Changemaker profile: The Speakers Bureau – Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction

Header image from Axle Studios
Last spring we interviewed Jennifer Chivers and Naseem Saeed Sherwani from the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction about the work of the Roundtable’s Speakers Bureau and their efforts to build inclusive communities. Our interview happened during the last day of activities of the 2017 Vibrant Communities Canada – Cities Reducing Poverty Summit: When Business is Engaged (Hamilton, ON. April 4-6, 2017).
The aspiration of the Roundtable is to make Hamilton the best place to raise a child. To work  towards this goal they advocate for policy change and play the role of a facilitator of  conversations around poverty. Their partners come from across Hamilton and include leaders from the business and non-profit sectors (Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Community Foundation), government (City of Hamilton) and individuals who experience poverty daily.
The Speakers Bureau, called Speak Now, is an initiative within the Roundtable. The Speakers Bureau provides a platform for its members to share their stories on poverty and exclusion. This project came out from the Roundtable’s Shifting Attitudes work group. The members of this group realized that, on the continuum of people who live in our community, there is a group of residents at one end who understand poverty. There is no need to convince them on how people are struggling and being marginalized because of poverty. But at the other end there is a group who are content to put their head in the sand and will deny that there is a problem and that they could be part of the solution. Somewhere along the continuum lie the people who probably would be willing to listen to what the Roundtable has to say and they will have their hearts and minds open. That space is where there is potential to shift attitudes. Residents were invited to gather and share their own experience on what is like to live in poverty, and introduce themselves to break stereotypes.
Storytelling is a core component of the work of the Speakers Bureau. By listening to the stories of their members, we come closer to the lived experience of those struggling with  poverty, build relationships with one another and shift attitudes toward poverty, which is foundational to the work of the roundtable. Shifting attitudes can happen within the public and private sector, as well as community organizations. Through shifting attitudes, we let stakeholders see the benefits for them and for the community they operate in.
Over time, members of the Speakers Bureau gained knowledge and confidence to join boards and other committees. For instance, there is a member who now sits on the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s board. Other members have gone back to school to pursue all types of programs, from vocational training to a graduate degree. Its members have spoken at more than 200 different events, sharing their stories and connecting poverty to other topics (unemployment, immigration, healthcare, etc.).  As a member of the Speakers Bureau, Naseem has lived experience of poverty because she has had troubles finding a job, despite having professional qualifications and a university degree. She started out as a member of the Speakers Bureau and became a trained speaker. She is now confident giving speeches and also serves as the liaison with the Roundtable, as appointed and voted by her former members . Naseem talks to them directly, peer to peer, and then she shares their concerns with Jennifer at the Roundtable. Naseem has gradually become an advisor on the relationship between the Roundtable and the members of the Speakers Bureau.
Naseem is an example of the enthusiasm of the members of the Speakers Bureau and their willingness to contribute to larger efforts to improve social wellbeing. During our conversation, Naseem and Jennifer shared the story of a member who is a mental health survivor. He has gained strength and confidence through the Speakers Bureau training and has launched conversation cafés around housing for people that are mental health survivors. Members of the Speakers Bureau are highly productive and motivated individuals but they lack employment opportunities and social support to lift them out of poverty. Naseem highlighted that for immigrants, jobs are precarious and lack opportunities for professional growth, even if they already have work experience in Canada.
We asked Jennifer and Naseem to define poverty based on their day-to-day work in the Speakers Bureau.
For them, poverty is a lack of justice. It is a human-made construct that can thus be removed and deconstructed by individuals and human systems. Poverty can also be similar to a crime because people are being taken away from their right to wellbeing. Eradication of poverty means that everybody has access to decent housing, proper caloric intake of food and health services. Storytelling plays a key role in understanding poverty because it provides the qualitative data that is needed to support change at the policy level.

Our conversation ended with four learnings to keep in mind in supporting listening for transformative change:

  • Having a trained facilitator who is very good at listening can make a world of difference when you are starting a Speakers Bureau.
  • Listening is about filtering emotions out to hear the words and understand the reality of those being left out.
  • Facilitation is about understanding the human dynamics of interactions. Ideas come out when we allow people to speak in a safe and organic environment. Everyone is a spokesperson.
  • There is more than one way of listening because people communicate differently (acting, painting, filming, photographing, writing).

Note: On April 4 2017, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction was recipient of the Leadership in Poverty Reduction Award for their outstanding work in their community.  To learn more about the 2017 Vibrant Communities Canada – Cities Reducing Poverty Awards, click here.

About Jennifer Chivers:
Jennifer provides administrative and logistics support to the work of the roundtable as she is the contact point with people from across Canada that wish to learn more about their work. She collaborates with a diversity of stakeholders: academic institutions, community organizations and local authorities. She is also the coordinator of the Speakers Bureau.
About Naseem Saeed Sherwani:
Naseem is a member of the Speakers Bureau since 2014. Through this initiative, Naseem has received training on public speaking and she also has the opportunity to speak in a variety of topics linked to poverty, specifically professional training, immigration and living wage. She currently has an advisory role at the Speakers Bureau. She helps members go through a brainstorming process, convey and tailor their speeches.