Reflections on Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead

Submitted by Adam Vasey on April 21, 2016 - 3:58am

The anti-poverty movement in Canada is strong and growing. The sense of both urgency and possibility were palpable during my three days in Edmonton for the Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead Summit.

Perhaps the most significant shift, when I compare this event to those of past years, is that poverty elimination is no longer a taboo subject. Edmonton and London, for example, are working toward ending poverty in a generation. The conversation about poverty takes on a different tenor when we get to hear mayors and city councillors, in their own words, explain why they’ve put their stake in the ground on this issue.

What’s the significance of cities leading the fight on poverty? As Mayor Nenshi remarked, municipal governments feel the impact of poverty every day. People live in cities and towns, so it’s the municipal order of government that is best positioned to respond to their needs and concerns. Municipal government is also a potential hotbed of innovation (as an aside, see Steven Johnson’s fascinating book Future Perfect for examples of municipal innovation), and the mayors we heard from at the Summit clearly see how prioritizing poverty reduction helps advance a broader economic prosperity agenda.

With increasing numbers of mayors leading an anti-poverty agenda, and the new federal government’s mandate to move forward on a national poverty reduction strategy, I’m hopeful that the ‘pass the buck’ mentality on poverty across the different orders of government is waning. It’s time for all orders of government to agree that poverty is their shared responsibility.

While cities can’t solve poverty alone, it’s clear that mayoral leadership on poverty can inspire a culture shift at the local level. Leading with courage, creativity and compassion – pillars identified by Celeste Licorish in her “If I Were Mayor” speech at the Summit – mayors can create the space necessary in the community to change the poverty conversation. Many of the mayors spoke about the importance of inclusion and equity: you can’t have a legitimate poverty reduction effort if it doesn’t reflect the realities of those who experience poverty.

It was also encouraging to hear major funders at the Summit acknowledge the limits of the charity model, and push for a greater emphasis on justice- and rights-based approaches to poverty. Funders play a critical role in driving the culture shift required in the social sector, where silos and turf wars run deep. Many organizations are conditioned to tout individual organizational and program successes, rather than focusing on broader community goals and sharing ownership for successes achieved at that level. In the new paradigm, best exemplified by Collective Impact, a common agenda and shared ownership are non-negotiables. The beauty of Collective Impact is that the process itself will draw a very clear line between the organizations who merely talk a good game about making an ‘impact’, and those who are willing to fundamentally change their approach in the service of a broader community agenda.

As Mayor Nenshi reminded us in Edmonton, if want to talk about big ideas for reducing poverty (e.g., basic income guarantee), let’s not kid ourselves: this will fundamentally change how many social sector organizations do business, and it won’t be an easy transition. It the social sector is truly committed to systemic change, the bottom line is that those in the sector will have to change.

In a stirring keynote that is still reverberating with me, social justice powerhouse Dr. Cindy Blackstock challenged all of us to remember that poverty and racism are inextricably linked. As she laid bare the Canadian fiscal policies that continue to racially discriminate against Indigenous communities, we were left with a powerful reminder to always measure success by what governments do, not what they say.

Dr. Blackstock’s story was a stark reminder that systemic change on poverty is a long haul that requires relentless courage and tenacity.

Yes, there are encouraging signs that we’re moving closer to potentially transformational change on poverty in Canada. But we’ll be measuring success by what actually changes.