Women from poverty-class heritages push the privileged social class pillars in Canadian universities

Words by Dr. Elaine J. Laberge

Research Abstract

Canada is a unique Commonwealth nation: Publicly-funded universities lack mandates to support students whose lives are shaped by systemic poverty and class discrimination. Unlike other Commonwealth nations (e.g., Australia, UK, USA), there are no widening access and participation (WAP) programs in place to support this domestic demographic access, complete and successfully transition into post-graduate careers.

This underserved and unrecognized population too often, if they even make it to university, faces innumerable barriers in the middle-class higher education landscape. Elaine's doctoral research aimed to rectify this injustice.

Pushing privileged pillars in Canadian universities

In 2021, Elaine, a student from generational poverty, supervised by Dr. Kathy Sanford and Dr. Budd L Hall, completed her dissertation “Pushing Privileged Pillars in Canadian Universities.” This Vanier-funded community-based participatory research brought together women across Canada who come from poverty-class roots and who accessed an undergraduate education.

Through the creation of the Shoestring Initiative to support students from poverty, focus groups, one-on-one research conversations, and drawing on case study exemplars, the “Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity” (the name of the research partners/sisters) developed a social innovation model to demonstrate to Canadian universities how to create decolonial and non-deficit-based WAP models for students from poverty-class heritages.

Moreover, this research bumped up against damaging narratives that students from poverty are less-than. Together, the Underclass Sisterhood of Solidarity celebrated the mosaic of ancestral and kinship teachings, cultures, and knowledge systems that we bring to higher education places and spaces.

“In our colonial capitalist society, the individual is blamed for poverty, rather than looking at the structural reasons why poverty exists.”  - Dr. Elaine J. Laberge

Direct impacts

Elaine’s research continues to have regional, national and international impacts. To illustrate, Elaine’s activism, her contributions to EDID, and this research directly influenced the inclusion of advancing social class diversity and addressing poverty discrimination in the faculty's new EDID policy. Moreover, this research is being considered for implementation at a Canadian university, which would be the first in Canada.

This heavy-on-the-action research also addressed poverty discrimination beyond Canadian university landscapes by engaging with, for instance, regional and national political leaders to address poverty (“social condition”) discrimination in this nation. This award-winning doctoral research (Canadian Association of Action Research in Education (CAARE) Outstanding Dissertation award, 2022) is a testament to the impact that student research can have.

To learn more visit Elaine’s research website www.echoesofpoverty.com or contact her directly at elaberge@uvic.ca.