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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Filling the Gaps Through Storytelling: Human Geography and Social Belonging


by Doreen Fumia

People have stories to tell, stories about their lives, where they live and whether or not they feel like they belong. Belonging can reflect a variety of feelings such as a sense that you have a place in your home, your school, your community, your neighbourhood or your nation. Why does this matter and what does it have to do with anti-poverty community organizing and learning?

Quantitative methods seek to gather statistical information while qualitative methods seek to include background information to those statistical numbers. Our APCOL case study uses qualitative research. This includes historical and political backgrounds that shape social interactions and social inequality (for example, histories of racism or homophobia).

We also use ethnomethodology and human geography to fill in gaps in the existing resources on anti-poverty activism and knowledge about local neighbourhood communities.

Ethnomethodology refers to how researchers immerse themselves in communities as both observers and/or participants in a community. They might attend community meetings, interview local residents, or examine photographs together. Human geography is another approach that involves the researcher in communities. It not only maps the physical places where people live, it also asks questions about how people shape the social spaces in which they live.

In this way, we are able to portray neighbourhoods and the people who live in them according to the dynamic stories that residents have to tell and blend these stories with existing statistical information. One of the key elements of this project is to examine local residents’ involvement in anti-poverty activism in one neighbourhood west of Toronto’s city centre.

Anti-Poverty Meetings: sites of discovery

Joining groups and meeting with people who share similar perspectives makes us feel connected to those around us. This is precisely what anti-poverty groups do: meet, listen to each other’s stories, learn and organize. Organizing meetings is the first step to figuring out whether we have allies who share the same sense of injustice and whether we will find support to demand better conditions. Some call this social movement action or social action networking. When we find that there are others who share our desires to improve working and living conditions, we gain a sense of community belonging. This sense of belonging can extend beyond our immediate community to broader social networks that enliven the area, the city and even the country.

When involvement in community activism is tracked and reported, it serves a purpose: to help us understand how we work together, make social change and gain a sense of belonging in the process. Yet, this is not always the end result of anti-poverty activism. It takes a concerted effort, among residents and researchers, to highlight the experiences of those who live in neighbourhoods and to communicate those experiences in a way that influences social change. This is a key goal of this project.

Often politicians, urban planners and researchers have their own ideas about who belongs, and where, based on reports, media, statistics, city maps and neighbourhood profiles (see for instance information found at this web site: http://www.toronto.ca/demographics/ neighbourhoods.htm). Interpreting the information found in the places listed above may be influenced by assumptions people have about those who are from different cultures, races, sexual identities or income levels than they are. So, while it is important to gather information that provides us with shared knowledge about people and places, it is crucial to understand who those people are and how those places have taken shape. One way to do this is to simply ask.

Just Ask

Approaches to research in neighbourhoods have begun to include more and more first-hand accounts of the people who live in those neighbourhoods. Two approaches have introduced innovative ways to conduct research: storytelling and photography. Storytelling is a specific method that allows people living in the neighbourhoods to speak for themselves, rather than others speaking for them. Photography, sometimes referred to as "photovoice," is a method that puts cameras in the hands of local residents to create images that tell stories often used to fight for social change. In this way, local residents create their own narratives about where they live and whether or not they feel a sense of belonging.

I already mentioned a couple of terms that researchers use for working collaboratively with local residents: ethnomethodology and human geography. Human geographers ask us to think about the city as having both a physical and human component and both relate to each other.

For instance, one researcher observes, "When you declare that land can only be used to build two-storey houses, or when you say that certain kinds of businesses cannot operate there … you shape the landscape and actively shape the social relations that will take place there" If you walk the streets in your neighbourhood and take note of the stores, parks, public transportation, housing and so on and then compare this to walking the streets in a neighborhood that is known to be in a radically different income bracket, is there an obvious difference? Does the landscape tell us something about who lives there?

Sharing Neighborhoods

There are many influences that go into shaping a neighbourhood and some include economic, political, and social events. For example, what were the conditions for a neighbourhood to take shape? Was it a factory that employed immigrants who fled Ireland during the Great Potato Famine in the 1800s? Was it originally a vacation spot or an area that was developed near waterway transportation?

What brought people to a place, what keeps them there and what drives them out? Were they born there? Did they migrate from another part of the city or another country? Is the place safer - or less safe - because of their race or sexual orientation? Or, are they there because it is the only place they could find affordable housing? How does this information reflect the experience that individuals have and how do these experiences shape neighbourhoods and stories about who belongs where?
Social inequality is a complex and often disturbing issue. If we look at Toronto and its over 140 neighbourhoods, we begin to understand how the city and local communities work hard to develop a sense of belonging in each neighbourhood. There is a gap in our information readily available about Toronto’s neighbourhoods that more recent research has identified as heritage gentrification or environmental racism. Our APCOL case study is working with residents in one neighbourhood to fill that gap.
To summarize, this research will portray one neighbourhood as the residents experience it. We integrate these stories with information about the history, economic underpinnings and social networks that have helped make this space a neighbourhood. We follow one anti-poverty campaign run by the residents. In order to allow the residents to tell their own stories we will meet and tape our conversations. We will also walk the neighbourhood with residents, attend meetings and include photographs as a way to amplify their stories.
People tell complex and often contradictory stories which in turn demonstrate that paying attention to human geography creates dynamic and rich social histories about the places where we live. Working with residents to turn this rich social account about their neighbourhood into reports, local newsletters and policy recommendations serves to supplement community efforts to make living conditions better.
When residents work together on these projects with resources available to researchers, it builds a sense of community. And when we build a sense of community, we strengthen our sense of belonging in our homes, neighbourhoods and possibly beyond.
Doreen Fumia teaches in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University. She is the academic co-leader of the ACORN-Weston case study for the APCOL project.


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