From Mentor to Ally

or… Working myself out of a Job

Allan David Smith-Reeve

January 2019

When I was first employed in the Poverty Business, an industry that employs tens of thousands of Canadians, I was told that it was my goal to work myself out of a job.

The idea was that if I was effective in my work, I would eliminate the need.

Eliminating Poverty however, I soon realized, would mean those tens of thousands of poverty workers would be unemployed. I had to wonder “Is it really in their best interests to solve the problem?”

To treat the root causes of poverty, instead of its symptoms, would unplug the great social-service machine that is fueled by people’s neediness. Addressing what causes that neediness is not in the interest of the wheels of government, or those at the levers of a labour market that benefit from keeping “the wolf at the door” of a workforce.

The Poverty Industry Machine continues to run – employing me – and so many others. Taxpayer’s dollars – not unlike the ten billion our government poured into GM to keep Canadians working – continue to feed this dinosaur-industry of another era.

What if those taxpayers became personally involved in creating an alternative to the poverty machine?

What if poverty’s “clients” became leaders instead in the growing of an organic model of shared prosperity?

What if people from all walks of life came together as neighbours to imagine how a local economy could fully employ every person in meeting needs currently unmet?

It is Citizens that could take this scenario from some academic dream theory into reality. It is ordinary people whose interests would be served.

Whatever the problem – community is the answer.

– Margaret Wheatley

If you ask “Who wants poverty?” you also need to ask “Who benefits from poverty?”

But if you ask “Who wants prosperity for everyone?” then we might also ask “In who’s interests would this make sense?”

In an upper room of a downtown Peterborough church there’s a small social experiment growing solutions – one relationship at a time.

Seeded by church and foundation dollars, started by church workers – based on an educational construct developed by academics – ordinary people are creating something that has the potential – if not to replace the poverty machine – to transform our relationship with it.

Peterborough’s Bridging Poverty Teams bring together under-resourced people living in poverty with volunteer mentors who have resources to share. On one level you might say it’s a system of resource re-distribution. But beneath that surface, there’s something much more radical happening.

Lynn and I were invited to join the Team for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration.  It’d been six months since we’d finished our work with the Team as the paid staff animators of the Team.

About 18 months earlier we’d invited this group of strangers into the experiment. What might happen if people from different walks of life came together weekly to share a meal, tell stories, have fun, study poverty and chip away at the work of stabilizing the lives of the under-resourced people in the team?

Key to the experiment was that the participants who were living in poverty were considered the lead problem-solvers. With staff support, they planned the sessions. They chose the curriculum. They evaluated the groups’ progress. And they determined the pace.

Staff offered both streams of participants training. Under-resourced folks in poverty were given tools of social analysis and critical awareness. Mentors were given lessons in asking questions instead of offering advice (Can you teach old dogs new tricks?) The Mentor training we called “From Mentor to Ally Training”.

Early in our research we attended a session at the Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre. A young indigenous leader told us that no one can claim to be an Ally. “It’s a title that has to be given to you by those you seek to work with.” she explained. “No one can call themselves an Elder – the community names its elders.”

So we invite Mentors to join a journey of discovery – to learn from those who solve poverty’s problems every day of their lives. And to learn how ask good questions (before offering the good advice that’s worked for them – starting from a place of privilege).

Once the two training streams finish and the two groups come together, we spend a lot of time building trust and learning. Over food, stories, and fun we get to see into each others’ lives. It’s a slow process and patience is required. Mentors ask “when do we get to start “helping?”  (The need for patience is why seniors tend be our mentors).

Gradually through the trust-building we all begin to see how “change” is a product of relationship. And we see how all of us need help with the “change” we envision for ourselves and for our communities.

Over the nine months the group gradually begins taking on the various roles and responsibilities to keep the team going. Circles of Support are created to work with each under-resourced participants goals. Teams are created to look after the essentials of Hospitality, Learning, and Evaluating. Then the paid staff pull out.

And the team keeps meeting.

Staff continued to meet weekly in a parallel Internship program with three of the under-resourced Leaders. These three had chosen to become trained as Bridging Team facilitators. As part of their training they took on the leadership of the first group (supported by a Steering Cmte. of Mentors who conduct monthly evaluation and planning sessions).

So, when Lynn and I, as the staff who had started the experiment, were invited back to join the Team for their pre-holyday seasonal lunch and celebration – I couldn’t help but give them an evaluation task before the celebrations began… 

The group was asked to each write down a sentence to complete this statement: “We are a group of people who….”

“Who believe People in poverty are problem-solvers.”

“Who Believe By building resources there is a way out of poverty.”

“Would love to help people get out of poverty and stabilize their lives”

“Who have grown together, removed “class” barriers, love and support each other!”

“We are a group of leaders, learning, sharing and spreading our wings, soaring to new heights.”

“We are a group of people who love community building, love meeting others who have different yet same in most ways histories.”

“Who believe social capital needs to be built and expanded”

“Have learned from and taught each other about our differences and our similarities – basically the same but unique.”

“We’re a group of people who became family and friends”

“Support one another in mutuality, mutual caring, sharing, learning, laughing, loving, and eating with each other.”

“We are a group of teachers and students.”

“A group that goes beyond a room and a meeting place. We are friends!”

“We are family.”

“Who believe people have unlimited talent that sometimes just needs to be set free.”

“Friends who meet often to eat each other’s delicious food and share our resources with one another.”

After more than three decades working in the poverty business – I’ve experienced something new.  For the first time – I felt like I’d worked myself out of a job.

For more information:

Describe Bridging Teams in one sentence: 

Todd John

Five individuals living in poverty in Peterborough (who’ve named themselves “the Awesome People”) journey with mentors towards a more stable life.

What is the goal of this project?

Bridging Teams address the 11 Essential Resources required to overcome Poverty’s Tyranny of day-to-day crises. By creating a social network of middle-class mentors, the Awesome people have expanded their resources and supports to deal with poverty’s complex challenges. 

What strategies does the project use?

Using the “Bridges Out of Poverty”[1]*  framework, two separate learning streams orient under-resourced Leaders and middle class Mentors.

Then, the five Awesome People and ten Mentors come together to meet weekly for three hours in a Bridging Team to cross cultural barriers, build community, and fight poverty.

Once the team has built trust and bonded, support circles for each of the Awesome people are formed. Two mentors were assigned to walk with each of the Awesome participants.

The Team was facilitated by staff for the first nine months of weekly meetings.

Describe the most positive aspects of the project and anything that you would do differently if you did it again.

By far the most positive aspect of the work was the success in creating a safe, non-judgmental, space for mutual learning among people from different socio-economic cultures (or classes).  Our focus on Team-building included three key elements:

  • Food: every session included a meal first provided by staff, then shifting to a pot-luck sharing.
  • Fun: The use of trust-building, adventure-based, activities created a common ground and bonded the team.
  • Storytelling: Midway evaluations scored storytelling from each participant as a highlight. Every person answered five interview questions. The group passed a talking stick reflecting on what they valued in each person’s story.

Each of the fifteen participants has created 18 new relationships including staff (15 x 18 = 270 new relationships).  This new social network has the potential of affecting the lives of every participant in significant ways. For the Awesome People, they now have positive relationships with retired teachers, lawyers, therapists, journalists, social workers, parenting experts, and clergy. In addition, they will benefit in all kinds of ways from a new access into the social networks of these new intentional friendships.

Here is a sample of what the Awesome participants had to say:

“…allowed me to find a career direction after many years of uncertainty. Now I can move toward a new goal”

“…wonderful sense of belonging”

“…feeling very good about myself and my life”

“…helped me see the strength in myself…more self-confidence with speaking in pubic, self-esteem, leadership roles, and having fun”

Mentors were challenged to learn (through training and extensive practice) how to become allies beyond their habitual desires to help/fix/advise:

“…greater awareness of real-life challenges of people in poverty”

“…the possibility of a world where everyone is heard, everyone is part of what we’re creating, and no one is left out”

“…one of the best processes I’ve ever encountered for building solidarity across economic class”

“I am less judgmental, and I am in awe of how resourceful these awesome people are.”

“…helped me build deep connections and trust relationships across class lines”

“Bedford House is uniquely suited as a catalyst to engage, train, and equip diverse groups of people.”

What has made this project a success?

Community support for this slow, costly process has been outstanding. The Awesome participant’s dedication and energy drives us forward to believe “Whatever the problem – Community is the answer.” 

Recent Comments


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *