Jean Swansen knows poor people and their tremendous capability to stretch a dollar and to survive with next to nothing. She also has a clear, steady eye for the structural causes of their poverty. She is not fooled by studies, the latest poverty busting fad, political promises, reforms and consultations. She's seem them all come and go. The few that work provide temporary relief.
She has been a community organizer and political activist for over 30 years. She has no patience for sloppy analysis or majestic promises. She is focused, knows her facts, speaks with confidence and writes more efficiently and compellingly than most policy wonks.
Hers is an informed, articulate, reasoned and experienced voice that reminds us of the down stream and often ignored implications of political decisions or corporate greed: the erosion in purchasing power of pensions, social assistance and minimum wage; job losses; cheap labour and further impoverishment, homelessness and malnourishment. Her analysis is sobering – see this recent response to poor bashing in the Vancouver Sun
And she addresses an often ignored variable in the complex challenge of poverty - poor bashing.
In her book, Poor-Bashing : The Politics of Exclusion, she introduced us to a form of injustice and discrimination as destructive and debilitating as sexism and racism – poor bashing. In Jean's words, "poor bashing is when people who are poor are humiliated, stereotyped, discriminated against, threatened, shunned, despised, pitied, patronized, ignored, blamed, and falsely accused of being lazy, drunk, stupid, uneducated, having large families and not looking for work."
She reminds us, "To think about poverty in a way that doesn't blame people who are poor, we have to use language that doesn't suggest they are to blame, we have to consider government and corporate decisions that impoverish hundreds, thousands and millions of people throughout the world."
Poor bashing means:
- leaving poor people out of discussions on issues that are crucial to their livelihood
- making tokens of people who are poor
- assuming the rich are entitled while the poor must do without
- ignoring people who are poor when they propose what they need
- projects supposedly designed to help people who are poor, don't
- making up your mind before you know the situation
- not listening to people who are poor
- welfare officials who feel they have the right to control you
- constantly being afraid that someone will take your children
Jean's activism started in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She has been active provincially and nationally and is the former President of the National Anti-Poverty Organization (now Canada Without Poverty). Not too long ago she came out of retirement to become Coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project to ensure that Vancouver's Downtown Eastside remains a low income friendly community.
In 2007 she received Carleton University's prestigious Kroeger Award for Citizenship and Community Affairs, "for her tireless work against poverty in Canada. (She) is a private individual living in Vancouver who the jury concluded best represented the qualities of commitment, leadership, and community ties."
An unabashed voice of poor people. If Jean Swansen has her way that will lead to unbashable.
This is the eleventh in a series on poverty. Click Poverty to access the others.