Economic, Social and Civic Opportunities for All
Excerpts from Vibrant Abbotsford's Economic, Social and Civic Opportunities for All
Abbotsford, BC, is now the province’s fifth largest city with a population of more than 130,000. Abbotsford is also a city full of paradoxes. On the one hand, immense opportunities exist for collaboration, inclusion and innovation. On the other, many people and groups continue to work in silos, certain members of the community are ignored or excluded, and faith organizations are still learning how to coordinate their efforts effectively. It has been said that invention and creativity come from impasse and divergence. In this light, Abbotsford’s challenges and opportunities can also be seen as its strengths. Though they were familiar with the Vibrant Communities model since its inception in 2002, it took until 2006 for a group of committed Abbotsford learners to come together and discuss the possibility of establishing a multisectoral collaboration to address increasing levels of poverty in their community. Poverty combined with rapid population growth, lower than average graduation rates and more diversity made it imperative to find a way for the community to come together to address issues of concern.
Over the last five years, Abbotsford’s rapid population growth rate has strained the capacity of existing social programs and networks to provide effective, comprehensive services. Vibrant Abbotsford believes that a multisectoral approach will encourage greater community cohesion and the provision of coordinated, appropriate services. Vibrant Abbotsford’s engagement with its local faith community charts new territory for Vibrant Communities, opening avenues for learning from successes and failures in collaboration with faith organizations and secular groups. The community’s makeup and history suggest the necessity of collaboration among faith leaders and the directors of secular organizations. Poverty reduction in Abbotsford presents an opportunity to work in a setting that defines itself as rural and urban. Abbotsford calls itself the “City in the Country” and is home to the largest and most fertile agricultural land in Canada. Paradoxically, the agricultural industry employs a significant portion of Abbotsford’s refugee and immigrant population as farm workers. Piecework and low wages present serious barriers to economic security. Abbotsford is home to eight of British Columbia’s nine federal prisons. Local organizers will find out how well the Vibrant Communities approach stands up to the challenges associated with reintegrating offenders. Most released offenders choose to live in Abbotsford because of the high number of support services available to them.
Community concerns in Abbotsford
Research and conversation with a wide variety of residents helped Vibrant Abbotsford to develop a list of key community concerns which include:
- Lack of affordable housing
- Formal education levels lower than the provincial average
- Declining median earning levels
- Exclusion of marginalized groups from decision-making processes that affect them, particularly among minority groups; Abbotsford has the third-highest proportion of visible minority populations of all Census Metropolitan Areas in Canada, after Toronto and Vancouver
- Reduced family capacity to raise children in a healthy environment: almost 15 percent of households are single parent families; more than 34 percent of Abbotsford's population is under age 25
- 34 percent of Abbotsford's children are entering school without the necessary skills to succeed to their full potential
- Weak community capacity to address issues of property crime, drug trafficking and gang-related activity
- Need for better management of the transition of inmates back into the community.
Understanding Poverty and Poverty Reduction
Adopting a social and economic perspective, Vibrant Abbotsford defines poverty as: “The condition of a person who does not have sufficient social and economic resources to achieve holistic well-being, unable to live with the dignity, choices and power that support full participation in society.” This definition encapsulates participants’ beliefs about the nature and complexity of poverty, their vision for a more prosperous Abbotsford and the need for comprehensive solutions.
Vibrant Abbotsford participants believe that they can reduce poverty. Further, they hold the view that reduced poverty levels can be sustained through the interplay of enlightened attitudes, recognition of commonly held values and improved social networks and social policies. Participants’ observations of life in Abbotsford have taught them that poverty reduction requires citizens to adopt inclusive attitudes. Residents need to recognize where marginalized citizens experience economic, social and civic barriers to participation in the life of the community. Poverty reduction also requires the development of assets for sustainable livelihoods. Ultimately, poverty reduction focuses on the potential and builds the capacity of individuals and the community.
As part of its initial preparations, the Vibrant Abbotsford Leadership Table (VALT) identified five root causes of poverty in its Poverty Profile for Abbotsford:
- Lack of personal or household assets – systems and programs that build these assets are Vibrant Abbotsford’s first priority
- Negative attitudes – of people in poverty (hopelessness), of others who have limited understanding of why people are poor
- Exclusion – Abbotsford has had a long history of groups maintaining their separateness from one another along ideological, programmatic, political, cultural or social lines
- Limited networks – organizations do not communicate effectively with one another
- Restrictive or poorly planned government policies.
Organizing the work
The Poverty Profile for Abbotsford was supplemented with the views on poverty of 100 residents interviewed by a Vibrant Abbotsford researcher. In January 2009, VALT organizers invited 60 local business and nonprofit organization representatives to a breakfast event at the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce to talk about their possible involvement in poverty reduction. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Work continues to include the voices and participation of residents, business people and people with lived experience of poverty.
Vibrant Abbotsford participants aspire to no less than re-forming Abbotsford: they hope to reform the environment in which poverty has taken root – the attitudinal, organizational, policy, civic and social structures which created barriers to prosperity. Members will create a place where partners can share resources and ideas in order to build a unified, thriving community. Their hope is that by strengthening the social fabric – improving attitudes, clarifying core values, building up social networks and influencing the development of supportive social policies – poverty reduction efforts will become a standard way of thinking and operating.