The holidays are a time for upstream thinking

By Lee Stevens

The holidays are a time of giving.  This is especially true for the 1,200 charities in Calgary who depend on donations during this time of year.  Donating your money as well as your time is a meaningful way to celebrate the holiday season.  But for those of you questioning why the everlasting need for donations hasn’t let up year after year, this is where the Enough for All strategy fits in.

Enough for all is Calgary’s community-driven strategy to reduce poverty through the achievement of four goals, all communities are strong and inclusive, everyone has the income and assets to thrive, all Indigenous people are equal participants in Calgary’s prosperous future, and everyone can easily access the right supports.  I have already given a few presentations about Enough for All during my brief time at VCC, and one thing I never forget to talk about is the distinction between the charity model and the social justice model.  This can also be referred to as “upstream thinking.”

While it’s important to address the immediate needs of poverty, it’s just as important to prevent those immediate needs.  We address the immediate need of homelessness with emergency shelters; however, upstream thinking requires us to think about prevention and homelessness reduction which is accomplished through the creation of more affordable permanent housing.

Basic needs programs that provide clothing, gift cards, and transit tickets are important programs, but they are also reactive, addressing only the symptoms of poverty.  Upstream thinking enables us to consider income support as a way to prevent and reduce the need for basic needs programs.

Employers who pay a living wage, advocates of a principle-based basic income, and free tax clinics to increase the number of public benefits one receives are all initiatives that support an upstream approach to reducing poverty.

I also consider the advancement of Truth and Reconciliation initiatives to be an upstream approach to poverty reduction for Indigenous people.  Most service delivery models are not informed by an Indigenous framework, and this creates a lot of barriers for Indigenous people to receive the help that they need.  Since the release of the truth and reconciliation report, several organizations have expressed recognition that they must deliver services in a culturally safe way, and have since put measures in place to include traditional knowledge of Indigenous people.  But learning the truth and moving towards reconciliation is not just for charitable organizations, it’s necessary for everyone to take part.

During one of my presentations, I was asked what is the one thing everyone can do to help reduce poverty?  I usually tell people to sign up for our weekly e-newsletter, come to our community conversations and volunteer in your own community (okay that’s actually three things), but today I am going to say this, when you are donating your time or your money to a charity this holiday season, think upstream, think about what could be done to prevent that next person from needing a food bank hamper, or a food gift card, or a warm coat to wear, and then contact us to discuss poverty reduction.


Lee Stevens is a Community Facilitation and Engagement Specialist at Vibrant Communities Calgary. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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  • Yvonne StanfordYvonne Y

    So well said, Lee. Thank you.
    As the UPSTREAM video says, while showing rescuers running into the river to save drowning kids, “who the heck is throwing these kids in the river?”

  • Roberta Shepherd

    Yes I agree we all need to do our part, also wanted to say we absolutely must have Elders involved from the ground up. We need to start there and keep them involved. They have so much to offer in regards to their knowledge of past traditions, ceremonies etc Just having an Elder to talk to is healing in its own way.

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