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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Filling Holes: Where APCOL Fits into Current Research


by Peter Sawchuk and Sharon Simpson

Our APCOL project is using action research to fill in several important gaps in the existing resources on anti-poverty activity. By doing this, we can deepen and widen our ability to understand ways in which activists and communities take on the challenges of poverty in Toronto and elsewhere.

There is no shortage of excellent research on poverty and anti-poverty in today’s societies. Research from around the globe as well as right here in Canada has looked at the multi-dimensional nature of poverty. It has explored who is affected most deeply by poverty. It has investigated how poverty emerges, and how citizens can self-organize, struggle and create positive change in their communities and economies. There is survey style research that has looked at these issues on a broad scale. And, there are also a great number of detailed studies of individual instances of people organizing and responding to challenges of one type or another. In setting the research goals of the APCOL project we carefully reviewed this research for ideas that were not yet fully understood and applied.

The first gap we found is perhaps so basic that researchers do not give it a second thought. Research has seldom if ever looked closely at how social changes ultimately depend upon how people – individually and collectively – undergo change themselves, or learn. In fact, very few researchers have combined studies of social movement development and anti-poverty action with an exploration of activist learning and development. According to the research, learning just seems to happen. Yet we know, as organizers, activists and participants that between organizing for change and actually bringing change about people respond in very different ways. How is it, the APCOL project asks, that when faced with apparently similar conditions people respond so differently? This, we think, is a matter of different types of learning.

A second gap that was revealed in our review of research was that studies often focused on a single issue (e.g. housing, school completion, living wage, health/nutrition) rather than seeing these as inter-linked in a broader perspective on poverty and anti-poverty action. Our response was to look at how these are (or could be) related to each other as a comprehensive effort undertaken across an entire metropolitan area.

A third gap we identified was that survey and focused case study research were seldom combined to answer questions. Each of these research methods has its own unique strengths. Survey research allows us to see the effects of broader conditions and patterns of activity. Detailed studies of individual campaigns on the other hand help us see in greater detail how individuals and groups are seeking to bring about positive changes. In response to this, the APCOL project is using both large-scale surveying of anti-poverty action/conditions combined with a series of eight detailed case studies. All of these are used within a framework of ‘action research’.

The fourth and final gap in the research is that it usually explores a small number of isolated factors affecting the organizing process. Part of the problem here is that individual researchers work on the basis of a specific field or research discipline. Yet the boundaries between academic disciplines often hinder rather than help us take on real-world social problems. We believe that research that asks and answers questions across different research fields has an important role to play. For this reason, the APCOL project has brought together researchers from a variety of academic disciplines – social movement studies, sociology, political science, political economy, policy studies, labour studies, anti-racism, feminist studies and educational studies – in order to ask and answer important questions about the nature of poverty, anti-poverty and activism.

The combination of research ideas is an important strength of the APCOL approach. The following are the four sets of research ideas at the centre of our collective efforts.


Very little detailed analysis of how learning takes place in anti-poverty campaigns is found in the research literature to date. The APCOL project will focus on individual and collective learning processes. Specifically we investigate popular education efforts which can be used to develop activists and campaigns. We also investigate informal learning efforts by activists, community participants and those in the community that may not be actively participating in a campaign.


Every campaign or effort at social change depends on social networks, whether this involves friends, family, or other campaign participants. These social networks are complex and overlapping. Social networks research is well developed in relation to social change efforts of many different kinds. The APCOL project will link social network research to understanding how people come to participate in campaigns with specific learning outcomes for seasoned, emerging and potential participants.


Both learning processes and social networks, of course, take place within specific conditions. These conditions play a fundamental role in defining strategy, and influence the success or failure of organizing efforts. How is campaign success or failure influenced by cultural differences; economic and local labour market conditions; local, municipal, provincial and even national political conditions? While many previous studies have highlighted the role of one set of conditions or another, few combine them.


Who becomes engaged in different forms of anti-poverty campaigns? How does who they are affect their participation and learning? And, how do their different social networks and conditions shape who becomes an activist or leader, and who remains excluded from participation?

Research on learning in anti-poverty campaigns and social movement development has rarely addressed such questions together. Anti-poverty activity itself often shows very uneven attention to such matters, and in so doing can result in exclusions. The APCOL project undertakes the study of equity, inequity and biography within anti-poverty organizing and activist development as a matter of learning, un-learning and breaking down barriers. 

Peter Sawchuk teaches in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. With David Livingstone, he is academic co-leader of the APCOL project.  

Sharon Simpson is Special Projects Coordinator for Labour Community Services, and community co-leader of the APCOL project.

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