A much-needed community approach

PAULETTE HICKS COMMENTARY - Telegraph Journal – September 10, 2014

There was a time when poverty was not talked about.

The Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI) has made poverty a topic of discussion among business leaders in our region. Whether the conversations happen socially or around the boardroom table there is recognition that in order to have a successful city, the business community, non-profits, and government need to continue working together in our effort to reduce poverty.

More than one-third of our city’s children under the age of six live below the poverty line. As business people, we ask ourselves basic questions like “how will we continue to have a workforce in this city unless we do something about multi-generational poverty?”

Our youth are suffering the consequences of growing up poor, and the proof can be seen in academic performance. As many as one-half of our students from priority neighbourhoods do not graduate from high school on time.   There is an education achievement gap and it needs to be closed if our city’s children are ever going to lead productive and fulfilling lives.

When you tell a story in a way that resonates with people, that’s how you keep the momentum going and build support. By working over the years as a catalyst to break the cycle of poverty in Saint John, BCAPI has been able to tell the story of how a “cradle to career” approach to education works as our best strategy for empowering youth and having them lead the lives they deserve.

BCAPI members have been involved with creating a number of support programs and organizations over the years, designed with a focus on education and poverty reduction. These programs operate independently of BCAPI, but in close collaboration with one-another and with each servicing a key role in achieving the common goal of addressing poverty.

First Steps Housing Project is one such organization. First Steps provides essential services to pregnant young women and their infants, who would otherwise not have a safe place to call home. First Steps also assists these women in navigating the resources available in our community so they will be able to provide a better life for their child. Education completion is a mandatory goal for the First Steps women, as most dropped out of school prior to their stay.

The Early Learning Centre operates in one of Saint John’s poorest neighbourhoods and provides an environment of continuous learning, committed to healthy child development and school readiness. The Centre also offers parenting programs and opportunities for parents to learn skills for re-entering   the workforce. There are plans to expand this early childhood development program into Saint John’s other priority neighbourhoods, but first we need a commitment from the provincial government and a pledge of stable financial support.

P.A.L.S. (or Partners Assisting Local Schools) is another highly celebrated initiative working to close the education achievement gap. Members of the local business community volunteer   their time in specific schools within Saint John to help enrich the learning environment for students and improve their academic outcomes.

Vibrant Communities is another organization that many community partners including BCAPI helped to create and guide to steward poverty reduction. One of its priorities has contributed to strengthening the focus on priority or low income neighbourhoods, resulting in many strong partnerships involving residents, government, and non-profits.

Saint John leaders are now working to formalize the intuitive cooperation of these and other like-minded organizations and their funders. A collective impact model is being adopted to help the fight against multi-generational poverty. This will mean taking the cooperative approach a step further by giving a new level of focus and leadership in our city to improve the social infrastructure. This new initiative is   named Living SJ.

The leadership team of Living SJ will be responsible for identifying areas of concern and developing a plan that will draw upon best practices, and raise the level of community buy-in and engagement. With limited funds and resources, this approach will ensure strategic efforts lead to results most needed by our community’s most vulnerable.

Saint John’s spirit shines through the work of BCAPI’s partners, and organizations like First Steps, the Early Learning Centre, PALS and now Living SJ. In some cities poverty is not discussed, but we have made working together to break the cycle of multi-generational poverty a top priority in Saint John.

Although our community is united in the fight against poverty, we cannot solve this problem alone. We need the support of our provincial government in Fredericton and this means sitting together at the decision-making table with Education, Health and Social Development to put the resources in place to move forward.

Our approach to ending multi-generational poverty in Saint John is clear: let’s keep the conversation going and work together to educate our youth from cradle to career. During this election, remember to talk with the candidates in your riding and ask them how they will work together to do better to ensure our children reach their full potential.

PAULETTE HICKS is a member of BCAPI’s Leadership Group. This essay is part of an ongoing series examining ways to reduce the province’s education achievement gap.

Diane Little, pictured here with children Izabella, Connor and Jade, credits the First Steps program with helping her become successful. BCAPI board member Paulette Hicks argues that First Steps is just one of a number of Saint John initiatives that is shaping the community for the better. PhoTo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal