On Po[WE]rty: In Conversation with Brenda Then
In support of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP) on October 17, AMKFSC Community Services collaborated with several social service agencies and citizens to co-create a citizen-participation platform for people living in poverty to make their concerns heard, and to acknowledge the efforts that they have made to craft a better path for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Through the lens of lived experiences, the virtual webinar explored the "WE" in Po[WE]rty as participants took a deeper look into their existing perceptions to examine if we are part of the problem and explore how we can be a part of the co-solutioning. We spoke to Brenda Then, Assistant Head of Sengkang Family Service Centre and co-host for the IDEP Webinar.
First and foremost, congratulations on successfully holding the IDEP webinar, with almost 300 attendees! As you had shared in the introduction of the webinar, IDEP presents a platform for people living in poverty to make their concerns hear. What was the inspiration for the format of this year's event, and how did your team come to choose a webinar, spliced with video interviews with persons with lived experiences of poverty?
Brenda Then (BT): It was the first time for me, too, actually, learning that it was historically conceptualised by the United Nations. Previously, I had thought the purpose of such a day was to create awareness of poverty and coming together to tackle poverty. But this year, after participating in it, and doing a bit of research into the background, I came to realise that, actually one of the main intentions of IDEP was to create a platform for people experiencing poverty to share their experiences and to be part of the solution. I thought it was an important point, and probably one of the main drivers for the kind of webinar tone and stance that we wanted to take.
The main thing we really wanted to do was to create awareness of the issue – not just through educating people about poverty and inequality, but to encourage people to take an inward approach and to see that they have a part to play as poverty is a “we” issue. We have a part to play, sometimes, in maintaining parts of the problem; we also have a part to play in participating in its solution. We were quite clear that we didn’t want to be a bunch of social workers taking an expert stance, getting people to hear us from that position. We wanted ground-up voices and for the families to speak for themselves. I think that is important. We were quite clear from the start that we were going to just be facilitators, and that the webinar should not only cater to fellow social service practitioners. In fact, we wanted to encourage social workers to reflect on whether we would change some of our interventions or mindsets after the webinar?
Of course, the webinar format has been very popular this year with the COVID-19 situation, so we thought to use such a platform to engage the public. We wanted to showcase that the families/individuals are really experts of their own lives and they are also participants in a sense that they have taken the courage to share their stories. It was definitely not easy to share the multiple challenges they have gone through.
What was a particularly memorable or interesting idea or story that you think the individuals contributed, which you had not seen from your perspective as a social service professional?
BT: I think, the whole idea that "opportunities matter". That was really a strong takeaway for me. As social workers, many of us share a common larger goal when working with families – to help (improve) people’s wellbeing But after speaking with the individuals – we called them teachers, because they were teaching us from their first hand experiences of living in poverty – what really struck me was the importance of facilitating opportunities for them? Is the help we have provided useful? All help is nice right (laughs), but is the help targeted? Or if I phrase it differently, why does it have to be “help”? Why can’t it be “opportunities”?
I was also quite inspired by Mauricio L. Miller’s book, “The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong”. In his book, he talks about how the help system should be constructed differently; he invites us to look at investing in people and their strengths instead of focusing on deficits, facilitating opportunities – not even providing opportunities, which connotes a top-down approach that only (help givers) know better. Miller encouraged us to be really targeted and comprehensive in the facilitation, to follow people’s lead and help accelerate their own efforts to improve situations.
There were many nice quotes that the teachers shared (during the webinar). For me, one really important quote was Norlia’s suggestion to “help from the heart”. As a social worker, if I were to put her advice in the social work context, what would “help from the heart” mean? Does my help stop at the point where I have facilitated your financial application? Or, would it mean taking a step back from the immediate situation, look at your circumstances holistically and asking myself, “what exactly do you and your family need, to have better wellbeing?” I was reflecting on whether there were situations where I might have unintentionally been more harmful than helpful. Have I helped you, supported you, or worked with you in a dignifying way? Am I aware of the values I hold, and where those values come from? I think that’s important. Placing Norlia’s sentiment in this context made me think beyond just providing help, but also what is useful.
Let’s switch gears a little, to look at the teachers’ experiences of the webinar. Have they had a chance to speak to your team since the webinar?
BT: We asked for feedback and encouragement from the audience during the webinar and were very heartened by the outpouring of encouragement for the teachers. The teachers shared that they were really very touched by what the audience had said and thanked the IDEP team for the opportunity to engage with so many people through their stories. The teachers shared with their social workers that they felt inspired to keep pressing on. Overall, it sounded like it was a positive experience for the teachers, and so we were glad for them.
Did you face any challenges in facilitating the webinar?
BT: We were very mindful that we wanted to set an invitational tone for everyone. We wanted to make it clear that it was okay for people to come in with different comfort levels about the topic. We invited people to use the stories shared as a mirror to look inwards, and ask about some things which “I”, rather than “you”/”someone else” can start doing. The most challenging task was to curate the right flow and mix of questions, especially during a “live” event. Kumar and I had to make many decisions on the spot about how to react to questions, what prompts we would use. We really have to thank our awesome backend team, who curated questions and comments which would help spark deeper reflections and further conversations. It was a luxury to have their help, which allowed Kumar and I to focus on the timing of surfacing the questions and comments.
Following the webinar, do you think that you saw people experiencing big shifts in their positions? What surprised you?
BT: There were many comments which were very reflective and insightful. Many people reflected on themselves first, and engaged in individual responses, over seeking institutional answers. This was what our team had set out to encourage in the webinar. We are cognisant that the macro policy, structural, and even moral issues will require time and collective efforts to review. Therefore, it is important, in this piece of work on poverty awareness, to engage with our own perspectives of poverty. We wanted to draw the link between self-awareness on how we formed out our mindsets about poverty and their influence on how we respond to or think about someone who is experiencing poverty, or how we tackle poverty. We were very heartened to see that we had succeeded, through some of the thank you notes we received. (In the grander scheme of things) it was a small webinar, but it had nudged people to begin thinking about certain things.
This reminds me of what Fazeli mentioned in the living room conversation, which I really like, as we now talk about mindsets. "If there is a virus that is spreading, how can you stop the virus from spreading"? Mindsets about poverty can be perpetuated by public perception, but he invites us to stand up to the situation and correct unconstructive misconceptions, the idea of starting from “we”.
What do you think comes next, after reflecting inwards and examining our perspectives?
BT: First and foremost, I think we need to acknowledge and respect that everyone has a preferred mode of contributing. For example, some people’s takeaway after the webinar will be to help by donating to chosen causes or volunteering their time with an agency that supports families and individuals who are facing challenges. Direct individual effort and contributions should not be ruled out and should be in fact encouraged if it is within your comfort zone. Please continue to do so, as no help is too small!
For others, after hearing the inputs at the webinar, they may feel that they want to, in Fazeli’s words, "stop the virus from spreading". The thing about public perceptions – we underestimate the informal context of how when an opinion is passed from person to person, we may rationalise it and it becomes a "fact". When beliefs become rationalised as “facts”, we may forget to question whether it is actually a construct, or we wrongly attribute certain causes to the effects which are visible on the surface. So the next time that you hear someone voicing a misconception about poverty, such as "people in poverty are lazy to work", you can speak up to challenge the nuances, implications and subtext of these statements. You could create awareness and have frank conversations, if you like, by asking "What do you think is informing your perspective?". If the webinar invoked deep thoughts for you, you could speak up and share the insights you have had to expand others’ perspectives on things. I spoke to Fazeli more about his idea to "create an awareness campaign", which was included in the living room conversation. I think it doesn’t have to be a big campaign where you set up an exhibition or conduct a formal talk. It can be as simple as asking others how we can help a little bit more, how we can understand a little bit more.
No effort is too small, you just have to stick at it and continue with it.
BT: Yes, we want to start where people are comfortable. We want to be invitational, and join together in efforts, which can come in many different forms.
The webinar was also a mirror for myself as a social worker, to consider my other identity as a member of public, a citizen. I want to be “naughty” too and challenge fellow social workers about the idea that our efforts are “very big”. As a social worker, being in the “helping field” itself, how do we contribute to/maintain certain public perceptions of people experiencing poverty through the language we use when we conceptualise and administer assessments? I think that is something for us to think and dialogue more about.
If we link it back to the practical work we do, such as budgeting and financial literacy – Is budgeting really the solution (to people’s issues of basic needs and wellbeing), if we do not also ascertain if people have enough money to do budgeting? These interventions (if done uncritically) take attention away from actual structural problems that maintain the issues. The story made me rethink why our perception of “help” comes in this particular package. Through the help that we put forth, do we contribute to certain public messages and perceptions of people experiencing poverty? Additionally, when we resource families, do we plan for what happens after the period and amount of assistance is exhausted? If you have less financial resources than others, you have to be super careful about what you are going to buy. You cannot take risks because every cent matters.
I wanted to leverage on this point to discuss the other message we want to put out in the webinar. We wanted to, debunk the myth that low income families don't care about their children. They really make a lot of conscious decisions about how to parent, care for their kids, how to share aspirations for them. Choice is a luxury. Low-income families sometimes make decisions that don't seem so "right" or "favourable", but that's because they had far less options to choose from than others. Sometimes when we ask well-meaning questions, such as “why don’t you want to go to work?”, as Norlia shared, “It's not that I don't want to work, it's just that I don't have work”. We should ask ourselves if work is the only thing that helps people out of poverty. There may be other things we need to consider – having access to suitable work, or having our ability impacted by caregiving and health issues. What is left for those for whom "work as the way out of poverty" is not an option?
Do you think that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will help shift the perceptions of poverty and inequality? Looking at two examples – 1) the amount of self-organised help which has come in, such as when Engineering for Good equipped students with refurbished laptops to participate in Home-Based Learning (HBL), 2) the announcement of extension of duration of assistance to current Comcare recipients who are eligible until the end of 2020. In your own opinion, do you think these are temporary responses? What are your hopes?
BT: Perhaps one of the bigger revelations that quite a lot of people had after COVID-19 was that poverty was not just about looking at the 20% of the population with the lowest household income. If you recall one of the poll questions during the webinar – quite a high percentage in the audience were concerned that there was a good chance that poverty could happen to a family member or friend, even if not to themselves. Uncle JB's living room story paralleled that – when a crisis happens, someone might fall down a slippery slope, and it can be quite hard to start rebuilding (in the aftermath). The COVID-19 situation, I guess, has made us think more about what it means to be “low-income” in Singapore. We may need to look at larger structural issues that make it hard for people to come out of challenging situations. If certain priorities do not change, more of us will become susceptible to poverty. COVID-19 has amplified for me, at least, that it is not about “me” and “them”, but us. Therefore, what should we do about the issue, together? I hope this will continue to deepen in people's mind.
We have seen how throughout, especially during the Circuit Breaker (CB) period, people have extended help whether through agencies or informally. It was super awesome to see laptops coming in fast and furious, grants being extended. But what I learnt and hoped can continue is this review of what counts as a "basic need". The need for access to electronic devices and WiFi was really in our faces during the CB period – it was not a luxury; if you didn’t have these things, you could not participate in your education. This is an important part of poverty awareness work, to distinguish that poverty in an urbanised society like Singapore is less about severe deprivation and more about relative poverty. In other words, what is needed for someone to participate actively in society?
While schemes came in fast and furious and people were truly very appreciative of it, we should consider what will happen to social services and social service thinking after COVID-19? Will we harness the lessons from COVID-19 to rethink and dialogue about the social service agenda and the new social compact? The beneficiaries of the various agencies who participated in the webinar actually have a lot good things to say about the help they received and we really wanted to highlight that as well. When we talk about poverty, it isn't about state bashing. There is solidarity in the same goal, we are not taking different stand. I hope that dialogues like these serve as an invitation to relook certain things. How should we look like, think and operate? We should not waste this learning opportunity.
If we look at a relatively smaller step, what are the things you are keen to work on, and would like to see change, before IDEP 2021?
Going back to what the teachers had shared, that everyone wants a better life, it is just about whether there are the right opportunities. I want to look at how can we intentionally facilitate and put forth those opportunities. I want to remind myself to challenge the assumption that people come to us for help because they want to rely on us. The teachers’ stories reminded us that they take pride in doing things for themselves, and when they receive that little boost, or opportunity, they capitalise on that and just excel. They have turned opportunities into something greater, like investing in their children’s future, becoming a first time home-owner after living in rental flats their whole lives, or volunteering their skills to help others in the community. We saw, in the teachers’ sharing, that when they have received themselves, they created opportunities for others. For example, Fazeli helped to deliver stay-at-home craft kits to children in the neighbourhood. If we can shift the lenses we use, we may be less focused on “self-reliance” and attaching conditions to help. It's not wrong to have those focus, but more to remind ourselves to listen carefully and look at the whole picture. Have we sincerely helped from our heart, what are the different opportunities we can create? It is a whole cycle of uplifting people and seeing them uplift others in turn.
I wanted to end off by saying that I was very touched by the solidarity in the process of doing this webinar. There was an element of solidarity on many layers. The first layer was seeing different social service agencies coming together and we don't see that often enough, so it was nice. The second layer was having social service agencies and concerned citizens coming together. And third, of course, would be the participation of individuals (living in poverty) themselves, their families and engagement with the public. While this might be cliché, I wanted to give a shout out to my colleagues Bee Leng, Lap Kuan, Adriana, Jeanette, Wah Meng, Russell, Louise (Fazeli’s caseworker) for being Fazeli’s cheerleader, Beyond Social Services, Daughters of Tomorrow, Kampong Kapor Community Services, South Central Community Family Service Centre, Yishun Health and several concerned citizens. I can’t stress this enough, that it was a brilliant team. I have learnt a lot. If you ask me, I would do it again!
Interview with Brenda Then, as told to Soo Hong Ling. Soo Hong Ling is an Assistant Senior Social Worker with AMKFSC Community Services’ Office of Organisational Transformation.