.”
The doctor yelled rapid fire rhetorical questions from the doorway, “Clara, you know we’re not here to heal you or make you better? You’re here to die? You’re here for free? If you want to get better, you have to go somewhere else and pay and it’s gonna be really expensive? Clara, do you understand?”
Elaine’s mother has her hearing aids in and says subserviently, “Yes, I understand, doctor.”
Elaine and her little sister are mummified in silence. Clara is dead less than a week later—her body contorting in pain like animals and objects being yanked up into a prairie tornado and unceremoniously and mercilessly dropped onto the ground to scream out their dying breath. Elaine is shaking from the force of this encounter. Her skin, from head to toe, infuses with a fire poker rage. Her teeth and are jaw are clenched like she is walking a frayed acrobatic tightrope, but she doesn’t pay heed and hisses, “This is my little sister. I’m a researcher.” The doctor is utterly appalled that Elaine, a daughter of this skeletal fragment of a poverty-class woman, is educated.
“Oh, what do you research?” she asks with an unfamiliar fusion of suspicion, confusion and faux interest. With laser focus and eye-to-eye contact, Elaine puts this fusion into context, “The social determinants of education. I centre social class.” The doctor scurried away and did not physically enter the room again.
Elaine tells Sarah, “I didn’t know what death from poverty was gonna look like, what it was gonna feel like, what it was gonna sound like.”
Yeah, we know how to define poverty. We live our ancestors’ definitions; we live our definitions; we learned and live our research Sisters’ definitions. While the historical and contemporary fusion adds a few ingredients here and there, the flavour of poverty definitions is not radically altered. The palette is still used to the same old status-quo poverty discrimination bitter taste.
Privilege and lack. At the beginning of a focus group, while waiting for everyone to arrive, Maureen patted the privilege elephant in the room. Actually, she gave the elephant’s behind a good wallop. We could not ignore privilege. She rhetorically asked, “We need to address privilege and lack…?”
Maureen said, “It’s a good question. Because the three of us here right now, just our even being here are experiencing some privilege, right?”
Maureen explains our privilege from an educational positionality and how it is intertwined with the USS: “In the sense that we’re all being educated or have been educated. We have voice now even though maybe we didn’t when we were younger. I know I certainly didn’t. But yeah, so there’s these sites, too, right. And so, what is this solidarity? And this solidarity, at some level, must be across class as well. So, as much as we’re talking about the ‘underclass,’ I don’t feel like I am the underclass anymore. I can pay my bills, right. And I’m not in a food bank lineup. I’m not in a welfare lineup. It starts with recognizing our privilege: A lot of us in this group right now are not experiencing the same challenges from where we came from.”
Maureen does not dismiss how other Sisters’ lives are shaped because she is not living with the daily realities of persistent poverty.
She says, “But… I can still understand having those experiences and try and support other people experiencing those things.”
Elaine adds a qualifier: “Except for those who are buried alive in student loan debt, crushing healthcare bills, one-foot-on-the-streets precarious housing, crap gig jobs, limited options….”
Elaine has experiences that still sting after several years engaged in this work. She explains what the Sisterhood means within the context of this sociological-based research. She says, “For me, it requires a critical class analysis and class consciousness.” Her understandings are interwoven with the Shoestring Initiative’s early days.
She tells the Sisters, “We had the first Shoestring event. I organized and promoted the heck out of it. I cooked for days and got my roommate to help me schlep all the stuff to the uni. There was one fellow who was in the group, originally, and he shows up in his $400 shoes and his $300 shirt. He sits there and he tells students how he’s traveled all over the world. He’s oozing coming from wealth but tried to situate himself as working-class. Then he doesn’t want anybody from poverty to speak or be there. Students were very upset. This was the first time they have publicly gone to something that was to support students from poverty.”
Elaine goes on to explain: “A newspaper contacted me and I invited this student along. I didn’t get a word in edge-wise. It was all about him and his working-class background. Even folks who signed up for the Shoestring email started to unsubscribe when I sent out notices for events for poverty-class students. There was lots of anger. There were also some folks trying to take over Shoestring and push me out ‘cause I was the only one who was willing to centre poverty. That’s what Shoestring and my research was always about.”
For the first three years of building Shoestring there was little in the way of solidarity. We need allies.
Elaine says, “When thinking about allies, that’s a tricky one. I think about what the Sisterhood would have meant when starting Shoestring. What it would have meant when I first tried to go to university and my absolute failure. The second time I went it was slightly better. It just would have been so different. I’m always asked about mentorship: who has it and who doesn’t. If you have professors, supervisors, administrators, staff and classmates who look like you it could be a gamechanger. But it’s pretty darn hard when you are the outsider.”
It was not easy to explain the nuances and complexity of privilege and lack from a lived experience and intersectional lens. This is particularly true in this research where poverty was centred and many of the Research Sisters were still living in the midst of poverty and fear.
Sarah struggles to find language to explain privilege and lack and how they are inextricably interwoven. She says, “But we still kind of wear and carry that privilege and poverty. This research is an opportunity to kind of reflect on what these experiences meant for us, and how we might ensure…. I’m not sure how to put that into words…. I think for a lot of us we couldn’t really frame this up, put it into words or understand how poverty impacted our lives inside and outside of university was a common experience.”
The Flabbergasted Elephant in the Room. Elaine interrupts the Sisters and forcefully says, “Okay, so can we talk about why we’re an important demographic for Canadian universities?”
Elaine, if she were honest, knew that she was asking this question from a pragmatic, capitalist-neoliberal perspective. Her idea was that if somehow the research Sisters could provide a “miracle” sales spiel then Canadian universities leaders might be convinced to widen access and participation for poverty-class students. It would take months of grappling with this part of the research question for Elaine to understand that she had never critically engaged with the socioeconomically “disadvantaged” higher education student literature. First, even at the most basic level, positionality of academic authors rarely speaks to their own social class position. Second, Elaine accepted that she and Othered students had to prove their worth to be in university by hiding, assimilating or faking it ‘til they made it. Third, the onus is on these students to prove they are as good as their elite counterparts to be in university. In the first part of the research question, Elaine asked the Sisterhood to justify their worth to be in university before she stumbled upon a free London School of Economics (UK) webinar featuring Dr. Anne Phillips (2021) who spoke about her forthcoming (September 2021) book “Unconditional Equals.”
Ironically, Elaine was the only one who was a flabbergasted elephant when the research Sisters refused to engage in any dialogue that situated us as needing to justify our worth. They all were quietly attuned to and comfortable with “refusing to be considered inferiors” (Phillips, 2021b) as evidenced by the Sisters choosing not to justify their worth to university adminstrators, for instance. For Elaine, the tensions that reverberated off the Zoom walls are a result of too many years immersed in literature, dominant narratives and university policies that story poverty-class students as inferior in endless ways. The magnitude of literature that speaks to how we can be fixed prevented Elaine from understanding this piece of the research question from any alternate perspectives. The Sisterhood naturally were able to see “equality as a commitment we make to ourselves and others, and a claim we make on others when they deny us our status as equals” (Phillips, 2021b). In what follows, and throughout the dissertation, the Sisterhood demonstrates this repeatedly. No one was prepared to justify our worth and therein lies the radical imagination hope. It is Maureen who provided an answer that might appease colonial, capitalist thinking. First, Maureen addressed statistics in relation to poverty and in particular in relation to poor moms and how we/they are benefits.
Maureen gives us an “I’m gonna say something funny that you might not find funny” trigger warning. She ramps up the tension between colonial capitalist and Indigenous ways of understanding education equity. “I remember when I was a young mom and everybody said, ‘Your kids will end up on welfare.’ People just literally gave me these statistics: Your kids are likely to be in jail, on social assistance I remember people giving me literally those statistics: your kids more likely that have been jail, on social assistance, be uneducated, all of these things…. So, I went to every parenting group. I was determined that wasn’t gonna happen to my children. They weren’t gonna become a statistic.
She goes on to say, “Then I went back to school. It was my own internalized rebellion about these stats stories. Part of this was educating my kids and myself and supporting them around myths. There’s a myth that these kids, when we’re poor young parents, that they are going to be a burden on the system. So, I was determined to prove they my kids were actually a benefit. For example, at the time, birth rates were in decline in Canada and we needed immigration. I remember thinking, ‘So, my kids are an asset especially if I have five children. They’ll all grow up to be taxpayers. I can become a taxpayer if you can educate me. Then I’m not on social assistance and reliant on child tax benefits to survive. I’m an asset and my kids will be assets. We will pay into your system’.” Although Indigenous, Maureen is attentive to the selling of Canadian ideals.
Maureen says, “I’m coming from a completely Western point in how I’m speaking of this: It’s to the benefit of the Canadian system to provide education at every level to people who are marginalized. It’s to the benefit of the system. In my view, now, having said that, I recognize the capitalist system wants low-wage workers and might prefer me to work at Walmart or McDonald’s or something for the rest of my life because it feeds some corporate person. But!… for the ideals of what Canada sells, which is this highly educated, upwardly mobile, healthy demographic, it is to Canada’s advantage for us to succeed and then model that to our children. That’s totally Western and is not coming from an Indigenous perspective. That’s a whole other worldview. But yeah, that’s my Western perspective on why I’m important to Canadian universities.”
Elaine centres how the neoliberal university sets a money trap and is money trapped. She says, “We are not a financially lucrative market. We’re not seen as ‘dream customers.’ Universities know that we’re not going to balance their books with our pocketbooks.”
She asks the group, “So why do we matter in these corporate universities? The neoliberal uni isn’t going away.”
Elaine says, “When we put this research out there, you know that university leaders rely on this business model, that obviously has big cracks like we’ve learned from COVID, but I don’t know how to address this.”
No one responded.
Wrapping around each other for support. Elaine knew a student that was financially devasted from the intersection of moving to an out-of-province university, sparse Band funding, outrageous rental costs and a lack of university and provincial funding for most graduate students. They “ran” into each other at the university bus stop. They sat and chatted for a long time. They were so distressed and stressed at not being able to pay their rent that they were shaking and crying. Yet, in the classroom they were feisty. They were vocal about the class injustice that was running rampant in the department and university. Professors, graduate chairs, academic advisors, academic administrators and staff understood this was impacting students. But no one cared. Elaine, being the consummate hustler, had been securing contract work to survive. Elaine shared a contract with this student. It gave them a few days reprieve. However, like other women in her cohort, this Indigenous (!) student was pushed out, too. The cohort was an anomaly: Several students came from generational poverty and it was, of course, gendered. They should have been connected but were disconnected from supporting one another under the burning underclass gaslighting and a decades old toxic misogynistic culture. They could not breathe and survive the poisonous air. It was too late from the beginning or perhaps, had Elaine and many of her cohort had the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, their trajectories might have taken positive turns.
Wrapping people in support is a value that is embedded in Elaine’s DNA. This philosophy reverberates through the focus group and individual conversations. Caring about the Othered other is a poverty-class value that all the Sisters hold onto with the fierceness of a momma bear. The Sisters demonstrated that things can be otherwise in these neoliberal universities. Elaine asked the research Sisters, “Do we matter? Are they listening? Is the whole human more important than institutional profit and jacking up academic careers?”
After seven years with this research at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral levels, Elaine’s bitterness and hope do not combine into anything palatable. At the praxis, Elaine says, “You know, and imagine at that point, I’ve already learned quite a bit about the problems with Canadian universities, but I was truly unprepared for what I was really going to learn on the ground.”
She wonders, how might things have been different if there were more people who “looked” like her?
There’s safety in the proverbial. Maureen says, “this solidarity creates safety, for us and for others. We need safety in the classrooms” and this safety comes from not having tokenized Others. She explains that “international students bring diversity of thoughts and experiences” so too can poverty-class students. Maureen learned about “solidarity women’s worlds around the world” from international students in the classroom but not about a concept like the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity. It only exists in and through us in this moment-in-time and the efforts of the Shoestring Initiative. Moreover, Maureen breaks the international-domestic student dualism.
Maureen says, “It’s not okay” to use international students as a “financial demographic. I see the value of having these students, but it shouldn’t be at the exception of other local students.” Including poverty-class students in equitable ways in Canadian universities cannot continue to be ignored because as Maureen explains, “The climate crisis cuts across everything including class.” Maureen says, if we want “happiness we have to create diversity where everyone learns and grows. We’ve got to become stronger together and more unified so we can tackle world problems with many good minds versus just our local problems and local knowledge.” First, however, is that poverty-class students need safety on the university landscape because there is safety in the proverbial.
Women committing violence against women. I am drawn yet again to María Lugones’ (1992) living in the borderlands. I wonder, how might we world-travel to each other’s worlds? How might poverty-class women find “borderland friendships” (María Lugones, 1992, p. 31) with each other?
Throughout the research journey we talked often how we are all aunties to everyone’s children. We wondered, is it too radical to imagine a space where moms could bring their children to university in the morning, have them cared for by community, have breakfast and a reprieve before heading out to class? Or to be able to bring children for night classes, have supper with community and be able to attend class while one’s children are cared for by community? Is it too radical to imagine universities that are founded upon familial and relational ways of being? Yes, yes, yes we have all heard that children would be too disruptive. More disruptive than the everyday goings on in classrooms?
Elaine says, “Sarah, it should be post-pandemic that we can attend classes online. Imagine what a difference it could make. You wouldn’t lose money not being able to take work shifts, no more huffing it on foot, you know, rushing, rushing, rushing, showing up at school in a work uniform and being bullied in a 400-level classroom. What a difference it would have made if you could have done a night class differently. How different it could have been to focus as a student…?”
Elaine is shaken and wails, “Why couldn’t you bring your daughter to school? Why couldn’t there have been a Shoestring Initiative where you could have brought your daughter? A community that would have cared for her—and, you?” In the moment we are wrangling our radical imagination as we shift from the normative single, student-mom tropes (e.g., if you cannot afford daycare then you should not be here or should have been morally responsible with your reproductive self) to something beyond this….
Sarah breathlessly says, “All that hustling between. Oh my gosh….”
Elaine fumbles for words: “Great for the muscles but the stress it puts on yourself and kid… daycare is so outrageously expensive. It’s just….”
Sarah still gasps thinking about this: “It’s so expensive. I’m really glad to see this province move in this direction. I hope it pans out. But it would have made a huge difference for me. My daughter’s childcare was always tenuous. It was never secure. And oh my god, it was so hard to ask people for help.”
Sarah and I share this characteristic.
“I would do wild things: Wait to the very last minute because I was so afraid to ask somebody—needed somebody to help me out. And then I would put people in awkward positions. I’d ask a friend or someone. All last minute. People would say, ‘Why don’t you have your shit together?’ You know what? I was frozen and paralyzed from fear.”
With family living thousands of kilometres away, Sarah’s choices were dire. Every day, daycare choices were a potential straw. At this point it is not even survival. It is precarious living. Living in constant crisis is not living. “Precarious” is such a trite and inadequate word in a world ravaged by social ills.
Colonial charity models are good student recruitment fodder.
She was on campus for an event that the entire university community was invited to attend and participate. All University of Victoria student voices were supposed to be welcomed to develop the university’s strategic plan. There was catered food set up in different locations including a room in the Student Unions’ Building. Wearing the event badge, she went into this room with a Tupperware container and got some lunch. She sat alone at a table and hurriedly gulped down a few bites so she would not miss the next events. Her plan was to take the leftovers to eat as the afternoon progressed. She has a sensitive stomach from ulcers that erupted when she was in grade six. This means that she cannot eat much food at one sitting. Rather, she needs to graze. A woman, wearing fancy high heeled fashion boots, stood at the front reading her iPhone. Her voice sliced through the air and with the precision of a butcher’s knife landed on her: “If you’re hungry go to the food bank.” V left the room and threw up outside.
She forgot her Tupperware container on the table. It was probably thrown out like her. Like the leftovers from the lavish taxpayer-funded spread.
When talking about the magnitude of barriers we face for our sheer survival on these colonial landscapes, food insecurity is a central yet shameful secret. We are forced to lie about the reality of our lives shaped by persistent poverty. We are hungry, too often, and this gets conflated with we do not know how to budget properly. Sarah says, “I can make a dollar stretch like no rubber band was ever meant to.”
A constant narrative we are told in a multitude of ways, as Sarah says, “Why didn’t you go to the foodbank?”
Sarah says, “Sometimes I did. But it was also hard to go to the food bank. And it was also enraging to go to the food bank because there were people going there just because it was free food….”
Elaine spits, “These universities relying on food banks as a solution is despicable. They’re in the back of the university or the basement to supposedly protect your dignity!”
Yes, universities parade around these foodbanks like it makes them some kind of superior higher education institution.
Sarah says what no university leaders would dare be transparent about: “They are run by volunteers and by students. It’s not the university doing it. It’s not them taking responsibility. It’s students doing this for other students. But ya, it’s in the basement.”
Elaine is in distress: “And the fact that the stigma and shame of needing going there versus if you don’t have to go there but you choose to go there. Like those entitled students who go dumpster diving for food and brag about it like they are some kind of eco-warriors. And when lovely people come and say, ‘Here’s all this food that stores are gonna throw out but if you just chop off this rotten part it’s just fine. It’s not food that anyone else will buy but good enough for us. But, hey, it’s free—except for the price of your dignity and humanity.”
This colonial charity model. Yeah, it is really disgusting. Nothing is for free when it costs a person their dignity. There are of course alternatives to the foodbank. There are the restaurants, pubs and food kiosks that are big business for big business universities. These are, of course, non-alternatives for poverty-class students. Imagine classmates saying, “Let’s meet at the campus pub and go over our group project!”
The poverty-class student says, “Oh, I would love to but I have my stats class…. Maybe you guys could meet and email me what I need to do…?”
We have to tell lies. We are forced to be liars. Always telling lies on the fly.
A simple decolonial, non-capitalist, non-shaming solution. Sarah says, “The food is so expensive at the uni, too. The whole thing where you have to use their catering for events…. But I wonder, I imagined how much of a difference it would make if you could have a meal card so you could just, you could eat on campus if you needed to.”
Elaine chimes in: “How about a proper space. We could have a fridge and stove. We could have computers and printers so you wouldn’t have to choose between printing at the library or paying rent. There would be places to lay down and rest and you wouldn’t have to worry about your shoes being stolen. It would be peaceful. There could be tables where you could study and mentor and get mentorship. There would always be food and a pot of stew cooking. It would smell like home and not an institution. And there would be no shame or stigma. It would be a beautiful place to come to. And there we would be building community and solidarity. We would build community through food. Well, there’s always extra to take home, too.”
The price of admission: Assimilation. For poverty-class people, the price of admission and participation in educational and political arenas too often is too high. The ticket demands assimilation. From the outset of this research journey, in our own ways, we wrestled with the dominant “we are less than” and “if we just conform” then we will “succeed.” Not a single research sister was willing to toe the classist status quo line. Sarah resists the politics of assimilation.
Elaine said something at the outset: We won’t assimilate. I think that’s an important thing. It’s the same thing that I picked up from the UK class activist Lisa McKenzie, which I thought was awesome. It’s about celebrating growing up in Council flats. She’s like, “We’re the best people I know.” It’s the same thing that Maureen was saying. It’s the same reason I decided to even venture out this way and to leave the work that I was doing: I didn’t want to be a politician. I wanted to help politicians because I just was so floored that people who were way less intelligent than me—and, cared 0% for other people—were in these positions.
I thought, “Finally, you know, somehow I ended up running somebody else’s idea, it all happened.” And I thought, “Great, now we’re going to make all this change.” But no. Now I’m in a place where I felt, for the first year, more vulnerable than I’ve ever had in my entire life. Because, all of a sudden, I was trying to change to be this kind of person that all of these people in these entrenched places of power expected me to be. I sure what was causing a lot of trouble is my not being exactly who they expected. After over two years into it, I realized there’s absolutely no reason that I should change. I’m here because I am different. We are encouraging a diversity of people to enter a diversity of fields, but we need to really check ourselves about what we’re asking people to take on, and how are we going to change those institutions? And how are we going to support people through this because it’s really fucking hard to be in those spaces!
I think even when you realize that you don’t want to change, you’re still trudging up a mountain. There’s just this piece in there, the trajectory of human evolution, where we’ve gotten to a certain point, but where we’re trying to support more people getting in the door but without changing the system itself. We can hustle through it, like, we’ll survive, we will thrive, I think that’s what we’ve had to do, but probably shouldn’t have to, you know. So, yeah, that’s an important point that I wanted to pick up on and that I’ve been thinking about a lot, thinking about the ways that we can hold institutions accountable for their status quo and harmful practices. For the ways that they encourage diversity that is not trauma-informed and not understanding the whole scope of what they’re working with.
Moving past the redemption arc. Alexandra explains her shifting understanding of grand tropes such as the redemption arc:
I just really appreciate there being a culture to social class and a need to kind of get beyond that redemption arc. It’s been something that I’ve been reflecting on a lot is growing up in a working-class household. I went to a really wealthy high school. My friends and I were the only poor kids. I guess part of it for me is that it wasn’t only joyless and awful. There was a lot of really beautiful, amazing moments. I think there’s a lot of value and richness in growing up in a state that might have some struggles. I can remember all of us trying to scramble for change so we could buy some cheap little chips and snacky things. It was a really nice, happy, beautiful thing. I started watching this TV series “Can You Hear Me.” It’s about these three women who are very much working-class. It highlights the fact that there’s a struggle to it but also that there’s beauty and there’s solidarity and there’s joy. Maybe it isn’t necessary to fundamentally alter the culture of poverty but just to shift the material conditions so that you don’t necessarily have to go through those hardships. You can still have that cultural connection, those ties and that the joy that comes community of people experiencing poverty.
The imaginary bumps into the redemption arc with rigour. Maureen says, “With the imaginary, for me, it’s not a redemption arc. If you become a professor, when, not if, when you become a professor, I would never…. Academic rigour: You’re raising your children and attending school. You have straight A’s and you showed up! That’s academic rigour!”
Maureen explains academic rigour from her lived experiences as a single mom in poverty:
When I teach a class, this is my goal, I’m not going to teach it the way it’s being taught. So, if all of us become professors we change the system. Right? If you show up and hand me something, you show up for class, you deserve recognition for that, right? Not some kind of competitive bullshit. If you come up with something creative, knowledgeable and intelligent—and, you even fuckin’ show up…. I think that’s why we’re the imaginary—imagine if we all became professors and we actually change it?
This change is profoundly needed. Sarah recounts a year-long story that began in hope and ended in utter disappointment and transcript damage. She sought the relational teaching that Maureen speaks of:
My university had one of the most eminent female feminist professors. She was going to be my prof and I was so excited to take her class. She provided after-hours, special credit sessions. I’m a single parent of a child and I told her I couldn’t come after hours. I asked her, “Can I do something else?”
I felt so confident asking her because I thought, “This woman is a feminist, she is going to hear me and see me.”
She said, “No way. Sorry, no.”
She just totally shut me down. It was the first time I went out on a limb and tried to, you know…. Because it’s so hard to ask for accommodation when you feel like you aren’t deserving. Yea, she just shut me down for a whole year. Really disappointing.
“Precarious” food security, housing …. Precarious is such an overused and trite word.
Radically (Re)Imagining Canadian Universities…? Elaine asks the group, “How do we take on the big stuff? The little stuff? What does a uni look like where we are valued? Where we won’t be just put into the stew as a thrown in like an afterthought, like a leftover?”
Milk Toast says, “That’s a really big question. I think it’s one that like, you’re really pushing the limits of our imaginaries. Because we’re here precisely for lived experience. To try to step outside of that is quite… it can be challenging. I think what would have helped me as a student, even for all the difficulties with identity politics, that I think is taken up so much, because it’s so liberating for folks to be like, ‘Who’s my people?’ So, when I was able to identify social class as a defining piece of who I am, I suddenly felt so much more comfortable going to the food bank. I think this is a big part of this project is how we can create the future. I hate the term but raise ‘awareness,’ raise the acceptance of self-identifying through our social class. Once you self-identify, for example as a settler, once you identify in these ways, so many more options open to you in terms of expanding on your own sense of self.”
For Melissa, the work of the Sisterhood of Solidarity holds the potential to “remove the stigma of poverty.” She says, It’s like the idea of mental health. The more we talk about mental health the more easy it is to talk about it. Often those people we see as leaders who are taking up these positions, and everyone here is a leader is some way or another, means that ideally other people will come along and follow.” As a union leader, Melissa says, “We know that kind of has a proven history of working.” Like Milk Toast, Melissa finds Elaine’s fumbling and stumbling, trying to wrestle with the second part of the research question, is whoa big.
Melissa says, “I think one of the things for me, like Milk Toast, I’m like, wow, that’s such a huge almost amorphous kind of question.” Melissa suggests we start by asking, “What scale are we’re talking about” She says, “Because if we’re talking about ‘How do we change Canadian universities?’, then that’s a totally different question than, ‘How do we start a movement, for example, on one specific campus?’ If the change is about a particular campus, then maybe it can become a model for other universities.”
The goal of this research was to develop a social innovation model for university leaders to consider. Melissa says, “In my mind, it’s more tangible to put a plan in place to work in and on and then it can be a roadmap for other institutions.”
Milk Toast sees the idea of a model in a different way. She says, “I think it’s actually interesting that you bring this up Melissa. I think the opposite approach could be more effective. I’m worried about the blueprint effect. You take what’s successful in one place and transplant it elsewhere and then it might not work.” Milk Toast raises another concern: “Having seen the halls of power at universities, if our model is tried at one university then the constant discourse will be, ‘Why aren’t the other unis doing this?’ There’s almost an uphill battle but at the same time you have the convenience of scale. Just spit ballin’ here.”
Melissa responds and says, “Milk Toast I totally agree with you on the whole blueprint idea. Like when we start looking at the dynamics of cost-of-living in different cities. This is a huge factor in what we’re doing together. An example: In some cities rent takes up a lot more disposable income. How would this factor into a model for poverty-class students? I guess there wouldn’t be an easy blueprint.”
Milk Toast says, “Melissa for President!”
Elaine says, “I’ve been doing this for a while and recently heard a new uni president say they were going to bring together administrators, not the folks with lived experiences, and implement the Australian pathways to university model for first-gen students. Frig, I was so frustrated. I took a class and asked the prof why unis do this kind of thing. They said that in education people with authority buy generic boxed programming and try to impose it. Of course, the prof said, these folks are baffled when it doesn’t work. It’s like Melissa giving me a recipe for a cake that always is super awesome when she bakes it. Should I be surprised when it doesn’t work out at my place? Different altitude, ingredients, and skills.… Big surprise! So yes, Milk Toast, the blueprint model will be a disaster. I hadn’t thought about the whole discourse around ‘Why aren’t other unis doing this?’ Wondering if only one uni takes our work seriously if it will be seen as substandard or not evidence-based enough…? Not sure if there are uni leaders in Canada who have the courage to be trailblazers and engage with our radical imaginaries.”
Elaine says to the Sisterhood, “No one told me that an A at this uni isn’t a 4.0. You need an A+. It wasn’t this way at my other uni. Didn’t know to know this. Now I don’t have a perfect GPA. Frig, let’s hope it never matters again.”
Identity Politics is Classless. When Alexandra reached out to the Shoestring Initiative for support in applying for graduate school, Alexandra said something that shook Elaine. With permission, Elaine asks Alexandra to revisit their conversation. What ensues is a profound discussion of identity politics and social class and a whole lot of getting real about what identity means when you are poor and a poverty-class student.
Alexandra says, “I’m happy to share that. The experience that Elaine is referring to is I am a queer woman. I’ve done a lot of advocacy work with groups. But sometimes it did feel a little alienating. It’s not that I didn’t experience sexism, or at one point when I was with another woman, homophobia, but it was that those are not critical concerns when you don’t have enough to eat. I don’t really worry as much about getting a weird look for holding my partner’s hand as I do about whether or not there is food in the fridge.”
Alexandra adds, “Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn which White woman wearing a pantsuit is running things or if it’s a guy in a suit. I care about getting the bills paid and getting things to happen on the ground.”
When it comes to talking about breaking the “glass ceiling” Alexandra’s mild manner does an abrupt shift. She tells us, “There are these $100,000 a year jobs and if you are making this you’ve already broken a lot of barriers. These women don’t even think about how many other people are never even going to be able to think about breaking glass ceilings. There are folks not worrying about ever getting into a meeting because they’re thinking, ‘Are we even getting into the building in the first place’.”
Choices for poverty-class students are too often black and white social class choices.
When she applied to graduate school, Alexandra no longer had a student benefit plan. She says, “I made the choice between paying for my antidepressants and paying for grad school. I paid for my grad school application. And it sucked. It sucked to be forced to make that choice in the first place.”
Financial stressors are never simple. As with Sarah, Alexandra has deep familial obligations that she carries daily in her knapsack. She explains to us the “parental piece.”
Alexandra says, “I think a lot of the time when you’re navigating these spaces in school, it’s not even that the terrain right now is not equal, it’s that it’s going to be unequal for many decades to come. Because when my peers are thinking about whether or not they’re going to be able to buy a home in the next five to ten years, I’m thinking about the fact that I am my parent’s retirement plan.”
When thinking about poverty-class students, and the gendered nature of poverty, Alexandra reminds us that there are “a lot of interconnected little pieces of the puzzle that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about.”
Without resentment but with fatigue, Alexandra says, “I guess there’s some days where I would really like to be one of those people that didn’t have to think about all these things and have that privilege to not worry about those parts of life.”
Alexandra reinforces her understandings. She tells us, “To compare a few weird looks to the struggles of someone who’s experienced homelessness…! Not all oppression is created equally. And again, that’s not even going into race, disability or all the other factors that just aren’t discussed. I would say that if you’re weighing different identity or identity points, which we shouldn’t do, but I think everyone does, to some degree, things like race and disability status are far more tied into living in poverty than something like your sexuality.”
Melissa retells how things have not changed since she was an undergraduate student. She witnessed “a really obvious class system that just dovetails so nicely with academia.” This has not changed in Canadian universities.
Milk Toast says of class elitism and higher education, “Well, it’s a luxury to be able to afford a degree that ostensibly doesn’t lead to like a financially secure career!”
Milk Toast explains why getting social class into any conversation let alone policy and legislation is near impossible in our identity politics climate. “In certain areas you see really liberal identitarian politics and culture and a lot of that comes from the students who can afford to take humanist studies that explore those things. Occasionally, you get students who do it because they genuinely love it regardless of income bracket. Those are always the best. But you get people thinking suddenly they’re oppressed just because they have some education and suddenly able to put names to things. They feel like they have an entitlement to label themselves. We call this ‘Oppression Olympics’.”
Alexandra says, “I don’t like the term Oppression Olympics because I always feel like one of those old conservative dudes who says, ‘Identity politics sucks!’ But what he’s actually disregarding are genuinely serious issues. But I don’t know what else to call it other than Oppression Olympics.”
Elaine says, “The term works for me! Notice that none of us participated in Oppression Olympics in our time together. I wonder if it’s because we centred social class and in particular poverty…?”
An Apple and a Rosebud. There is a sense of poignancy tonight in our last focus group. After seven months together as the USS our research time has come to an end. No one is rushing out the Zoom door. It is a moment that we want to capture and hold sacred. Milk Toast leads us in an activity to round out our time together: an apple and a rosebud. She explains that an apple is “something sweet in your life” and a rosebud “is something small but hopeful that’s going to bloom into something nice.”
Milk Toast says her “apple is actually these conversations. Every time I go into them, exhausted from work, I think, ‘There’s gonna be so much energy and I’m gonna sit until my hips are sore!’.” She says, “I’m gonna be so tired after because of the emotional energy but at the same time, there’s such a catharsis. This is such a sweet little apple for me.” Milk Toast’s rosebud is she is going to sleep in on the weekend!
Jes says, “So, my apple, something sweet…. I’m gonna say it’s… actually, it’s Elaine. There’s no way I would be where I am right now if it wasn’t for her. Just listening to her research and her experiences and even her relationship with her mom has encouraged me to reach out more to my mom and strengthen that relationship as well.” Jes’ apple is “just learning, always learning, it’s always about school, it’s learning in all parts of my life.” Jes’ rosebud is “writing parts of her research and getting done.”
Melissa says, “Similarly to Milk Toast, I think these conversations are really an apple for me. But in a slightly different way. I don’t get a lot of conversations and connections in my day that challenges me on an intellectual level. But, in such a plain-spoken way, plain talk. The conversations come from a really emotional place but also a high level of intellectual discourse. It’s a really rewarding experience for me… I get a lot out of these conversations that I don’t have in my wheelhouse. I really appreciate hearing things fleshed out in these different ways.” Melissa says, “My rosebud is watching my garden grow. It’s growing every day. I’m watching food growing in my garden that I’ll have for sustenance and that always makes me super happy.” Melissa adds, “When I walked away from post-secondary and academia as a student, I thought I walked away forever and for always. These types of conversations make me think that not only is there a place for people like me—like us—in academia, but that there are other women like me and I can find support. It makes me so happy to know that the Sisterhood exists and it’s just a matter of finding each other. And that makes me tempted with post-secondary—just tempted.”
Elaine’s apple is the idea of creating a little village on campus for poverty-class students. Her rosebud is that the Sisterhood will not wither away.
Emotional and Spiritual Space
“Sometimes I think you believe in me more than I do,” said the boy. “You’ll catch up,” said the horse. (Mackesy, 2019, n.p.)
As articulated in the prologue poem “Research Hauntings,” 2021 was a dreadful year. There was an overabundance of loss exacerbated by the pandemic. For some, there was repetitive job loss without a financial safety net anchor. For some, there were expected and unexpected deaths wrought heavier by pandemic isolation protocols. For instance, Elaine did a mad dash, two hard days’ journey to reach her mother who was in palliative care with the understanding that she might be dead when Elaine arrived (air fare was criminal). Her mother’s hospital was mere blocks from Charity’s home. They could not be together because the province was in COVID-19’s death grip. Charity could not provide the love and support that Elaine desperately needed in a physical space. There were no hugs or drying of tears. This tiny physical gap was as cavernous as the great class divide. Being limited to text messages and phone calls was as bitter and dark as the prairie winter storm ripping across the city. When Charity’s two-year-old nephew died, Elaine attended the pandemic-mandated virtual funeral. There were no hugs or drying of tears. The gap across the airwaves was as cavernous as the great class divide. Yet, they were there for each other, as much as they could. Throughout the research, the Sisters, without hesitation, stepped forward in support and solidarity even though all of the Sisters carried their own burdens. This was essential, for instance, because the Sisters understood that Elaine did not have the resources or educational support to be able to grieve. Some time had passed; some time always passes. Elaine reached out to Milk Toast at some point. She told her what had happened and what was happening. The conversation remains blurred by waves of Elaine’s sorrowful tears and grief-shocked being. Milk Toast’s emotional and spiritual support is trauma-informed and liberally peppered with resistance to the relentless injustice inside and outside of Canadian universities. Milk Toast has a deep soothing voice. Perhaps it is natural or learned from being a facilitator and leader. We have shared mom-stories, university-stories, poverty-stories, injustice-stories, trauma-stories. As we neared the end of the first focus group, Milk Toast says, “Elaine, we had a conversation on the phone a couple years ago, one summer and something came up when we were talking…. I think I’d like to raise at this point. Your research is so therapeutic. This is really uncommon. And I feel safe, saying, but I feel like all of us have gotten some form of therapy being here tonight. And we hope that you feel the same thing. You can share the story about your mom—your heart.”
Elaine provided a painfully stripped raw of humanness excerpt: “My mom. She was so intelligent. In grade seven she went to the Alberta government—welfare in those days—and asked if she could finish junior high school and go to high school. They said, ‘No. Go get a job and pay for it.’ That was the end.”
Elaine says this with a Stephen King-esque eerie matter-of-factness. It was not the end—of anything. Elaine’s mother, in her final days, shared in her shattered way, fragments of how this shaped her life. Elaine will spend the rest of her life trying to fill the socks-that-need-darning gaps of this story that echo beyond her mother’s life. This is neither the time nor place for this story.
Milk Toast says, “I mean, what a legacy. That what you’re doing as a university student is about the universities. And you’re sticking it to them at the same time. That’s a way to show up for your mom.”
Elaine rebounds and laughs: “They, the university have, they just have no idea. No….” Elaine waves in the Zoom space and says, “I have behind me this an amazing group of women.” Elaine then falters and says, “I’m sorry, I brought this up. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Apologies….”
Things get out of control. There’s a mass unmuting. Everyone’s laughing.
Melissa teasingly says, “No sorrys allowed. You said so!” A fleeting instance of emotional and spiritual support.
Charity silently sprinted out of the Zoom chat. Her nephew was not yet dead at this point. He was in the final grips of cancer. No one said, “Hey, Charity just disappeared!” in the way that people oft do in a chastising way. Her absence was felt; her absence was understood. Just like poverty and social class we speak the same language and there is no need to justify fuck all.
“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said? Asked the boy. “Help,” said the horse.” (Mackesy, 2019, n.p.)
The Sisterhood is about the little things. Milk Toast says, “To me, ‘Sisterhood’ doesn’t necessarily mean solidarity. Because of my union leanings and my labour leanings, I love the word solidarity. I think the words that would put it together best are ‘mutual aid’ from a ‘position of understanding.’ And just given the gendered nature of the word ‘Sisterhood’ it’s from a gendered position. And also, for us, understanding how low-income and class plays into that, too. Little things that come to mind, for example, is when Sarah was running for office, I remember someone had reached out and said, “She must be so busy. I’ll come and do her laundry.’ It’s things like that that no one else would think to offer like this kind of labor mutual aid support. For me, that was an example of the Sisterhood of Solidarity.”
Elaine says, “I wanted to share something with you. And sorry, if it sort of feels maybe a little bit off topic, but there’s an article I just read about the problems of social class in higher education. They talk about the importance of ‘integration into a social and higher social class.’ One hand is saying decolonization while the other hand is using this big word ‘integration,’ which means assimilation. The only time I feel like I can breathe and that I don’t have to assimilate is when I’m with you folks.
Flaws and faults. Sarah comes back to Milk Toast’s above comments and says, “I want to build off something that Milk Toast said around how someone offered to help do some labour, domestic labour, in my house. But I wasn’t able to accept that. And I think that’s one another reason why this is important. Because I felt like if I was unable to do it myself, it was a personal failing. All these things, just all of these things, just amounted to flaws that are my own. I live with this whole thing where I am poor because it’s my fault. And this is the reality of what society teaches us…. And then somebody who comes from a privileged class position can accept help easily and routinely, well I couldn’t do this. Now, after these conversations, I would be able to accept help. But at the time, I didn’t. I was way more comfortable to isolate myself and just drown rather than accept any support.”
Elaine and Sarah are connected through these shared beliefs and experiences. Elaine says, “I was staying with Charity for a few days. She works so hard and does so much community work outside of her job, too. And she’s always there for her family. So, I cleaned her apartment and did her laundry. She called and I excitedly said, ‘I have a surprise for you!’.” “Oh,” Charity said hesitantly. “No, no, it’s all good! You’ll be happy,” Elaine said.
Charity was not happy. The look on her face…. Elaine did not know if Charity was enraged, shocked, appalled….
Elaine says, “Charity said recently that she was so utterly shocked that someone would care about her and help her with her home that she didn’t know what to do. And that she is so unused to this she didn’t know how to accept my gift and thank you for housing me during my visit.”
When Charity came to see Elaine, she vacuumed the kitchen floor. Elaine watched in horrified fascination.
Elaine says, “What I did for Charity I would never do for a middle-class or rich person. Well, they wouldn’t invite me over except to pay me to scrub their toilets.”
Elaine struggled to accept Charity’s support, too.
Trauma-informed and peer-engaged lenses. Sarah tells us, “So, I just want to reflect on the engagement of folks who are really, really struggling and how challenging that is and how that’s like a very delicate…. Peer engagement is a whole body of work that has to be done really thoughtfully. We have to do the kind pre-work we’re engaged in with the Sisterhood so we’re actually engaging in respectful and trauma-informed ways with students with lived experiences of poverty. The students who are right in the thick of it. Maybe thinking about some of us ten years ago and the Sisterhood concept and even Shoestring needs to be done very thoughtfully. Because we’re engaging in someone else’s trauma—or, ongoing trauma. I think that maybe the groundwork we’re doing is first. But maybe there is space needed to engage with others at a different time after this research and Elaine defends our dissertation.”
Sarah brought the trauma poverty and higher education experiences into the light. In a multitude of ways, that we will be unpacking long after this dissertation, the Sisters all spoke of a lack of trauma-informed support that echoes across the four conceptual model spaces. This leads to many wonders of how to present lived experiences, wonders and ideas that do not fit neatly with this particular topic. Trauma-informed and peer-lead education and educational engagement is profoundly critical and leads me to lament, “If only we had had more time” to collect “data.” There was not more time; there never would be enough time.
Elaine raised a thorny issue: One cannot ask what it is they do not know if they do not know what it is they do not know. Elaine has a good track record of research and doing a good job. But… the but-pesky-caveat always rears its nastiness. Elaine tries to explain to the Sisters about help and universities: “I don’t know what I need help with as a student sometimes—most of the time. I wish that when I do try to let profs get to know me a bit they would listen. I work in a certain way. I spent decades in the business world. I started my first business when I was six. I’m wonky creative. I’ve got a super high stress threshold and can’t function under or over it. I need time to churn. Intellectually, I know I’m a gifted writer but…. This uni experience has beaten me so bad I’ve lost my confidence.” Elaine wants professors and administrators, those with Power, to say, “Hey, I heard you say that you are not a traditional student. I’ve heard you say, ‘You’re always living in fear of being pushed out.’ You must be exhausted!’ You’re trying to build a career and future. How about we figure out a plan that works best for you?! What has worked for you in the past?’.”
She says, “Maybe they could say, ‘Hey, did you know about these rules and regulations? Did you know about these bursaries? Let’s see what we can do to support you!”
Elaine says, “These conversations don’t happen. And when I fumble and stumble to try to have these conversations and get shut down, I retreat further like Sarah said about not accepting help from others.” Elaine would rather drown than take more shaming and silencing hits. This is, in part, why Elaine is so ferocious about supporting other poverty-class students. She listens to them and what they really need. She anticipates what they need but are not aware of.
She says, “I wish it was as simple as saying, ‘If only I had poverty-class profs to turn to,’ but it’s not that simple. I’ve met a few of them at unis but they’re so overwhelmed themselves from the trauma of poverty and trying to survive in these places. Ongoing support for students like us might be too much. And let’s get real: Most of them are in the underclass closet anyhow. Can’t blame them.” Alexandra is a balm to Elaine’s distress and pragmatism.
Alexandra helps us find comfort and connection outside with Others. Alexandra says, “A lot of my peers come from very wealthy backgrounds, quite frankly. So, you’ve got people with parents who are PhDs, working with the UN, all sort of things like that. So, knowing I’ve got this group exists is nice. In my program there’s only one other woman and myself who are working-class. We’re the only two. It feels very alienating and isolating sometimes. So, having this group here, even though I’m too busy with assignments, balancing my part time job and hunting for a career job plus trying to be actively involved in school…. I’m exhausted. Just knowing that this group exists for me is a big source of comfort.”
Jes is tired too and spread too thin. She says, “I was just gonna say these experiences sound identical to what I’m currently going through. It’s been four years of trying to make sure I have enough money to pay for next semester whether or not I have a supervisor who’s responding to my emails. And make it to work. All the time still feeling like I’m missing everything and not engaging as much as other students can afford to. But I’m just spread too thin.”
Alexandra articulates the radically different realities poverty-class students too often face. She says, “With the spread thin part…. You’ve got classmates that kind of feel you’re not pulling your weight. I’m like, ‘I’m trying my best here. I’d love to prioritize the group work. But it’s between getting an A on the group assignment and getting a B+ versus me eating and not eating.’ Those are two radically different realities.” Alexandra does not tell her classmates this. Jes understands trying to navigate the radically different realities Alexandra is experiencing.
For Jes, this extends to supporting younger siblings who are navigating university while she is still in the dark.
Jes says, “Having that higher education knowledge passed down from siblings or parents is such a big thing. I’m the first one to go to university. When my little brother went, he would say, ‘Look what Jes did. That’s how you do it!’.” “I would say to him, ‘I literally just figured it out—I guess I figured it out…’.” Jes says, “I don’t know. We’re all in the same boat. I mean I’m glad I can be that person but you kind of hit the ceiling. I simply don’t understand a lot of things that go on behind the scenes. I don’t even know….” Jes, in her many roles, is a scrambling sister.
Suffering in silence: We’ll just figure it out like we always have—to. When Elaine dashed, as much as one could during a pandemic that required protective protocols, into the second and final palliative care unit, she saw a pool of water under her mother’s bed. She could see the water was clear and that it wasn’t from a leaking catheter bag. Clara was securely ensconced in stone cold soaked sheets. She had tried to take a drink of water from a hospital-provided, COVID-prescribed flimsy everything-had-to-be-disposal plastic cup with a lid and bendy straw. The lid had popped off from the minutiae of pressure her fierce arthritic gnarled hands that once were enveloped in innocent skin that was transformed into beef jerky from years of physical labour started far too young. She miraculously possessed a death grip even as her legs had become spineless spindles that couldn’t bear her feather duster weight. Even with the slightest of pressure, however, the lid popped off and the cup spewed its chilly contents upon her. She sat in that cold bed silently shivering for a couple of hours. Elaine called the “nurse,” a term she deliberately used to acknowledge the blatant injustice of the hierarchy that existed between nurses and foreign nursing assistants, to help. Elaine was helpless to help.
“Why didn’t you call us to help you, Clara?” the lovely caregiver said.
“Oh, I didn’t want to be a bother,” Clara said.
I did not say, “She won’t press the button. She’ll just suffer. She’s too frail to even press the button.”
Elaine rasps, “And they did one medical thing. And that was the end. For the last week her body completely broke down. Her entire being contorted in pain. But I didn’t know what death from poverty was gonna look like, what it was gonna feel like, what it was gonna sound like. When I think about university, I didn’t know what it was gonna be like. And I didn’t know that the violence I would experience…. When I transferred from college to university that destroyed me like poverty destroyed my mom. I was kicked out within a year. And I was an honours student from college. You’re used to being…. I was used to being alone—doing it alone—but university that was something else. And then to be in classes where people are making fun of poor people is really fucked up shit.”
Elaine does not know how to ask for help from people with power who can erase and dismiss her life in an instant.
Sarah explains life in the margins of the university landscape versus the supposed traditional must-have status quo campus experience on university marketing materials: “It’s really hard to explain that feeling of what it feels like to be on campus. It really is hard. It’s hard to explain. And I can see as someone who didn’t experience it they could easily dismiss our lives. It’s like all of these lived experiences things, right? They’re hard to communicate. How do you communicate them in a way that somebody can say, ‘Well, why don’t you just do your lives like us? Or, why didn’t you just do this or that?’.”
“Why don’t you budget better so that you didn’t have to go three days without food? Why didn’t you budget better so you didn’t get reregistered from classes cause you couldn’t pay your tuition fees? That’s the stress of living with those fears,” Elaine adds.
You live with these fears in silence when you are alone in your aloneness. Too often, this supposed burden silently slips out the back door. Or this burden is given a hard nudge to help them on their way out. Elaine tells the Sisters, one of the foundational arguments in the literature, indeed in university cultures, is that “poverty-class students are going to be some kind of burden on universities. They’re going to have to make all these ‘accommodations’ for us. We’re going to be those problems students.”
Elaine says, “I never ask for help. It’s all a real struggle. I wish I could. I’ve disappeared so often.”
Maureen explains what this looks like for students: “It’s almost a fault. The same as when Sarah talked about struggling to accept help. Even the psychological research shows that people from poverty are fiercely independent, don’t trust other people and don’t let their guard down. They learn to do everything themselves. When I say, ‘almost to a fault,’ it is to the point where sometimes we hurt ourselves and make life more difficult for ourselves. But we are far, far from a burden.” Maureen sees this “a lot with Indigenous students” and shares her experiences: The likelihood of the student just leaving and saying nothing is very high. I’ve seen it time and time again. So, rather than bother anybody or ask a difficult question, the likelihood that that student will just drop out and leave and not cause a problem is so incredibly high. Listening and not talking is a way of being so you can take it in. It’s a different way of engaging with the world. So the likelihood they’re going to demand an answer or extra help is unlikely. The likelihood is more that students are just going to walk out of the class and silently slip out the back door. It’s really problematic.”
We’re imperative for cultural safety and safety, period. Maureen draws on the personal and the Sisterhood’s shared experiences when she says, “We’re actually imperative to create safety” for students. For instance, in the Indigenous house “giving out food for Elaine is giving out food in her space, we’re making it normal to do life together, to eat together, to share our burdens with one another. Then those students that come will feel safe. Maybe not fully safe to ask for help or tutoring or whatever. But you have to create an absolute culturally safe place.”
However, as Maureen says, and the Sisterhood knows from lived experiences, “if we hadn’t had those personal struggles it wouldn’t resonate in the same way with students. Students will accept our help when the time comes” because we share common experiences. What this translates into, as Maureen says, “is we can then be peers and not that top-down program thing that happens in post-secondary.”
There are spaces where we hold and support each other that are imperative. Life and death imperative sometimes.
The trauma-informed should inform the spaces. Maureen, who has profound experience developing programming for those in the margins, explains that “vulnerable and marginalized people who are ‘taught’ have been talked down to a lot.” Therefore, she says, “it’s really imperative that there’s people like us who are coming from a pure perspective and not coming from an academic top-down approach.”
This “pure perspective” that Maureen speaks to must be “trauma informed.” Maureen says we are informed “by virtue of our own trauma” from poverty. Maureen addresses the “educative” lesson that academics like to use with students to help them “experience” so-called disadvantage: the privilege walk. A privilege walk is when students, through answering a series of questions, for instance, determines socioeconomic status and intersections of oppression. Often this is done publicly. Students take steps forward or backward depending upon things such as race or if one grew up with not enough food;
She says, “Elaine when you were talking about the ‘walk of shame,’ that privilege walk thing, I can see the value of that in terms of making a visual of people who’ve had bad lives and good lives—privileged and non-privileged. To be able to visualize this for privileged people I think it’s important to see. But Elaine’s right. For people who have experienced this in life it can actually be traumatic. This is why, people who have the lived experiences need to inform spaces that are actually for traumatized people. Too often this isn’t the case. People then experience further trauma in these spaces.”
Elaine recounts a “privilege walk” she saw in a central outdoor location on a university campus: “All these students were lined up outside. Behind the students was a rather long hedge. The space sat on a busy corner with lots of foot traffic. As soon as I saw the people, I knew it was one of those violent privilege walk things disguised as some super educational thing. I knew what was going to happen: Lots of students would get to keep taking steps forward because of the many layers of privilege they have. While other students would take so many steps back they would find themselves backed up into the hedge. All so friggin publicly shaming.”
Maureen says, “This isn’t just an analytic thing, you know. This isn’t theoretical. This is real. So, people like us working in these institutions that are looking for people to ally with to support”, for example, poverty-class students “with a nuanced understanding of these things is imperative.” Until this happens, she explains, “these institutions continue to enact violence by virtue of ignoring the poor kid who doesn’t have food or ignoring the kid who’s having some trauma enacted on them unwittingly by the professor or whoever.” Maureen is adamant that “we create safety by virtue of our holding these spaces.”
Milk Toast responds: “Maureen, the words that come to mind with what you’re saying is ‘safety through relationships,’ like “meaningful relationships.’ By creating spaces where you can share food and conversation then the students are gonna let slip that they are actually not having a good time, for example.” Unlike the current model, Milk Toast says, “It’s not something where you can just sit them down in front of an academic advisor. You need to be in relation and you need to build it, like you said, and it must be trauma-informed to earn students’ trust. I just love what you said.”
Some moments we agree that we need to hold space on these landscapes. Other moments, some of the Sisters, such as Elaine, question why we want to be in spaces that do not want us. This discussion remains incomplete. But as Milk Toast says, what we are learning together has “reaffirmed the importance of having that ‘safe relationship’ in university.”
Motherhood and poverty. Sarah retells a story about her experiences in high school: “I’m one of seven. Until this year, I’m the only one who had a kid. I’m the oldest daughter. I have an older brother. My sister’s in her thirties and just having her first kid because it was such a traumatizing experience to be in a huge family of poor kids. On display all the time. Being told that essentially, it’s your fault that you are this poor. Because just look at all of you. And I didn’t want to have kids either. But I did in high school. And then because it was high school, I was just…. Because I was poor there was all of a sudden this pressure on me to get married right away because, of course, I was going to be having all these other kids. It was pretty overt. I wonder how it shapes my daughter’s views on not having children. She says she’ll just have cats. Pragmatic.”
This conversation is important. I cannot help but wonder about single moms in poverty being stigmatized. Poverty-class moms trying to get a university education to escape or mitigate poverty across generations.
Sarah says, “The piece around motherhood and parenthood and poverty needs to be named and weaved through what we’re doing here, too.”
Milk Toast says when she sat on a graduate society board childcare came up. She tells us that “there was no grad student rep with kids because they couldn’t fuckin’ afford the time to go to the meetings. That said everything, right? The parents who showed up were tenured faculty. They were railing against what the university was doing about childcare. Fair enough. But it’s not like they were able to advocate for lower income parents as well.” Milk Toast adds, “It’s these parents who need to be at the table but can’t afford a chair.”
Elaine frets a lot about moms trying to get an education to escape poverty for their kids and themselves. She says, “I’ve talked a lot about being a single mom from poverty, trying to go to school, get affordable daycare, transportation…. I always ask, ‘Why can’t you bring your kids to class? Why not?’ This is a really big deal. Then there’s all those gender stereotypes about poverty-class women and immorality or morals. All part of the Canadian university and societal belief systems. So, I think it’s absolutely central to this because how many moms from poverty actually make it to university? If they make it here, how many get pushed out?”
Sarah says, “I didn’t really tell a lot of people that I had a kid in university because I felt ashamed because I was older and I had a kid. I couldn’t relate and it felt like a little bit of baggage. But it shouldn’t have.”
Maureen responds to Sarah’s lived experiences: “In the First Nations community, it’s very different. I don’t want to make a grand stereotype. It’s often a very different messaging because children are so valued. There’s still those cultural values. I remember reading one really good article and I actually was like, ‘Holy shit, these people get it!’ It was a theory around how having children, especially for Indigenous people, when people have tried to wipe you out from genocide, it’s actually an act of resistance. Like it’s an act of survival. Having children is an act of resistance. Giving birth is literally a form of resistance. Children are highly valued and your purpose for living.”
Material, Cultural, and Social Support Space
Natural Women; Natural Relationships. The reality of the Sisterhood beyond María Lugones’ (1987) philosophy of women “world”-travelling with loving perception happened organically. Throughout this research journey, research Sisters did things unexpectedly and quite contrary to how poverty-class people are often storied. We shared. We supported. We held each other up. We provided “belief-in” (Laberge, 2017). We dried tears. We held space sacred. We valued voices and lived experiences. We cared. We were there. We reached out. We did not let competitive institutional performance creep taint the Sisterhood-in-the-making. That is, contributions were valued equally regardless of how many times Sisters were present at the focus groups, for instance.
Money was sent for food. A phone bill was paid. A week of homemade meals was prepared for someone grieving. A Sister picked up and hosted another Sister in her home to provide care and mental respite. Sisters told me that a Sister reached out to another sister in crisis. Sisters felt safe to ask each other for support and guidance as they struggled through degrees. A Sister was supported who could not gather the last few bucks to cover their tuition fees. A Sister mentored and supported a Sister in seeing the depth and breadth of her talents and she learned that she was more than the gig jobs that she thought defined her. They practiced job interviewing and the Sister got the job interview. A Sister did some bartering and got a Sister a professional haircut. Reference letters were written; references were given. Sisters connected Sisters with folks like them. A Sister harangued other Sisters to get their voices out there publicly. Sisters were in each other’s heart and minds. They sent each other job and presentation opportunities. They sent readings specific to each other’s interests. Sisters included each other in ways that defy academia and baffle academics. Sisters who learned to set boundaries began the journey to help others who seek the same learning. Sisters who are comfortable asking for support are teaching Sisters to do the same. There were walks on beaches, midnight tear-filled calls, desperate “I just can’t take one more hit” pleas answered and an understanding that this must be grounded in love, acceptance and graciousness. Community building through food, even though the formal research had to be on Zoom, was essential.
We learned the freedom of expressing our rage at the gross class injustice and poverty discrimination in Canadian universities—and, society. There was a lot of swearing. There was no need for social “class bilingualism” (Stout, 1996, 2010) or “code switching” (Auer, 2013). None of us needed to justify our language, ways of walking in the world, our lives or daily decisions. We did not need to apologize or beg. No one said, “That’s amazing considering….”
There were also moments of unkindness and self-centredness by the Sisters. Nonetheless, there was a collective understanding that the nightmare that poverty-class female students live under is so volatile that our sheer survival in these capitalist-neoliberal spaces is often at the expense of others—the Others who look like us and who we need the most. Wounds were exposed; new wounds were created. But we knew there was no malice because the Sisters were honest about their experiences with each other and what was happening in their lives. Sisters told me, through our time together and afterwards, of how they supported and continue to support one another. Relationships continue and will long after the defence of this dissertation.
For the first time, these women were able to engage in silent and silenced conversations because they were not steeped in the relentless stigma and shaming of the Other. We kept social class centre and slapped poverty on the table. We did not shy away from this. Poverty conversations were not couched in vagueness. “I’m fucked with my teeth…. My meagre savings is gonna be gone by the end of the month…. I’m drowning in student loan debt…. I can’t pay one more semester of tuition fees….” All the manifestations of how poverty discrimination is enacted in Canadian universities (and society) was laid bare. We talked about the things that those in Canadian universities do not want to talk about, hear or get close to. We talked about money and our lived experiences with money. No one said, “Hey, you just need financial literacy courses!” We did not have time for niceties and messing around. None of us needed to perform. The researcher ran out of steam; the researcher told the Sisters in a focus group of their exhaustion; the Sisters came forward:
“What can I do to help you?”
“Hey, Buddy, you need a break. I’ll be there tomorrow at 10:00am to pick you up. Be ready.”
“You got this. You’re on fire.”
“I’m so excited for you. You’re almost there.”
“Write to us! We’re who matters!”
“Dude, Dude! You’re the most amazing scholar and grad student I’ve ever known.”
“Remember this research has already had such a huge impact out there.”
“You’re always there for everyone. What do you need?”
“I can’t wait to read our dissertation. It’s gonna be brilliant.”
“I trust you. I trust what you’ll write. I trust you.”
In our time together, we forged unbreakable bonds and actively engaged in creating and sustaining this Sisterhood of Solidarity movement that is being taken up across this nation and transnationally. We did this not in spite of the pandemic and our poverty-classness but rather because we are and remain the USS.
Figuring out connections. Strengthening relational networks. Milk Toast asks, “Why don’t we go around and just kind of figure out how we have connections to each other and just strengthen those relational networks.” Our social capital influence and connectivity is immediately apparent and demonstrated in Figure 4.1. Without knowing it, our interconnectedness, through our relational ways of being, threads us together. While Elaine, the researcher, is portrayed at the centre of the following connections map, she is in no way the heart and soul of the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity. All of the women are activists and deeply engaged in addressing structural injustice and human rights in and beyond higher education.
What is salient is Milk Toast’s encouragement to strengthen our relational networks in the spirit of boots-on-the-ground community-based action and activist research. I never would have thought of doing this. I created the USS connections map depicted in Figure 4.1 originally as a way for me to visually see the connections the Sisters discussed in a focus group. However, once I sent it to the Sisters for review it had a powerful impact on some who started to create one for themselves. For instance, Jes is doing this exercise to help her start a career. For myself, I have been mapping my connections to not only build a career but map out who I can collaborate with as I work to advance social class diversity and WAP for poverty-class students at Canadian universities. This connections map will be a recommended tool in the social innovation WAP model for poverty-class students as a way to develop communities of support and mentorship in their own academic journey.
Charity, laughing nervously, commented “At least if you’re in person you could be like, ‘Ooh, getting uncomfortable!’ Like, Zoom, it’s kinda, you can’t see me blush. Maybe you can? Absolutely. But I wanted to just on touch on why I didn’t understand why I didn’t quite feel right. Being also an older student and not going to do my undergrad until I was 23. Had to yeah, whatever, blah, blah, blah. But it was because when I met people, I would talk about these stories. I was out of the poverty closet, people knew. I still have holes in my stockings. [Laughing] I’d be sewing in my stockings in my little work cubicle. And I was out there. But I always felt like it didn’t quite fit. And I didn’t quite know why. It was after when talking, having a mutual… talking to Elaine. I was, ‘Oh my god. So much of my story makes sense now.’ And then feeling a lot more pride. And I’ve gained so much confidence over the years through knowing Elaine and the story that we were able to share together. So yeah, super profound and endlessly grateful. Jes, I know you. I don’t ‘know’ you. This is the first time we’ve met. I mailed your reference letters for you. When the mail was going all crazy because of the pandemic. [laughs] Elaine emailed it to me and I had to run to my closed down office. And it was right before Christmas and they wouldn’t let you physically drop it off. You had to still mail it even though the student aid place is in my city. [laughs] It’s very nice to meet you.”
Jes: “Nice to meet you as well. Thank you for that.”
Charity: “And anytime if you have something in my city, fire it over. I’m your mail gal.”
Jes: “Same in my city!”
Charity: “Yeah, exactly. I remember that.” [Laughs]
Jes: “If you ever need to mail something randomly to my city.”
Charity: “Okay, cool, we have mail routes now! Sarah, I know you a smidgen. We were part of the Shoestring Initiative. It’s nice to see you again. Anyway, that’s enough out of me. I’m zipping it. Okay, ‘Quiet.’ Jes since I kind of first mentioned you, did you want to go next?”
Jes commented, “Charity, I’m familiar with you because you mailed that for me, thank you. Elaine, of course. We were in the same cohort together and then stayed in touch since 2017. She’s my mentor, essentially. That’s what I like to think her of. Yeah, that’s for sure. [laughs] And a very great mentor at that. Everyone else is new to me. But I’m very excited to meet you all. I guess I’ll pass it along to somebody. Maybe I’ll pass it along to someone I don’t know to mix it up. Milk Toast?”
Milk Toast: “FYI. I’m really bad at focusing on Zoom. So, I have learned to colour like some people doodle. Ah ha, Sarah! [Sarah is doodling and colouring too.] I’m learning a lot about each of you and colour theory. Melissa, I had the great fortune to know through a union. She’s truly the backbone of that organization. I’ve got to say, like, the day that union loses you is the day we’re so toast on campus. And so, I will pitch it to whose birthday is next? This birthdays in April, May, June, July, my birthdays past that. Let’s go onto Melissa.”
Melissa: “I know Elaine because we got involved with the clusterfuck that still continues. Sorry, I had to really pull punches. Elaine was reaching out. This is one of the things that Elaine is really good at: If she reaches out, she finds people that are from all different directions. I was just one of those people that she drew in during that timeframe. And I come into issues pretty heavy, which is often my nature if I feel like things are going wrong and I have the audience for it. I pound union values pretty strongly in terms of workers’ rights because that’s really, well, it’s my bread and butter in terms of it’s what pays my rent. But it also makes a lot of sense to me. You know that people should be paid properly for the work that they’re doing. I have all kinds of thoughts on labour. Elaine came and sat on the executive of the union for a year. We maintained a relationship through that and beyond that. Admittedly, it’s not often that I actually connect with members and then I see them outside of my work environment. Elaine is one of those few people. For some people, I’m sure that you’re all here for similar reasons, is that you just feel that there’s some sort of thing that draws you together and connects you in ways that we’ll figure out as we go through this conversation.”
Melissa goes on to explain how she knows Sarah: “Sarah and I had the privilege of meeting through Elaine and sharing a meal together, which was lovely. We’re also connected by just a lot of mutual people that work in activist communities. I tend to float in and out of that community. I’m very careful about what I give out. I like to stick and stay as healthy as possible. I certainly drift in and out of the activist communities and will show up on random picket lines with signs as well. Maureen, I know from my cookie drop offs but I always have missed you.”
“I’m gonna throw it forward. Who has it? Sarah, did you go yet”?
Sarah: “I feel like I know everyone here well, like, because Elaine talks about all of you a lot. And in such high regard, and it’s so nice. I feel really connected to all of our ‘sister-friends,’ as she calls us. Like most of you, most of these connections are through Elaine. I met Milk Toast first. Her partner and I are from the same eastern city. I met Milk Toast during the time that she was helping me out on my campaign. I don’t really know how I would have survived without people like Milk Toast. She understood what it was that I was trying to navigate. She understood the experiences through her own family—but, as a single parent and trying to make this work. And then also just the retelling and rehashing of my story, where I came from and my poverty background—and, for the first time, and in this this very, very public way. It was a lot. I was really glad to have the support of somebody like Milk Toast who was incredible. Thank you very much, Milk Toast.”
Sarah says, “Then I met Elaine on this panel where I was going to speak directly, specifically only on the topic of women in poverty—for the first time. We shared the stage together. I felt seen; I felt understood. It was a new connection that I hadn’t had before in that way. It just started a whole a whole long series of connections, facilitated by Elaine.”
Sarah recalls how she met Melissa: “I think Melissa, as I’m talking, that we met over the food, but I feel like there’s a bunch of other times that we’ve met…. I’m trying to remember another time that seems very familiar. I feel like there is something else….”
Sarah explains her connection to Charity: “Charity, we did different Shoestring events. I think I’ve connected to everybody a little bit. But, yeah, again, I just feel like I know everybody because of the way Elaine has connected us together. It feels really nice to have a crew where you feel understood and seen. And that feels great. Yeah, I’m also drawing. My ADHD brain requires double activities, so I’m paying attention just also drawing. Alex….”
Alexandra says, “Hi. I think I’ve met everybody online here in the context of past Shoestring events. But there are some people that I know just a little bit more than others. I met Elaine when I was panicking about grad school applications. I hadn’t told anybody, not even my parents, because I was so convinced that I was going to get rejected. And I posted a cry for help on Shoestring’s Facebook page and Elaine swooped in and saved the day. It was amazing. I’m very grateful for that. I met Milk Toast, in the context of our work, both working for politicians. But I think we met for the first time on the front steps of the Leg during the blockade there, which is a fun way to meet people. I met Sarah via Elaine, who was connecting us. We went to the peanut bar three days before everything shut down due to COVID. And I think it was past the COVID incubation period. But a warning came out later saying that the entire establishment had had a COVID scare. I was like ‘Oh, that’s lovely. That’s good to hear’.”
Alexandra recalls how she met Maureen: “Maureen, I’m not sure if you recall but we did actually meet at a City Hall event. Something along those lines with food security and community building. Oh, and also Sarah!, sorry not to come back to you sooner. There’s an online Twitter group that I’m in that monitors the City’s cyberspace for what’s been a really, really disturbing increase in both sexism, homophobia, and racism, but also just like blatant anti-poverty, anti-homeless rhetoric. Your name comes up a lot as one of the local politicians that is just phenomenal and does a really great job of uplifting people’s voices. And for the people who I hadn’t really met closely at, I am excited to be here and to get to there. And I think I will pass it to Maureen….”
Maureen says, “I can’t believe I’m connected to so many people. I didn’t realize, you know, it’s really cool. Actually, Jessica, when you were talking about doing your research on homelessness, I worked seven-and-a-half years at a society working with homelessness. That was one of my first frontline experiences in my social work. And that was while I was still working on my degree. It was weirdly weird. I got accepted into social work in something like 2007. And then I was…. I pray about a lot of things. And I’m like, ‘Hey, Creator, is this what I’m supposed to do’?”
Maureen says, “Then my friend calls me and she’s like, ‘Oh, you should apply for this job at this place.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s really strange.’ So, I applied because I felt like it was a sign. Anyway, I ended up doing it. It was two interviews because they weren’t even sure because they had someone else in mind. But they wanted somebody who could work with the Indigenous population. I remember the leader who was running it at the time.”
This leader said to Maureen, “Okay, the bad news: You’re not going to school this year. Good news: You got a job.”
I said, “Okay, I guess this is meant to happen.”
“I ended up doing my social work degree literally over 20 years doing a course a semester. Imagine! And I’m actually working at the university. But I think the reason this is relevant is because I knew nothing about university. I literally would work, drive up and take a night class and just leave. I knew nobody; I made no relationships. I had no clue how the system worked.”
“My whole life’s been like this: ‘You should go do that’.”
“Okay, I’ll go do that.”
“This all just happened last year. So here I am and then I get this email that says I’ve been nominated for a major federal scholarship. I thought, ‘I don’t even know what that it is. I’ve no clue.’ I’m literally not from an academic background. I’ve been a frontline worker for 20 years. No clue! I Google the scholarship value. This is where Elaine comes in. I think my connection with Elaine is larger.”
“I emailed Elaine: ‘Hey, you know about this right? What am I supposed to be doing’?”
“I was sending her random questions: ‘How do I do a CV or these weird…? I have no clue’.”
“And when I say that I don’t have a clue, I’m not exaggerating. What is the scholarship proposal supposed to look like? Even before the application, I asked her, ‘Can you check my references? I’m okay with APA and everything but can you just check it over’?” She’s been like a godsend. And vice-versa.”
“My other connection with Elaine was as soon as she figured out who I was and where I was at in my university she said, ‘Can I bring food to your place? Can I share’?”
“She offered to bring homemade food for a Feast. We had a Feast with all our students. Then I mentioned one day that because of COVID, we can’t do all the cool things we do normally. We really try to feed everybody on a regular basis, do activities and just keep their spirits alive while they’re being sucked dry at my university. Now, because of the pandemic, we can’t do that. So, we’ve been doing mail-outs of gift packages: traditional medicines to anything we can think of—any activity, any craft, anything.”
“Elaine asked, ‘Well, can I bake cookies’?”
“So, Melissa cookies, thank you.”
“Homemade cookies have been getting added. It’s that beautiful personal touch because normally we’re buying like 100 whatever. For example, we included 100 journals to put in packages to send to all the students. But then we can do it with cookies, too. These beautiful handmade things. The students just love that they’re getting homemade cookies. It’s just that heart-soul thing. So, yes, thank you.”
“Sarah, I remember you from poetry. We did poetry presentations in one of my classes. You were the emcee. That was really cool. There’s just lots and lots of connections.”
The connections map in Figure 4.1 centres Elaine only because she is the researcher and not to make it seem as if there is a power imbalance. Her voice is not more important than any of the research Sisters.
We have to prove our parents’ worth, too?
Low-income kids gotta worry about how they’re going to go about getting an apartment/house, car, or a loan when their parents can’t co-sign them because their credit is bad due to forced debt to be able to make ends meet. Tell me that generational wealth is not systematic. (Guillermo Camarillo, 2019)
Part of a bottomless pit of bootstrap, worn-out dominant narratives that are leveraged as punishment against poverty-class students, and their families, is having to prove not only our individual worth but that of our families (and even friends). Which research Sister/s spoke about this is not relevant. Simply [insert name] cannot finish their degree, [insert name] is being reregistered from classes and/or [insert name] is being evicted from university because they cannot pay their tuition fees. A research Sister, on the cusp of completing a degree, was out of time and money. Student loans maxed. Credit cards maxed. Line-of-credit non-existent and unobtainable. Shoestring’s financial laces are frayed beyond salvation. “Just go get your parents to co-sign a demand loan,” financial aid officers say.
A common theme amongst poverty-class students is that they cannot begin to tell financial officers how poverty rages every aspect of lives including credit ratings. For those who have never had their credit rating slaughtered because of a life shaped by living on barely subsistence wages, it is difficult to imagine how one or two late rent, phone, utilities and basic living bills shuts doors permanently, well, I ask readers to try to “world”-travel with loving perception.
Elaine retells a story a research Sister shared with her and asked that it be anonymized: [insert name] went to financial aid. They were treated in the usual dehumanizing fashion.
A financial officer (or professor or academic administrator) tells [insert name]: “Get your parents to co-sign a bank loan.”
[insert name] responds, “They can’t.”
The financial aid “officer” (notice the legal, policing, power-infused language) says, “Why not? My parents would.”
[insert name] retells their reaction, “I was mortified, scared and desperate. I said they don’t have any assets.”
The officer says, “Why not? How can your parents not have assets? It’s their job to support you!”
[insert name], red-faced and trembling like the leaves in a mighty windstorm, skulks away and never goes back to their university’s financial aid office.
[insert name] says, “In that moment I wanted to defend my parents. They’re loving, amazing people. This person who works for the uni made them seem like losers.”
[insert name] increases their gig job hours; [insert name]’s grades decrease.
Sometimes the tuition fees get paid and [insert name] squeaks by, but [insert name] is never a squeaky wheel. Sometimes [insert name] just disappears along with their dreams.
The money shot. Retirement is not something that just middle-aged poverty-class women are worried about. The supposed “golden years” are too far off or too unimaginable for some of the research Sisters. However, the soul crushing student loan debt—and, commitments to family members in poverty—makes imagining any future incomprehensible. That is, a way out of the quagmire of sinking sand many of the research Sisters are grounded in from trying to escape poverty by attaining a university degree. For some of the Sisters retirement resembles “rusted years” more than nostalgic “golden years.”
Sarah explains: “I think about what I’m gonna do now that I’m 37. I have to get some job that is similar to the degree I have to get something to make money to be able to retire eventually. And it feels pretty crushing because I have all the student debt, my dad is getting older and the days are counting down until he’s not gonna be able to work. He’ll need me to financially contribute to his living and care. I have my daughter too and her future. I ask myself, ‘What am I gonna be able to do?’ Secure my future, how?’ I’m not sure in this now, knowing that because I have these student loans…. Because I’ve been on repayment assistance, I can’t access another student loan so I might not be able to go to school to get the kind of job that I need to get like….’ You know what I mean?”
Our sentences and thoughts trail off because…. Elaine knows what Sarah means. Jes knows. So many voices not in this manuscript know.
In Canada, while federal and provincial/territorial student loan and financial aid systems are touted as the great equalizer it is founded upon blatant classism. Daily, those in power play the bureaucratic fan-dangle as poverty-class students dance for scraps. For instance, financial aid is only an unlikely potential option if students have maxed out their student loans. Then students, including myself, must engage in dehumanizing circus hoop jumping. Students will be asked if they have exhausted all other sources of money: friends, family, extra job, and credit cards—and, if they budgeted properly. You will be expected to obtain a short-term demand bank loans, which need a guarantor and/or the student having an excellent credit rating. If you have, for example, been late on rent or paying basic living costs, which happens to us all the time, and/or your parents do not have a good credit rating and/or assets they can put up as collateral you are hooped, are common themes in this research.
Just ask Jes. After applying for financial aid at her university she got a needs-based bursary only in her last semester of study, which cannot begin to cover her paltry income before and during the pandemic. As Jes said, when racism became the latest hot topic, she believes she got it because she is Black. Yes, being a poverty-class student on the brink of being pushed out because of a negative bank account, when she could almost touch the finish line, was not sufficient poverty porn performance. One of the research Sisters got Jes a gig quick turnaround RA job to stave off being evicted. Jes had to out herself to academic power and say, “There is no more money. Either I finish in August or it’s over.” She had to send this message repeatedly before it ceased to be ignored. Even when she finishes her degree, her financial situation is “fucked.” We face a contemporary neoliberal debtor’s prison.
Student loan interest is compounded daily. Once a student is no longer in school, whether you finish your degree or not, repayment kicks in. Interest compounds daily at the going rate. If you cannot make your loan repayments, Canada Student Loans will unceremoniously help themselves to your bank account and garnishee wages. At this point, any semblance of a decent credit rating is savagely shredded. This echoes across every facet of life from the capacity to apply for jobs to prospective employers conducting credit score checks
Sarah articulates what this neoliberal student loan debtor prison looks like for poverty-class people. Sarah dreams of a career where she can afford to be engaged in community work that she loves. But she says, “What are my options? I could get a soul crushing government bureaucratic job. I wouldn’t be able to do the community work that I love. It’s just so overwhelming to think about the fact that I’m just starting out in my career and I’m gonna have to stop it. Maybe not. I want to hope but….”
Elaine says, “We have to do this together. The women I know are absolutely screwed. And for most of us, we don’t get through that undergrad in four years. That normal trajectory through higher education is BS. I’m gonna build a business that all of us can be partners in. This is our way out and way forward. Do what we love and not be under the heel of this student loan system violence.”
We’re “just” part-time. Elaine tells Sarah, “I was talking to one of our research Sisters yesterday about how little support there is for part-time students. And really single moms. Poverty-class students who can only be part-time. I was always part-time. I had to work so many jobs to survive. That world… I always have had to work, and I don’t trust universities.”
Sarah said, “Just let ‘part-time’ stories sit for a minute. People don’t get that if you are going to school part-time it doesn’t mean you have part-time responsibilities. It’s actually a lot harder for part-time students. School is not your only focus. They’re looking after kids, working jobs and going to school. It’s just not recognized. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re part-time, taking it easy. Got like the easy road. They’re not understanding what it’s like. It’s plus, plus, plus, plus but less, less, less, institutional support and understanding.”
Sarah went to university full time, held jobs and single parented until she could not afford to anymore. She was overwhelmed and exhausted. She eventually went back to school but in order to financially survive she needed to have full-time status to access enough student loans to survive.
Elaine says, “And you don’t get access to scholarships.”
Sarah, “Maybe I would have applied for a line of credit or something, but I wouldn’t have qualified at that point. I didn’t have anything for collateral. I didn’t even have a credit card.”
Elaine says, “Where are you gonna get the money to repay this stuff? I don’t know why this goes on at financial aid offices. A lack of training and some kind of decency and respect. It’s not supposed to be where poverty-class students go to get demeaned and abused and told we’ve made bad decisions. And if you don’t know how to advocate for yourself….” So many untold stories of the upper echelon students knowing how to use the financial aid system. But we do not hear these stories.
Gendered, classist mental health abuse. Universities present themselves as holistically concerned about their students and are nationally raising concerns that there is a pre-pandemic mental health crisis. Until this research however, we had no way to talk about how poverty impacts our mental health in universities. A Sister called the university counselling department and asked to see a therapist with lived experiences of poverty. There are none. There are no poverty-class therapy consultants (therapists hired on contract to conduct telephone therapy). She resorted to seeing a therapist outside of the university at $150 per hour. Out of financial necessity, this was, of course, short-lived. Sarah tries to make sense of the lack of class diversity in university mental health initiatives.
When Sarah first saw a university doctor about stress they told her she “was just sensitive.”
“Sensitive?” she says.
“It was the first time that I reached out for help because school was really challenging. I was just dismissed. You would think that at these universities where they are seeing a variety of different students that you might just be like…. I was transferred from the doctor to the school psychologist who dismissed my mental health as trivial.”
She says, “I wanted to ask, ‘How do you people get here? What are your skills and qualifications? How do the people get jobs in financial aid? Should you not be well versed in diversity and the lived experiences of even poverty-class students?’.”
Elaine lamely says, “I don’t know. Maybe unconscious bias….”
Sarah is mad now: “It’s poverty. It was poverty. And the fact that I’m a woman for sure and the doctor was a man and I was concerned about reproduction medication. I asked him about the new science on the drugs and how they might be affecting my mental health. He was said, ‘No, it’s fine. You’re just being sensitive.’ And he released me back into university.”
As Sarah says, “It was his nice way of saying, ‘You’re a hysterical woman in university. Stop wasting my time. There’s nothing actually wrong with you. Besides, you’re wrong.’”
No one ever talks to students how poverty is impacting their mental, physical and spiritual health.
They’re All our Children. Not everyone could be present at the focus groups. For instance, Elaine told the group, “Just so you know, Melissa, she wanted me to share with everyone. She had to go get her nephew ‘cause her sister’s a single mom who was exposed to COVID. Charity is helping her mom with her nephew who’s dying. Jes is at work.” This isn’t an academic attendance-taking and absence-excusing exercise. It is about children: Throughout this research we spoke about my/their/our children and individual, collective and societal responsibilities to current and future generations. Even though most of us are generational settlers, with lives shaped by colonial, western familial views, we believe in family and familial responsibilities beyond our own blood relations.
Elaine asks, “Can we come back to talk about the gendered nature of poverty that is such an issue. And not just for women but so profoundly for moms, single moms. So, when people get upset with me about it, I say, ‘Well, you know, we have ‘welfare queens’ but where are the ‘welfare kings’ in this country. All children are really important for me because they are the future.”
Milk Toast comfortably takes up the conversation: “Yeah, if I could jump in on that. I really liked that you raised the parenthood piece to a big part. It’s not that I don’t want kids even though that’s what I tell people. It’s that I don’t trust myself to have a kid and overcome the traumas of generational poverty. My mom never had the time to process her own stuff because she was busy working late night shifts at a donut shop. And that bled onto me. I don’t trust myself enough to break the cycle. And that’s actually the secret reason I don’t plan on having kids. It’s actually quite interesting to think about now, how poverty is like a psychological contraception for me.”
Elaine connects with Milk Toast: “So, just so you know, Milk Toast, it’s the same for me. I always say I’m allergic to them. But I was terrified I would do the same thing. And then as I got ‘older,’ about early, early 20-something, I started to realize the only way to escape poverty was for me not to have them. So, I don’t talk about this, right, always terrified the cycle wouldn’t end.”
Sarah laughs and adds: “Everyone just thought I was gonna have a million kids after I had one. [laughs] But I didn’t…!”
Until now, these are silenced, and at times explosive, conversations. With-children women and without-children women are pitted against one another. We are taught by society that with-children poverty-class women are irresponsible and morally questionable. We are taught by society that without-children poverty-class women are selfish and morally questionable. Yet, what we shared in this research transformed lives and just might be a radical philosophy for settlers: All children, every single one of them, are all our children and all our responsibility—on and off the university landscape.
Elaine tells the Sisters, “When I was a grad rep, a call went out to get students to form a group to support student-parents. Not a single student came forward to take the lead or contribute. This critical initiative was a non-starter from the get-go. Just no interest from those who could spare the time.”
Yes, if Sarah wins the lottery she will “buy a big house and create a fantastic daycare for poverty-class students’ kids.”
The following found poem was created from an experience that Sarah had as a single poverty-class mother in a university course. Sarah’s hope in finding a feminist professor who would understand her lived experiences and reality:
Whose (Kind of) Feminism?
I took her to daycare
Adjacent to the university
Prices were so high so expensive
But it was close
Transient daycare Rent Food Daycare Everything I had
Always late on daycare fees All the money I had
Bringing me into the daycare office
“Don’t you care about your daughter?”
Silent crticism, “Budget properly!”
Find a new daycare
Someone doing homecare
Really nice Our best experience
But she lived far away
I’ve no car
Buses are unreliable Schedules mismatched to university and daycare hours
Leave house 7am in winter
Pulling my daughter on a sled
Early morning residential streets unplowed
Knapsack stretching and gnawing on my ripped shoulder muscles
Lugging burning legs sunk into deep snow
Stretching student loan limits
Street lights hissing at me
Crunch crunch crunch
Heave pull sweat
Gasping panting breaths
Standing urgently at the dark windows
Silently begging for the door to open early just this once to get to class on time
Sometimes knocking on door a minute early not great
Didn’t last can’t remember why
A new daycare again
I couldn’t afford
It wasn’t safe
The required class
Only 10 years old
Too young on her own
But I’ve evening classes required classes until 9pm
I got a C
Teacher so awful about it
I just couldn’t come to the class
I couldn’t leave my daughter alone
I shouldn’t have taken the class the required class
Filled with hope
I had a poli sci teacher
She was a huge feminist
I was so excited to be in her course
She did after school credit sessions
“I can’t do after school credit sessions. I’m a single mom.”
But it was extra extra extra credits.
“You’re gonna have to figure it out—or, not.”
Completely excluded me because I can’t afford childcare
I had to choose between food and childcare
I chose to feed my daughter
My decision lives on my university transcript for life
Our lack of options live on our transcripts for life
Consequential knowledge gaps. Charity tells us, “You know what I wish I knew as a student? What not having parents who went to university would mean…. It’s just never feeling like you belonged. You never felt like you knew how to financially support yourself outside of working two to three jobs. So, you had no idea about awards. Even going from undergrad to grad school, you never knew that you could apply for an award in your undergrad for your first year of masters. And then essentially, if you didn’t apply for it, then you’re not getting any, like SSHRC awards.”
Alexandra responds: “That actually kind of killed me a little bit this year. It’s why I’ve got 70 hours a week of grad school and a part time job, too. I didn’t know that you were supposed to apply for awards before you got accepted. That didn’t make sense to me. I thought you get the acceptance letter and then you apply for stuff. The response to me was, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to know that! That’s not how that works!’ So, there’s just so many of these knowledge gaps. And it feels like a lot of people don’t realize that they are tangible implications from this, like, I’m in so much debt now. But I don’t necessarily need to be in so much debt and I’ve still got all these bills and this kind of crushing constant financial weight. And like, so much of the time, even week-to-week that I could be spending studying or being more involved in the community. But I’m working trying to scrape together 50 bucks here, 20 bucks here. This is all so I make sure that I’m not up-the-creek at the end of the month. And it’s just like, ‘Damn, I wish I’d known that those awards are out there and that I could have applied to them!’.”
Innate knowledge and systemic assumptions. Alexandra says, “I got technical support from my university when I applied to grad school. Not to sound cynical but I feel when you come from a background where your parents don’t have that educational knowledge, there’s just a lot of intrinsic processes that universities assume that you understand. But you really have no idea about this stuff. Everything from formatting an academic CV to writing letters on how to ask for references from profs…. None of this is innate knowledge. I feel there are these kinds of systemic assumptions that if you’re going to grad school you probably have family members who’ve gone to grad school, they know what they’re doing, they taught you qualities like university social norms…. So, for me, it was really that support in navigating that entrance to university that really helped me. Because again, I had no idea what I was doing.” While Alexandra found great diversity in her cohort, she also experienced isolation and disconnect.
Charity adds, “And then it has real future implications as you’re trying to still complete your grad school….”
We need our role models and guides. This work is heavy; it is heavy lifting. Maureen is “just processing this.” She retells a story of awakening to possibilities: “When I first met Elaine and found out she was doing her PhD, well, it wasn’t really on my radar at that time.” I remember thinking, “Well, she can do it. Maybe I could do it, too. It’s like when you hear or see other people with stories of difficulties and with stories of not having histories in these spaces it doesn’t mean they’re not capable. It doesn’t mean they’re not smart. It just means they don’t come from these spaces. I don’t have a guide to walk me through that.”
“So, I mean, I know with Elaine I’ve done a lot of the ‘Hey, what did you do in this situation? Can you look over this’?”
“But, she says, ‘I don’t do this with other peers in my class. I don’t ask anybody else because there’s safety asking somebody who also feels unlikely in this environment.”
Maureen explains why the conditional-ask: “Somebody who feels like ‘Yeah, I feel confident in this environment! I belong in this environment!’, well, I don’t feel comfortable asking them “dumb” or any questions or asking them to check something over and edit it.”
Reading our lived experiences. Sarah is influenced by the writings of the American poverty activist Linda Stout. Sarah tell us, “I think one of the things that really stood out to me was reading Linda for the first time. She describes how she didn’t know how to apply for college and people said, ‘Why didn’t you just apply? Why didn’t you just go to the guidance counselor?’ I just so resonated with it. I’ve never read my experience like that before. It’s like lighthouses. It’s those little beacons. Those little spots where you feel like affirmed and seen and understood. And I think that’s, it’s really important. That’s why I’m drawn to this work.”
We’re so tired of your boring and tedious tropes.
(S. Chamberlain, personal communication, Susanna, June, 2021
Our flaws in your eyes. Sarah spent the morning changing her social media settings because of relentless abuse. You won’t find her on Facebook, Twitter or any other social media platforms. She says, “One of my biggest flaws in most people’s eyes, like those real trolling people, is the fact that I stand up for poor people—consistently. And that’s a real fucking problem for people.”
Elaine knows this well. As she consistently addresses poverty discrimination in Canadian universities (and society) and the absence of social class in EDI, she is accused of being intense, “just” a student, a troublemaker, ignorant of universities systems and structures and overall a thistle.
Daily Sarah sees that the hatred of the poor, the unhoused, the drug addicts and those dwelling in tents on the commons is not regionally isolated. Yes, she says, this hatred is “indicative of the moment in time where people are feeling stressed” and COVID has brought in a wave of stress. However, like Canadian universities and those who protect systems of oppression and exclusion, “They’re not really aware of themselves enough to see how they’re taking their stress out on people more vulnerable than them.”
Sarah’s frustration and anger tingle across the bandwidth. Elaine is angry, exhausted and frustrated too. She tells Sarah, “I’ve been banging my head for what, three and a half years here. The new president came out and said, ‘Sixty-five percent of Canadians can’t access higher education.”
No mic drop. Just a statement of fact.
“I’m at a loss why it doesn’t matter; I’m at a loss why taxpayers are not appalled. I’m at more than a loss why no one has ever done anything about this gross injustice.”
Sarah says, “I don’t know. And I don’t know why there’s such pushback against talking about it.”
Elaine says, “The boring and tedious tropes are much more palatable.”
You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.
Hustle. Hustler. Hustling. Beyond academic and cultural semantics. As we trickle in and settle in for a focus group gathering, we launch right into a topic that connects the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity: Hussle. Hustler. Hustling. Hustle culture. Elaine hustles when she walks (briskly). Melissa hustles when she talks (briskly). Charity explained her hustler resilience in the context of being a student: “My hustle is my rigour.” She says we learn how “to put our hustle game on to survive in these environments.” In our lives, our hustle is naturally always on fire. In university, we get hustled along; we get hustled out.
Melissa says, “This hustle language is dependent upon circumstance.” How hustle is understood in elitist Canadian universities bumps up against hustle in our neighbourhoods. Yes, context matters. No one spoke of being disparaged or degraded in life for being a hustler on the move.
Alexandra does a deep hustl(er) dive: “There’s hustlers with the ‘er’ at the end, which for me means resilience, survival, the sort of typical working class and often-times other marginalized identities coming in and fighting their way out of poverty to make something and to get things.” Conversely, Alexandra defines “hustle” as “this glamorized ideal of a middle-to-upper middle-class lifestyle. You’ve got this sort of idea that work is amazing, you love it, you get your green smoothie, you go to the office. It’s so fun. You love it. It’s all great as if work is this amazing, wonderful thing that we all love and not something that we do to pay the bills. Not to say that people don’t love their jobs. I’m sure some people do. But a lot of people don’t. Because working can be awful, especially if you’re in an underpaid, overworked position, like so many lower-income and marginalized people. So, I think there’s ‘hustlers,’ and there’s ‘hustle culture.’
Sarah tells us, “I ran into a whole ton of hustle culture-branded stuff at a craft store. “‘You got get it girl!’ is the message. I got one of the things from their hustle lines. I had one thing in my basket and said, ‘I’m being duped right now. I’m being duped.’ It works sometimes.” But this language is not used in terms of lifting up and empowering anyone.
Alexandra explains, “The branding is impeccable. They’ve managed to sell the idea of working as something that is glorious and wonderful. Wow, the Puritans would be so proud of how we’ve evolved to put work on a pedestal.”
We all laugh but there is an unease because we hustle until we fall over and then are storied as not having the get-up-and-go to hustle hard enough to be the “right” kind of middle-class student who is destined to “succeed.”
I do not say what these terms mean to me because I have never stopped hustling long enough to linguistically unpack the language or remain close to the sociological implications. I am a hustler always on the lookout for and ways to create opportunities. I am always hustling to survive and outrun homelessness. I hustle because this is how my life has been shaped since a tender age: Hustle to and at work, hustle for gigs, hustle to grasp onto anything from falling into… Rest? Peace? An abyss? For myself, the hustler language equates to always being on the move. Most academics do not know this about me because I do not challenge how I am storied: I am the good little Puritan that Alexandra references. Perhaps the understandings that resonate for me comes from Sarah who told me, “All that hustling between.”
My hustle is my rigour. Charity coined the phrase, “my hustle is my rigour,” in the early days. Manifestations of “hustle” have been part of our conversations for as long as I can remember. Yet, in the doctoral journey and research life cycle, “hustle” was fraught with a bubbling over-exasperation and just being plain old tired of trying to justify ourselves and our ways of being. We all asked, “Why is my hustle not considered rigorous enough in universities?”
Elaine asks, “Why do I need to relentlessly explain my need to be a hustler hustling. Why can’t ‘you’ world-travel and understand our hustler resilience and hustler innovation.” The insidious underclass (poverty) gaslighting is more exhausting than hustling. Imagine having to justify the necessity of working gig jobs, trying to keep a roof over your head, staving off massive education debt that will drown you as a poverty-class woman, engaging in real-time knowledge mobilization, building and contributing to community, seeking and creating opportunities, caring for family (defined beyond colonial notions), dealing with staggering loss, struggling with mounting medical bills and/or pretending that your teeth, that have not seen a dentist in a decade, are fine and dandy, combatting with academic and university administration gatekeepers—and, generally trying to be a decent human being through the process of trying to get an education to escape poverty. Yes, our hustle is our rigour. Underclass (poverty) gaslighting attacks our hustle resilience and eats away our souls and confidence. “Just read, just write, just research, just don’t hustle…” is painful and disempowering. The research Sisters have all said, in a mosaic of ways, “My life is my hustle. Come over and spend a day with me!” None of us would have made it to university without our rigorous hustle. When our hustle is in question, the Sisters questioned how those in the centre cannot see how this this underclass gaslighting burns out our creativity, curiosity and passion—and, generally our will to survive (not even thrive) in these higher education institutions that are designed to keep us out or force us to assimilate and erase ourselves.
Beyond “I” and “me.” Sarah says, “I don’t know if I’m biased but I feel like there is a different element of community that’s embedded in me. I feel more connected to others who need. I feel like this is just part of what we’re supposed to do, naturally.” Many of the research Sisters spoke of this way of being. Charity and Sarah both ground their community-based work in, as Sarah says, “Teaching to be more centered even though we do live in an individualistic society.” Thus, for Sarah she believes in finding opportunities “to teach in a more authentic way rather than from contrived notions then it’s just real.” For example, at a community event people normally come together in a “public performative way versus people actually strapping and scrapping together because they just have to do it. It’s a communal, community-based way of working together” for something other than “I” and “me.”
Sarah inadvertently provides a cautionary tale with social justice work. She says, “It’s really nice to listen to all the women in here, discuss all these big ideas. And particularly in this like big academic language, language that I haven’t been steeped in for a while. I feel like I have to ‘up my game.’ I’m appreciating the intelligence in this room and the ways that you use your voices.”
Sarah does not need to “up her game.” She draws attention, however, to the power of language and discourse to include and exclude the very people that research and future social innovation efforts is intended to serve.
Epistemic (in)justice. Maureen weaves into the “why we are an important demographic” discussion something Elaine is passionate about: knowledge democracy. She says, “In terms of social justice, a lot of what’s preached in the universities and in critical thinking and critical theory excludes people like us, but we have epistemic privilege” meaning our lived experiences of poverty and attending university gives poverty-class students a special insight.
Maureen explains this “privilege” (finally a privilege we can embrace) as “We’ve lived it. We’re actually bringing our knowledge into the university. So, in a sense, we’re actually upping the level of the classroom.”
Elaine adds, “If there is space for us to bring our knowledge into the classroom without punishment and erasure.”
Maureen provides a personal example: “For instance, if there’s an Indigenous discussion, I’m going to speak about that from lived experience and from my family’s experience.”
The result is praxis from the margins as a way to address epistemicide and epistemic violence. As Maureen explains, our epistemic privilege translates into a meeting of the theoretical to the Othered practical (lived experiences), which helps people to actually understand what experiences look beyond the pages of the textbooks. To illustrate, Maureen explains that “people who have lived experiences of poverty or gender violence and intersectionality, they’re actually bringing those lived experiences. Essentially, they can teach other people in the classroom not just from a theoretical perspective but from a lived experience perspective. That’s the value we can bring. The learning changes. And the learning changes for me too.”
Maureen highlights that bringing in international perspectives changes lives in the classroom and on campus. In a classroom, “Muslim women helped to enlighten me around things that I had no clue. It changed a lot of the narrative around how we’re perceiving these women as subjugated.”
Elaine adds, “Internationalism too often is about bums in seats for money to support the corporate university and international university rankings. It rankles me that the voices of poverty-class students remain silenced.”
Maureen says, “If we are all from one background and demographic, particularly the class privileged, there is only theoretical learning. As such, in the Canadian university context, practical knowledge is kept abstract and at an arm’s length. Simply put, how can learners engage in praxis when there is a profound lack of knowledge democracy?”
What the research Sisters learned together is that while we all have lived experiences of persistent poverty, our experiences on higher education landscapes are nuanced. Because the research Sisters are all educated, our conversations and understandings of Canadian university systems is as complex as these systems.
Chapter Five: Implications and Impact
In the Findings’ introduction (Chapter 4), I stated: “I got the research question so right; I got the research question so wrong.” As a woman from a poverty-class “heritage” (Binns, 2019) and whose life is shaped by systemic poverty discrimination, I have internalized the relentless need to justify my worthiness to access childhood and university education. Consequently, it did not occur to me that there might be a “problem” with the two-part research question, which I thought (and still do), captures the essence of a CBPAR study. It did not occur to me that a group of women, with lived experiences of persistent poverty, would come together in solidarity and do so in such a brilliant seismic way to push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities. We wrapped our Sisterhood based in/on loving perception, grounded it in radical imagination, and held sacred a deep, innate respect for knowledge democracy through honouring of lived experiences and ancestral and kinship knowledge systems. None of the research Sisters were willing to answer the question of why we are an important demographic for Canadian universities. As a result, the problem with the research question turned out to be transformative. The lack of “data” to answer the first piece of the question is rich with “data.” This is where we begin our discussion of the implications and impact of the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity activist-research. The research Sisters did not engage in discussions to justify our worth to be students in Canadian universities.
We Won’t Justify Our Worth
The research Sisters “refusal to engage in justification of what should never require justification” (Phillips, 2021, n.p.) was an unspoken refusal. I repeatedly pushed them to provide magical answers that I needed to hear. Perhaps I was looking for them to justify why I was worthy enough to receive an education. Maybe I wanted them to justify why my mother was not considered worthy enough to receive an education past grade eight. I wanted them to give me something—anything—I could take to university leaders and say, “Here, I have the proof you want that demonstrates you should want us here! Now take this seriously!” Ahh, the Sisters blatantly and lovingly ignored me. (I felt like an errant kid!). Eventually, Maureen took pity. She stated the obvious to appease the colonial, capitalist higher education and societal gatekeepers.
Jail, the Dole, or no taxes. No research sister accepts their lives being reduced to dominant narrative statistics of how we will either end up in jail, on the dole (welfare), or not pay our fair share of taxes. Maureen “rebelled against the statistics” and women-in-poverty dominant societal narratives about poverty-class children growing up “to be in jail, on social assistance…. She “was determined that [this] wasn’t gonna happen to [her] children. They weren’t gonna become a statistic.” Maureen pushed back and bumped up against the “myth that these kids, when we’re poor young parents, that they are going to be a burden on the system. So, I was determined to prove that my kids were actually a benefit.” She did not explain this to academic Power and certainly not to justify why she was worthy to receive a university education. Furthermore, Maureen explains the benefits of having children plus getting an education: “If we have babies, that will help with a declining population. If our children and ourselves get an education, then we can pay taxes.” The story she regaled us with was magnificent and was embedded with a razor-sharp bluntness that cut to the colonial heart of justifying our worthiness to access a university education. Canadian society and all its institutions cannot complain we are on the dole if we are denied an education. Give us an education, as is our human right, and we will pay taxes and not be “free loaders” on the system. As Maureen says, “I can become a taxpayer if you can educate me. Then I’m not on social assistance and reliant on child tax benefits.”
Right now, Canadian society gets it both ways; we are in a double bind: We are hated if we rely on welfare and other social supports yet denied access and full participation in higher education, which directly impacts our full participation as citizens including pay (substantial) taxes. Maureen brings in a second justification for our getting a university education: We enrich learning.
Epistemic justice or killing poverty-class knowledge. By refusing to justify our worth as being good enough to be students, the research Sisters said, “Our knowledge—lived experiences and familial—matter.”
Maureen says, “In terms of social justice, a lot of what’s preached in the universities and in critical thinking and critical theory excludes people like us, but we have epistemic privilege.” She explains: “We’ve lived [our experiences]. We’re actually bringing our knowledge into the university. So, in a sense, we’re actually upping the level of the classroom.” Bringing in our ancestral, kinship, and community knowledge and lived experiences creates opportunities for a “praxis from the margins as a way to address epistemicide and epistemic violence.” Moreover, our epistemic privilege translates into a meeting of the theoretical to the Othered practical (lived experiences), which helps people to understand what experiences look beyond the pages of the textbooks. To illustrate, Maureen explains that “people who have lived experiences of poverty or gender violence and intersectionality, they’re actually bringing those lived experiences. Essentially, they can teach other people in the classroom not just from a theoretical perspective but from a lived experience perspective. That’s the value we can bring. The learning changes. And the learning changes for me, too.” She says, “If we are all from one background and demographic, particularly the class privileged, there is only theoretical learning.” There is a general understanding of the positive impact of international perspectives and how it can change lives in the classroom, at administrative tables, and on the university campus. However, currently in the Canadian university context, practical knowledge is kept abstract and at an arm’s length due, in part, to a lack of social class diversity in the student body and professoriate (Haney, 2015).
Elaine says, “It rankles me that the voices of poverty-class students remain silenced.” This is quite frankly an example of epistemicide, which is the exclusion and killing of non-dominant forms of knowledge (Hall, 2020). Moreover, Elaine asks, “How can universities claim to be committed to decolonization when they exclude not only the ‘poverty-classed’ body but also poverty-class knowledge?” (Adair, 2008).
I draw the conversation back round to understanding why we will not justify our worth from psychological and sociological frameworks.
The personal why—not. The American psychologist Bréne Brown (2017) shares why she will no longer justify nor negotiate her worth. In a 2017 interview, she said:
Our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people. We carry those inside of our hearts. And so for me, I know who I am and am clear about that. And I’m not going to negotiate that with you. I will negotiate a contract with you. I will negotiate, maybe even a topic with you, but I’m not going to negotiate who I am with you. Because then, and this is I think the heart of the book [“Braving the Wilderness”], then I may fit in for you, but I no longer belong to myself. And that is a betrayal I’m not willing to do anymore. I spent the first 30 years of my life doing that. I’m not willing to betray myself anymore to fit in with you. I just can’t do it. (n.p.)
This passage speaks to both a refusal to justify worth at the individual level and I suggest, in the context of this research, resists assimilation to the middle- and upper-class higher education culture. I address the psychological by way of examples using radical imagination. The following are two real-life anonymized scenarios.
A poverty-class student’s back is against the classed-academic wall. I relate a story from my experiences as a teaching assistant. A student is couch surfing because they cannot find secure housing that is affordable. They are working multiple minimum wage jobs and must prioritize working to make an impossible choice: pay tuition fees so they do not get deregistered from their courses and thus kicked out of university or pay couch surfing rent (food is optional at this point). Out of utter exhausted desperation, they arrange a meeting with their professor on a Friday. Standing on the threshold of the professor’s office, they are visibly quivering. The students’ eyes are glistening on the verge of tears. They sit down precariously, seated on the edge of the chair, as if prepared for flight. A flood of words gushes from their mouth almost becoming entangled in their haste, “I need an extension on our paper due Monday.”
The professor says, “Why didn’t you come to me sooner? There’s nothing I can do for you now. If you had come sooner…. What do you expect me to do—at the last minute?”
The student does not say how poverty is affecting their schooling. They say, “Umm, well, I umm, I’ve been working so much and I have to work all weekend….”
The professor does not explicitly say, “Why don’t you manage your finances better. Why aren’t you focused on school first. This is your problem not mine.” But the message comes through in their non-verbal communication. The professor sighs in exasperation and says, “I can give you an extension, but I have to dock you 10 percent per day for being late.”
The student, red faced and struggling to take a breath to prevent themselves from crying says, “Okay. Thank you.” Their shoulders slump in utter defeat. They leave the office accepting that this is what they deserve for being a less-than poverty-class student. This eats away at them all weekend as they put in 30 hours at the hotel they work at. Come Monday, they have not made any progress with their paper. By exposing their situation and acquiescing to the penalty, they have tried to justify their worth to be a student. It should go without saying that also at play is class/poverty gaslighting whether intentional or not—with devastating consequences that the professor, administrators, etc., will never know about unless this story takes the ultimate tragic turn.
Reading the poverty-class student’s body. In this scenario where I was the teaching assistant meeting with a student, the same student meets with their professor. Standing on the threshold of the professor’s office, they are visibly quivering. Their eyes are glistening on the verge of tears. The professor walks to the door and guides the student to a chair. They sit down precariously, seated on the edge of the chair, as if prepared for flight. The professor ensures that the power imbalance is minimized by moving their chair from behind the desk, so they are sitting beside the student. The professor offers the student a cup of tea. The student jerkily shakes their head, “No.” A flood of words gushes from their mouth almost becoming entangled in the haste, “I need an extension on our paper due Monday.”
The professor takes a calming breath and gently waits for the student to keep speaking. They say, “Umm, well, I umm, I’ve been working so much and I have to work all weekend….” The student does not need to say how poverty is affecting their schooling. The professor reads it in the student’s body.
The student blurts out, “I can’t get it to you by Monday.”
The professor, from shared, yet unspoken, lived experience says, “No, not by Monday. Check in with me the middle of next week. There is no way you can have it done by Monday and work all weekend too. We’ll figure it out together.”
The student, making direct eye contact, cries. Their shoulders slump in utter relief. By exposing their situation and not having to acquiesce to a penalty, they did not have to justify their worth to be a student. They did not have to negotiate who they are as a student and human being. In this moment, together the professor and student engaged in radical imagination as they imagined new ways of being in relation that honours poverty-class students.
I argue these scenarios are at the psychological heart of why research Sisters were not willing to justify their worth. I appreciate however, that any of us could (and very probably were) the student in scenario one more than once and unlikely the student in scenario two. However, in solidarity our backs were not up against the classed-wall and we read each other’s poverty-class (student) bodies with “loving perception” versus “arrogant perception” (Lugones, 1987).
The social why—not. Phillips (2021) says that the “[m]odern idea of [colonial, capitalist] equality” comes from a “‘turn towards nature’ that simultaneously created alibis for deeming too many people as naturally unfitted for equal treatment” (n.p.). There are two pieces to unpack in their argument. First, in advocating for a justification of worth, those in the centre are removed from any potential guilty verdict. Their alibi of discriminatory innocence is based upon the argument that it is natural that some people are not equal and therefore not worthy of equal treatment. Second, in relation to this research, there are students that are storied as unfit—unworthy of being considered equals to their middle- and upper-class peers perhaps because of a supposed defect of being born on the wrong side of the social class tracks. As such, the void in access and participation in Canadian universities for poverty-class students is justified. Simply put, poverty-class people are naturally not equal to the middle- and upper-classes. Phillips (2021) reinforces her argument against justifying our worth, and therefore our right, to equality based on contemporary (and historical) rationale. While Phillips (2021) is speaking in terms of capitalism, she also is saying that poverty-class students should not have to justify that they are as good as middle- and upper-class students.
Phillips (2021) argues that “we shouldn’t have to demonstrate that men and women share certain common human properties to insist that we’re treated as equals. We shouldn’t have to demonstrate that Black and Brown people share common human characteristics with White people to insist that we are treated as equals. We shouldn’t have to demonstrate that people living in social housing and folks living in mansions” (n.p.) share the same characteristics to insist that we are equals. If we engage in these types of comparative justifications, then we are “acknowledging that there is some doubt” about equality and furthermore, this argument “lends itself to gradations of equality” (n.p.). The most contemporary example that undermines any shift towards social class inclusion in EDI is the move from “equity-seeking” to “equity-deserving” (Smith, 2021) groups that is increasingly being, I argue, uncritically taken up by academics and governments. As I previously asked, “Who decides who is deserving and what exactly does this hierarchy look like in theory and in practice.?” It seems to me that “equity-deserving” rules out current and future poverty-class students, particularly if they are White and, moreover, supports the ongoing exclusion of social class in EDI and WAP. That is, the marginalized “deserving” will need to, at this moment in time, justify their worth based upon the homogenization of individuals and groups who identify as BIPOC. However, how this plays out if one is White passing, for instance, complicates how poverty-class students experience this “deserving” in the classroom and on the university landscape.
Without sidetracking beyond the scope of this research, I will reinforce Phillips’ (2021) argument. They say, “[W]e should resist the suggestion that it’s because of […] similarities that we ought to be treated as equals. This makes the equality conditional on those shared behaviours and qualities and thereby introduces a criterion that can exclude those not deemed to fit” (n.p.). For instance, the poverty-class student, who is not “class bilingual” (Stout, 2010), can only afford naturally distressed (not manufactured distressed) blue jeans, does not understand the hidden curriculum nor the academic calendar legalese and/or must, out of necessity, prioritize surviving over thriving in university, is deemed unfit because they do not meet the criterion of the middle- and upper-class student. As a further example, consider a prevalent belief espoused in the education literature on socioeconomically “disadvantaged” students: Student success is defined in terms of poverty- and working-class students assimilating to the middle-class higher education culture (Ivana, 2017). If poverty-class students are not able to assimilate the norms of an unfamiliar culture, then they fail to be deemed worthy of equality. Moreover, the mere fact of saying, “But I’m a student, too” renders the poverty-class student as Other immediately. Poverty-class students should not have to demonstrate that they are equal to middle- and upper-class students.
In summary, Phillips’ (2021) “argues that we should understand equality not as something grounded in shared characteristics but as something people enact when they refuse to be considered inferiors. [… She argues the] case for seeing equality as a commitment we make to ourselves and others, and a claim we make on others when they deny us our status as equals” (n.p.). The action in radical imagination and CBPAR from Phillips’ framework is that “[e]quality is something we make happen by claiming it” (n.p.) and I suggest that the creation and coming together of the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity is that we refuse to justify our worth and we are claiming equality for poverty-class students. The research Sisters got it right: We will not come up with “proof for justification or coming up with the irrefutable basis for equality” (Phillips, 2021, n.p.). We will not be denied our right to an education but we will not beg for it. Throughout the research journey, we saw “equality as a commitment we [made] to ourselves and others, and a claim we [will] make on others when they deny us our status as equals” (Phillips, 2021, n.p.). We refused to prove our parents’ worth, either. No one was prepared to justify our worth and no one said, “This or that theory explains why we won’t and shouldn’t justify our worth” and therein lies the hope. This is radical imagination; this is knowledge democracy; this is the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity.
An active jack hammer resides in her head. She must come to terms with a thistle-like reality: Her poverty-class body will most likely be pushed out and not receive the coveted piece of paper and acronyms to put behind her name. Perhaps if she was a professor’s daughter. Perhaps if she was a university president’s daughter. Perhaps if she was the daughter of wealthy parents. These perhaps-scenarios would perhaps shape her story differently. Perhaps if the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity existed in reality—a permanent thing—a thing with a home—but it does not. Perhaps if these perhaps-stories would be lovingly embraced. But they are not. In the Ivory Tower she is Other, Othered and as valued as thistle. How can she tell the Sisterhood that’s she is worthy of an education at the federal level but not at the regional level? She wonders if she will hurt them if she shares this…? (From my field notes, March 3, 2021)
What is radical imagination? It is the warm fuzzy blanket on a cold prairie winter day. Radical imagination envelops the three major themes of this research: we will not justify our worth, the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, and knowledge democracy. Radical imagination is a theory, a philosophy, and way of being in this terrifying world. It is the foundation upon which this research needed to be grounded. Radical imagination is best understood from lived experiences rather than abstraction. Haiven and Khasnabish (2010) address how and why we need to understand “radical” and not in the way it has been uncritically co-opted for describing extremist right-wing groups (p. v).
The term radical stems from the Latin word for “root” and bespeaks a concern for the origins and “root causes” of things. It implies looking beyond surface or easy answers and a desire to uncover the deep reasons for our present reality. It also implies that answers to social problems will require fundamental solutions, not temporary fixes. (p. 4)
Therefore, I focus on the sociology of Canadian higher education. We need the fundamental solutions that Haiven & Khasnabish (2010) speak of and these structural solutions come from María Lugones’ (1987) “world”-travelling with loving perception and radical imagination. The thing is, we can blame individuals to death. We can blame individual poverty-class students to death. However, as the planet is dying, this will not save any of us. We are out of time. We were witness to this this summer: Lytton, British Columbia, Canada literally burned to the ground in hours.
Pre-pandemic, I was sitting beside a teacher having lunch. I said that I learned my love of reading from my great Aunty. She had piles of Harlequin Romance novels so high they teased the clouds. They said, “Good! She travelled the world!!!!!” I wonder who taught him this? Is this why he immediately understood that María Lugones’ (1987) theory of “world”-travelling was metaphorical whereas it took me two years to understand that she did not mean that one had to physically travel to other worlds? In the same way, Maureen has an ability to embrace radical imagination and thus hope in ways that I cannot sustain.
I asked her, “Why do we want to be in places that don’t want students whose lives are shaped by poverty?”
Maureen said, “Because if we don’t hold these spaces then the same people that always do will continue to occupy these higher education spaces.”
Nothing will change for poverty-class students if we do not occupy these spaces.
Gosh, how does she hold onto radical imagination? In part, it is because of her experiences with Indigenous students.
Maureen says, “The likelihood of the student just leaving [university] and saying nothing is very high. I’ve seen it time and time again. So, rather than bother anybody or ask a difficult question, the likelihood that that student will just drop out and leave and not cause a problem is so incredibly high. Listening and not talking is a way of being so you can take it in. It’s a different way of engaging with the world. So, the likelihood they’re going to demand an answer or extra help is unlikely. The likelihood is more that students are just going to walk out of the class and silently slip out the back door. It’s really problematic.”
She goes on to say, “I have seen this for years with non-Indigenous students from poverty as well.”
To demonstrate, it should not require any radical imagination to world-travel to imagine how Sarah (and her daughter) experienced poverty-discrimination in university as she worked towards a university degree. Yes, her daughter was impacted as well. How does her daughter understand Canadian universities? How does her daughter experience her mom’s suffocating student loan debt? Even if we somehow finish a degree, in essence, we are gaslit out of Canadian university existence. We are the problem; the colonial university system is not problematized—at least not substantively. These supposed burdens silently slip out the back door and are written out of higher education histories. Yet these “burdens” are desperately needed as we simply cannot ignore that we are in a world of crisis. Even so, we remain, as Maureen says and which reverberates throughout the Sisterhood’s conversations, “People from poverty are fiercely independent, don’t trust other people and don’t let their guard down. They learn to do everything themselves. When I say, ‘almost to a fault,’ it is to the point where sometimes we hurt ourselves and make life more difficult for ourselves. But we are far from a burden.”
María Lugones (1987) learned this decades before Khasnabish & Haiven (2012, 2010). She wrote of radical imagination, poverty discrimination violence and the devastation of “arrogant perception:
t was clear to me that both men and women were the victims of arrogant perception and that arrogant perception was systematically organized to break the spirit of all women and of most men. I valued my rural ‘gaucho’ ancestry because its ethos has always been one of independence in poverty through enormous loneliness, courage and self-reliance. I found inspiration in this ethos and committed myself never to be broken by arrogant perception (p. 4).
In our time together as the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, there was no loneliness because of the practice of loving perception. Courage came from our solidarity and fierce self-reliance was unnecessary. Moreover, our spirits were not broken. Our spirits were enriched. We had hope that, as poverty-class outliers radically imagining otherwise in and for Canadian universities, we might make a difference. Certainly, this research shaped all our lives and will echo across generations. For instance, Jes wrote to me, “We trust you and are here for you.” I accepted this trust and support because it came from a place of loving perception and lived experience of how arrogant perception crushes the spirit of poverty-class women in the academy (Lugones, 1987). Furthermore, this trust and support is bound up in radical imagination and a fierce need to not let go of hope. Haiven and Khasnabish (2010) explain:
Despite its problematic history as the fetish of the European “Enlightenment,” we cannot let go of [the] idea of the imagination because it speaks to our ability to create something else, and to create it together. And the sort of hope, courage and possibility the term evokes are in short supply these days. (p. iii)
It seems to me that they are speaking to a specific kind of hope that is grounded not in wishful thinking but is a solidarity action-based hope. It is not a stretch to say that radical imagination also is crucial to shifting narratives of flaws and faults. Sarah can now accept support and help rather than isolating and berating herself. With support, Jes will finish her degree. Charity might just be okay with sharing the labour load. Our laundry list of how radical imagination is a game changer is wonderfully long and we do not have to be spread too thin or to scramble in isolation. Our hope, courage and possibility are in abundance together—and not in short supply. As we have seen, and I will discuss next, the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity created something rarely seen or discussed in academia: As Melissa says of the Sisterhood, “We’re extremely diverse both in our actions and opinions, but we were brought together because of our dedication to change and a conviction that we have the right to participate.”
A radical imagination exemplar.
The 2nd International Working Class Conference was held online July 13 and 14, 2021. Two magical days. If only she was able to capture the solidarity and the ease of being in spaces alongside folks who “look” the same as her. To capture the vibrancy and oneness so it sustains her throughout the year until the 2022 hybrid 3rd International Working Class Conference. To embrace the solidarity of thousands of people gathered to celebrate voice, rage, resistance, love, lived experiences…. And hold onto this solidarity during hard times on middle- and upper-class landscapes where poverty-class students only belong if they conform and “I am” is invisible. But this moment is too fleeting and like trying to capture dandelion fluff and tightly hug it.
After the conference, the reality hits of her aloneness as she trudges along, too often alone, trying to address the deeply embedded classism that infuses every nook and cranny of Canadian universities like black mold. She should be overjoyed: For the first time, there was a legit Canadian presence. She spent a year cultivating relationships so that there would be a Canadian delegation present and not as second-class colonial citizens. “Canadians Working in Class” was brilliant and powerful. Our scribe, Budd L Hall, created a found poem from the Canadian presentations, “We are not alone: An ode to bad assery and anger in a brave space.” But the moment is gone. She cannot find the brave space. She cannot summon her bad assery or anger. She is defeated and she wonders if that is not the goal. Yet, there is a little secret that the corporate Canadian university cannot understand: Academia may reduce her to a number but she is alumni. (From my field notes, July 18, 2021)
It’s not all apples and rosebuds. Khasnabish and Haiven (2014, 2012, 2010) offer a warning about radical imagination and solidarity-based activism. It is not a Pollyanna love fest. As with any group-based efforts to address structural injustice, hidden agendas can undermine group efforts. It is worth returning to this dissertation’s preface:
There were also moments of unkindness and self-centredness. Nonetheless, there was a collective understanding that the nightmare that poverty-class students live under is so volatile that our sheer survival in these capitalist-neoliberal spaces is often at the expense of others—the Others who look like us and who we need the most. Wounds were exposed; new wounds were created. But we knew there was no malice.
Melissa, Sarah and Milk Toast spoke directly to why came together: First, to explore the two-part research question. Second, being open to exploring what the Sisterhood meant beyond the research question. Third, to be heard in a space where our voices and lived experiences were honoured. Fourth, to create a social innovation model that might be considered by university leaders. Most important, however, is that we created the Sisterhood based on a trauma-informed framework. There was a collective understanding and deep respect that poverty is traumatic. As Sarah says, we understood that we were “engaging in [each other’s] trauma—or, ongoing trauma [and this was] the groundwork” that needed to happen before there could be solidarity. We were only together for three focus group gatherings and, undoubtedly, if the Sisterhood continues, there will be group dynamics and agenda tensions. I draw on Cooper (2017), an American poverty-class tenured-professor, who understands that no matter how much money he makes, growing up in poverty still shapes his life and daily rattles him. Cooper (2017) writes that “poverty is like a disease” (n.p.). I contend that poverty is a disease. I suggest that Cooper (2017) is speaking about radical imagination when he pushes back against dominant neoliberal, colonial narratives. He writes:
We stand at the precipice if we don’t re-evaluate our understanding of poverty and inequality. The narrative in the neo-liberal west s that if you work hard, things work out. If things don’t work out, we have the tendency to blame the victim, leaving them without any choices. (n.p.)
I draw again on Stout (1996, 2010) who defines poverty as a lack of options and choices. The Sisters understand this all too well. We were grounded in a deep respect that Canadian universities are not working for poverty-class students. We also have a deep respect that our contemporary neoliberal universities are really not working for most people, including our communities and society.
As a final note on radical imagination, Haiven and Khasnabish (2010) radically cut to the chase about why we need radical imagination. They write, “[T]he ecological crisis born of 150 years of rapacious industrial expansion, colonialism, and ‘development’; the crisis of subjectivity as we the lonely, atomized consumers seek out meaning and personal worth in a world of artifice, isolation, and relentless commodification” (p. ii). In the context of this research, I would add or request that universities stop calling students “customers.” We are citizens accessing an education. This capitalist-neoliberal language undermines social justice efforts, for who are the customers that universities then compete for? Poverty-class people are not the neoliberal university’s dream customers.
The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity
Without the wisdom of María Lugones (1987) and applying her philosophy as a theory, this research would not have been possible. María Lugones, who grew up in poverty, taught the research Sisters, through her philosophical and theoretical legacy, how to love each other and understand that our lives are shaped in unique ways. She was crucial for us to keep poverty in the centre and find new stories to live and love by (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). We learned that our university stories are not all doom and gloom—we all have positive university stories. We learned that no one sought a way forward by climbing the social class ladder. No one talked about upward class mobility because we learned together that our lives and our knowledge shaped by our ancestors is precious.
Communities of solidarity. Everyone is deeply committed to community and making the world a better place for current and future generations. To demonstrate, Alexandra shared how volunteering for a university foodbank and collaborating to develop a “culturally appropriate food program” was a “beautiful [way] to be able to have a tangible impact on people’s lives and have [those] relationships in […] the community.” We all found healing, peace, joy, rage and activism together. We pushed back against dominant narratives that story us as less-than on and off the university landscape. We modeled how things can be different with the caveat that community and support must be by us and for us not without us. Owing to this, as Melissa says, “I’m sure that you’re all here for similar reasons, is that you just feel that there’s some sort of thing that draws you together and connects you in ways that we’ll figure out as we go through [these] conversation[s].” Indeed, we did figure things out as we went along.
Part of what brought us together, and what we could not have anticipated, is the support that many of us would need as our loved ones died under COVID. This has been a harrowing year and it was made a little bit more bearable because of the Sisterhood. For instance, Sarah cooked food to feed Elaine for a week after her mother’s death. Sisters reached out to Charity as she was ravaged by horrific familial loss. The Sisters supported Jes in applying for jobs and completing her degree. Jes told Elaine that neither of them would be finished school until both of them completed their degrees. The Sisters showed empathy and compassion, which is sorely lacking in Canadian universities where hyper productivity does not allow for “slow scholarship” (Mountz et al., 2015) or a “slow[ing]down” (Dorling, 2020).
We have a lot of community-focused and community-based social capital. A common theme throughout our research time together was learning about the social capital we have, the social capital we lack and how we leverage our social connections and lived experiences to support one another, family members, friends, community, and society. We learned that despite how poverty shapes our lives, we are giving people even when some of us do not have the “bandwidth” to take on more responsibilities. It is not my goal to bog down our dissertation with theory layered upon theory. Rather, social capital is a finding that is threaded throughout and comes out of the solidarity, caring and sharing that naturally happened with the Sisterhood. That is, as Milk Toast guided us in doing. “Figuring out connections. Strengthening relational networks.” Without Milk Toast’s brilliant leadership, the Sisters would not have realized how connected we are and how we can support one another on and off the university campus.
Social capital requires membership in a group which is problematic for poverty-class students in Canadian universities. Other than the Shoestring Initiative, which was founded by me to support students whose lives are shaped by poverty, I have not found similar groups at Canadian universities. The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, however, has an ad hoc membership and I argue that our interconnectedness is not fleeting and exists beyond the parameters of our research. For women, and particularly women from poverty, we “accrue” social capital by “world”-travelling to each other’s worlds where we connect, learn, engage in radical imagination and love one another as women whose lives are shaped by persistent poverty. Bourdieu (1979) explained that social capital only has value if the group is founded upon “solidarity” (n.p.) where people actively engage in solidarity building. What is salient here is that “membership” in the Shoestring Initiative, which does not require fees, nor does it equate to elitist doors being opened for us or social capital with professors, administrators, or CEOs. Clearly, Bourdieu (1979) explained the benefits of social capital for the middle- and upper-classes in ways that the underclass simply cannot afford.
We demonstrated that we do not, or at least try not to, compete against one another or our family and friends. This is difficult in our neoliberal society and institutions. Academia is predicated on competition, and this includes using marginalized bodies as poster children for what “success” looks like if you just work hard enough. We did not need encouragement to care and share. Claridge (2021) writes that we need to shift “our attention on the importance of being social [because it] encourages people to be giving, supportive, and cooperative while discouraging selfish and exploitive behaviours” (n.p., italics added). What the Sisters of the USS did naturally is come together through “trust, mutual respect, goodwill, and solidarity” for the benefit of each other, our communities and society (Claridge, 2021, n.p.). We demonstrated how using social capital (not in its current neoliberal greed form) “builds community, improves the function of social groups and organisations, and provides invaluable social support” (Claridge, 2021, n.p.). Maureen taught us how she experienced community-based social capital (and radical imagination) in classes taught by Indigenous Teachers where she “had all of these amazing [learning] experiences” because students were given “space to work through what [they] were talking through and writing about.” Milk Toast and Melissa taught us about activism grounded in union agitation and supporting those who bear the brunt of the neoliberal university and society. With Milk Toast’s guidance we learned how interconnected we are and not from the traditional name-dropping networking frame. As we figured out our social capital connections and strengthened our relational networks, we learned how each of us is deeply committed to something more than ourselves. Claridge (2021) summarizes social capital from a radical imagination lens: “Since social capital relates to relationships and shared understandings it does not reside in an individual. Instead, it exists in the space between individuals” (n.p.). Thus, no amount of education, money or possessions can usurp the shared and interconnected social capital of the USS. What we have is “relational social capital” which Claridge (2021) defines as “relationships [that] are positive, involving trust, goodwill and solidarity” (n.p.).
Social capital and poverty. We do not have capital that comes from inherited wealth. We cannot rely on nepotism or parents who have been to university. Our parents were/are not professors or university administrative leaders. This is why Claridge (2020) links the importance of social capital and poverty. They say, and the USS repeatedly demonstrated, how critical relationships are for our survival and ability to thrive inside and outside of academia:
Social capital is a vital asset for those in poverty since it can provide access to that which is lacking: capital. Poverty is a state or condition in which a person or community lacks the capital required to meet their needs. Clearly the poor would benefit from more of all forms of capital. However, social capital is not like other capitals; the ‘capital’ in social capital is more analogous with tangible and intangible resources, benefits, productivity and savings. As such, it is a metaphor rather than representing the standard economic definition of capital. (n.p.)
There are many examples of the Sisters’ social capital and how we used it to support one another. However, our social capital is limited in academia and society. Thus, social capital needs to be in context. Melissa provides a nuanced understanding through her definition of “community” as to how we understand and share and leverage social capital: “Community to me has always been about sharing resources. There’s always something I’m not gonna have that I need and might not have the money for. You create this network of people where you can pool food or other resources. Community can be coming together physically and sharing this food. Yeah, community is about sharing resources. Community is shared experience, too, and shared burdens. All of this helps build community. The other part of community for me is reciprocity: When I can’t hold myself up very well, there are people in my community that are going to help prop me up and vice versa. So, the idea of sharing resources isn’t just a physical thing.”
María Lugones (1987), Bourdieu (1979) and the Sisterhood all speak to how poverty discrimination works towards social capital deprivation, segregation of the poor and the inability of poverty-class students to form communities of solidarity on the higher education landscape. Social capital then becomes our lifeline inside these institutions where we are “outcasts on the inside” (Bourdieu & Champagne, 1999, p. 421). Social capital is intricately woven with belonging. An associate dean sent Diaz Vazquez’s and Lundsteen’s (2021) article on supporting first-generation graduate students hours before this dissertation was completed. Diaz Vazquez and Lundsteen (2021) write, “What first-generation graduate students need most of all for success is a sense of belonging, usually within a community” (n.p.). The Sisterhood was so much more than coming together for our research. Sarah spoke of what a difference it would have made had she has community through the Shoestring Initiative as an undergraduate student. Alexandra spoke of the “isolation and alienation” as only one of two students in her cohort from working-class backgrounds. Alexandra was run ragged from juggling jobs, school, precarious housing, mounting student loan debt, familial obligations, and finding a career position. She says of the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity, “I’m exhausted. Just knowing that this group exists for me is a big source of comfort.” All of the Sisters found comfort and connections alongside each other as we came together in focus groups and in the organic ways that we connected outside of the formal research meetings. This echoes Diaz Vazquez and Lundsteen (2021) who say that to move forward in our “education and into a subsequent career, [we’ll] certainly have to move out of [our] comfort zone. But the concept of community means [we’ll] have a comfort zone to return to for catching [our] breath and regrouping when needed” (n.p.). This comfort zone, we learned together, makes all the difference. The Sisterhood, even though virtual, was “a safe space where [we could] ask anything and be” ourselves (Diaz Vazquez and Lundsteen, 2021, n.p.). They say that first-generation students “cannot be successful without support from a community” (n.p.). This is where we begin to invoke our radical imagination and create our social innovation model that demonstrates how-to widen access and participation in Canadian universities for poverty-class students to push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities.
Chapter Six: Towards a Social Innovation Model
Invoking Radical Imagination
Throughout the analysis of our research, poverty and class-based issues such as centring poverty, meritocracy myths, underclass gaslighting and radical imagination intertwine with María Lugones’ (1987) theory of “world”-traveling. I now bring in the final piece of our ongoing conversation: knowledge democracy, which is foundational to our action-based research and answering the second part of the research question: What can the collective knowledges and radical imagination of women from a poverty class-heritage, who have accessed a Canadian university education, teach university leaders about the why and how-to widen access and participation for poverty-class students? The goal of this reach was to centre our lived experiences and demonstrate that our knowledges are essential to recruit and support people whose lives are shaped by poverty to attend Canadian universities. Moreover, we argue that our lived experiences, which are too often excluded in the literature, syllabi, classrooms and from administrative tables, are essential to achieve education equity and address poverty discrimination in Canadian universities and society. I contend that the exclusion of our voices and knowledges is an act of colonial and neoliberal violence that impacts not only the lives of poverty-class people but our regional, national, and transnational communities, societies, and environments. Trying to solve 99 percent of the world’s problems with one percent of the world’s knowledge is not working and never has. Furthermore, if Canadian universities are to achieve non-deficit and decolonial WAP policies then they need us and our “knowledge systems” (Tandon & Hall, 2021). Who knows better how to fix the lack of WAP for poverty-class students than those whose lives are shaped, out of necessity, by being hustlers solving problems and engaging with communities and diverse forms of knowledge? Who will be the warriors to fight neoliberal’s war on higher education (Giroux, 2014)? Who will bring light to “dark academia” (Fleming, 2021)?
Tandon & Hall (2021) write of knowledge democracy and imagination:
Perhaps the cruelest outcome of the past 50 years of unbridled and feral capitalism has been the sense that there is no better way to organise the world. While the widening gaps between the rich and the poor are disheartening, the abandonment of the imagination about how we might live together with each other and our living planet to the market intellectuals is the most tragic of all. We are called to take back the right to imagine, the right to a new utopia. (p. 15)
Yes, the rich-poor gap is terrifying in its cavernous divide. But so too is the utter void of (radical) imagination in Canadian universities to create equitable widening access and participation initiatives for poverty-class students and to tackle the colonial poverty discrimination that we experience. The Sisterhood took back their right to imagine how Canadian universities can be healthy and educative landscapes for poverty-class students—and, professors, administrators, and staff (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Dewey, 1938, 2005). Our multi-pronged recommendations are fulsome and comprehensive. However, they will require a report unto themselves. As such, what follows are key recommendation highlights. Some issues require in-the-meantime solutions and some require structural change. A synopsis and detailed analysis of our findings and recommendations will become public post-doctoral defense as part of the ongoing knowledge mobilization of this CBPAR research as we push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities.
What follows are some of the problems and opportunities identified in this research and potential solutions for university leaders, professors, advisors, administrators, staff, students and allies of poverty-class students (as well as poverty-class students, their families and friends) to consider in developing widening access and participation mandates and initiatives for poverty-class students. Post-PhD, this social innovation model will be fully developed and become part of a consulting business that is being designed by several poverty-class women who participated in this research.
Class-based Language in the Academy. Academics unceasing create, craft, retool, repurpose and churn out more labels to describe us, leaves me speechless. Language in the education research literature is the bane of my existence. We had many troubling conversations as we troubled (over) the ever-devolving language that increases academic paper citations but does nothing to story poverty-class students in ways that acknowledge the rich cultural mosaic of our lives. Additionally, much the language refers to working-class students, lumps poverty- and working-class students and therefore ignores the poverty-working class divide (Adair, 2005) or ignores us all together in higher education research agendas. Language is a big, tangled mess that I will attempt to untangle and demonstrate why the language that is used cannot work if in the context of knowledge democracy. Table 5.1 lists the terms that academics use to describe us—these are only the terms I have found to date.
Table 5.1: Class-based Language in the Academy
Asset deficit-based (DeRosa, 2012)
Disadvantaged: I use this as “disadvantaged” to challenge the term
First-generation (Grayson, 1997)
FGS (Nguyen & Nguyen, 2018)
First-generation, low-income (DeRosa, 2012)
First-in-family (Andrew, 2021)
Low-income, high ability (Olszewski-Kubilius & Clarenbach, 2012)
Low-income learner (BC Government News [@BCGovNews], 2020; (Reuters [@Reuters], 2020)
Low socioeconomic (status)
Low status (de Albuquerque Moreira et al., 2021)
Poverty-class (Adair, 2005)
Poverty-class “heritage” (Binns, 2019)
Underprepared (Magna Publications, 2021)
Underclass: Yes, this comes from Marx’s hated lumpenproletariat
I used “poverty-class” for the most part in this research to keep language from being convoluted and prevent the need to create a burdensome glossary of terms and masses of footnotes. Moreover, I argue that the terms listed in Table 5.1 are not interchangeable, even though they are almost, without exception, based upon economic understandings. The variations of labels are imbued and embedded with stigmatizing “blaming the Other for their lot in life” definitions. Furthermore, academic class-based language has become so normalized many terms do not require citations. For instance, “first-generation” is so commonplace that it is shortened to “first-gen.” It is important to note that not only are the labels to describe us deficit-based but story us as needing saving and fixing. Figure 5.2 is a word/tag cloud that visually depicts the terms that I found in the literature.
Terms such as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” are used uncritically and are interchangeable with the acronym the acronym “low SES.” What “low” signifies would be debatable if it were debated. Ostrove and Cole (2003) and Rubin et al. (2014) are exceptions. Ostrove and Cole (2003) critically examine the difference between class and socioeconomic status. They write:
Class is often operationalized as socioeconomic status (SES), although the two concepts are not conceptually identical. SES attempts to characterize dimensions along which individuals are stratified and it is relatively easily measured through objective indicators such as income, occupation, or level of education. (p. 682)
Rubin et al. (2014) say, “Although conflated with one another, social class and SES can be distinguished as separate constructs” (p. 196). For instance, they contend that “SES refers to one’s current social and economic situation, and consequently, it is relatively mutable, especially in countries that provide opportunity for economic advancement” (p. 196). I offer a word of caution here. Although Canada is seen as egalitarian and democratic on the international stage, trying to climb the social class ladder is incredibility difficult when you are born into poverty. The deck is stacked against you as we have seen throughout this dissertation. The American Dream is in fact a nightmare particularly for poverty-class single moms and is exacerbated by debilitating student loan debt (Ostrove & Cole, 2003) and axes of oppression. Also, as the Sisterhood has repeatedly demonstrated, poverty shapes an entire life. It cannot simply be washed off our skin as it is part of our embodied being (Cooper, 2017b; Laberge, 2017). Yet, this is not all bad as the Sisters have demonstrated. For instance, as Charity says, “our hustle is our rigour.” We are profoundly resilient (I remain uncomfortable with this term and its connotations) and resourceful. Rubin et al. (2014) write, “In contrast, social class refers to one’s sociocultural background and is more stable, typically remaining static across generations” (p. 196). For example, they say that “it is possible for a working-class person to have a relatively high SES while remaining in a stereotypically ‘blue-collar’ occupation” (p. 196). In addition, they contend that “[p]erhaps because social class is more stable than SES, it is also more likely to be associated with intergroup power and status differences that act as the basis for discrimination and prejudice” (p. 196). Indeed, as discussed in our research, poverty discrimination and systemic classism is an ongoing, yet ignored, problem in Canadian universities where the myth of the classless society is just as prevalent as it is in the colonial Canadian society. In the same way, Ostrove and Cole (2003) offer the same sociological language conflation caution. They say, “Like definitions of gender and race, references to ‘class’ (as opposed to SES) imply a particular relationship between social groups characterized by discrimination” (p. 682). The UK human rights scholar and activist Van Bueren (2020), who focuses on class discrimination, is not comfortable with the term “low socioeconomic status.” She writes:
A more cautionary approach is advisable in relation to socio-economic status, however. First, the term ‘socio-economic status’ does not provide positive definitions of identity, nor is it seen as autonomy-affirming in any way. For example, I may choose to describe my origins as working class, which is an important facet of my identity, but I do not self-identify as being from a low socio-economic status. There is nothing positive about low socio-economic status, whereas many of us are proud either: (a) to be living working-class lives; or (b) of coming from working-class backgrounds.” (p. 117; Van Bueren et al., 2020)
In this way, I contend that Van Bueren’s argument might work towards destigmatizing poverty. However, “poverty-class” remains a contentious term/label and one that the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity was not able to resolve. The language used to describe poverty- and working-class students remains largely uncontested. While the label “working-class” is being reappropriated/reclaimed in the UK by working-class folks this does not help with the language conundrum I have presented in Canada. There are no middle- and upper-class equivalents. You will not see, for instance, middle/medium socioeconomic (SES) status student or high socioeconomic (SES) student language used to discuss class privilege in higher education. The closest I have seen to language that describes students from (inherited) class privilege is “legacy generation students” (Kirby, 2009, p. 6). Regardless of labels, poverty-class students continue to be ignored, dismissed, erased and pushed out of Canadian universities, in part, through the use of language. Recruiters do not call low SES students. Administrators do not call low SES students. No one calls us unless it is an email or letter telling us to move along. Consequently, if you won’t call us, then don’t call us low SES.
“The language used to describe poor students feels like knuckles skimming a grater’s surface. I didn’t notice it until it burned, bled and left unhealable scars.”
(From my field notes, March 1, 2021)
If You Won’t Call Us, Then Don’t Call Us Low-SES. Language is a contentious issue that the Sisterhood does not have an answer for—yet—but we continue to grapple with. There needs to be a solution to the language quagmire that honours and respects poverty-class students’ lives. Maureen suggested a term that encapsulates poverty-class students but is not stigmatizing. She told me that something is needed in a similar way as that of Indigenous students. She explained that people automatically know who Indigenous students are and what initiatives and spaces are geared specifically for them. There is a need to create a new destigmatizing term and a name that should be created by and for people with lived experiences of poverty. Then teach academia what this term means and share it with academics, education researchers, universities, educators and students. Create a collaborative Canadian higher education campaign to inform people of this shift in language, why it matters and what it means.
Defining Poverty. Economic definitions of poverty reduce poverty-class students’ lives to a single story (Adichie, 2009). These economic definitions are often based on governmental decisions that do not capture how poverty shapes lives in complex ways. Moreover, how poverty is experienced is shaped in complex ways. Further, often poverty is defined through White, western lenses. Poverty should be open to subjective definitions to respect poverty-class students’ lived experiences, their intersections of oppression and privilege and ancestral and kinship knowledges.
Are you thinking…? Charity suggests that we develop a toolkit called “Are you thinking….” This is because we are in survival-tread-water mode all the time. She envisions this toolkit as providing information based on our narrative experiences, not as a how-to guide. For instance, a “Are you thinking… of how to pay your rent while in school?” “Are you thinking… of how you will find student-friendly jobs and juggle coursework while in school?” This idea could mean that poverty-class students are not bearing the weight of knowledge gaps, systemic assumptions, scrambling and radically different realities. “Are you thinking…?” holds promise.
Students Cannot Carry the University’s Responsibility. The impacts for poverty-class students cannot be ignored or shelved for another research project. March 13, 2020, I submitted a letter to Canadian universities leaders regarding COVID-19 and poverty-class students: “I write to you with fingertips quivering over the keyboard. I do not want to expose myself to ridicule and shame. Yet, I must publicly come out of the social underclass closet because this situation is far more important than my shamed self. As universities grapple with containing the COVID-19, there is something crucial missing from the conversation. That is, how this pandemic is impacting students from poverty.”
I wrote, “You may very well tell us to do the following, which I will address and debunk: […]. 1) Go to the foodbank. You might be surprised who uses the foodbank and how it is used […]. 2) Financial aid. Most students from poverty … have had horrific experiences trying to access emergency funding [….]. 3) Money management [….]. Actually, we would not survive if we did not know how to manage money […]. 4) If you struggle maybe you should not be here. This idea stems from the hard truth that Canada was colonized based on classism […].”
I then asked university leaders to world-travel and imagine how the fall-out of the pandemic would impact and be experienced by poverty-class students. I provided “radical” solutions, which are summarized as follows: 1) Stop the registrar from sending out overdue tuition fee notices and threatening university eviction notices immediate. 2) Provide a point-of-contact with people with lived of poverty for poverty-class students. 3) Look at Amarillo College in Texas. They are an exemplar for supporting poverty-class students. 4) Open your university 24-7. Although there are no statistics (only estimates) available on the number of students who are living precariously (e.g., couch surfing), this is a crisis. 5) Make arrangements with your university’s pharmacy to ensure that students are able to get their medications. 6) Centre this conversation. Yes, social class is a messy business. Lean into the messiness.
I ended the letter with an invitation to contact her. This letter was sent to university leaders across Canada, Universities Canada and to the Shoestring Initiative email list and its social media platforms. The results? I received a few disrespectful emails from working-class academics and students who felt that I was being ridiculous. Did this push the boundaries of radical imagination too far, I wonder?
Early in the pandemic, a professor sent a student to me to help navigate the financial aid university system. I, who have never been able to access financial aid (or understood that I could for most of my time as a student), reached out to her network to support the student. In the spring 2020 term, students reached out to Elaine for support because there were professors and instructors who were unwilling to address how the digital divide was immediately impacting poverty-class students. These calls did not cease as the pandemic carried over into subsequent terms. Universities know how to rally around groups of students to support them. Why is this any different for poverty-class students? Why is/was this left to a poverty-class student who was herself trying to survive and finish school?
What is needed is for universities to create a fusion of the Shoestring Initiative, CampusRom and Amarillo College. It must be poverty-class student-centred and properly resourced and supported. The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity imagined it being led and organized by someone with lived experiences of poverty. It would have space, food, daycare, study and rest areas, common learning spaces with mentorship, educational resources and so much more. It would be a physical space for creating community and a way to build networks of support. As Amarillo College demonstrated, they connected with communities outside of the college to garner financial and in-kind supports for students.
Building A Community of Solidarity and Support
Sarah said, “If I won the lottery right now, I would buy a house for poverty-class women to live in. And the same concept but on a bigger scale. And I would ask you to come live with me.”
Elaine responds, “And I would be right there with you. Because we don’t have a way forward this way. I’m a middle-age woman and you know how I joke about retiring on welfare and what I was born into. It’s not really a joke at this point. Maybe if I wouldn’t have tried to escape poverty by getting an education…. The housing insecurity is so profound, traumatizing, damaging…. How do they think students can possibly do well in school when they’re homeless, couch surfing, waiting to be evicted, renovicted, demovicted…. We’re on the move all the time.”
Sarah is silent. Not muted. Her everyday existence.
Elaine retells a story: “Rents at crisis levels. It’s in the news all the time. Yet, Jes told me that the university said to her, ‘Well, you just need to find a more affordable place or get a roommate who’s not from this province either. You need to budget better.” After one year at her university, Jes packed up her meager belongings, her bulging student loan debt and boarded a bus back to her home province. For those poverty-class students who dare to dream of a university education—and, cross outside of their regional location—we come to universities where we cannot begin to grasp the magnitude of how a city, for instance, with a toxic housing market will damage us. We assumed. We did not know. I did not know. We trusted universities and their departments to be transparent. The pain of this is that if we would have had the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity we would have thrived, pooled resources and supported one another. But we did not know each other existed and were fragmented and siloed. We were kept apart by universities that do not want us and do not know we are even here.
Epistemicide of Poverty-class Knowledge: The First-Generation Case. Nguyen & Nguyen (2018) write that education “studies often use the FGS [first generation student] term to lay claim to students’ challenges and educational outcomes, ignoring the possibility that other dimensions of their lives and identities may overlap or play a larger role than the FGS status alone” (p. 148). Therefore, they contend that first-generation labels and acronyms “are problematic because they conceal these students’ “differences across multiple dimensions of social life. And because those dimensions cannot be precisely identified, how we make sense of the mechanisms that maintain our highly stratified system of education is hindered” (p. 148). Moreover, they argue that the use of these particular labels result in an inability to understand how being “first-generation” shapes students’ higher education experiences from an intersectional framework (pp. 148, 165, 170. That is, as I argue, the homogenization of students from so-called SES disadvantaged backgrounds. This social characteristic siloing conceals how Jes, a Black woman from generational poverty, experiences the intersection of racism, sexism and classism on the university landscape. It conceals how Milk Toast, a woman of Asian descent from generational poverty, experiences these intersections of discrimination. It conceals how Elaine, a woman labelled as White Trash from generational poverty, experiences these intersections of discrimination. Nguyen & Nguyen (2018) provide the following recommendation:
As we continue to witness the expansion of a stratified system of higher education, critiquing our conceptual and methodological tools remains key to sensitizing us to new student challenges that are veiled behind our failure to see the complexity of their lives. We conclude that it is not about keeping the FGS term or not, it is about how the FGS term is used. It must always be advanced with a careful eye to how students are grouped, what intersections exist, and what relationships it holds with institutions and power structures. (p. 169).
Replacing the term first-generation will not fix the lack of WAP problem in Canadian universities any more than the refusal to include social class in from equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) mandates and federal discrimination legislation will stop poverty discrimination. I agree that the existing academic language used to describe us is part of what perpetuates elitism in Canadian universities and keeps structural class inequality and inequity firmly rooted. I add a (de)colonial perspective that is outside the scope of Nguyen’s and Nguyen’s (2018) analysis.
In 2019, I was a presenter at the 15th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry conference held at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, USA. I created and shared a poem “Coming Out of the Social Underclass Closet” based on my master’s research, poverty-class student and poverty discrimination advocacy, and doctoral research-in-progress. I attended a session with a Maori student from Australia I met. We were drawn to each other: We were both older female graduate students from generational poverty. We were experiencing relentless housing and food insecurity. We were reeling from the trauma of homelessness, relentless poverty, and poverty discrimination in our respective countries’ universities and societies. We attended a lunch-hour session where two Indigenous students from Australia said with absolute rage: “We’ll never say we are ‘first-generation’ again! It means that our ancestors’ knowledge doesn’t matter, don’t exist in universities.” I still tremble remembering this learning moment. While I have never called myself ‘first-generation,’ until this moment I did not question—or see—the ubiquitous use of this label in the education literature or in the classroom. It had not occurred to me that many of the tensions I experienced on the university landscape were a result of the erasure and exclusion of the knowledge systems that shape my lived experiences (knowledge), ways of being and understanding of colonial education and educational landscapes. When I reflect on my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I begin to understand the tensions between the application of my knowledge, my lived experiences, to areas such as addressing problems from a sociological framework, were not only questioned as dubious but not welcomed by middle- and upper-class professors, instructors, and students. The Sisters packed their knapsack with the knowledge of their “professors who have not stepped a foot in the academy” (K. Goods, personal communication, August 7, 2021). We were told in an abundance of ways to put that knowledge away or better yet, leave it at home.
I argue that the language that academics (and the media and the government) use to describe us, and in particular the term “first-generation,” is epistemicide as it kills our ancestral, kinship, and community-based knowledge systems inside our Canadian taxpayer-funded, colonial, capitalist universities (Ackerly et al., 2020; Hall & Tandon, 2017). Our knowledge systems are not reflected in the curriculum, higher education equity policies, and university norms. Our knowledge, unless it is written by elite academics, is excluded from shaping equity education. While we poverty-class students are storied as a problem we are not part of creating WAP solutions—if the conversation even comes up with academics and administrative leaders. None of this should be surprising. Epistemicide of Indigenous knowledge systems, cultures and languages has always been central to the colonial project. I contend this part of the colonial, capitalist project has always been the killing of poverty-class knowledge systems because our value lies in the usury of our bodies for the benefit of the elite. This is why there has been a heavy emphasis on radical imagination and knowledge democracy in our research. When we unquestioningly accept colonial, capitalist academic terms for us then we unwittingly prove we are not worthy to be here. Finally, our ancestors do not have academic middle-class institutional knowledge that they can pass onto their children who then benefit. But our ancestors have knowledge that can benefit academic middle-class institutions if academic power is willing to imagine otherwise in Canadian universities.
If the list of terms to describe us continues to expand or remain the norm, I argue that hope for WAP for poverty-class students is compromised. These students will continue to be homogenized and stereotyped. There is a need for a shift in the use of language and critical engagement in how terms are being used in damaging ways. The term “first-generation” ignores diverse knowledge systems in favour of western formal education. I maintain it is difficult for academic institutional power holders to imagine that poverty-class students even hold valuable knowledge because we are only first-generation students and imagine that we could possibly be in service of something greater than ourselves. Consequently, without knowledge democracy, and a dismantling of the academic language presented, as poverty-class people we will battle the relentless “epistemicide […] the killing of [our] knowledge systems” (Hall & Tandon, 2017, p. 6) or silently slip out the back door.
Just Say it Already: Poverty. Dr. Russell Lowrey-Hart, the president of Amarillo College, Texas, is not afraid to centre social class and poverty. At the Shoestring Initiative webinar, “The Social Class Lens: How Amarillo College in Texas Created a Culture of Care,” he was the guest speaker (Lowrey-Hart, 2021). President Lowrey-Hart told us that folks at Amarillo College say the “p-word.” (Lowrey-Hart, 2021). They do not use the terms listed in Table 5.1. They have made an institutional commitment to educate their community on poverty under the tutelage of Dr. Donna Beegle who is from generational poverty (Beegle, 2003; Lowrey-Hart, 2021). How they speak about poverty is from a place of “loving their students to success” (Lowrey-Hart, 2021).
Get to Know Your Students—Even the Poverty-class Ones
As discussed with language, poverty-class students are diverse. Our lives are shaped in complex ways through the intersection of sexual orientation, disability, age, race, geography, and class. Amarillo College knows this well. They got to know their students; they get to know their students at every faculty and administrative meeting (Lowrey-Hart, 2021, Bombardieri, 2018, Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018) through a metaphorical student “María.” María represents the complexity of their students’ lives. She represents how students might be one utility bill away from being pushed out. In this way, students are centred and central to the College not as customers but as beautiful lives who have a right to an education and wraparound support to get an education.
CampusRom also knows their students. This is an initiative by and from the Roma/Gypsies and they fight every day to get federal government support. Their mantra, to interrupt negative dominant narratives and address profound discrimination, is “Yes, we want and we can. Roma/Gypsies in Spanish universities. Sí, queremos y podemos. Gitanos y gitanas en las universidades españolas” (Aranda et al., 2017; CampusRom, 2018; Marcias-Aranda, 2021, n.p.). Yes, the Roma/Gypsies are smart enough to obtain a university education and, contrary to popular belief, they want a formal education. However, this education is not at the expense of familial and cultural knowledge systems. They know their students are not willing to assimilate the colonial Spanish middle-class university culture. Their students want—expect—to be mentored by their people and have families engaged in the process. In addition, they know that the students who are seeking a university education are not representative of the Roma/Gypsy population in terms of gender. Thus, they are not afraid to say that matriarchs must be mentors and that women must be encouraged and supported to get a university education. When it comes to language, CampusRom is very deliberate: They use the term “Gypsy” to push back against the discrimination and genocide they have historically experienced and to reclaim and hold onto their culture, native language, and knowledge systems. In terms of class-based language, they do not use the term poverty as so many Roma/Gypsies come from and are living in poverty due to systemic discrimination.
The Canadian Dilemma. In Canada, because there are no WAP initiatives, no one knows who university students are beyond the assumption they are all middle- and upper-class. There are no social class demographics collected. Students can choose to self-identify based on one of the four Federal Employment Equity Act’s (Government of Canada, 2019) equity-seeking groups but there is no category for social class. There is, however, a problem in getting to know the social class and socioeconomic status of students. For instance, in Australia, whose university model several Canadian universities are adopting, they use postal codes to determine SES status (Habel et al., 2016, p. 5). In Canada, this would be problematic because most of our public universities are located in major cities. Rural students in the same rural location share the same postal code regardless of social class. Students migrate from provinces and territories which means a student might live in a poor inner-city in one place but move to a more affluent location. Not all student who live in poor urban areas in fact are poverty-class. Second, the Canadian higher education system is different from countries that have adopted WAP initiatives. For example, Habel et al., (2016) say, “For decades in Australian Higher Education, one of the main alternative pathways for nontraditional students (broadly conceived) has been Enabling Programs [….] There is often very good data on the participation rates and retention rates of nontraditional students; prompted by Commonwealth policy and funding structures, universities track the socioeconomic origins of students closely, and have a deep interest in the participation and retention rates of students of diverse origin” (p. 5). Canada universities, conversely, have no such commitment. How, I wonder, without existing WAP programs could social class and SES statistics be collected? Social class is such a messy business; poverty is an even messier business. Understanding being poverty-class and how poverty shapes lives remains even a challenge for me after all my sociological education and poverty-based research. However, what I learned through the Shoestring Initiative and this research is that we can collect data if it is by and through a community of solidarity if it exists. The data then will be rich, nuanced, and intersectional.
No-name, President’s Choice WAP Solutions
Knowing who their students are in Australian universities is institution-specific. Habel et al. (2016) note, “When it comes to students via Enabling Programs, such [socioeconomic] data is a little more patchy. These programs are often unique to the institutions that host them, so it is difficult to have standardised metrics across the sector. Moreover, students who enter via Enabling Programs often become ‘mainstreamed’ and tracking their progress can be difficult; continuing to treat them as a separate cohort is methodologically dubious, in any case” (p. 5). The widening access and participation research, as noted in the dissertation introduction, demonstrates that these initiatives, regardless of the billions of dollars spent, have not created any substantive changes for poverty-class students. In large part it is because universities refuse to address the structural reasons for the exclusion and nightmare that SES marginalized students experience in colonial higher education institutions, and this includes systemic institutional classism. Yet, universities continue to adopt regional, national, and/or transnational models that do not translate well. To demonstrate, imagine co-opting the Amarillo College model that is predicated on a majority poverty-class, Black and Latino student population at the University of Victoria? Imagine co-opting the CampusRom model that is predicated on Roma/Gypsy students in Spain at the University of Victoria, for instance? It is not without irony and a great deal of frustration when I learn that Canadian university presidents might consider adopting WAP colonial, neoliberal models from other countries all the while touting the mantra, “We are committed to decolonization,” and refusing to even say the taboo words, “social class.” It is hard to have hope in the face of such an utter lack of radical imagination. Yes, let us learn from exemplars such as Amarillo College, CampusRom, and the Shoestring Initiative and learn from the failures of universities who have created and/or adopted WAP strategies. This is, after all, Canadian taxpayer money and lives that are impacted.
Canadian universities leaders would be wise to consider the dangers in adopting UK WAP policies and practices. As the UK education scholar Burke (2012) writes:
[R]ecent policy developments of widening participation have largely been shaped by neoliberal perspectives, which tend to prioritize and emphasize the importance of higher educational participation in relation to economic imperatives, orientations and concerns. Furthermore, meritocratic discourse have largely shaped policy discourses of widening higher education access and participation, emphasizing issues of “fair access” and the notion of an openness of the university to all who have the potential and ability to participate. (p. 36).
This excludes all those who are labeled by the terms in Table 5.1. As Burke (2012) notes, UK WAP initiatives ignore the structural problems with universities and the systemic classism upon which they were founded and shape education (in)equity today.
Shukie (2020), co-founder and co-organizer of the International Working Class Academics Conference, explains why we need international perspectives but also why we cannot ignore regional needs:
From Canada, the US and Italy we found that experiences might feel similar but our worlds are very different. The detailed exploration of what was happening in other land masses, across other societies, helped us see the commonality of inequality even while seeing the gulf between how that was lived. What was evident was the way that the Academy has successfully networked the world, made research and literature, ideas and theory a global concern. What the international aspect of the presentations showed is that without subsequent inclusion of local knowledges, of contexts of inequality, this great network can only perpetuate disadvantage – a grand silencing that we must resist through localised voices, combined and shared. (n.p.)
If university leaders chose to adopt, hire consultants and implement WAP programs from other regions and/or nations, they need to be aware of the danger of silencing local voices and knowledges. Thus, what works in the UK context cannot simply be transported to the Canadian context.
Moving past the redemption arc. We do not need saving. We do not need anyone to lift us up out of poverty. We certainly do not need to have our cultures erased. There is nothing wrong with us. We do not need to be redeemed to be contributors to society. What we need is access to education which is our human right. Our lives are not tragic; systemic poverty is tragic. Being in a state of relentless crisis is not living. It is sheer survival. I have heard far too many times that poverty-class people are beyond redemption. But so too then are Canadian universities. If WAP initiatives are to be successful, then it is imperative that we move past the redemption arc. If WAP initiatives are predicated on a saviour philosophy, then further trauma will be caused to poverty-class students. This is a concern that dogs me night and day. Throughout the research, the Sisters did not story themselves as needing to be saved or redeemed from a lifetime of poor decision making. Grand WAP narratives story poverty-class women are ubiquitous and damaging. We do not need accommodations; we need equity. The redemption arc feels like an impenetrable brick wall except when the Sisters were in solidarity.
Ditching Colonial Charity Models
We must have the money talk. Too much of Canadian universities and society function because of and on colonial charity models. For example, consider the British tradition of Boxing Day. Although it is now known as a day for great deals, it started in Britain as a day that boxes of leftover food were boxed up and given to the poor. As a colony of the British Empire, this colonial charity model was imported to Canada. As previously mentioned, foodbanks are touted in marketing materials as to why chose this or that university when in fact they are run by volunteer students. The only investment that universities make is to provide space in a basement or at the back of a building—all very unseen. Students compete for needs-based funding that is donated by this or that rich person. Then, the students who win these scholarships or bursaries—well, their social class is made public. They become the poster child for what a successful poverty-class student supposedly looks like. Poverty-class students are forced to beg and plead for emergency funding and perform poverty “correctly.” We are expected to dumpster dive for food, clothing and housing essentials while entitled students do so for fun. We are expected to shop at second-hand clothing stores that are now beyond our price range because rich people have made it a hobby to frequent these places in search of rare finds.
We are forced to beg for charitable attitudes when we cannot pay our tuition fees, overdue library fees, internet connection and phone bills and pay to print class papers at the university library. We dare not beg for charitable attitudes in academia when we are under the pressure cooker of poverty and must choose to pay rent or buy food over lifesaving prescriptions and dental care. We dare not beg for charitable attitudes or even consideration for jobs when we do not know how to pay for childcare or feed our children because we too often face contempt in academia. We definitely do not beg or reveal that we support our families and community members who are suffering the trauma of lives shaped by poverty. When we do dare to beg for charitable attitudes regarding our struggles as poverty-class students we too often face censure and punishment the likes of which the American poverty-class activists Adair (2003 and Stout (2010) know too well: We are “branded with infamy” (Adair, 2001, p. 451) and in the case of Stout, pushed out as an undergraduate student. We are kicked out the door even if our nails are being ripped from our fingertips as we grip the Ivory Tower door frame for dear life. We are supposed to be damn grateful if we are shown one ounce of mercy and colonial charity. This takes on a sinister note when it comes to student loans, which I argue are a form of colonial charity that has damaging consequences for poverty-class women.
I’m so angry. I just want to be safely away from uni so I can cry. Oh, I’ve got tears and when I can let that damn burst it’ll be like an apocalypse. Better build one hell of a boat. — Research Sister
The great equalizing fallacy: Student loans. Throughout this dissertation, readers will see how student loans decimate poverty-class women’s lives and in particular single mothers. The idea that student loans equalize an unequal playing field is one of the greatest fallacies that keeps education inequity firmly entrenched in Canadian universities. How, I ask, can anyone believe that a student from wealth and a student from poverty will experience and mitigate the ramifications of student loans equally? Sarah and Jes are drowning in student loan debt. So, too, is Alexandra who might fare better because she is younger, has no children and will not face the racism that Jes confronts. At 56, I would never recover from student loans. As women, and poverty-class women, the pay gap that shapes our lives exacerbates our financial blows. This is compounded by the Sisters’ commitment to community-based work that will never pay what they might make in the male-dominated business world should they aspire to riches and glory.
What is rarely publicly acknowledged, and to which I can attest, is that poverty-class students do not use student loans to go to Mexico for spring break, invest in the stock market, or go on shopping sprees! But the great equalizing fallacy is that all students are all in this together and all students need student loans equally. Just consider what it means to complete an undergraduate degree and come out with $50,000 in student loan debt, where the interest is compounded daily, and your parents cannot pay off the debt for you. Now, imagine being $50,000 in debt to Canada and provincial student loans and leaving university without a degree. Imagine the government draining your meagre bank account or garnishing your paltry wages (and your employer finding out) because you cannot afford to make student loan repayments. Imagine your credit rating being shredded because you are too poor to repay your relentless burgeoning student loan debt. Now, imagine being a single mom and explaining to your child(ren) that mom went to university to build a better life but now cannot pay rent or take them to the dentist. Is it any wonder then that parents, whose lives are shaped by persistent poverty, are not so keen on their kids going to university and coming out with suffocating debt? This is compounded by poverty-class students facing the neoliberal gig economy. Just ask Jes, Sarah and Elaine what this looks like and how they experience this. Imagine, after one year at her university, Jes packed up her meager belongings, her bulging student loan debt and boarded a bus back to her home province. Yes, Jes recently completed her education. She told Elaine how much she owes in student loans. It made Elaine physically sick. Is it any wonder that Jes is working multiple jobs, and even if she lands a career position, she cannot give up her gig jobs? Imagine Sarah who struggles with student loan payments and lives with the daily stress of how this impacts her daughter. None of these women have homes, cars, or fancy lifestyles. All work multiple jobs. All thought a university education would “lift” them up out of poverty. The research Sisters worry how they will support family members when they become elderly. The worries are as endless as the financial burden they lug daily. Yes, we have all heard, “It was your choice to go to school..,” or “It was your choice not to go to school….” As Stout (2010) says, our choices are limited. No matter what we do, we are up the financial creek without a paddle. Moreover, while outside the scope of this research, I follow online comments each time conversations arise regarding the Canadian government providing “free” higher education or writing off the student loan debt of class marginalized students. Nothing makes middle-class folks angrier and instantly invokes the bootstrap dogma. Yet, we are challenged by those holding the financial purse strings each time we seek financial “aid” at Canadian universities.
Financial aid “officers.” I have mentioned the legalese of this language and the power-laden police connotations. These officers are a nightmare for poverty-class students. I have never, ever met a student, including myself, who has not been traumatized by these institutional financial aid gatekeepers. The paperwork to justify need (e.g., providing comprehensive budgets, copies of bank statements, letters explaining one’s financial situation, why family and friends will not or cannot lend you money, letters of reference) are taxing, onerous and so degrading that it is not worth the pain and shame for something that holds no guarantee or promise. Perhaps this can be addressed through training or hiring people with lived experiences of poverty. However, given institutional policies and histories of poverty discrimination, it would take university leadership to undertake an overhaul of how financial aid is understood and how students with financial need are understood and therefore treated.
One area that causes poverty-class students (and their families and friends) significant distress is when financial aid officers demand that students go to banks or other lending institutions to obtain various loans before they will be considered for university financial aid.
Enforc-her loans. A standing, if unwritten policy, is that students must exhaust every avenue of funding before university financial aid will be considered. I call this “enforce-her” loans due to the gendered nature of this injustice. Female poverty-class students, who are already disadvantaged from gender pay gaps, being primary caregivers, etc., are forced to seek short-term loans, demand loans, max out credit cards, and overdrafts and lines-of-credit—if they have them—to get emergency university financial aid. Moreover, it is explicitly expected that poverty-class students must go to their family and friends and borrow money. Imagine the pressure this puts on a student whose family is already struggling or the shame that comes with being forced to ask friends for loans. This kind of ask is stressful for those in our lives who want to help—feel they should be able to help—with no one stopping to consider how they experience this ask. We, as poverty-class female students, are pushed into enforce-her loans that we cannot possibly repay.
The financial illiteracy trope. It is relentless and omnipresent: Poverty-class students are told by financial aid officers, bank loan officers and universities if only we knew how to budget…. We just need financial literacy education…. Let me expediently dispel this myth. As Sarah says, “I can make a dollar stretch so far it snaps.” President Lowrey-Hart says, “I can spend money faster than anyone. Our students know how to budget. They just don’t have enough dollars” (Lowrey-Hart, 2021, n.p.). I challenge any middle- and upper-class people to live on our budgets and do so without amassing credit card and multiple mortgage debt. Thankfully, we do not know any Joneses.
The only thing holding back my rage at this point is making the reader feel comfortable that their fingertips will not be scorched by my fury that this injustice that goes on unchecked and unchallenged. What we need, and Canadian universities need to support, is an Underclass Community of Solidarity particularly for poverty-class women.
As a woman in university, you have to work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good. If you’re a working-class woman, it doubles. If you’re a poverty-class woman, it triples. If you’re a poverty-class single mom, it quadruples. Women who do succeed in the academy, well often they pull the ladder up after themselves. (C. Earl, personal communication, June 15, 2021)
Canadian higher education financial model reinforces Canada’s class stratification. Although Berkowitz (2021) is writing about the California, USA, higher education system, the same holds true for our Canadian taxpayer-funded public higher education system when it comes to funding the venerated university degree. They write of changes to the California state college system:
Access could no longer be considered a right of citizenship. Instead, funded by federal grants to individual students and family debt, education came to be understood as a private good and a commodity service. The politics that deprived the UC system of public funding also framed higher education as an “investment,” complete with payments from students and their families required to secure their own futures. In formal terms, the reconfigured regime applies to all Californians. It also divides them. Those whose families can pay full freight enjoy the benefit of a world-class higher education, while the others mortgage their own financial futures with debt to attain the same “public” service. California’s higher-education system reproduces the very social hierarchies that it has long been praised with alleviating. (n.p.)
Stevens (2021) says of the American higher education system and I argue the same holds true for the Canadian system:
Both for themselves and for others, Americans carry an enduring faith that a college education creates opportunity for rising up social ranks. Considerable evidence from historians and social scientists shows that this conviction is, in the aggregate, misplaced. In the contemporary United States, higher education does more to exaggerate than relieve class and cultural divisions. (n.p.)
When it comes to the accumulation of debt to (try to) get an undergraduate degree, none get hit harder than poverty-class students. Berkowitz (2021) reinforces this and says, “Once we recognize that higher education was built and evolved to uphold hierarchies of class, ethnicity, and occupation, all sorts of evidence challenging the American faith in higher education as a mobility project becomes easier to comprehend” (n.p.). What hope is there for supposed social mobility when the very institutions we are trying to access are built upon a foundation that was meant to keep us out, and I contend, financially punish us if we dare to cross the sacred Ivory Tower bridge? Class stratification is reinforced every single day in and by our Canadian colonial universities as was intended.
The following recommendations for Canadian universities must be shaped by understanding that widening access and participation policies and initiatives is not a simple process. For instance, WAP exemplars such as Amarillo College and CampusRom are context specific. Adopting or co-opting WAP from other countries and indeed other universities will not result in programs that benefit poverty-class students at Canada’s regional universities or create much need structural changes to address social class stratification in Canadian universities. Moreover, university leaders need to ask, “Are neoliberal universities who have WAP for poverty-class students exemplars?” The answer should be a resounding “no!” In addition, to adopt or frame WAP from colonial, capitalist higher education model is violence and reinforces poverty discrimination in Canadian universities. WAP requires radical imagination and a deep understanding and respect for knowledge democracy (Hall, 2020).
Figure 6.1 depicts four elements that university leaders should consider which are drawn from the Sisters’ collective radical imagination and lived experiences.
Briefly, consider the following salient recommendations:
1) Learn from knowledge holders—those with lived experiences of poverty,
2) Learn from Shoestring Initiative’s successes and failures (www.ShoestringInitiative.com),
3) Engage regional communities (Bombardieri, 2018; Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018; Lowrey-Hart, 2021),
4) Be the voice for poverty-class students with Universities Canada (Universities Canada, 2017, 2020), higher education advocacy groups and associations, and end poverty coalitions,
5) Advocate for federal poverty-discrimination legislation and class inclusion in Federal Employment Equity Act (Government of Canada, 2019) and at the provincial/territorial levels,
6) Deliver education programs developed and led by those with lived experiences of persistent poverty on topics such as: What is poverty? What causes poverty? Debunking colonial social class narratives. Understanding poverty-class cultures. What are the knowledge systems of poverty-class people?
7) Be revolutionary and include social class in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI),
8) Advance social class diversity, inclusion and belonging at every level,
9) Engage in addressing poverty discrimination and social class stratification in Canadian universities, and
10) Make a five-year commitment to support a poverty-class, peer-support community of solidarity.
Poverty-class, Trauma-Informed Community
If I were forced to settle on one crucial recommendation that came from this research it is the Sisters speaking of the need for trauma-informed (poverty-class) solidarity spaces for poverty-class students. That is, we need community. As Maureen and Sarah said, “We’re imperative for cultural safety and safety, period.” Why? 1) We have the lived experiences that gives us credibility with other poverty-class students; 2) Poverty-class students can (learn to) accept help from each other if we create a safe space; 3) We are peers creating community for those who are coming behind us and those who have not had a poverty-class community of support; 4) Our programming will not be a university-driven, top-down approach,;5) We bring “pure perspective, trauma-informed” approaches by “virtue of our own trauma” from poverty; 6) We have a nuanced understanding of how lives are shaped by poverty in complex ways; 7) We can educate the academy and its community how poverty-based gaslighting creates harm; 8) We can provide safety through solidarity and communal and relational ways of being; 9) We can create safe spaces where students can, as Milk Toast says, “let slip they are actually not having a good time,” and therefore, we can help to ensure these students do not silently slip out the back door.
Hey, need a buck, a meal, a friend, a sense of belonging…? Imagine a space where students could experience (and contribute to) what the Sisters created through our collective community building. I draw back to the natural relationships the research Sisters and I built:
Money was sent for food. A phone bill was paid. A week of homemade meals was prepared for someone grieving. A sister picked up and hosted another sister in her home to provide care and mental respite. A sister reached out to another sister in crisis. Sisters felt safe to ask each other for support and guidance as they struggled through degrees. A sister was supported who could not gather the last few bucks to cover their tuition fees. A sister mentored and supported a sister in seeing the depth and breadth of her talents and she learned that she was more than the gig jobs that she thought defined her. They practiced job interviewing and the sister got the job interview. A sister did some bartering and got a sister a professional haircut. Reference letters were written; references were given. Sisters connected Sisters with folks like them. A sister harangued other Sisters to get their voices out there publicly. Sisters were in each other’s heart and minds. They sent each other job and presentation opportunities. They sent readings specific to each other’s interests. Sisters included each other in ways that defy academia and will baffle academics. Sisters who learned to set boundaries began the journey to help others who seek the same learning. Sisters who are comfortable asking for support are teaching Sisters to do the same. There were walks on beaches, midnight tear-filled calls, desperate “I just can’t take one more hit” pleas answered and an understanding that this must be grounded in love, acceptance, and graciousness. Community building through food….
This is not all that radical to imagine. There can be a space where there is no need for “class bilingualism” (Stout, 1996, 2010) but where we are mentored to learn academic-speak for our university work. This can be a place where we could express rage at the gross injustices we experience on and off the education landscape and radically imagine otherwise in and for Canadian universities. That is, universities that are sites of social equality and equity for poverty-class students. We could have a home on campus where we can safely rest before, between, and after classes. This could be a place where we do not need to beg forgiveness because we cannot afford to print our class papers because there would be a printer to use free of charge in this space. We must stop poverty-class students from silently slipping out the back door.
When a Lift Up Out of Poverty Means Assimilation
If inclusive equals assimilation, then it is a math equation that impedes learning and education equity. Cruz (2021) writes of the pain of upward social mobility through higher education: “Assimilation is sometimes the most effective kind of assassination” (n.p.). While the Sisterhood did not have time to engage in deep conversations about poverty-class culture, it was ever-present. Erasure of our lived experiences also means erasure of our cultures or “heritages” (Binns, 2019). “Success” in university is oft-cited as assimilation to the middle-class higher education culture without thought to what this erasure of culture means and how it segregates families (Devine, 2019; Ivana, 2017). Shukie (2020) writes:
Working Class is not a problem to be solved
Not an accent to be lost
A savagery to be civilised
A roughness to be polished
A wideness in need of a particular type of participation
A background to be assimilated
A society that needs to be mobilised, to be somewhere else. (n.p.)
There is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with our cultures. This is a cavernous shift for me.
Even before I learned about sociological understandings of poverty discrimination, I was speaking about the need to refuse to be assimilated and/or pushed out of Canadian universities and society in my writing. In 2017, I created the following poem for a play I wrote titled, “History Repeating” based on the same-named song performed by Dame Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads (Wall of Sound Recording, 2011).
Our souls are laden as we trudge through the day
“Squandering our riches,” you do say.
Our concave bellies belie the nation’s song
You will never see us blossom in the rising sun
Our shadows parch the dewy greens
The maple leaf shrivels under our burden
We taint the spring’s early thaw
Our dust and grit mars you virgin snow
Ease your furrows!
Our stains effortlessly wash away…
Caste in stone with palms raised out
Nothing we do or say holds any sway
Infantile creatures from the Other way
Rejected by Her and His side
“Your Discounted race holds no trace of worth,” you always say.
Compressed in a box where spirits flow freely everyday
Scurrying to and fro—I pester you and say, “I’m sorry”
You try to glimpse what creature spoke—
But you can only envision:
We are the dandelions destined to blow away
To wreak havoc on another world some new day.
I come back to Sarah who resists the politics of academic assimilation, which she learned from the UK working-class sociologist Lisa McKenzie (2015). Sarah says, “Elaine said something at the outset: She said, ‘We won’t assimilate.’ I think that’s an important thing. It’s the same thing that I picked up from the UK class activist Lisa McKenzie, which I thought was awesome. It’s about celebrating growing up in Council flats. She’s like, ‘We’re the best people I know’.”
But it is hard not to drink the colonial, middle-class academic koolaid. When you are dying of thirst on the university landscape and cannot find water in the margins, you need to take a drink from the elitist fountain to survive. If the price of admission to Canadian universities is assimilation, then this price is difficult to reconcile.
We just needed more time together…. It is bittersweet that the research had to end because in our time together, the Sisters did not have to assimilate. There was a joyous freedom in just being and not engaging in the middle-class academic performative dance.
The following list of ideas to create a community of solidarity and structural changes at Canadian universiteis is by no means exhaustive. These are pieces pulled from our research conversations, focus groups, literature review and most importantly, the intersection of our lived experiences and radical imagination:
- Staffed by poverty-class people.
- Poverty-class ombudsperson.
- Full- and part-time paid poverty-class academic advisors.
- All student-mentors receive honorariums no unpaid labour.
- Dedicated home-like and education space on campus not in a basement that provide wraparound supports (kitchen, quiet room, computers and printers, study table, classroom.
- Mentorship by and for poverty-class people.
- Focus on retention and completion of school.
- Support the transition out of university and into workforce.
- Obtain regional community support.
- Financial aid application support and advocacy.
- Create a poverty-class focused knowledge democracy manifesto (Hall, B. L., & Tandon, R., 2021)
- Educate the university community, at all levels, on education equity.
- Collaborate with alumni to support students to transition into and through university and move into the workforce.
- Develop university and community partnerships to provide student-friendly employment (Lowrey-Hart, 2021).
- Honour lived experiences and cultures of poverty-class people.
- Bring families and friends into the community and space.
- Accept no less than a five-year commitment by the university.
- Create emergency funds that do not require university bureaucracy to access.
- Advocate for social class diversity in the professoriate (Haney, 1996, 2015), academic advisors, financial aid officers, administrators, counselors, and counseling consultants.
- Collect data in relational ways and follow the progress of students during and after their studies
- Support students who are seeking a university degree.
- Have mechanisms in place to flag students who are at risk of silently slipping out the back door—provide individualized and collective student supports.
- Childcare. Childcare. Childcare. Childcare by and for community.
Chapter Seven: Wrap it Up or Now What?
I come to the end of a tumultuous four-year doctoral journey and transformative CBPAR research project. I begin the end of this story in story. Day two, July 14, 2020, Murylo Batista, a UK academic gave a presentation, “Protecting the People From Researchers: A Working Class View on Research Ethics and Regulations” at the Second International Working Class Academics Conference. He told us about researchers who go into the same neighbourhood year after year to research “sexy violent topics” (Batisa, 2021, n.p.). He said that researchers “can smell blood and follow tragedies” (n.p.) long after they are over. These researchers, he said, go into the same area yearly and ask, “the same questions over and over” (n.p.) without considering how the researched experience this relentless academic invasion. What was, and remains, jarring is a particular piece of this story: Batista said, “NGOs would bring researchers to a woman’s home” in a “strategic community” (n.p.). The researchers come to inspect the condition of a particular woman’s home and to assess if the house’s condition had changed from the previous researched-year. They said, “Every researcher took photos of the broken door, year after year” (n.p.). For all the years of research, and documenting this woman’s dilapidated house with its broken door, the door remained broken. No researcher thought to fix it. If the door was broken there was something to research; if the door was repaired there was nothing to research. Figure 7.1 is a royalty free stock photograph I purchased and photoshopped. It depicts what I imagine the woman’s house and door looked like to researchers.
Figure 7.1: The Broken Door
Thousands of research projects have been conducted on low SES students asking different, similar, or the same research questions. All manner of methodologies are employed. Varying theories are applied but usually mainstream, male-dominated colonial theorists provide the persistent du jour theoretical frameworks (e.g., Bourdieu, Foucault). Overarching themes range from low SES students’ struggle to fit into (assimilate) the middle-class higher education landscape to the effect of parental income on their children’s formal education to the familial relation tensions as children climb the social class ladder. Tens of thousands of books and articles have been written on these subjects. Subjects have been subjected to relentless inquiry but nothing has changed. Do we need more research on poverty- and working-class students? Do we need more theorizing? Do we need more publications where our lived experiences are excluded as a source of knowledge to solve universities’ problems, particularly in relation to widening access and participation for poverty-class students? I suggest it is time to stop researching us and start listening to us. It is time for academics to learn how, through our knowledge systems, to fix the perpetually broken university system. We have some answers; we have institutional knowledge, too. Yes, stop researching us. Move aside so we can fix the door that’s been broken for as long as academics have been researching the Othered low SES student. Paradis’ and Mosher’s (2012) CBPAR research partners say, “Take the story, take the needs, and DO something” (n.p.). I wholeheartedly agree. For our research, the Sisterhood will take our research and DO something. We ask readers to take our stories, take our needs, take our recommendations and DO something!
It is 2021 and poverty-class people still do not have equal access to Canadian higher education and are denied full participation in ways that honour and respect them. It is 2021 and Canadian universities’—and governments’—refusal to address poverty discrimination in our publicly-funded universities is a human rights violation. Oduaran and Bhola (2006) write:
Education as a human right was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a document that can rightfully be characterized as the Magna Carta of our times. In today’s world of knowledge-driven societies, the need to expand access to education goes beyond mere idealism. Education has become a necessary practical tool for ensuring economic well-being, political participation, and social justice for all nations and peoples. Expanding access to education has become an important component of social justice. (p. vii)
It has been 73 years since education was enshrined as a universal human right and still there are no WAP for poverty-class student mandates or initiatives in Canadian universities. Our universities seem unaware of the colonial beliefs deeply planted: “Access to education […] attracted great controversy in Canada” because there was and is the belief that “increased accessibility to postsecondary institutions generated lowered standards for admission and completion” and negatively impacting international rankings” (Burtch, 2006, p. 84). EDI frameworks claim an intersectional lens but exclude social class. Federally, poverty discrimination legislation is unanimously voted down across political party lines. Poverty-class people are excluded as an equity-seeking group. Women, whose lives are shaped by poverty, bear the brunt of the discrimination and exclusion. Their children—our—children suffer in ways that are silenced. Perhaps there is a fear that if the underclass become educated, they will no longer be the fodder necessary to support the middle- and upper-class lifestyles. Perhaps there is concern that if we are educated, we might become landowners. We might even be politicians, professors, and doctors. But our exclusion keeps us docile through segregation, aloneness, and hunger.
Macedo (2016) shares Freire’s writings on the hunger of the poor in Brazil: “It was a real and concrete hunger that had no specific date of departure […] it was not the hunger experienced by those who undergo a tonsil operation or are dieting. On the contrary, our hunger was of the type that arrives unannounced and unauthorized, making itself at home without an end in sight” (p. 13). This hunger never leaves you when your life is shaped by persistent poverty. Milk Toast chose her name because a student on the early childhood education landscape had fancy and exotic looking food. Milk Toast asked what the strange food was. It was bread with spices and sauces and all sorts of fancy stuff. This experience is part of Milk Toast’s embodied being in the same way that Elaine envied classmate’s food from grade one onward—until she learned not to care about food and be comfortable with the burn of hunger. On the higher education landscape this hunger is often storied as a rite-of-passage ‘Ramen noodle’ hunger that students go through. That is, having to sometimes eat the packaged Raman noodles not out of necessity but out of choice. Poverty-class students do not have these choices and do not brag about middle-class higher education Raman noodle hunger. Sarah wonders why we cannot have subsidized food cards for poverty-class students so they could buy food at university food courts. Elaine spoke about poverty-class students being forced to be liars because they cannot afford to join classmates for food and drinks. This hunger burns when we are denied an education but dream Otherwise. This hunger ravages us when our radical imagination is ignited and then squashed by the heel of boots we can never afford. But we still try to pull on those worn-out bootstraps.
Without María Lugones (1987) and her theory of “world”-travelling and women learning to love one another this research would have been as hollow as poverty-class tummies and university promises. María Lugones gave us the gift of a way to create the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity and ignite our radical imagination as we collectively created a social innovation model to teach university leaders how-to create non-deficit-based and decolonial WAP initiatives and mandates for poverty-class students. We did not apologize for demanding bread and roses and education equity. We certainly were not willing to justify our worth and our right to equitable education. No one was willing to demonstrate to academic power why we are an important demographic for Canadian universities. We would not and will not say, “We are students too! We are just as human!” Phillips (2021). We did, however, demonstrate how universities can be different, how people can be on campus in relational ways—in cooperation and not competition. Yes, we are outliers who imagine otherwise in and for Canadian universities and society. Our preliminary recommendations demonstrate that the door can be fixed if there is knowledge democracy that honours poverty-class people’s knowledge systems including poverty-class university students. We have amply demonstrated that wisdom exists in the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity community (Taylor & Tremblay, 2021). To be clear, as Harley (2012) says, “We’re poor not stupid” (p. 3). We provided a glimpse into what an Underclass Community of Solidarity might look like on the colonial neoliberal university landscape and how this would be transformative—it is pretty radical. Why the hell is it radical?
We delved into sociological linguistics and are telling academics to mind their own clichés. We did not homogenize poverty-class students as deficit-based. We will not be caste in a box. The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity is being embraced transnationally but the underclass is being dropped by those who are uncomfortable with social class and with the underclass. Jes says, “I’ve taken a liking to the word underclass since you shared it.” Yes, the underclass piece remains until Canada is truly egalitarian. If you won’t call us, then don’t call us low SES. Also, we won’t wait for your call or an invitation to your table. We are building our own table based upon this research. We are calling upon others with the radical imagination to address the gross injustices faced by poverty-class people who try to get a university education in Canada. While we only skimmed the surface in this research, the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity demonstrated that no-name, President’s Choice widening access and participation strategies are doomed to fail and a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. As we witness (and for some of us experience) the nightmare of the poverty, the middle/upper/super-rich divide becomes seismic. We are always working in class and we hope that our research makes this clear to academia (Dean, 1996; Hurst & Kawecka Nenga, 1996). We also showed how non-intersectional EDI that excludes social class is acronym-bounded and bound for surface changes.
The Sisters made visible the need for trauma-informed WAP for poverty-class students. Thus, all advocacy and social justice must be by and for those with lived experiences of persistent poverty. We have nothing to protect us: no laws, legislation, university policies, Federal Employment Equity Act safety—nothing (Dean, 1996). We do not even have an ombudsperson who will or can help us. We have no grievance process—nothing. Our only protection is if we assimilate, fake it, or silently slip out the back door. So do not be surprised when we choose another option: We are cacti and use our needles to protect ourselves. Do not be surprised when we do not trust elite academics who intentionally or otherwise poverty gaslight us. There should be no surprise that we are fiercely independent because we must be hustlers. But know that our hustle is our rigour and we are brilliant at making a buck stretch in ways that make Gumby look rigid and inflexible.
A former university doctoral student made a point of connecting with me at an EDI-based Shoestring event. They shared with me their story. They walked across the convocation stage to get their degree, which was enclosed in a nice-looking folder. They excitedly exited the auditorium and opened the folder to see the venerated piece of paper that would demonstrate their achievement. As a marginalized student on many levels including poverty, they made it. They got their PhD. When they opened the folder it was not the coveted piece of paper—it was a bill from the university for overdue tuition fees. They could not accept job offers because they needed to prove they had their degree.
We are also gentle, kind, compassionate, caring, and giving community builders. We do not want to climb the social class ladder particularly if it means erasing the mosaic of our ancestral knowledges and boot stomping on others on our way up. We are naturally dedicated to contributing to a better world even if it means we will not be rich. That is okay. Sarah will win the lottery and buy a big house where we can all live. There is an undercurrent of Cruz’s (2021) “melancholia of class.” Some Sisters do not have roots to go back to, some Sisters long for a return to home, some Sisters are at home—that home piece is deeply tied to culture. Neoliberal university cultures expect us to erase not only our ancestral and kinship knowledges and lived experiences but cultures. Together, the Sisterhood resisted this. Imagine how radical this would be if this was the norm in higher education?
Valls et al. (2020) cite “Federico Mayor Zaragoza, who has been director general of UNESCO for more than a decade, said on more than one occasion in relation to research and studies on poverty, ‘The best diagnosis is the autopsy, but it comes too late’ (p. 974).” It is my hope that I have demonstrated that we do not need more autopsies of why universities are failing poverty-class students. Concrete solutions are needed now. The research on the efficacy of any given solution can come as in-the-meantime and structural solutions are being designed and put into place.
I leave readers with Shukie’s (2020) words that speak to the power of this radically imagined research:
No, we cannot create new worlds by more vigorously polishing the old ones. We can create new worlds by working together, calling out inequality and ensuring our tiny engines are generating power rooted in a dream for a better Academy, that can serve a better world. (n.p.)
The Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity did not try to vigorously polish the old stones of our colonial higher education system. We worked (and will continue to do so), calling out inequality and poverty discrimination in Canadian universities and society. Our education equity activism is rooted in a collective radical imagination that is not rooted in a “burn-it-down versus bandage-it-up” binary. Our activism is grounded in a refusal to justify our worth and be denied our rights to equitable education and full participation in society. I cannot say we have the capacity to be as audacious as Angela Davis who in 2014 said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time” (Cate Denial, 2021, n.p.). The Sisters, in their own unique ways, act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. They do this by not seeking grandeur for themselves by trying to climb the ridiculous colonial, capitalist-neoliberal-neofeudal social class ladder. Their engagement in our research was beyond self. Each woman, so many who are living precariously, and all whose lives are shaped by poverty, are engaged in changing landscapes that exclude, erase and punish the poor. They all practice radical imagination not because they took a university course on the topic but because it is part of their natural way of being. I wonder, however, had we not had access to education, even though it is profoundly inequitable and punitive for poverty-class women, would we be able to walk the paths that we are. I come back to Donna Stout (2010) who defines poverty as a lack of options. This research aimed to change this lack to a demonstration of how-to create widening access and participation initiatives for poverty-class students. We are a group of poverty-class women who “world”-travelled with loving perception as we pushed the privileged pillars in Canadian universities.
The Lady in Panes is our María Lugones
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Figure A2: Caste in a Box Research Poster