Pushing Privileged Pillars in Canadian Universities (PhD research proposal)

Elaine J Laberge. PhD Candidate (Education), Vanier Scholar (2017-2021), University of Victoria, BC, Canada

Doctoral Committee

  • Dr. Kathy Sanford, Professor, Curriculum & Instruction, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, BC, Canada
  • Dr. Budd L Hall, Professor Emeritus, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, BC, Canada and Co-chair UNESCO chair in community based research and social responsibility in higher education www.unescochair-cbrsr.org
  • Dr. Darlene Clover, Professor, Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, BC, Canada

Research Proposal

This community-based, participatory action research seeks to explore, “What can the collective knowledge and radical imagination of those with lived experiences of persistent poverty, who have accessed Canadian university, teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how—to widen access and participation for poverty-class students, so their voices are heard and no longer kept silenced?”

Keywords: community-based participatory action, poverty, Canada, Canadian universities, EDI, social justice, inequality, inequity, widening participation and access

Introduction

“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, June 20, 2020, Poor Peoples’ Campaign – A National Call for Moral Revival

I never imagined researching social stratification and inequality in Canada. I only knew living it. Yet, pre-sociology and pre-degree, I found myself tackling these egregious problems through writing plays, poetry and creative non-fiction. I certainly never set out to research poverty-class students in Canadian universities. Why? I never imagined going to university. I never imagined taking courses that were anything but utilitarian such as accounting, finance and programming. That is, courses that could directly lead to employment. Heck, I didn’t even know university existed until my late 20s. Even then, at best, it was a vague concept. Yet, after working and accruing two back-breaking student loan-based college diplomas, the idea of a university degree took root—from somewhere. However, obtaining a university degree dogged me for the next several decades. During this time, without that venerated piece of paper, career doors were barred to me and I was relentlessly bashing my head against the class ceiling. Regardless of the hours I worked and the contributions I made, my paycheques stagnated at paltry levels. In essence, like the women before me, I lived a hand-to-mouth existence. I was born into this world; this was to be my future. But many things happened and still might happen that might change this trajectory. (I ask that my educational journey—life journey—not be reduced to Othering platitudes such as drive, determination or resilience for I am not a special case study). The list is too weighty for here; a critical analysis might make it into my dissertation by means of methodology and methods. How I came to my doctoral research study might be brilliantly brutalistic if I have the wherewithal to share it or at least tell it in a way that protects me. Perhaps a thickly redacted autoethnographic narrative? What I can, however, share is this: Education promised a way out of poverty; Canadian universities, lauded as the great equalizer, broke this promise—and, continue to break their promise (Adair, 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 EDI lenses, sheepishly shying away from looking in the class-based inequality and inequity mirror and hiding in the taxpayer-funded manicured shrubs pretending there is not a historic problem that they are an integral part of (Bagadon, 2015; Burtch, 2006; Lynch, 2010). 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. Thus, to exclude a social class analysis is to cut a swath through the population. That is, the ongoing exclusion of those unlucky enough to be born on the wrong side of the social class tracks (Sayer, 2005, 2002) from accessing, surviving and thriving in university. Consider, after thirty years of fighting classism in the UK higher education system, with defeated, Reay (2017) 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, Blome & Kleider, 2016). As Brady and Burton (2017) 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 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, 2017, p. 1).

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, I 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 (Beckett, 1954). How can WAP policies and practices matter when the world is figuratively and literally on fire? When the world is imploding? 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 that shape legislation, policy and our society. As such, there is no escaping the dominant colonial-based social class narratives that swirl around us 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 (1997) 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)

Ben Okri

Moreover, in the identity politics (Michaels, 2006), middle-class-focused, neoliberal–cum-neofeudal era, the people who are angry about giving people a fighting chance are the ones who have never had to fight for a chance. How then can poverty-class people become a crucial demographic to Canadian universities when they are not financially lucrative and not central to the neoliberal international student tuition-fee focused university business model? How can any of this matter in institutions that continue to exist for the elite? Yet, education is crucial to mitigate (generational) poverty (Burtch, 2006) and create civically engaged citizens (Friere, 2016; Jackman, 1994). Or, as Fischer notes, “The only thing that mitigates intergenerational poverty is higher education [….] But you have to get it.” (2019, n.p.).So, I believe(d), armed with my lived experiences, knowledge, master’s research findings and belief in otherwise that I could create a WAP-shift at the University of Victoria (UVic)—if, I just demonstrated the why and how….

[Insert an endless ellipse playing of an infinite loop]

I built a table.

“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.).

“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 Equity and Human Rights (EQHR) and the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), in 2018, I launched the Shoestring Initiative (www.shoestringinitiative.com) at UVic. This is the first-of-its-kind grassroots initiative at a Canadian university to support university community members with lived experiences of persistent childhood poverty. Based on research, I developed an iterative model with the intention that it would be shaped by and for communities: collaborate, local-level, institutional-level, provincial-level, federal-level and society.

Shoestring Initiative model

From the outset two things became clear: First, there is a need for a Shoestring-type initiative. UVic 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. It cannot merely be a student-led club that may be here one day and gone tomorrow. How, I asked, could the university expect poverty-class students, who were already under immense pressure to survive, build and maintain such an endeavour?

Second, the above 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. First, 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 overall colonial and neoliberal institutional creep. Third, I was pressured to register Shoestring as a UVic student club, which might then be tucked away in the SUB 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. Fourth, 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. Fifth, 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. Further, I had to store Shoestring supplies in my bedroom, cook food at home and rely upon my roommate to shop, run errands and transport supplies to events. Sixth, even those who are cognizant of social class inequality and inequity at UVic were not willing to take on another service role particularly if it was not directly related to their research focus. Seventh, 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 PCS to any table (I kept field notes of my experiences). This does not mean the actual or imagined idea of a fulsome WAP-based initiative for PCS at Canadian universities is hopeless. I “just” need a different approach. I “just” need a different way to imagine otherwise. I “just” need 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). The timing of this research is serendipitous.

This research problem’s time has come.

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, now are finding themselves in a financial pickle of their own making. That is, the massive loss of international undergraduate tuition fees. Perhaps now they will do some reflexive work and start to look at the domestic under-served and underrepresented populations they have historically ignored: people from (generational) poverty. 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 further concerns and 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 Goodard (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). I suggest that we also need to ask, “Who are Canadian universities good for beyond the historic middle- and upper-classes”? In order to answer these questions, I contend that it is high time that the let poverty-class students eat cake strategy is abandoned by Canadian universities as part of breaking neoliberalism’s stranglehold on our institutions and society. Where does the hope lie in this morass of apocalyptic hopelessness? With poverty-class folks who have been to Canadian universities.

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?

What do we need to learn?

My literature review on the problems with English-speaking, western universities and their elitism is dense and tiresome. For all the research done (mostly down) on socioeconomically marginalized students, nothing has changed. Certainly, careers have been built on this research. Yet, publicly-funded universities remain immortalized as elitist institutions that serve their own ends and ensure a legacy 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, I draw on Greene (1995) who writes: “To call for imaginative capacity is to work for the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise […] each person’s reality must be understood to be interpreted experience—and that the mode of interpretation depends on [their] situation and location in the world” (p. 19). Thus, this solidarity-based, social movement research (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2017) seeks 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. How is a collective imagination for Canadian universities informed by individuals with lived experiences of persistent childhood poverty? What can our collective knowledge and radical imagination teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how-to widen access and participation for poverty-class students? More succinctly, this research seeks to explore, “What can the collective knowledge and radical imagination of those with lived experiences of persistent poverty, who have accessed Canadian university, teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how—to widen access and participation for poverty-class students, so their voices are heard and no longer kept silenced?”

These proposed doctoral research questions (not to mention my MA research wonders) invariably elicit rhetorical questions such as,“Why do you bother?” and “What’s the point of it all?” I say, “Because this… all this horror and inequality and suffering is wrong! I can’t bear it….” Yes, I was born into intergenerational poverty. I was not supposed to finish junior high school. I was not supposed to live past babyhood or grade one. I was not supposed to go to any sort of higher education. Yet, here I am, a doctoral student who is doing research that is, on good days exhausting, on bad days ravaging and on really great days exhilarating and inspiring. I do not seek to do research for the sake of getting that venerated piece of paper, so I can one day say, “Hey, I’m Dr. Elaine.” If I believe that nothing can change then there is no point to any of this. But I have this odd trait, which I doubt is genetic: I have unshakeable optimism. Yes, I know that I cannot fix anything but I can and have instilled imagination and hope in others. In the small, unseen and unheard individual ways and boots-stomping-on-the-ground collective ways we can push the privilege pillars of Canadian universities—and, maybe, just maybe, Canadian society.

Let us not end here.

The injustice and violence of poverty and exclusion of poverty-class folks from Canadian universities has been going on for far too long. Decades of research has not created shifts. Canadian universities should and can be egalitarian, democratic and equitable sites where the disenfranchised are not the object of discussion but part of the discussion—and, solution-drivers (Adair, 2001). Let this not be another academic research project chasing inclusion in high h-index factor western centred academic publications or never make it past the dusty dissertation selves. Through this research, collectively we will create a social innovation model (Brundenius, 2017; Brundenius & Göransson, 2017; Choi & Majumdar, 2015; Majumdar, Guha & Marakkath, 2015). We will use creativity to mobilize this knowledge in ways that just might ignite the imagination of a university leader, an education minister—or, an entire community demanding justice for those who continue to be excluded from the fundamental right to a university education. Note that I do not subscribe to the hierarchical nature of higher education in Canada. Nonetheless, I am aware of the stories planted in me that university is somehow the pinnacle of education to be achieved.

[Untitled]

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 commercialisation

Under globalisation

Under massification

Under so many —isms

You won’t hear our COVID-19 voices

How will you hear our voices post-COVID-19?

You espouse

    No, you market your institutions as all about decolonisation

        About Indigenisation                              

Carelessly        Violently

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 a [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

Staying grounded

This research seeks to explore, “What can the collective knowledge and radical imagination of those with lived experiences of persistent poverty, who have accessed Canadian university, teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how—to widen access and participation for poverty-class students, so their voices are heard and no longer kept silenced?” How might these “poverty-class” outliers’ lived experiences and radical imagination work towards advancing social class diversity in publicly-funded Canadian universities?

Framing the research

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 daunting and disheartening: Decades of research and millions upon millions of dollars poured into widening access and participation (WAP) in higher education for low socioeconomic status students in countries such as the UK have seen few shifts (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, 2013, 2009, 2007). This plays out in “classificatory struggles” 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 (for a discussion on classificatory struggles see McKenzie, 2015; Tyler, 2015; Skeggs, 1997). Far more insidious, and in relation to my research, is how poor female students and particularly “poverty-class” single mothers trying to obtain a university education are vilified and scorned (Carslon, 2016) or as Adair (2001) writes, “branded with infamy” (p. 451) in the higher education literature and on the university landscape.

I also draw 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). Yet, in the higher education literature on low socioeconomic status students, research findings generally support neoliberal grand western theories (e.g., Bourdieu, Foucault, Marx). In essence, the raison d’être of the research is to further support these theories and is central to the researcher’s agenda (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). To subscribe to this colonial theoretical and conceptual framing of research is contrary to how I understand and approach my work. I am 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 research partners and myself are identifying/shaping/crafting (Bacchi, 2012). Moreover, I am attentive to the potential of creating “elitist frameworks” (Bombaro, 2016), reproducing social class elitism and engaging in “epistemological exclusion” (Greer, 2013, p. 108). That is, being thoughtful to “recognizing how social class shapes [my] academic work” (Hurst & Kawecka Nenga, 2016, p. 1). Finally, how might my positionality and topsy-turvy sense making of my privilege and entitlement (and lack thereof) shape my framing of this research? Yes, a great deal of reflexivity on my part is crucial throughout the entire research life cycle.

Given these points, I draw upon the interweaving of four approaches that inform my relationship to my research focus and research questions: 1) identity politics and intersectionality, 2) sisterhood and ‘world’-traveling, 3) critical class analysis (including meritocracy and stigma), and 4) radical imagination. I briefly preface this discussion with how I define poverty pre-participant engagement.

Poverty concept analysis in brief.

Defining poverty[1] remains the most highly contested area of my research. Inside and outside of academia, when I present my research, people 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” 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.). 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). 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). Thus, poverty, I propose, cannot be defined through my White, western lens or any colonial lens and as such, in my research, poverty will be open to subjective definition by participants to respect their lived experiences and their intersections of oppression and knowledge.

Intersectionality and identity politics.

Before defining intersectionality and identity politics, I draw attention to Emba (2015) who 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. In relation to poverty, too often poverty is 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. In relation to my research, I have been witness to faux-intersectional university strategic plans and EDI policies. Even with end poverty coalitions in Canada, who claim to advocate for policy and legislation changes through an intersectional lens, social class is absent. I am both a critic and advocate of intersectionality and contend that as Crenshaw (2016) says, there is an “urgency of intersectionality” even when contending with the pitfalls of identity politics and all the rampant bullying and silencing (i.e., call-out culture) and flagellation because of being (labelled) as this or that. The length of each of the following sections is not a reflection of more or less importance. At this stage of the research life cycle, I could write an entire dissertation or an ample properly-cited academic rant on identity politics.

Identity politics.

What fueled the turn to identity politics and away from democracy is contested and certainly complex. Gagnon and 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 moved from tackling class-based material concerns to ones around recognition and identity “(p. 1). Micheals (2006) says “we learned to love identity and ignore inequality.” His position, as a White male, is that “we love race—we love identity—because we don’t love class’ (p. 6). That is, we learned and embrace diversity but we cannot accept embracing and honouring the poor (p. 6). Hancock (2007) posits that identity politics can shape “collective political action” but “before a group can enter the open society, it must close ranks” (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 solidary” because of the inherent dangers that manifest in identity politics that can result in “egocentric interests always on the verge of disruption” (p. 3) and the “rigidification” of identities (p. 5).

Intersectionality.

Crenshaw (2015) defines intersectionality as an “an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power” (2015, n.p.). Hill Collins and Bilge (2018) 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 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. For instance, 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. When this happens, social problems are not viewed through an intersectional lens. That is, 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 every day as Oppression Olympics and “the battle of the oppressions” (Chang and McCristal, 2002, p. 487). Abrhams et al. (2020) raise “epistemological concerns and additive thinking” concerns (pp. 1-2) and Yuval-Davis (2020) highlights how intersectionality is taken up in feminist politics in relation to “additive intersectionality model[s]” (p. 197). This is depicted in the Canadian Federal Government’s GBA+ model (Status of Women Canada, 2019). This Gender-Based Analysis Plus (“Beyond Sex and Gender”) model is presented as a flower that includes race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, geography, culture, income, sexual orientation, education, race, which intersect with sex and gender. While I agree gender is central to historic and contemporary inequity and inequality and critical for my doctoral research, I contend that the GBA+ model is less intersectional and more akin to adding everything but the kitchen sink to a recipe.

Intersectionality can be used to create what I term as social characteristic silos. 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 result is that groups are pitted against one another without a critical reflexivity of a group’s dynamics. More insidious, however, is how intersectionality is taken up by Canadian universities, the Federal Government and university associations. 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 (UC), “The voice of Canadian universities,” released their inaugural “Equity, diversity and inclusion at Canadian universities: Report on the 2019 national survey.” UC claims to have collected “intersectional data” (p. 5) yet refused to address social class. In their statistical analysis, they say that they have illustrated the “importance of accounting for intersectionality” (p. 12) when in fact their definition of intersectionality homogenizes groups and uses an additive approach which lacks the nuances of the axes at which oppressive and exclusion occur. The same holds true for window-dressing EDI mandates at Canadian universities. Steadfastly clinging to, and hiding behind, faux intersectionality lenses and the Federal Employment Equity Act, there is no attempt to address a critical axis of intersectionality: social class. The literature sheds light on the complexity, and I argue fragility, 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 (Hindman, 2011, p. 189). However, these debates will have to wait for my dissertation. For now, 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 and articulate Black man and evangelical preacher, he leverages the term intersectionality in a powerful way to bring all poor people together, regardless of colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, geographic location, age, and ability (even Indigenous peoples in the USA get a voice—somewhat). In this way, what unites the masses is poverty. This is pertinent for my research as what brings us together in solidarity is lived experiences of poverty. There will be no identity politic debates that divide because poverty is the ceaseless plague that trumps everything. Nonetheless, I am sensitive to the fact that I could never leverage the power that Rev. Dr. William Barber has to unite the masses of poor students at Canadian universities.

Underclass sisterhood, loving perception and ‘world’-travelling.

I did not learn about patriarchy and feminism in formal education. What I know is from lived experience. I have no fancy language to use that might put me on any equal academic ground. I am confident about the core of my research: It is by and for “poverty-class” women who have accessed Canadian universities in the hopes of getting an education and how the power of their lived experiences and radical imagination will shape all aspects of the research. I draw on Lugones’ (1987) to help me understand the complexity of women participants for my research, what this means in the context of exploring the research questions and how it might shape the research and its outcomes.

Lugones (1987) brought to feminism the philosophy of “playfulness, ‘world’-travelling and loving perception” (Dean, 1996, 1). That is, women learning to love one another inside of, or in spite of, colonial and patriarchal structures that pit woman/women against women/women. For instance, I was taught on early educational and community landscapes to hate and blame my single-parent mother and idolize the absent father. I learned on early and adult education, community and workplace landscapes to deride both career-driven women and stay-at-home mothers. At the same time, I was taught to simultaneously revere aggressive men and despise the same trait in women. I was taught to ignore the gendered nature of inequality and inequity. Throughout my life this meant that I was attuned to patriarchy and its viciousness towards women, particularly those whose poverty-class status was evident, but to also try to survive in spite of the relentless injustice. All I needed to do was to work harder and ignore the injustices even harder. What choice did I have? I did not belong to a sisterhood. Likewise, I was taught in university that female professors had no choice but to be abusive to me because of all they suffered under patriarchy—and, after all, I am old enough to take it or audacious enough to critique Canadian higher education institutions and rampant misogyny. Women, I was taught, were not my sisters. The idea that we 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. Thus, I argue that Lugones’ theory of ‘world’-travelling and loving perception is critical to an intersectional lens for my research. What brings us together is 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.

Lugones brought to me a profound awakening of the understanding of patriarchy’s power. She helps me to frame and justify why I want women participants: 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 to 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 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 Lugones says, this learning requires “a separation from” mothers and learning to construct our mothers and other women as Other (pp. 6, 18). 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 “systemically 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). Clover (2020) reinforces the importance of Lugones’ philosophy in my research:

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. i)

Maria Lugones

In my research, research partners and myself cannot allow ourselves to be divided by identity politics or the oppression Olympics. Poverty is what connects us; sisterhood is what makes us respect and honour our multiple axes of oppression. In my research, as women with lived experiences and knowledge of the gendered nature of poverty, we need to ‘world’-travel with loving perception as we grapple not only with the echoes of poverty across our lives but also 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 hidden curriculum of patriarchy inside Canadian universities and their selective EDI strategies and nonexistent WAP for “poverty-class” students, the majority of whom would be women trying to claw their way out of intergenerational poverty, is as firmly entrenched as the colonial grass and concrete

Class matters.

“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 live.” (Harman, 2010, p. v)

bell Hooks (2000) tell us that “class matters”; class has always mattered, albeit largely ignored in Canada by politicians, higher education leaders—and, society. Yes, we (the universal we) have embraced the myth of the classless society. But, Sayer rightly says that 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 (Skeggs, 1997)” (para. 1.3). For instance, in 1909, Woodsworth lamented the plight of immigrants, headed for Canada, who were living in squalor below decks—the same destitution they were desperately seeking to escape—while their lord and masters dined in luxury on the upper decks. [2] Burtch (2006) writes, “Access to education has attracted great controversy in Canada” (p. 84). For immigrants, hopes for a future beyond the at-best-subsistence life they fled, meant access to higher education was paramount. But the promise of the Canadian-style American Dream was hobbled for those from below the decks. As Burch (2006) notes, 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: 47, as cited by Burtch, 2006, p. 84). This sentiment echoes in Canadian universities’ halls today: The exclusion of social class in EDI initiatives (Elwick, 2019; Tamtik & Guenter, 2019), the lack of WAP for “poverty-class” students, the absence of socioeconomic status statistics (Usher, 2019) and a fixation on marketisation and international rankings (Hemsley-Brown & Oplatka, 2006). Class is intrinsically intertwined with two key concepts I will briefly touch on: meritocracy and stigma.

Meritocracy.

Sobuwa & McKenna (2019) discuss the “obstinate notion that higher education is a meritocracy” (Sobuwa & McKenna, 2019). The power of meritocratic beliefs in higher education cannot be overstated. Sian 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, Xian and Reynolds (2017; Reynolds & Xian, 2014) explain that 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. Mijs (2015) speaks to the relentless “unfulfillable promise of meritocracy in education” (p. 14). Crozier (2018) is more direct: They describe “meritocracy as white middle class privilege” (p. 1239), which further informs the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it” by assimilating the white middle class higher education culture (Ivana, 2016). Brown and Tannock (2009) raises 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).

Stigma.

While I cannot ignore the stigma of poverty, it is not the focus of my research. There is a proliferation of research on class-based stigma in relation to higher education and society (e.g., Tyler’s 2018, 2017) re-conceptualizing of Goffman’s (1963) stigma theory, Wray’s (2006) research on White trash, Adair’s (2008) writings on the gendered nature of poverty and violence in academia, Iverson’s (2012) writing on “constructing outsiders” (p. 149) and Reutter et al.’s (2005) work on Canadians’ beliefs about poverty. In my dissertation, I will discuss the stigma in relation to “poverty-class” students and how they are storied or framed within the higher education literature and in Canadian university EDI plans (Bacchi, 2011; Banting & Myles, 2016; Borah, 2011; Goffman, 1974; Iverson, 2012; Oliver & Johnston, 2000; Tyler, 2018 are examples of scholars addressing framing social class inequality issues).

Radical imagination.

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, sociological, every day, research, cultural, shared, situated, intersectional and class imaginations intersect with social class and is 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 my research, yet-to-be imagined communities (Nixon, 2011, p. 151). Wright Mill’s (2000, 1959) 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 therefore, helps us 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 open up new vistas” (Burawoy et al., 2000, p. 32; as cited by Boyce & Greer, 2011, p. 107). Boyce and Greer (2011) 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 WAP 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). The power of imagination, they note, is that it provides a way for those in the centre to “‘world’-travel” (Lugones, 1987) to understand and emphasize with foreign landscapes, experiences, knowledge and ways of being.

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, it is a “situated imagination” (Stoetzler and Yuval-Davis, 2002, 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. Greer (2013) 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 my research, research partners and I will engage in radical imagination when we stop 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 we are individually tired of “history repeating” (Gifford, 1997); in solidarity, as people with lived experiences of persistent poverty, armed with radical imagination, we can create 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, 2013) or fade away. In order to release our “collective radical imagination” (Ginwright, 2008, p. 13), we will engage with community-based participatory action methodology using interviews, focus groups and arts-based methods.

Methodological discussion

From the margins and shadows

We’ve been silent

We’ve been polite

We’ve silently begged and pleaded

For entry

Needs necessitate

No stick will do

A battering ram

Then chew on our carrot

Prologue.

In 2008, the USA scholar Adair, alongside “poverty-class” student-parents in higher education, created and subsequently published “The Missing Story of Ourselves: Poverty and the Promise of Higher Education.” In the previous year, under the guidance of Adair, this “photographic and narrative exhibit” went on tour across the USA. The intent was to educate, inform and make visible the “complex, first-person views of what poverty and resistance through education look like from the inside out” (Adair, 2008, p. 1). I met Vivyan Adair at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 2016, where we presented on the panel “Experience as knowledge in and out of the feminist classroom.” I asked her why we were the only two panelists who intersected gender and social class and why the absence of social class discussions at the conference in general. Vivyan explained to me that in her several decades of work on poverty and women and higher education there had been no changes. And this, she said, was why there was so much work to do. The national tour had done nothing to create shifts in higher education about the exclusion of “poverty-class” people or in societal understandings of the gendered nature of systemic poverty in the USA. As we walked back to the hotel, she grasped my arm, in the way one does to prevent someone from knowingly stepping into unknown danger, and said that I had to keep going with the work that her and so many “poverty-class” women have done before me. In this whisper of a moment, still shaking from publicly critiquing Canadian universities at my first big-time conference, I do not know if I was prepared for the path that I cannot stop taking, a path that I have come to understand as destiny. Vivyan’s courage in writing about her experiences as a single mom-student from generational poverty left the same indelible marks in and on my embodied being as her frantic fingers’ grasp on my arm. Yet, if her decades of work and national tour did not make a “difference” (whatever difference means), then what does methodology mean in relation to WAP for “poverty-class” students? Yes, telling our stories matters, as Adair brings our attention to: “Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us/We shall go on quietly craving it/In the missing story of ourselves can be found all other missing stories” (Laura Riding Jackson, 1973, p. 111 as cited by Adair, 2008, p. 1). Yet, are stories enough? Can they make a difference? While the “power of narrative to lead readers to action” (Sarbin, 2011, p. 3) is possible, it has not resulted in WAP for “poverty-class” people in Canadian universities. 

Methodological approach: Creating community.

Prior to entering my masters, methodological concerns dogged me much like writing this research proposal (a simplistic explanation). For my graduate qualitative methodology class, I conducted an exploratory research project on how “poverty-class” students navigate entering into and transitioning through university. Single, semi-structured interviews were an act of violence. I knew it; student-participants knew it (Laberge, 2017). Therefore, when I was introduced to and taught Clandinin and Connelly’s (2000) narrative inquiry, it made sense in my sense-making in seeking to understand how the echoes of persistent childhood poverty shaped students’ experiences over time, social relations and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) as they composed lives at a western Canadian university. Over a nine-month period, I engaged in on-going research conversations with participants. Transcripts from conversations were sent to student-participants who had the opportunity—and, time—for reflection and reflexivity. I then wrote each of their narrative accounts which we subsequently co-negotiated (sometimes with the help of committee members), and in some cases, re-designed. Although I know this work has and continues to echo, something is missing and something continues to disturb me. First, and perhaps my fault through ignorance, I was unable to cull impactful solutions from my research to present to higher education Power to get WAP to any University of Alberta or UVic table (well save that of one person). The same holds true at UVic where my efforts have been a resounding failure. Second, and I am grateful to my teacher Dr. Janice Huber who guided me in what of my lived experiences in relation to my MA research to include and exclude. She understood that even selective sharing can leave one vulnerable to violence. For example, as a “poverty-class” student who is vocal about systemic poverty, inequality and inequity in Canada and Canadian universities, suffice it to say there are few leaders overjoyed with these messages (and perhaps my audacity) inside academia. Further, what these experiences have taught me is that I do not want to centre my voice and lived experiences; it exhausts me to do so (although I am aware that I cannot ignore a critical autoethnographic component given my positionality). For instance, sharing my poem “No Landscape for a Good Underclass Woman” (https://echoesofpoverty.com/blog/) at the First International Working Class Academics conference (July, 2020) left me exhausted, raw and frightened of repercussions. I must ask, what difference does my voice make particularly in relation to WAP for “poverty-class” students? (Would I not be better suited as a facilitator of the voices of participants?) I am attentive to Adichie’s (2009) “the danger of a single story” (n.p.). What I did learn from this conference, and the USA-based Poor People’s Campaign in June, 2020, is that when poverty inequality and inequity is approached from a “by community and for community” action-based philosophy (dare I say revolutionary stance?) then this is where the hope and potential resides—not rests for community-based revolutionary work can never rest. This is, in part, why a community-based participatory action (CBPAR) methodological approach makes sense for this research.

Non-existent widening access strategies in Canadian universities.

First, it is not without irony that while Canadian universities are not federally mandated as to which equity-seeking groups to include in EDI plans (see Kirby, 2010; Usher, 2019), universities cite/rely on/hide behind the Federal Employment Equity Act’s four designated groups: women, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities and visible minorities (Government of Canada, 2020). Yet, universities were willing to expand the designation to include LGBTQ2S+ people. What universities have not felt compelled to do is include “poverty-class” people even through the use of the Gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) framework (Status of Women, 2018). Thus, universities, at least in principle, address systemic racism and sexism. Second, the WAP tactics that do exist for “poverty-class” students are reduced to economics and are universal to all students unequally: student loans (Usher, 2019). If a student has maxed out their student loans (loans which are tied to credit ratings) then you can do the degrading beg-and-plead method of applying for emergency bursaries. If this does not work then paternalistic university financial aid advisors too often are happy to tell these students to max out credit cards and/or go to the bank for short-term, demand loans. There is a lack of understanding or willingness to comprehend the far-reaching implications of student loans: student loans, with their interest compounded daily, bury “poverty-class” students alive and dead. Further, it might be surprising (or not) to learn that taking on this unsustainable debt for some is the only way out of poverty. I define this as “powerty”: “Poverty-class” people seeking university as a way to escape poverty only to end up impoverished under a burden of poverty six-feet deep. Third, there is another WAP strategy that takes effect in September 2020 in British Columbia that should be concerning: The new BC Access Grant Fund. Student Aid BC (2020) is hailing this as “a new needs-based, up-front B.C. Access Grant [that] will remove barriers to post-secondary education.” Two important points. First, the grant is based upon a family’s income, which assumes one has access to this information and that they “have” family. Second, the grants will pipeline low socioeconomic students into two-year programs. Students are eligible for up to $4,000 per year for two-year programs and up to $1,000 per year for degree programs. In summary, these pseudo-level-the-playing-field simplistic economic-based models, developed by communities of people in the centre, lack nuanced understandings of the structural inequalities and inequities inherent in Canadian universities—and, are utterly devoid of imagination. 

Rationalising a community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) approach.

To justify CBPAR as a methodology for my 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 then holds the potential for “poverty-class” people, who accessed university, who hold the truths, knowledge and know-how, who are engaged in WAP 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 will be the very people who understand the urgency of this emancipatory, empowering and social justice work research project. These are the people with lived experiences, defined by Ibánez-Carrasco, Watson and Tavares (2019), as having “personal and intimate knowledge and practice” (p. 2) 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 for WAP for “poverty-class” students in Canadian universities pre- and post-COVID. With a CBPAR orientation, ‘participants’ will be central—essential—to this rare, moment-in-time WAP conversation in Candian universities rather than the subject and object of academic research (Adair, 2003). Currently, potential, current, former “poverty-class” people are an “unimagined community” in academia (Nixon, 2011, p. 151) yet the imagined Other. CBPAR is a way to imagine Otherwise, for leaders and research partners and myself, how things might be different if only….

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), which strives for “all involved in the research process [to] participate in the analysis, critique and deconstruction of structures, subjectivities and discourses tied to complex and unequal relations of power” (Burke, 2012, p. 71). Put another way, it is a philosophical and ethical way of conducting democratic-seeking research that does not centre the researcher or institutional/organizational agendas. 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) and the dissemination of the knowledge. They note, in relation to feminist PAR, that it is “a sensitive and appropriate tool to uncover gendered perspectives in collaboration with” (p. 164) to which I add the intersection of gender and class, and more specifically, in relation to my research, women and poverty. Adding to this, a feminist participatory action orientation takes into consideration the “limitations of voice” with more of a focus on knowledge (Krumer-Nevo, 2009, pp. 279-280). As such, 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). In this way, all people, “including those who do not have formal education and the most excluded or oppressed, are intellectual […] and they carry knowledge” (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” partners’ carry the knowledge that will shape the process, exploration, findings, analysis and knowledge mobilization—regardless of the level of formal education they have attained (Frocker, 1999; Osborne, Anderson & Robson, 2020). (I wonder, is being silenced versus one’s knowledge being discounted a binary?). Moreover, as CBPAR research partners, 

Bracket the community?

With CBPAR, the “topic to be investigated comes from the community” (Minkler, 2004, p. 687). Yet, with my proposed CBPAR-based doctoral research, I am generating the topic. On the other hand, I have connected with enough “poverty-class” people, with lived academic experiences, to know that the research problem I have proposed is an urgent problem or rather, I am problematizing and making it visible inside academia and beyond. Additionally, there is not an existing community who has identified the research problem I am putting forth in my research (Southby, 2017). In essence, while I had thought to bracket CB from PAR, I argue that a community does 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. One could argue that this community exists via the Shoestring Initiative, however, as noted previously, this initiative never realized the goal of creating a solidified community. 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” come together through methods such as focus groups, inevitably a community will be 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. Therefore, I am confident in not bracketing the community by delineating 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 nonacademic 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” (Ibánez-Carrasco et al., 2019, p. 1; Knowledge Translation Program, 2019; Liebenberg, 2018; Matheson & Malcolm, 2016; St. Michael’s Hospital, 2019). CBPAR is a relational approach to research where all participants’ lives 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 am defining the research questions and overall research problem at the outset (Southby, 2017). Yet, this does not preclude participants from shaping/refining the topic and questions. Nor does this mean that I will not be drawing 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 partners as we come alongside one another and learn together (p. 224). Ibánez-Carrasco et al. (2019) describe three additional CBPAR descriptors. 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, our 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, partners and myself can, as Shaw and Crowther (2017) contend, make “critical and creative connections” by “lighting the fuse of imagination […] to imagine democracy if [we] are 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 allows for the intersection of imaginations: 1) Sociological imagination, which is the ability to see the personal in relation to the wider structural inequalities and inequities in Canadian universities. 2) 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. 3) “Reflexive imagination […] the capacity to see oneself, one’s identity and traditions, as simultaneously part of both the problem and the possibility of democractic life” (p. 48). This I see 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). The research is intended to do something more than being churned out as academic papers. 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) ground my run-away train thoughts: They write that “PAR knowledge is active and NOT passive” (p. 6; Leavy, 2017). That is, ‘data’ written up and dumped into 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 will not be creating seismic shifts like Amarillo College under the leadership of Dr. Lowery-Hart where there was an upending of the existing culture to one of holistically supporting “poverty-class” students from beginning to completion (Bombardieri, 2018; Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018). Although Stoecker (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.

CBPAR doctoral student potential constraints.

A CBPAR project is shaped by multiple factors from personal experiences to education to funding (Leavy, 2017). In relation to my research, this includes my experiences in attempting to advance social class diversity at Canadian universities, my limited research experience including being a research assistant in only one CBPAR project, creating the Shoestring Initiative, holding a scholarship, my panic over the future and being told for the last six years the urgency and importance of this work. These factors shape my research topic generally, pre-research partnership collaboration research questions specifically and research agenda broadly. I wonder, how might my research agenda align with, or sit in tension with, research partners’ agendas? Second, Reid and Vianna (2001) note that CBPAR requires “negotiating true partnerships with a voice for each constituent group, maintaining mutual support systems […] takes social skills, patience, and the time to build mutual respect” (p. 338). As a student-researcher, with limited resources and not known for my patience, I am sensitive to my perceived ‘lack’ of time to develop these relationships in a fulsome way. Let’s face it, it took me a long time to develop this proposal, which might seem overly long and an endeavour that should have taken a couple of months. Nevertheless, I am confident that in the brief time we will have together, given my reputation in my area, my ability to develop relationships and demonstrated “‘shut up’ and ‘listen’” (Hall & Tandon, 2017, p. 367) research skills, that this research project will mean something and start a conversation about the why and how of WAP for “poverty-class” students in Canadian universities.

Methods

Throughout this proposal, I have implicitly and explicitly referenced who the research participants will be: women with lived experiences of persistent poverty who have accessed a Canadian university education. Why? Simply put, because of the ongoing gendered nature of poverty. Perhaps it would have been prudent to begin the proposal with this discussion as it shapes every piece of the research design including method choices. The ethical concerns I previously addressed in relation to CBPAR and “poverty-class” research partners are compounded by each person’s capacity to engage in this research. Just because I am “lucky” (I use this word thoughtfully and deliberately) enough to have a scholarship and roof over my head, for now, and this research is my main job, does not mean that everyone else can afford the same commitment. Just because I think a certain method will be awesome and is supported by the literature, does not mean it is practical for research participants. I have relentlessly debated how the method choices will support exploring/answering the research question and how these choices will support—and, potentially do harm to research participants. I have spent months researching and seeking answers in the literature only to find that too often my questions are not addressed. What I settled on is being cognizant that the method choices are not onerous and flexible enough to respect that research partners may, for instance, be working multiple jobs and/or doing so while being primary caregivers, yet, are not. That is, choosing relational methods where all contributions are valued. This is salient in terms of CBPAR because the “process of establishing, maintaining, and achieving equity in CBPAR partnerships can be complex (e.g., multiple partners, geographic and cultural barriers, mistrust) and time-intensive, particularly when engaging new partners and/or launching new projects” (Samuel et al., 2018, pp. 89-90). For instance, contributions might look different and may appear to not have equal weight. For example, how do I ensure that if a partner cannot attend a focus group their voice, lived experiences and radical imagination is not excluded? How will I ensure that each and every partner feels part of the community-in-the making? Fortunately, CBPAR is an iterative process and I contend this will solve some of my dilemmas. 

Overall methods.

While not essential to my doctoral research, a systematic review of Canadian university EDI strategies and plans (and potential WAP strategies) will be coupled with the following research methods. This is something I have been doing manually for some time (Boye & Rasmussen, 2017; Hemsley-Brown & Oplatka, 2006; Tamtik & Guenter, 2019). I feel a fulsome review will lend academic “credibility” to this research with, for instance, university leaders who may not recognize “how social class shapes our academic work” (Jurst & Kawecka, p. 1), research and knowledge mobilization and EDI and WAP policies, practices, pedagogies and colonial higher education culture. However, overall, this is what I imagine for methods, taking into consideration the research questions and how they may be shaped by research partners—within a probable online research format[3]: photovoice, research conversations, online reflexive journals and focus groups. I will address each of these methods then conclude with how I imagine the methods, that provide the data, will support the overall research project.

Photovoice

Budig et al. (2018) define photovoice as “a visual research methodology that puts cameras [or smart phones] into the” research partners’ “hands to help them document, reflect upon, and communicate issues of concern, while stimulating social change” (p. 1). In essence, photovoice is a method of “empowerment” that “builds on Freire’s methods of empowerment education” (p. 1). Carlson and Overmyer (2018) note that photovoice “is grounded in Paulo Freire’s theories of social transformation and community activism, aimed at raising critical consciousness and using methods that interrogate power dynamics” (pp. 130-131). Salient to my research, they explain that photovoice is widely used “in discourses on women’s empowerment” and a way to “empower vulnerable populations” (p. 1; Holm, 2014). As with “poverty,” the term “empowerment” is complex, situational and research-specific. However, in relation to my research, “empowerment,” at this point, means that research partners’ lived experiences and radical imagination are valued and “considered legitimate knowledge” (Osborne, Anderson & Robson, 2020, n.p.). Carlson and Overmyer (2018) describe photovoice as a method to move away from on-the-spot demanding participants remember, reflect, recall or consider information viable to the research (or researcher) to one where “covert data” (p. 129) can be captured through photovoice over time, place and space. Further, photovoice (whether taking new photographs, creating a collage of photos or culling existing photos) is a way to build relationships and “aids [in] reflection and collaboration” (Carlson & Overmyer, 2018, p. 131) within my research community, which is central to CBPAR. Further, photovoice and photographs are not merely data to be analyzed. Photos can serve “as memory aids that help” research partners “articulate their viewpoints” (Carlson & Overmyer, 2018, pp. 129-130) and ‘speak’ in ways that words cannot often capture, particularly for “poverty-class” people who rarely come out of the social underclass closet on the higher education landscape. However, as Holm (2014) notes, photos do not replace text, rather they are “complementary” (p. 382) in nature. Moreover, photovoice provides research partners the time to be reflexive and use their radical imaginations to teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how—to widen access and participation for poverty-class students.

Research conversations.

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. Certainly, my view is shaped by my use of Clandinin & Connelly’s (2000) narrative inquiry for my master’s research where the researcher conducts ongoing research conversations over a long period of time. A research conversation is guided not by a prescriptive set of questions but rather conversation ques 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 are about “objectifying your sister” (p. 252). As such, in my research, I imagine research conversations will flow or are elicited from the photos taken/created/assembled. In this way, research conversations are part of building a relationship of trust, reciprocity and equity between myself and each research partner. In turn, this relationship building is a bridge to creating a community of care, support and curiosity with the entire research partnership team.

Reflexive journals.

McGuiness (2009) describes diaries (also known as journals and blogs) as a method for research partners to put “themselves in the picture” (p. 339). Travers (2011) characterizes a “reflective diary” as a “methodology for exploring the lived experiences” (p. 204) of a particular area of focus. Travers defines a diary as a “record of personal experiences and observations in which ongoing thoughts, feelings, and ideas can be expressed” (p. 204). I define a diary/journal as a spontaneous, free style way of getting it down without critiquing and silencing myself. I have been a research participant where I had a vested interest, yet, there was no opportunity for reflection or reflexivity. Given that CBPAR is action-oriented and focused on creating solutions to a social problem that research partners are, on some level, impacted by, journaling provides the opportunity for deep reflection and engagement. As both a student-researcher, CBPAR project facilitator and research partner, I must be diligent throughout the research life cycle in “keeping and using reflective journals in [my] qualitative research process” (Ortlipp, 2008, p. 695) to learn, grow, contribute and understand the complexities of my positionality (Borg, 2001).

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, provide an unparalleled opportunity for individuals to come together and explore their radical imagination on the how and why of WAP for “poverty-class” students. In terms of online focus groups, Abrams and Gaiser (2017) note that while there are many benefits (e.g., drawing from diverse geographies, social characteristics, lived experiences, imagination, hopes, epistemological and ontological stances, etc.) there exists a deep “digital divide” (Malik, 2020, n.p.) which encompasses more than bandwidth or internet access. For instance, having access to a reliable computer may seem like a staple but can be a luxury for “poverty-class” people and potentially the partners in my research. Whether in person or online, focus groups are central to my CBPAR project. Simply put, my vision of what might have been with the Shoestring Initiative or what I might envision today are only based on my lived experiences, biases, positionality, trauma, hopes, fears and dreams. Put another way, for what I seek to explore with this research, a focus group of one is but a grain of wheat. Above all, with focus groups, in relation to CBPAR, is that we will be “producing and acting upon [our] own ideas—not consuming those of others” (Boyd, 2017, p. 2).

Who are the research partners?

Originally, I had thought to use “purposive sampling” and seek six to eight participants (under the COVID-19 British Columbia health guidelines, indoor gatherings are limited to six people). Gentles et al. (2015) suggest that the term sampling is problematic as it implies 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 am not comfortable with “convenience sampling” (aka haphazard or accidental sampling) (Etikan et al., 2015, p. 1) as it means that I would, for instance, pick the most accessible and easiest to find participants. It would mean I could 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 prefer the term purposive “invitation” as this is what I will be doing and seems more appropriate for CBPAR. I will be leveraging the reputation I have developed in addressing social class inequality and inequity in Canadian universities as I invite Canadian women who have lived experiences of persistent poverty and who have accessed a Canadian university education. Individuals should either be current students or recently completed, left or were pushed out of their undergraduate studies. Race, age, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, etc. are not factors for participation and it is my hope for diversity beyond what I look like. Where a “poverty-class” woman is or has studied is also not a consideration. Research partners may have gone to multiple universities or transferred from a college program. Moreover, after months of deliberation, I realized I had two choices: 1) Only invite those who attended UVic because they have a shared history with the institution or 2) Not make this research institute specific. Given I will “only” have six participants, I am edging toward the latter as I feel it will bring greater diversity of lived experiences and radical imagination. With attention to inclusion also necessitates exclusion.

I am 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. My research needs to be realistic, bounded and doable. On a final note, in relation to my CBPAR project, research partners include my committee who acts as a “community advisory board” (Leavy, 2017, p. 228).

Collecting the data: Imagining the research process unfolding.

1) Partners will take photos of what they have experienced as “poverty-class” students and what they imagine in terms of the why and how to widen access and participation for poverty-class students. 2) Individual partners and I will use the photos to elicit conversations. I will have an interview guide to help keep us focused but not to control or silence partners. 3) Transcribed conversations will be sent to partners for their reflection, reflexivity and input. 4) To ensure time for reflexivity, partners keep journals for one month (four entries) that include images, text, poetry, artefacts, etc. 5) I read across the conversations and journal entries to find themes. 6) I design and send out an infographic with the themes to partners that will include text, images, poetry, photos, artefacts, etc. culled from the conversations and journal entries. 7) We have an online focus group session to determine if I have read across the data correctly. If so, or minor changes are required, we will flesh out the why and how to widen access and participation for “poverty-class” students. In essence, the how is the social innovation model that we will collectively develop (Brundenius, 2017; Brundenius, Göransson & de Mello, 2017; Choi & Majumdar, 2015). Dependent upon research partner availability, we will have a second focus group session to work through the knowledge mobilization and fine-tune any areas that we feel need to be changed. 

Data analysis.

First, with this CBPAR project, I am not “analyzing [the] focus groups” (Makosky Daley et al., 2010. p. 697) nor people’s lived experiences, wonders, ideas and imaginations. Fetterman (2015) discusses “empowerment evaluation” in relational to action-based, emancipatory research (p. 1). They describe this evaluation as: 1) “Transformative empowerment evaluation [which] highlights the psychological, social, and political power of liberation” (p. 2) and 2) “Practical empowerment evaluation [which] is more instrumental” and focuses “on outcomes” (p. 2). Both transformative and practical empowerment evaluation “respects community knowledge and places the tools of evaluation in the hands of community members in order to help them monitor and evaluate their own performance” (p. 2). While my research does not allow for this type of community-based evaluation, research partners and myself can, however, collectively evaluate the process, our individual and collective learning, what we radically imagine and the social innovation model and knowledge mobilization (KMb) strategies we develop and perhaps how they are received. Fetterman refers to these evaluation processes as the “evaluative eye” (a somewhat disturbing metaphor) that “is used to help people pursue their dreams, accomplish their objectives, and produce real-world outcomes or results” (p. 2). I would like to think that participating in this research will have a positive impact for research partners, however, this is my research and my singular mission. Burke (2012) also speaks to empowerment and writes, “The focus of critical and feminist approaches is to ‘empowerment’ is to draw on different methodological resources so that all involved in the research process participate in the analysis, critique and deconstruction of structures, subjectivities and discourses tied to complex and unequal relations of power” (p. 71).

A second data analysis model that I find intriguing and aligns with CBPAR and decolonization is the DEPICT model that has been used in PAR heath research (Flicker & Nixon, 2014). Flicker and Nixon state that academic notions of data analysis assume formal education as a requirement, rarely invited research partners to participate in the analysis and this “[l]ack of community involvement in data analysis excludes those with much to lose from key decisions made during data interpretation” (p. 616). In this way, Flicker and Nixon state that CBPAR researchers “adopt a deficit model” to data analysis (p. 616) because the assumption is community members lack the desire, skills, knowledge and ability to participate in the analysis. In contrast, through their research, they developed the DEPICT model, which is “an approach to collaborative qualitative data analysis designed to involve individuals with varying levels of research proficiency” (p. 617). While beyond the scope of this proposal, and the realities of a doctoral research project, Flicker and Nixon have found that the DEPICT model is ideally suited for CBPAR projects because traditionally stakeholders are invested and included at every stage of the research life cycle. For my research, I can see the merits of both data analysis frameworks and can envision, albeit in small ways, employing the DEPICT model.

From where I stand.

I was born into generational poverty. I am a 55-year-old female generational settler. I have been doing this research for what feels like a lifetime and am too close to this research and worry that I will overshadow research partners. That is, I worry about power imbalances. I am a doctoral student who holds a federal scholarship. I made it through my undergrad. I will never know what it is like to feel the burn of racial or Indigenous discrimination. I walk in this world with much ease compared to those who do not look like me. The challenge is and remains to be actively reflexive (e.g., journaling and keeping field notes) and vigilant to white colonial bias creep. Above all, my greatest concern is my rage and disgust at what I have experienced and been witness to in higher education. How will I ensure that I do not foist this upon others and taint the experience for everyone? From where I stand, I can personally attest to learning first-hand the difference between speaking about co-construction and collaboration and doing it. I will leave this story for my proposal defence.

Respect, responsibility and reciprocity.

In this respect, I feel a bit of sureness (not arrogance) because of my former research experiences and that I naturally am a relational person. The promise of CBPAR is that these three Rs are woven into the methodology. Further, the theoretical frameworks, lived experience as knowledge, the methods and the data analysis approaches/lenses I am exploring and proposing are relational by nature. Moreover, these three Rs, to me, speak to decolonization, something I seek to (un)learn as a generational settler. I cannot ask research partners, for instance, to share and not be willing to reciprocate. More importantly, I cannot ask research partners to be my “unpaid Sherpa” (Chinnery, 2008, p. 402) of, for example, how they experience the intersection of race and poverty. I have a responsibility to hold research partners knowledge, wonders and ideas as sacred and not fall into any colonial academic-window-dressing type analysis and KMb for my own gain. My role is to remain curious, open to new wonders and listen and learn. Above all, the three Rs mean to me not to foist my own agendas onto research partners who will give so freely of things that are invaluable. While the research questions are not about the violence of systemic poverty and poverty discrimination, two particular passages draw me to the heaviness and responsibility of this research: 1) “To face stereotypes as a collective was to come to terms with our experiences of everyday racism,” sexism, ableism and classism (Cahill, Rios-Moore & Threatts, 2008, p. 106) and 2) “We had to touch upon some of those emotions that those oppressively heavy misconceptions had laid on us, and that was a difficult and sometimes painful process” (Cahill, Rios-Moore & Threatts, 2008, p. 106).

Ethical tensions. What this research means for this community-in-the-making, within the context of CBPAR and institutional research ethics, raises further tensions: Who owns and controls the research products and “data” (Makosky Daley et al., 2010, p. 697)? The “publish or perish” academic ideology is even firmly planted in me as someone who never envisioned a career inside academia let alone make it to university. But, Stoecker (2008) is clear that knowledge mobilization remains problematic in using CBPAR because it is the higher education institution, professors and graduate students who benefit from this work rather than the community the research is intended to serve. How this knowledge will be mobilized cannot be solely for my gain inside or outside of academia. Per research ethics, research partners’ names will not appear on any of the knowledge mobilization tools. This is a relational ethics tension that sits heavy with me. What do research partners get? To say that their voices will be heard is academic violence and usury. I get to put this research and education on my CV. It might help me land a job, but for research partners…? I do not know what to do and this is why my committee as advisors and mentors is so crucial. While I have not yet found literature that addresses these tensions, I cannot in good conscience ignore them. I will speak to additional ethical considerations further on in the proposal. For now, we need to talk about the elephant in the room that is a constraint and carries profound ethical concerns: money—and, beyond economics. 

The elephant in the room.

In relation to my research, first, money (Boyd, 2017). I will need to ensure that if research partners and myself are able to meet in person (i.e., who knows what will happen because of COVID-19), I can afford to pay for daycare, food, transportation and other out-of-pocket expenses. I will need to consider what happens if people do not have (reliable) computers and peripheral devices or stable internet access. I need to be hyper attentive to research partners who might be living precariously. How will I respect research partners who are caregivers to siblings and/or parents because of poverty and/or culture? What about “poverty-class” research partners that are financially suffering from the fall out of COVID-19? People, who, without the COVID-19 eviction moratorium, would be on the streets? What about the research partners who may have student loan creditors banging on their doors with a battering ram? Where am I going to get the money to support partners participating in this research let alone mobilize the knowledge? While I am good at finding gig work, I know from experience that once I am in the field with “poverty-class” folks, well…. This paragraph could be a dissertation unto itself and is so rarely addressed in the literature—and, if it is, too often this discussion becomes one of “poverty-class” students are a problem (see e.g., Carlson, 2016). All of these concerns are legitimate: I know this from my exploratory and MA research, the Shoestring Initiative, my advocacy work and my own lived experiences. To put it academically, “there is an ongoing need for effective strategies that facilitate the strengthening and capacity building of new CBPAR partnerships to address” (Samuel et al., 2018, p. 90) the economic strain and stresses that “poverty-class” people relentlessly contend with. In summary, Reid and Vianna (2001) note that “researchers must negotiate true partnerships with poor women, maintain mutual support systems, and build mutual respect, if they are to have success in challenging poverty through research” (p. 337) and, in my case, developing a collective, radical imagination-based social innovation WAP model for “poverty-class” students in Canadian universities (for a discussion of social innovation models see e.g., Brundenius et al., 2017; Choi & Majumdar, 2015).

Political considerations.

Other than my being tainted and banished from academia because of my research, audacity and advocacy efforts, the only political considerations I can imagine are political in the true sense of the word. That is, how might this research be received by academic leaders, politicians, education ministers, the UVic community? Do research partners and I need to take this into consideration with our KMb? Does the political involve research partners and my research being co-opted and used in damaging ways? I am unsure.

Research objectives.

The end result of this CBPAR research I hope is, as Connell (2019) writes, “more than wish lists to make convincing strategies of change (p. 10). Yet, I also know that it is not possible, as Connell (2019) advocates, to “dig into the basic make-up of the institution and its conditions of existence” (p. 10). While not a great deal of the literature I have found addresses the structural problems with Canadian universities, the pillars that founded colonial universities globally remain the same. This is further compounded by the ravaging effects of continued unchecked neoliberalism headed to what —ism I am unsure. It is important to address these larger issues in the dissertation as this is part of a larger context but not part of the focused context of this research. To address this with participants would be anti-CBPAR, silencing/terrifying and make me seem as an elitist academic jerk.

Significance of the study.

Poverty is the pandemic. Access to higher education is crucial to mitigate the spread of poverty across generations. Yet, it is 2020 and Canadian universities continue to be complicit in reinforcing and reproducing gendered social stratification and inequality through their refusal to include social class in their EDI strategies let alone, dare I say, advance social class diversity in their elitist institutions. I draw full circle to Haiven and Khasnabish (2017) who write that we are “in a world of crisis […] amidst an [accelerated] apocalypse” (p. 1). It is a world of crisis brought on by an utter lack of (radical) imagination to solve poverty and an inertia so deeply rooted in colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism that the desire to release the imagination (Greene, 1995) has long since dried up. This research seeks to tackle this utter lack of desire to imagine, create and sustain equitable and fair WAP for “poverty-class” seeking a university education. I have yet to meet a “poverty-class” person who in their soul does not understand that “our role should be not only to inform but also to inspire and to foster a collective imagination about how to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Ginwright, 2008, p. 14) and this includes access to higher education, which should be a human right. Yes, Rev. Dr. Barber, “Somebody’s been hurting my people and it’s gone on far too long and we won’t be silent anymore.” The time is now for this community-based, participatory action research that seeks to answer, “What can the collective knowledge and radical imagination of those with lived experiences of persistent poverty, who have accessed Canadian university, teach Canadian university leaders about the why and how—to widen access and participation for poverty-class students, so their voices are heard and no longer kept silenced?”  


Endnotes

[1] In the literature, ‘poverty-class’ is a term rarely used in the literature because too often “poverty-class” students are excluded from the research agenda. ‘Low socioeconomic status’ (SES), low income and ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged’ is primarily used in education literature to describe students from working-class backgrounds. In my dissertation, I will be problematizing the term “first-generation” from decolonising and intersectional frameworks (Nguyen & Nguyen, 2018).

[2] In Woodsworth’s (1909) seminal work, he is fixated on whether immigrants will be able to assimilate because of class and/or race. I will unpack this in my dissertation as the history of assimilation and higher education is sparse.

[3] No one knows what will happen with COVID-19 and what, as medical experts are warning, might be much worse round two. Second, my situation is precarious at best. Should I find myself needing to leave Victoria, I do not want to suddenly shift from in-person to virtual meetings with research partners. This would be highly unfair and relationally unethical. Since the spring, I have learned that a virtual meeting can be beneficial and opens up opportunities for participation that would not exist if being physically present is a pre-requisite. Yet, I am, as stated previously, sensitive and alert to systemic digital inequality and inequity.


Afterward—for the dissertation?: Methodological and research context conundrum.

Grappling with methodological conundrums over the last five months has felt like being on a Dahlí surrealist see-saw. My methodological choice needs to be practical and pragmatic, yet, meaningful to research partners and myself. It needs to be doable and workable with my experiences, resources and suffocating worries about my future and within my no-choice completion timeframe. I have not been idol these last five months nor these last three years. (Do I need to tell you this?) I live with the trauma of my first two years at this institution. I live my research daily. I seek knowledge far and wide. I struggle to ask for “help.” I feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of problems not only in society but within Canadian universities. I must remind myself my research is not going to change the world nor quite possibly even nudge the privileged pillars of Canadian universities. So, I drew on Lil’wat principles for teaching and learning (Sandford, Williams, Hopper & McGregor, 2012) to guide my research proposal journey. For instance, I believe in Celhclh where I am responsible for my own learning and must “always [be] seeking learning opportunities” and Cwelelep where I am learning to recognize “the need to sometimes be in a place of dissonance and uncertainty, so as to be open to new learning” (n.p.). Each committee member provided invaluable insights all the while knowing I had to make the methodological journey and decide for myself. But first I had to know what it was I wanted to research. My former research, ongoing literature review and activism in relation to my research brought me to knowledge that is not in the textbooks or literature. This knowledge profoundly shapes my methodological choice and demonstrates the big picture context within my research is situated. Without this context, the following infographics-in-the-making (for they evolve as I learn), which I have used in discussions with politicians, university leaders, at conferences and in guest lectures, shakes people but does not create any call to action. Nonetheless, I content they provide crucial context for my methodological choice.

First, poverty discrimination in Canada, of which I have only depicted the last 20 years, is not easing. In fact, COVID-19 has simply made visible social stratification in Canada. Because poverty (“social condition”) discrimination continues to be excluded from the Canadian Human Rights Act, it also means that “poverty-class” people are not considered an equity-seeking group based on the Federal Employment Equity Act (Government of Canada, 2020). As a result, “poverty-class” people are excluded from Canadian university EDI mandates and strategies. It follows then that there is no commitment by Canadian universities to develop WAP for “poverty-class” students.

Poverty Discrimination in Canada infographic

Second, once I understood the depths of the problems within colonial Canadian universities, I was drowning. The iceberg metaphor may be overused but it is powerful nonetheless. The dark clouds hanging over the colonial pillars of Canadian universities cast dark shadows that are more formidable and threatening than prairie thunderclouds. Understanding how deep the problem of inequity and inequality is in Canadian universities is daunting. I have dispelled myself of the delusion that my research can begin to fix this foundation.

The Foundations of Canadian Universities infographic

Third, piecing together the trickle-down poverty discrimination in Canada was a feat and defeating. From the Human Rights Act down to the individual university level, social class is excluded and social stratification remains firmly entrenched even though it is now in the collective psyche who understand at some level that wealth disparity is grossly out of control. For example, Gutsky and Weisshaar (2014) wrote pre-COVID-19 that it “is possible that [in the USA] we have finally crossed some inequality threshold beyond which the public simply cannot help but take notice” (p. xix). In the spring of this year, I had hopes this would be the case in Canada but these hopes disappeared as quickly as the pots banging at 7:00pm daily in solidarity with the healthcare workers. Similarly, Lynch (2019) writes, “We also have a new term, the ‘one percent,’ to denote the elite within the United States, a term with a valence that is not as straightforwardly worshipful as the elite have perhaps come to expect. The study of poverty and inequality is no longer a sleepy little enterprise confined to the halls of academia. (p. xix). Perhaps, but where is the Canadian version of the American Poor Peoples’ Movement?

Tricke Down Poverty Discrimination inforgraphic

Fourth, equity-seeking groups in Canada do include women, as well as Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities (Government of Canada, 2007). Yes, women are included but not from a class-based perspective. As such, Canadian universities can say they technically do not discriminate against or exclude women (except for the usual suspect areas such as pay gaps). However, what is not addressed is the appalling rates of First Nations, Métis and Inuit women, visible minority women, newly arrived immigrant women, women with disabilities, single mothers and single senior women living in abject poverty (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2017, p. 1). How can these women hope to escape poverty by going to university and attend universities that chose not to have WAP for “poverty-class” students?

Given these facts, I came to understand my research interest through methodology. Within universities there are people with knowledge that can address social ills and this includes students who have the knowledge, wisdom and lived experiences to contribute, as Brundenius (2017) writes, “theoretical frameworks that guide the development of solutions and identify potential potholes in the implementation of process” (p. 43). In relation to my research, this includes using radical imagination to create a WAP social innovation model for “poverty-class” students at Canadian universities. How best to address my research questions? Community-based participatory action.


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Master’s Research Poster


Outliers imagining otherwise in and for universities

February 17, 2020

PhD Candidacy Examination Paper

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. (Reay, 2018, p. 453)

As of late, I know these emotions, particularly relentless fear, anxiety, and regret. These latent feelings manifest as 55-year-old righteous indignation—and, rage—at the death-grip of colonial justifications for poverty. Poverty-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion continue to suffocate and decimate. I intimately know the urgency and desperation the sociology of education scholar Reay speaks of. These feelings are my constant companions, dogging me, bumping along behind me. Much like neoliberalism, these emotions are a slow violence that grinds at one’s bones until one can be forcibly shaped in ways that make Gumby seem rigid and inflexible. 

Reay (2017) 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). Higher education institutions continue to preserve universities as sites of privilege that contribute to perpetuating injustice, inequality, and social stratification (Brady, Blome & Kleider, 2016). As Brady and Burton (2017) 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 suggest that Canadian universities are complicit in perpetuating more than class elitism: they are complicit in perpetuating (generational) poverty. Trying to push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities to widen access to, and participation in (WAP), higher education for poverty class students seems as futile as Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1954).

Introduction

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” (Swanson, 2004; Giroux, 2014), the dismantling of social support systems, and unsustainable student loan debt, I 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.

Nonetheless, social class is excluded from social stratification and inequality analysis. As a result, to exclude a social class analysis is to cut a swath through the population. In the identity politics (Michaels, 2006), middle-class focused, neoliberal–cum-neofeudalism era, the people who are angry about giving people a fighting chance are the ones who have never had to fight for a chance. 

How can WAP policies and practices matter when the world is figuratively and literally on fire? How can poverty-class people become a crucial demographic to universities when they are not financially lucrative? How can any of this matter in institutions that exist for the elite? Yet, education is crucial to mitigate (generational) poverty (Burtch, 2006) and create civically engaged citizens (Friere, 2016). 

In this paper, I examine higher education institutes that model alternate pathways to degree completion for poverty-class students through WAP initiatives. I begin with defining poverty in relation to my research. Although social class categories continue to shift, class demarcations are central to the sociology of higher education research I conduct. The social class I speak of are the underclass.  I then turn to describing two international and two Canadian higher education case studies. After this, I discuss theories that inform these WAP programs and how these theoretical frameworks might explain WAP program successes and challenges. I will bring the conversation full circle to discuss how these case studies offer insights into supporting poverty-class students to succeed in university.

Defining poverty

There is no definitive definition of poverty regardless of discipline (Smeeding, 2017). The lay understanding is that poverty is about money. This is understandable given how governments and researchers tend to use economic-based definitions. For instance, Canada’s new Market Basket Measurement (Heisz, 2019, n.p.) “develops thresholds of poverty based upon the cost of a basket of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other items for individuals and families representing a modest, basic standard of living” (Heisz, 2019, n.p.). If a family’s “disposable income [is] less than the poverty threshold appropriate for their family’s size and region [they] would be living in poverty (Heisz, 2019, n.p). This does not take into consideration “ideas of the ‘culture’ of poverty and the effect of ‘place’ on poverty (Smeeding, 2017, p. 2). As such, definitions of poverty generally do not factor in the multiple manifestations of poverty. Further, monetary definitions not only reduce poverty to economics but also fail to make visible how people experience poverty, deprivation, and exclusion (Laberge, 2017). The UK sociologist McKenzie (2015) argues that poverty definitions are based upon “damaging narratives” and result in “prescriptive” policies (p. 17).

Above all, poverty should be understood through an intersectional lens (Hankivsky, 2014). That is, how multiple social characteristics (class, gender, race, age) shape lives across time, social relations, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). In this way, defining poverty ensures that poverty-class students are not homogenized nor further stigmatised. 

International case studies

Amarillo College and CampusRom were chosen because these universities’ WAP programs provide holistic supports for poverty-class students. 

Amarillo College (Amarillo, Texas)

“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.)

     In 2018, Russell Lowery-Hart decided to try an experiment: He wanted to better relate to his predominantly poverty-class, Latinx students. Many work multiple jobs. There are single mothers and caregivers to extended family members. Homelessness is a constant threat. They live with daily food insecurity (Bombardieri, 2018; Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018). The idea was to spend a weekend sleeping rough. He started out Friday night; he lasted until Sunday morning, when “the humiliation had undone him” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Unlike his students, he “was able to walk away from the homeless simulation, but only after experiencing the intense discomfort of feeling invisible and dehumanized” (Mangan & Schmalz, 2019, p. 5). Two years later, AC “has become an exemplar for what it looks like to integrate a culture of caring across campus and throughout the community” (Taylor & Ozechoski, 2020, p. 38). 

After his partial weekend homeless sojourn, he returned to AC and began the development of a two-pronged “No Excuses” audacious plan that would see a 180-degree cultural transformation and creation of responsive holistic wraparound student support. This boots-on-the grassroots-ground leader does not say that any of this is easy but he imagines otherwise. 

Shifting an institutional culture. Unlike academic leaders who hide behind status quo marketing plans, strategic enrolment schemes, and the hope-extinguishing cliché, “You know that things move at an iceberg pace in academia…,” Lowrey-Hart knows there is no time to waste. These are precarious lives that are being lived now. As he says, “It is the students in poverty who are taking the biggest gamble” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.) trying to escape poverty by accessing higher education. The foundation of AC’s cultural shift is based “on a foundational principle that ‘securing its students’ basic needs must be the first priority if AC is to deliver on its promise of providing a route out of poverty” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2; Taylor & Ozechoski, 2020). The result? A “culture of caring on campus that is driven by policies and programs and enforced from the highest level of leadership on down” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2). Contrast this praxis with Reay’s (2018) decades-long experience in academia where she was unable to create any changes to Cambridge’s WAP programs because, as she says, “With no real social connections and capital, and as an outsider to Cambridge, I had little chance” (p. 455).

Compared to Reay’s experience, AC’s “No Excuses philosophy dictates that a college is responsible for the whole student” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 8). Simply put, “students must escape the conditions of poverty” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2) if they are to graduate—and, become contributors to the economic well-being of their families, communities, and society. In this way, AC’s commitment to its civic and social responsibilities as a higher education institution is remarkable.

When his colleagues lament about the students they have, Lowery-Hart says, “Quit wishing for a different kind of student. We want to be the right college for the students we have” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Lowrey-Hart “developed what he calls the college’s theory of change. ‘Life-barrier removal’ plus relationships ‘equals completion” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). A shift in culture comes from his willingness to take to the hallways and streets. Rather than making poverty-class students and their families “both the subject and the object of investigation” (Adair, 2003, p. 45), he conducts field “research” daily by talking to current and prospective students to determine what WAP supports they need  (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.).

Beyond the norm support programs. Most higher education institutions rely on a couple of “discrete poverty programs” (e.g., food banks that operate based upon a charity model and unpaid labour) and some level of emergency funding (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Emergency funding at AC is not shame-based, stigmatizing, or traumatizing. When students need emergency funding, there is no paperwork, no begging or pleading—and, no justifying why your beater has been repossessed. AC found that just one too many times of not being able to pay a utility bill could cause a student to quit. 

At AC, there is an Advocacy and Resource Centre (ARC) that literally is and is in the heart of campus. The ARC is “staffed by social workers who assist students with”: food pantry use (Lowrey-Hart says, “We have students that use the food pantry … and then they bring food back, they’ll try to replenish it” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.), low income housing applications, accessing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, tax preparation, coaching, career mentorship, legal aid, counselling, and a clothing closet (Taylor & Ozechoski, 2020, p. 38; Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 14). AC even provides late night child care (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 14)!

AC has implemented an “alert system that flags incoming students who are at high risk of struggling academically, and then assigns professors to reach out before trouble hits” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Further, a program has been implemented where staff contact students with dependents living far below the poverty line to ensure they are aware of the “school’s support service” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). AC is “questioning academic traditions as fundamental as the length of a semester, which has been cut in half for many classes” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). 

Bumping up against dominant class narratives. “Saying ‘the p-word’ out loud is a critical step in the right direction,” says an AC staff member (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2). The poverty-class student is not blamed for their poverty; poverty is understood as a result of structural inequity and inequality. Second, at AC they push up against the “false dichotomy [of the ‘academic’ and ‘nonacademic’ influences on students” which is critical to AC being able “to address the conditions of poverty affecting students (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2). In summary, Amarillo College “has come to embrace … an ‘institutionally supported systemic approach’ to addressing poverty” and being “a [poverty-class] student-ready college” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2).

CampusRom (Catalaña, Spain)

The Roma of Spain have encountered violent discrimination and persecution for centuries. As Gómez et al. (2019) explain, “many people have tried to identify Roma as a problematic group and potentially criminal” (p. 2). They say that these beliefs became “official during the Third Reich” and provided justification for the mass incarceration and slaughter of the Roma people (p. 2). This discrimination has not dissipated. For instance, Roma researchers have also detected racist practices against the Roma population in the area of health, such as forced sterilization for Roma women in Eastern countries” (p. 2). Further, even today, these authors note that there are mainstream researchers who “want to deny the existence of Roma identity and to scrutinize the Roma people from the mainstream expectations of conduct” (p. 2). The discrimination against the Roma extends to exclusion from higher education in Spain. For instance, only one percent of Roma people graduate with a university degree compared to 35 percent of the rest of the Spanish population (Aranda et al., 2017, n.p.). Yet, we know that “[s]chools and communities … have a key role in reversing the cycle of inequality that the Roma suffer in Europe” (Flecha & Soler, 2013, p. 451).

Making it past junior high, let alone obtaining a highschool diploma, is impacted by complex historical and contemporary issues for most Roma (Aranda et al., 2017, n.p.). Formal education is not a priority; survival is the priority. To put it differently, family interconnectedness and supporting immediate and extended family members is a core part of the Roma value system. For these reasons, barriers to accessing and completing university are diverse: There is a need for youth (and the few students who make it to university) to “engage in street sales or scrap searching” and therefore often survive on “very limited incomes”; it is customary that Roma youth leave secondary school at a young age so they are ill-equipped to be successful with university entrance exams; universities are isolating places particularly for Roma people who rely on networked communities; and discrimination as a minority (Aranda, 2017, n.p.). The lack of WAP initiatives for the Roma has resulted in continued social, cultural, and economic exclusion from the Spanish society. The Spanish government, in response, mandated WAP initiatives for Roma people (Aranda, 2017, n.p.). In 2016, CampusRom was formed.

In essence, CampusRom is a university inside a university; it is by and for the Roma people. What is particularly unique to CampusRom is that it mirrors the Roma culture: It is built upon creating “natural networks of solidarity, a very important value within the Roma community” (Aranda, 2017, n.p.). Students receive wraparound support from Roma students and professors including group and one-on-one tutoring, confidence building, navigating university policies and procedures, finding employment, applying for scholarships and bursaries, etc. (Aranda, 2017, n.p.).

This WAP initiative also focuses on family with the belief that the education of one positively impacts the well-being of all. Further, one of the foundational principles of CampusRom is that by working with universities to increase Roma student participation and success in higher education, this will improve the social, economic, and educational status of the Roma population. As such, university entrance exam training is not only for the youth. Roma learners up to 65 years of age can also benefit from CampusRom.

CampusRom is founded upon six goals:

  1. Support Roma students over 16 years of age who are in training to write university entrance exams; 
  2. Encourage Roma students, who have studied and/or written entrance exams, to take leadership roles and mentor other students;
  3. Share knowledge and experience inside and outside of CampusRom to garner support and expand the CampusRom network;
  4. Actively engage in developing the CampusRom culture;
  5. Contribute to educating non-Roma people to address stereotypes, biases, and prejudices, and
  6. Collaborate with other networks and organizations locally, nationally, and internationally to advance the human rights of the Roma people and WAP higher education initiatives (CampusRom, 2018, https://www.campusrom.org/objectius-1). 

Today, CampusRom is the first Roma university network and is expanding beyond Catalaña. The number of Roma students who have gone to CampusRom and passed their university entrance exams remains low but it is early days (Aranda, 2017, n.p.).

Canadian Universities

Canadian universities provide a WAP conundrum: the exclusion of social class—or, an unwillingness to address classism. The following infographic depicts the formation of Canadian universities and the colonial pillars upon which they were founded:

Text Box:
First, the Federal Employment Equity Act (FEEA, 1995) states that protected groups include the “equity-seeking” groups women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, and the disabled (https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-5.401/page-1.html). LGBTQ2S+ was added on later. Second, Universities Canada (UC, 2017) uses the FEEA as the basis for their EDI principles, research, and advocacy (https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/universities-canada-principles-equity-diversity-inclusion/). Third, universities in turn shape their WAP programs (if they exist) and EDI policies based on the FEEA. Thus, the exclusion of social class from WAP and EDI is the exclusion of poverty-class students at all levels of Canadian higher education institutions.

My search results for universities that provide alternate pathways to degree completion for poverty-class students, while not surprising, were nonetheless disappointing. However, I have chosen Vancouver Island University (VIU) for their pioneering efforts to support students from/in foster care. Second, I discuss Western University (WU), which has a page dedicated to first generation students. 

Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo, British Columbia)

In 2013, spurred on by the “child advocate Mary Ellen Turpell-Lafond” (Sherlock, 2019, n.p.) and Nanaimo Youth Services Association (NYSA) CEO Steve Arnette (Ret.), Dr. Ralph Nilson (Ret.), President and Vice-Chancellor of Vancouver Island University (VIU) launched the inaugural university tuition waiver program for youth from/in care who have the “right academic background” (Winn, 2016). This was a catalyst moment for youth with lived experiences of foster care. It marked the beginning of universities across Canada realizing this need existed and, to varying degrees, committing to implement some form of tution fee waiver program. Because of this, youth, who would not normally be able to imagine otherwise, potentially had the opportunity to access higher education. 

VIU is unique in its educational philosophy. Nilson believes that supporting these students requires more than financial support (Winn, 2016). He says, “As a values-based institution, the importance of access for people in this region has been fundamental … since its inception” (Winn, 2016). He goes on to note that he is aware that many in the community live below the poverty line due to the collapse of the forestry and fishing industries. This, coupled with a lack of post-secondary education, equates to a decrease in familial choices and reduced chances of children attending university. Nilson says that at the heart of VIU’s philosophy is that the university’s “faculty and staff recognize our responsibility to the communities we serve” (Winn, 2016). As such, Arnette says that when students were on the cusp of graduating from highschool they would sit down for a meal with Nilson and see the president of a university as a regular person  (Winn, 2016). This is part of creating a welcoming and supportive community from the day the student enters onto the VIU landscape. As such, access is not only about money. It is about feeling part of a community and culture that is unknown.

VIU’s community “has a sense of conscious, sense of social justice, and a true sense of caring,” says Arnette (Winn, 2016). As Nilson and Arnette note, support extends to helping students to “just starting to imagine being there” (Winn, 2016). VIU ensures that students know who to contact through, for example, “student services and financial aid” (Winn, 2016). The counsellors know which students are from foster care and consequently are able to provide personalized support. VIU also finds opportunities for students to become “engaged on campus” and find work-study programs (Winn, 2016). For Arnett, the VIU Tuition Waiver Program is sociological because he says, “This is change on the institutional level” (Winn, 2016). But the Board of Governors had to be in agreement.

When presented with the Tuition Fee Waiver program proposal, the Board “were the first ones who said that the notion of public education and access to public education is one that fits with Canadian values and social justice. That equity and opportunity” must be available for young people (Winn, 2016). 

VIU also became the first university in Canada to employ someone full-time to conduct outreach with “K-12 councellors to identify kids who don’t have a hope of moving onto that place where they can get the education” needed to contribute to society (Winn, 2016). This is a running theme with Nilson: accessing higher education so socioeconomically marginalized students can become active participants and contributors to society. He is aware that without a way out of poverty through education, the reliance on social support systems increases (Winn, 2016). Although Nilson understands that the region has a big problem with poverty, poverty-class students are not part of WAP programs. As it is, there are not enough resources to support the numbers of from/in care students let alone provide them with adequate funding. 

Western University (London, Ontario)

The Office of the Registrar’s “First Generation Students’” page provides a list of online sources that are, for the most part, applicable to all students (Western University, 2020). The Registrar encourages students to “take advantage of these programs, and to see out other opportunities available on campus that are not mentioned” on the site. Students in financial need can apply for bursaries if they have exhausted all other sources of funding (e.g., student loans, bank loans, lines of credit, borrowing money from family and friends) (Western University, 2020). WU also has an on campus work study program for students in financial need. Eligible students can apply for the the Government of Ontario First Generation Bursary, which provides between $1,000–$3,500 (Province of Ontario, 2020). WU has a Food Vouchers program for eligible students. All of these WAP mechanisms require resources: time, the ability and experience to navigate the university’s website, knowing how to fill out online forms and applications, having the ability to understand legalese, being able to provide proof of eligibility, and attend in person meetings.

Theoretical Frameworks

Four central themes emerged from these WAP case studies: centring social class using an intersectional framework, taking the sting out of the stigma of poverty, making visible the gendered nature of poverty, respecting non-academic forms of capital, creating cultures of belonging, and supporting students to become actively engaged citizens who will become the transformers that our world desperately needs. These themes will be examined through social class analysis, stigma theories, and Bourdieu’s forms of capital.

Social class analysis

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. (2017) 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 in light of 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 classifications do not equate to an increase in understanding of structural poverty nor a decrease in the hatred of the poor. 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 form the inequalities effected by neoliberal reforms” (p. 487) thus shifting to a blame-the-individual culture. 

I concur with Sayer (2002) that social class matters because “it 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 (Skeggs, 1997)” (para 1.2). 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 (2019) mantra “supporting the middle-class and those working hard to join it” (https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/jean-yves-duclos/supporting-middle-class.html) and the historic appointment of a middle-class minister, makes visible why AC, CampusRom, and to some extent VIU are remarkable for their focus on WAP initiatives that focus on poverty (i.e., the underclass). Most notable are the staff at AC purposefully use the “p-word.” Given the stigma of poverty, these universities’ WAP programs work towards destigmatizing poverty without normalizing it.

Although WU states that they have a special WAP program for first-generation students, in reality it is little more than a couple of “discrete poverty programs” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). 

Stigma theories

Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma suggests that poverty is played out on front and back stages. For poverty-class students, even if social class is internalized (as social class often is), when they are on Goffman’s “front stage,” (e.g., on the elitist university landscape) they can see in the neoliberal mirror the underclass position they occupy. As such, there is an “awareness of inferiority [that] means that one is unable to keep out of consciousness the formulation of some chronic feeling of the worst sort of insecurity,” one can become isolated and further stigmatized because of this isolation (p. 13). 

Moreover, there is no escaping the dominant colonial-based social class narratives that swirl around us 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 power. The Nigerian storyteller Okri (1997) 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)

AC, CampusRom, and to a lesser extent VIU, exemplify how their WAP programs bump up against poverty-based discrimination stories planted in us and give their students new stories to live by. As a consequence, students in these universities are not considered less-than or deficit on the front stage/university landscape. 

Additionally, Tyler’s (2018) “critical re-reading of the understanding of” (p. 744) Goffman’s theory of stigma provides a critical feminist lens. In this way, Tyler’s “reconstruction” of Goffman’s stigma theory is a mechanism to create a paradigm shift in relation to understanding the gendered nature of poverty. That is, understanding gender-based stigma beyond the falsehood that poverty-class women are creatures of innate immorality, laziness, poor judgement, etc. Providing late night daycare for students who are single mothers, for instance, demonstrates an understanding of the potential additional barriers that poverty causes for women.

WU, conversely, further stigmatizes first-generation students by making them jump through institutional hoops to apply for emergency funding and food vouchers. This outing of a student’s financial situation, in an environment polar opposite of AC, is a way to “push out” students (i.e., forcing students to leave school because of systemic classism; Olachea, 2109, n.p.).

Bourdieu’s forms of capital theory 

Often education researchers (myself included) apply the famous turn of phrase “outcasts on the inside” (Bourdieu & Champagne 1999, p. 421) to describe low socioeconomic status (SES) students’ presence in higher education. Certainly, in much of the literature, these students lack the cultural, social, and economic capital of their well-to-do peers (Bourdieu, 1986; Iverson, 2012) on the higher education landscape. Consequently, research tends to report that low SES students are unable to feel like they belong (Lehmann, 2007) or they feign fitting in my faking it til they make it (Ivana, 2017). In the latter case, success is defined by assimilating or altering oneself to fit into the middle-class higher education culture. In the AC, CampusRom, and again, VIU to a lesser extent, the culture of mentorship and caring resulted in students finding a (second) home. In the literature accessed, it is clear that students’ social and cultural capital (e.g., kinship knowledge) was in fact valued. Their lack of economic capital was rectified by AC’s responsive financial programs. At CampusRom, emulating the Roma culture and network system of family and community interconnectedness, resulted in students being able to tap into social, cultural, and economic capital. In these two WAP case studies, students were not forced to assimilate, something that Canadian universities should take stock of in their Indigenization strategies. 

In the case of WU, poverty-class students are “outcasts on the inside.” They either fake it ‘til they make it and/or hope that they can generate enough economic capital to survive.

Individually and collectively these universities; WAP programs hold the potential for creating profound change across generations. AC, CampusRom, and VIU are explicit that the goals of completing a higher education degree is to escape poverty and to become civically engaged citizens. These WAP programs are structured to provide poverty-class students with the education, skills, and tools to become critical thinkers. That is, to “take the initiative in acting to transform the society that has denied them his opportunity of participation” (Shaull, 2000, p. 34; Friere, 2016). 

Conclusion

Each day, turtle-paced moves forward are countered with hare-leap pushes backward, the minuscule wins and the cavernous loses, make me wonder, can universities ever be inclusive of those whose lives are shaped by poverty? Amarillo College and CampusRom, and to some extent Vancouver Island University provide hope. Their WAP programs centre social class and include an intersectional lens, disrupt poverty-based stigma and make visible the gendered nature of poverty, they demonstrate that poverty-classed students come onto the higher education landscape with powerful forms of capital—and, with a culture of caring, mentorship, advocacy, and support the oppressed will become the ones to tackle the inequality, inequity, and injustice that is crippling our world. These universities are the outliers imagining otherwise in and for universities. (4,997)

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