New campus group asks why UVic isn’t talking about generational poverty

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Shoestring Initiative aims to dismantle ‘Bootstrap’ ideology at UVic and beyond

Screenshot via www.shoestringinitiative.com

A new group on campus is taking big steps to break down the stigma students experience with generational poverty.

On Nov. 1, just over two dozen students, professors, and other members of the UVic community met for the Shoestring Initiative’s first gathering.

The Shoestring Initiative was started by a small group of students and UVic faculty members from various backgrounds, who came together with the goal of building a network of advocacy and support for students who have experiences with poverty. In addition to hosting regular gatherings for members of the UVic community, they intend to build a broader structure of opportunities and connect individuals who can provide guidance for one another at UVic and eventually across Canada.

The Shoestring Initiative … came together with the goal of building a network of advocacy and support for students who have experiences with poverty.

“It’s sort of nice, because I think … we are sort of a cross-section of the people that we’re trying to serve,” said Jordan Ali, PhD student and Shoestring cofounder.

“Everybody on this organizing committee has had such unique experiences along the entire spectrum: people who grew up in pretty abject poverty; people who were maybe more working class but felt disenfranchised, culturally or otherwise; those of us who came from families who did live in abject poverty and kind of moved out of it eventually [but] still hold on to the remnants of that.”

 

Building support

Although still in its early stages, the Shoestring Initiative has already gained a substantial amount of support from the university and other groups both on campus and around Victoria. Cinecenta, Shine Cafe, Country Grocer, and several UVic faculties are among those who have already contributed their support to help make the gatherings possible.

Despite the support from UVic, Elaine Laberge, one of the Shoestring’s co-founders, is careful to note that the initiative is fully independent from the university.

“It’s for UVic students, by UVic students,” said Laberge, a PhD student conducting her research on poverty in higher education and who also identifies as someone from generational poverty.  “We didn’t want it institutionalized — UVic doesn’t get to start poking their nose in it and trying to take it over, cause then things just don’t go well.”

Despite the support from UVic … the initiative is fully independent from the university.

The founding members of the Shoestring Initiative are passionate about connecting and supporting the community of students impacted by poverty at UVic.

“I know when I spoke to some of my peers who have been through similar experiences, I almost put on like a different hat — or maybe I take a hat off, I’m not sure,” said Jordan Ali, PhD student and Shoestring co-founder. “We’re able to just speak freely about even just things you grew up with that were different from what other people may have.”

 

The first gathering

The Shoestring Initiative’s founding gathering on Nov. 1 was closed to members of the press in order to ensure it was a private and safe space for attendees to share their experiences.

Speaking after the event, Ali said that the sense of community at the event was much stronger than he or the other event organizers had anticipated.

According to Ali, there were students from a variety of faculties and departments intermingling and talking, which slowly began to transition into a sharing circle where people were eager to share the challenges they had faced.

“I felt at first like, this isn’t really what we’re shooting for, but I think that so many people had been silenced for so long that having the space to speak about their difficulties with people that would understand and not judge them was huge,” Ali said.

“It was really neat, it became this almost semi-therapeutic thing, where the goal was never that, really. At least for me it was kind of a heartening experience because it showed that what we were shooting for, we’ve created that safe space already just getting people in the same room.”

“It was just amazing to be comfortable not to be afraid to say, ‘I am so hungry, I have no money,’ because this is a place that’s intention is designed for those sensitivities.”

One of the other major offerings  at the gathering was food, and lots of it. According to the Shoestring co-founders, people who have experienced poverty often have a complicated relationship with food, and the members of the initiative made sure to be sensitive to that.

Tupperware containers were handed out at the event and people were encouraged to take food home as organizers had intentionally ensured that there was plenty of food to provide for attendees’ meals later in the  week. Menstrual products and toothbrushes were also provided.

“I walked a student out who was crying because they’re so broke, and now they have food for a few days,” Laberge said.

The next day, leftover food from the gathering was given to the First Peoples house on campus.

“It was a shift in relationship with food,” said Laberge. “It was just amazing to be comfortable not to be afraid to say, ‘I am so hungry, I have no money,’ because this is a place that’s intention is designed for those sensitivities.”

 

A larger movement

As the Shoestring Initiative grows, one thing they hope to facilitate is a mentorship program — not just professors mentoring students, but guiding other professors and members of the UVic community as well. Creating a forum for students to share their experiences and provide advice is also a priority.

Most of all, the initiative aims to bring awareness of socioeconomic diversity to the forefront and represent those who have been impacted by poverty when it comes to the larger decision-making process at UVic. Only then, Laberge said, can the Shoestring Initiative start to break down cultural misconceptions and prejudices surrounding poverty.

“You make this population the object of discussion, not part of the discussion,” Laberge said, and she intends to  bring this discussion to the UVic community through a presentation at IdeaFest.

“Universities were built by and for people who come from privilege, so universities continue to perpetuate privilege,” said Laberge. “So we have to make visible how this is problematic and how universities in their practices are siloing … there’s no intersectional lens.”

UVic has the potential to be on the leading edge of this movement and set the tone for Canadian universities and Canada as a whole.

“The Bootstrap dogma, Elbow Grease, the American Dream — these are deeply embedded in our culture and institutions.”

According to the Initiative’s co-founders, no university in Canada is currently addressing the disclusion of socioeconomic diversity and social class from discussions of diversity. Ali hopes that the UVic Showstring Initiative can be the first chapter in a larger movement to start challenging the institutional structures that perpetuate these issues and offer a system for support.

So far, the initiative has been successful in this goal as Northwestern University, a prominent American university in Illinois, has already reached out looking to partner with the Shoestring Initiative.

UVic has the potential to be on the leading edge of this movement, Laberge said, and set the tone for Canadian universities and Canada as a whole.

“I think there’s a cultural shift that’s needed,” said Ali. “This is a great place to try to start that.”

As they continue to build this foundation for larger institutional change, the Shoestring Initiative intends to continue providing support, community, and healthy meals to those who need it.

Starting on Nov. 20, the Shoestring Initiative will be hosting gatherings every Tuesday in Cornett A317. They will also be hosting a Christmas party on Dec.7, with the location still to be determined.