By Diane Janzen, The Stop’s Volunteer Coordinator

The experience of volunteering is a powerful one. It brings feelings of inclusion, purpose, and community, while providing excellent skill-building opportunities.

But these benefits are too often reserved for people with means. The Stop is working to make these opportunities available to all in our community, and we actively encourage and support people who use our emergency food services or programs to become volunteers. Partly because of these efforts, our volunteers are a very diverse group. More than 300 people share their time with our community programs, and they come from dramatically different backgrounds and experiences.

However, in a 2016 research project we discovered that some of our more privileged volunteers felt discomfort or curiosity when interacting with people living in poverty. Several described having difficulty understanding and navigating their privilege. This indicated to us that The Stop needed to do more work in strengthening volunteers’ anti-racism and anti-oppression (AR/AO) skills, while also supporting our staff members to build their own knowledge.

“Racial equality doesn’t just happen, even between committed anti-racism activists. It requires ongoing, sometimes unpleasant, work.” — Barb Thomas + Tina Lopes

Understanding privilege and oppression is important when interacting with someone whose identity is very different from your own. This can be emotionally challenging work, on both a personal and organizational level. It means stepping into uncomfortable territory that we probably haven’t been taught to navigate by those who raised or educated us.

In 2017, we consulted with Barb Thomas to develop an anti-racism and anti-oppression workshop for our volunteers. Barb is a social justice facilitator, writer, and activist, and with Tina Lopes, the co-author of the award-winning book, Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations (2006). Working with Barb gave us the space to look broadly at our volunteer engagement process, and how our volunteer program intersects with other programs at The Stop in doing anti-racism and anti-oppression work. This work was funded by the Toronto Foundation’s Vital Ideas and Leadership Grant—The John and Jocelyn Barford Family Foundation.

Here are the outcomes from our consultations with Barb:

  • During our mandatory information sessions for prospective volunteers, we dive deeper into what the oppression of people living in poverty looks like. Attendees discuss the powerful ideas and incorrect biases our society has about people living in poverty (i.e. they haven’t worked hard enough) the systems that perpetuate discrimination (i.e. the ODSP restrictions around employment can make it risky for people to test out returning to work), the oppressive individual behaviours people might experience because of these powerful ideas and systems (i.e. being followed in a store), and finally, how we can challenge these behaviours when we see them.
  • We developed a voluntary 3-hour AR/AO workshop for our current volunteers to strengthen their sense of community, build awareness of social inequalities, and clarify how they can help when incidents of oppression occur. One attendee appreciated being given the phrase “I’m uncomfortable with what is going on here” as a suggestion for something to say to intervene and stop discrimination. Remember, you don’t need be able to explain all about oppression in order to challenge it and make a difference!
  • We know that The Stop’s staff are not immune from these issues, and that our own behaviors are impacted by the oppressive systems and ideas perpetuated in our society. Serving our community from an anti-racist and anti-oppression framework is an ongoing journey, and we are building in-house capacity to continually improve in this area. In her evaluation report, Barb left The Stop with concrete steps to integrating anti-racism and anti-oppression in other aspects of our work.

“I got to hear different points of view and personal experiences. It helped me understand more about different forms of oppression, and how I can be an ally even in situations where I don’t feel comfortable.” — Volunteer

The Stop’s AR/AO training for volunteers is an important piece in our efforts to create welcoming and inclusive spaces, and our overall commitment to equity.

Join us in spirit by taking the time yourself in 2019 to learn more about privilege and oppression in our society, and consider what you can do to be an ally.

Helpful Resources:

Statistics on Poverty in Canada (from Canada Without Poverty)

  • 1 in 7 people in Canada live in poverty
  • Poverty costs Canada as a whole between $72-84 billion annually; Ontarians pay $2,299 – $2,895 per year.
  • Precarious employment has increased by nearly 50% over the past two decades.
  • Between 1980 and 2005, average earnings among the poorest Canadians fell by 20%.
  • Over the past 25 years, Canada’s population has increased by 30% and yet annual national investment in housing has decreased by 46%

The Anti-Oppression Network
Resources on being a good ally.

Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change
Fact sheets on topics like “Understanding the Racialization of Poverty in Ontario,” and “Food (In)security.”

 Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
A direct action anti-poverty organization. Also offers resources such as videos, publications and links.