Cara Fabre remembers the evening that she and Krystle Maki first hatched the plan for Instigate 2010, an "anti-poverty rant-in" that unfolded in Kingston last weekend. Talking about their academic work at the grad club, the then-acquaintances found that they had a whack in common. "We both do anti-poverty work in our own academic research," says Fabre, a PhD student working in the department of English. "We agreed that we felt isolated in our disciplines -- and we were both feeling that there was no forum to talk about how our work is applicable to the community, and how it could affect change."
Fabre's research is focused around the representation of addiction and self-harm in Canadian women's literature -- ultimately, she explains, "an analysis of poverty in and of itself," while Maki, a PhD student in the department of sociology, studies the connection between the welfare state and the increased surveillance of those who live on social assistance.
"We were frustrated by the fact that we didn't just want to write a bunch of academic papers that would only be read by academics," recalls Fabre, feeling instead that there was more important and useful applicable work to be done within the larger Kingston community. Fabre adds that they had also heard that the Kingston community, which has a high number of people living below the poverty line, felt disconnected from life on-campus. "They felt they had no access to it," she explains.
Fabre and Maki then enlisted Dave Thompson, a PhD student in the department of history, to help with the project. Thompson, who studies anti-poverty movements in Canada from 1870 to 1940, says he's interested in "the kind of liberal politics and welfare policies that were created by the government, and how poor people have resisted those policies in conjunction with leftist organizations."
The threesome then set about meeting with community members to determine what they wanted to see at the ‘rant-in' -- a term they felt would be less alienating and exclusive than a traditional conference. The ground-breaking event, which took place from October 14 to 16 in venues both on and off campus, and included the participation of 70 volunteers, 20 facilitators, and more than 300 participants, from community activists to students. They attended sessions on everything from welfare, environmental justice, activism and food security, among many others.
"Traditionally, when Queen's University has engaged with the community, it's generally been about talking to the community," explains Thompson, thinking back on the event. "And what I found most exciting about this conference is that we were talking with the community, with an emphasis on listening. It was as much about transforming our own academic process to be more accountable to the marginalized communities that we live in."
What the organizers say was most exciting about the event were the conversations that emerged between individuals who might otherwise never meet. "I had numerous academics come up to me after the conference," explains Thompson. "They were excited by how uncomfortable they felt sometimes -- because the questions and comments they were receiving (after their presentations) were entirely different from the ones they would get at traditional academic conferences."
"A lot of people were saying things like ‘this has been my experience", recalls Fabre. "They would ask, ‘how does your research address my lived experience' -- say with systematic barriers to health care. It was a really neat experience to sit in those rooms." Fabre also says she heard again and again how safe people felt asking questions. "If there was one really rare thing about this conference," adds Thompson, "it's really that the academics who were present were forced to listen as much as they talked."
Both Fabre and Thompson say that their experiences at the conference will change how they proceed with their academic work. For Fabre, it's a matter of reconsidering the reach of her final dissertation. "How could a different audience be reached, for example, if I re-wrote it for publication with the idea of it becoming a pedegogical teaching tool for community and educators?" she says. Thompson says he has already changed his teaching style to include more role-playing as a way to help his students formulate their ideas more clearly. He says he has also been inspired to try and reach an audience outside of academia with his scholarly work.
Though they haven't yet committed to running another rant-in next year, the organizers say they hope to keep its momentum going. They also hope it will continue to build ties between Queen's and the greater Kingston community in a bid to do one important thing: help to alleviate poverty in the community.
For more information on Instigate 2010: Anti-Poverty Rant-in, visit: http://povertyconference2010.wordpress.com/
For another article on the event, visit the Journal's article at: http://www.queensjournal.ca/story/2010-10-19/news/starting-dialogue/