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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Spotlight on: Deena Ladd

by Melissa Fong

Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC) has been using popular education as a technique to advocate with workers for two decades. Naturally, Deena is one of the first people the Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL) project approached, to help identify key ways in which anti-poverty organizations engage their members. My interview with Deena illuminated the importance of reciprocity and learning circles to sustaining a vibrant activist organization.

Deena’s day consists of coordinating all activities of WAC and this is no easy feat considering the range of activities the organization undertakes. The organization has worked to improve wages and working conditions for workers of colour, low-wage workers and non-status workers. WAC tries to connect with workers facing violations of their rights on the job by providing educational workshops, practical information on what to do as well as connecting with people through various community organizations.

WAC believes that the people they work with bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. Deena explains, “We start from that point – workers’ experiences on the job, What has that taught them? What changes do they think are needed? What strategies would work to connect with others facing the same issues? We build on their expertise, raise awareness of social justice, the root causes of the systemic inequities we are facing and facilitate conversations on making change.”

This approach is exemplified by the way workers connect with WAC through the Workers’ Rights Phone Line. The Centre operates a hotline in six languages where people can phone to ask about a problem. WAC workers ask callers to come to an information session. At that session WAC starts off the discussion with people’s experiences at work and questions they have about their rights.

“Through the process of finding out what information people have, we are able to connect people’s experience to broader issues, such as the lack of enforcement of basic laws, the lack of protection for temporary or contract workers, or just weak labour laws. We have discussions about why this is happening and the need for change,” Deena says.

Many people sign up to be a member of WAC at the end of the information session to gain greater involvement in the organization. Through these sessions, WAC aims to move from people’s individual problems towards empowering workers to fight for change.

“When people become members we invite them to Organizing Meetings where workers become involved in broader organizing and contribute to campaign development. This gives them an opportunity to be a part of a learning process, supporting workers to participate in politicized actions that give participants the courage to fight for their rights.”

The majority of WAC leadership consists of people who made that first call because of an individual violation they experienced. Their development into activism demonstrates the reciprocal relationship WAC develops with its members: people may come to the organization wanting a “fix” to their problem, but through organizing and learning about workers’ rights issues they become engaged as long-term members.

One of the goals of WAC is to help members develop into popular educators themselves so that they may organize and lead subsequent mobilizations.

Outreach, skills training, political education and workshops help members learn how to frame issues, hone in on key messages, and develop an understanding of what changes are needed to improve wages and working conditions. WAC is an advocacy group, not a charity. It stresses the need for its members to commit to goals of social justice and human rights and, most instrumentally to their success to collectively organize, developing a systemic understanding of individual problems.

Accessibility to participating in WAC is increased by ensuring it is multi-lingual and covers a wide geography, and having weekly info sessions in two locations in the GTA. However, WAC struggles, like many social justice organizations, to maintain participation as it knows that the people who are most at risk of precarious work situations have the most hardship in attending meetings and finding time to participate.

To build the vibrant membership it currently has, it incorporates buddy systems, partnerships that keep members up to date, and tries to develop relationships and interpersonal support through the organizing process.

Deena is one of six staff at the WAC. It is impressive to see organizing committees not only in Downtown Toronto, but also in Scarborough, and the development of a third committee in North York. WAC developed from the coming-together of a group of participants from a CURA-funded research project, co-led by Deena, in search of solutions to the precarious work situations they were experiencing. “When the research was completed, participants wanted to organize and have an organization that represented them,” said Deena.

The APCOL project can be inspired by the model of the Workers’ Action Centre which successfully utilizes popular education and empowers members to mobilize. Our project is sure to be successful if we can emulate WAC’s ability to develop momentum for the anti-poverty movement.

For more information about the Workers’ Action Centre please visit:


Melissa Fong is a graduate student in Adult Education & Community Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her current research is on the topic of anti-poverty social movements and settlement houses in Canada. Melissa also writes for the Ryerson Free Press and rabble.ca.

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