Last weekend community members joined together with academics and activists to create a dialogue about poverty in Kingston in a unique anti-poverty conference.
The Social Planning Council of Kingston and Area found in a 2009 survey that nine per cent of Kingstonians fall into the low-income bracket and compared to the average Canadian, low-income Kingstonians have to pay on average 20 per cent more for basic living costs.
Over the past weekend, the first anti-poverty conference of its kind, Instigate 2010: Anti-Poverty Rant-In, was held in Kingston in an effort to address the city’s poverty through a series of community-based and interdisciplinary initiatives.
Professor Margaret Little, cross-appointed in the department of gender studies and political studies, and an acclaimed anti-poverty activist, spoke at the opening of the conference on Oct. 14.
“Kingston is such a fascinating petri dish. We have the most eggheads [people with PhD’s], the most people in prison and huge amounts of poverty,” Little said.
“There’s never been anything like this that I know of in Kingston. It’s a huge attempt to bring together communities that don’t usually come together.”
Krystle Maki, PhD ’13, is one of five organizers of Instigate 2010.Academically, she studies the increased surveillance of those living on social assistance, but she is also a self-described activist. She said the conference aimed to address the disconnect between academics, activists and people living in poverty, and foster a discussion among them.
“The label ‘conference’ can appear academic, and the title ‘rant-in’ seemed a bit more inclusive for the community, front-line workers, the economically marginalized, and activists,” she said.
Fifty presenters led panel discussions and interactive workshops over the three days on topics related to poverty awareness and activism.
“People got a chance to have their voices heard, we wanted a dialogue, and this was amazing,” she said. “We saw emotions all over the board. People welled up with tears because they were so pleased that people were coming into their community and asking them how they felt.”
The interactivity of the workshops depended on how many people attended. For the smaller workshops specifically, Maki said that the dialogue established will have a positive impact on future activism projects. Affordable housing was one area which received a lot of attention in workshop discussions, Maki said.
Front-line workers and low income citizens got a rare chance to voice their opinions on poverty issues without the impact of power relations.
“Instigate wasn’t really about policy change. We wanted to create action and do something [about poverty],” Maki said. “We wanted to create a way for conference attendees and speakers to plug into the information to move forward with this.”
The conference was free for all, and free food and child-care were provided to ensure accessibility for all attendees. Additionally, only the first day of the conference was held at Queen’s. The others were held at public places, like the downtown library, in an effort to encourage community members to go to events that they might have otherwise felt too uncomfortable to attend.
Since ideas for the conference began a year and a half ago, Maki said Instigate was really a community-centered project.
“It started with three of us talking about the need for a different kind of anti-poverty event, and then it grew into a larger mobilization,” she said. “For five months an outreach committee did community outreach, and we left it completely open for suggestions as we approached people in the Kingston community.”
Half of the organizing committee came directly from the community and the other half came from the University. This meant the people organizing the conference had a number of perspectives and unique points of view.
“Our outreach committee was working on the ground, and many people from our organizing committee were involved with community organizations that worked with low income populations. We also held two open community meetings where anyone could attend,” she said. “The actual conference format was decided by the community at these meetings.”
Maki said that Instigate’s organizers unanimously agreed that the conference was a success. Around 100 people attended each day, and there was high representation from low income community members.
Maki said there will be an informal open meeting in the next few weeks to talk about people’s experience with the conference. The organizing committee will also address whether or not Instigate will become an annual event at this meeting.
Due to the success of the conference, there are talks of having it move around to other universities and communities, Maki said.
Jillian Burford-Grinnell, MA ’11, attended Instigate over the weekend and said she hopes the conference will happen regularly.
“Instigate was absolutely fantastic. It was great that people of different categories could get together and create a dialogue,” she said. “Everyone who organized and attended the conference should be commended for the exchange of ideas and information.”
Burford-Grinnell said in the past she had shared her anti-poverty spoken word pieces and volunteered with the Queen’s Food Sharing Project. She said Instigate has helped provide her with the information and resources to get involved further with anti-poverty activism in the community.
“I came back from the conference totally recharged with my passion rekindled,” she said. “I’m ready to fight the fight again.”