From Poverty Reduction to Community Wealth

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation.  Colette made these remarks on September 24, 2015 at a gathering of the Halton Poverty Roundtable.

Thank you, Michael, for that introduction and to all of you for braving the rush hour to be here this morning. When we were plotting our route here, I was surprised by the reluctance of Google Maps to predict a precise arrival time at this hour.  Even Google’s sophisticated algorithms are stumped by the ebb and flow of traffic between Toronto and Oakville.  Another sign our two cities will be bonding over concerns and complaints about public transportation – as much as weather – for some time to come.

It’s good to be here with you — people with whom we share a commitment to the elimination of poverty.  We count on our colleagues at the United Way, the Trillium Foundation and Community Foundations for fuel, but we know that roundtables like this one move all of us in the direction of a more prosperous province.

You might be wondering why I’m talking about Ontario’s prosperity when you’re here to talk about its poverty problem.  Michael has told me that you hope to learn today from others who are making progress and whose work can be adapted to your situation.  I also understand that you’re here to look at service integration to improve how the region serves people who are living in poverty.  

When I met June in Ottawa, my sense was that she knew the Atkinson Foundation had been a fellow traveller on this road for a long time – almost 75 years, in fact.  An investor in Voices for Change and others who mobilize people whose knowledge of poverty is first-hand, real and visceral.  

An anti-poverty advocate at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill.  And, a contributor to comprehensive approaches to poverty reduction like the Living Wage Campaign.

But June had also heard Atkinson talking lately about the economy and local economic development, not only poverty and the social safety net. She asked me why we’ve moved in this new direction and why we’re investing so much more time and money in what’s called “a community wealth building” approach to poverty reduction.  That’s why I’m here – to share why we think it’s time to acknowledge the limitations of the old conversation and have a new one with a wider group of people who share even bigger ambitions.

Almost two years ago, our board decided it was time to reconsider how we were tackling the issue of rising income and wealth inequality.  If how we were doing it was working, surely the divide would not be getting wider.  We concluded it was time to give more oxygen to solutions instead of problems.  It seemed to us that the questions we were asking about how to end poverty were taking us down a dead-end road.  

Ask any social scientist and they’ll tell you that questions are never neutral.  They’re fateful.  In my experience, systems move in the direction of the questions we ask of them.  Ask questions about problems, we can spend energy.  Ask questions about solutions, we can gain energy. Some say a preoccupation with problems can actually make them worse or harder to solve.

Atkinson’s biggest concern is that our expectations, as a society, have sunk dangerously low.  We’re focused on how the economy doesn’t work for certain groups.  We’re preoccupied with how to remove obstacles to jobs and training or how to repair gaping holes in the social safety net.  Our imaginations conceive system fixes and workarounds.

Ironically, it’s this obstacle – the lack of ambition – that concerns us most.  It’s rooted in the belief that income and wealth inequality is a natural condition, not a political choice.  It anchors organizations, institutions and businesses in their own missions, disciplines and sectors, not a shared culture or context.  It can stop us from taking even the smallest step forward.  It can inspire studies, reports, recommendations and commentary – lots of talk but very little progress.

What we call the lack of ambition, I’ve heard others describe as the lack of will, leadership or courage.  Symptoms, not root causes, in my opinion.  

The presence of ambition, on the other hand, has altered the course of history more than once.  Consider progress on gender, racial and marriage equality over the last hundred years.  Or, social reforms like health care, pensions and employment insurance.  When we’ve had high ambitions for Canada, we’ve successfully challenged and changed the dominant culture – what’s acceptable, who’s responsible, and what we can expect from each other and ourselves.

Today, Atkinson is trying to overcome this ambition deficit by connecting with people around the world who seem to have a surplus.  They’re challenging deeply rooted beliefs about poverty and working across disciplines and sectors in cities like Cleveland and Glasgow.  They’re anchored in a shared mission: to use their economic power more strategically.  They’re taking small steps and the occasional leap in the direction of an economy that does at least two things very well:

  • one, creates decent work and decent workplaces for more people.  Right now that means bringing minimum wage workers up to $15/hour and getting new employment standards legislation passed in Ontario; and,
  • two, shares the benefits of economic growth more equitably.  Among other things that means making sure that the $130B Ontario plans to invest in public infrastructure over the next ten years benefits low-income communities as well as developers

These ambitious cities are inspiring us but they’re also looking to us to return the favour.  We need a sufficiently large cohort of like-minded and similarly driven people working in a diverse set of contexts to create a learning community as well as a force great enough to overcome inertia.

History tells us no obstacle is insurmountable when a growing number of us want something badly enough.  The challenge as we see it is how do we keep the focus on what’s actually working long enough to turn the conversation from “what is” to “what could be”?

So, our board stopped asking ourselves what makes a community poor and started asking what makes it wealthy.  With help from our friends at the Mowat Centre, we also started investigating what impoverishes a province and asking what makes it prosperous.  We recently published two reports on strategies for building community wealth.  If you want to know what these ideas look like on the ground and in practice, I encourage you to read them.  You’ll find several case studies in this research.  I’d be happy to share some examples during the question and answer period if you’re interested.

My colleague Jared Walker has brought some printed copies with him but you can also find these reports on our website –  If you have mobiles handy, they’re very easy to find at and

Both reports provide evidence that reframing poverty reduction to community wealth building is leading community leaders like yourselves down a productive and creative road.  This new frame is redefining key terms like prosperity, wealth, poverty and inclusion.

Prosperity is one of those economic goals that we usually think of as driving competition, the kind that creates winners and losers, haves and have nots, the wealthy and the poor.  We think of poverty as something we can remediate with a strong social safety net and charity.  So, we set inclusion as a social goal to drive cooperation.  A consequence of this way of thinking, however, is that we are divided neatly into givers and receivers.  The benevolent and the beneficiaries.  The strong and the weak.

When we look at prosperity, wealth, poverty and inclusion in this way, the conversation is all about the damage caused to the receivers and their families by the economy; the kind of damage that accumulates over lifetimes and becomes the next generation’s inheritance.  It can become mired in the problems rooted in income and wealth inequality, such as access to healthy food, affordable housing, safe streets, and decent work.  We can burn up a lot of fuel spinning our wheels on remedial measures – instead of generating enough wealth for all of us, and a legacy that can produce dividends well into the future.  At least that’s our conclusion after almost 75 years of focusing Atkinson’s philanthropic resources on program and policy solutions to poverty.

In the past two years, we’ve renewed our commitment to equity and moved from there to solutions that promise benefits for the entire community.  Not the 1% or even the 99%.  We’ve refocused our attention on solutions that will work for 100% of us and build a stronger, more cohesive community at the same time.

We’ve also reached out to people who have economic power throughout the province who don’t think of themselves as anti-poverty activists, but who want to make a positive difference in their communities.

These are people who aren’t content to watch a fissure open up and leave our province deeply divided along race, gender and income lines – people who know that these conditions are bad for investment, bad for business, bad for the quality of community life, and really bad for their children and grandchildren.

They are people who manage public funds – at various levels of government, in universities, colleges and hospitals, in other nonprofit institutions and for-profit enterprises whose assets are anchored in neighbourhoods and cities.  

These people can’t outsource jobs to other countries or procure goods and services across borders.  

Perhaps like you, they have the power to invest and spend their resources in ways that “tame the top, lift the bottom and grow the middle” class.  They think like Mark Chamberlain, a leading entrepreneur from Hamilton who told you back in 2013 “if we invest to solve poverty, we’re investing in prosperity.”  But they also collaborate with people like Rita Thompson who was the first woman hired to work on the shop floor at Ford back in 1977 and who chose to focus on these issues in retirement as a member of your roundtable.

What makes these community wealth builders particularly effective is that they take their lead from people like Barb Chilwell whose experiences have made them strong and wise and brave. 

Our new allies live and work in Toronto and Vancouver, Scarborough and Peterborough, among other Canadian municipalities in transition.  But Halton is different in some important ways.  You are the fastest growing economic area in the GTAH, well positioned for the kind of population growth that comes with great opportunities and challenges.  Now is exactly the right time to start thinking about who will benefit from this growth and how to share this prosperity equitably.

I want to leave you now with a radical proposal.  I invite each of us to consider our own economic power as a consumer, employer and investor – our personal and collective power.  We mostly hear proposals that focus on specific target groups or audiences and how they should change – what they think or how they behave.

My proposal is that we focus first on ourselves and then on what we can learn from our peers in a community of practice. 

I’d like us to be relentless in examining our experience for the assumptions driving our actions and for insights that will improve public policy.  I’d also like us to listen with uncommon patience and attention to those who have been historically excluded from the economy – and to follow their lead.  

When we have enough experience under our belts, I propose we tell our stories across media channels and platforms to start replacing the dominant narrative with our own.

Each one of us can take this proposal forward into our own spheres of action and influence, including this roundtable and the communities you exist to serve.

What I know for sure is that communities build inclusive economies when we can observe five things:

  1. First, there is an undeniable opportunity in front of them.  The case for engagement is clear and presented by credible, trustworthy and knowledgeable community members, and they’re open to the possibilities.
  2. Second, they’re organized to have an economic voice and impact.  Skillful organizers who know how to use traditional and modern communication, leadership development, and collaboration tools are essential.
  3. Third, there are uncommon players are at the table.  Unlikely activists from across disciplines and sectors are needed as much as long-time champions.
  4. Fourth, they’re connected to other communities that are building their economies.  There are open sight lines across traditional geographic boundaries.
  5. Fifth, everyone shares in the risks, benefits and leadership.  No one is excluded from the conversation or decisions that affect him or her – everyone’s stake is respectfully acknowledged, everyone is given a role to play.

My hope is that you will accept this proposal today, and that Milton, Oakville, Halton Hills and Burlington will become communities known by future generations as truly wealthy cities in a truly prosperous Ontario.

Photo credit: Leena Sharma Seth, Halton Poverty Roundtable