Denise Bélanger knows a thing or two about what happens when luck meets preparation and ambition. After her son was born 25 years ago, she was hired to facilitate different types of focus groups in the francophone community and spun that work into a career in social science research and evaluation. She’s an enthusiastic facilitator, a source of knowledge and wisdom, and has lent her mind to some of Réseau Compassion Network’s most challenging strategic goals.
She also knows a thing or two about people who’ve had bad luck, bad health and poor outcomes in their lives, often through no fault of their own. One of the ways she can explain this is a social theory called complex poverty. She sat down to tell us about it, and how it can impact the work RCN does in the community.
First off, why is identifying a social theory important to an organization like ours?
If you think about RCN’s strategic plan, responding to unmet needs is crucial. It’s the anchor of all that you do. In looking at that plan, it became clear that some kind of framework would be helpful in determining how you might want to respond to community needs, social needs and of course, unmet needs. This might help answer the questions of, “What kind of social need will we fund? How do we make a difference?”
You, along with our Director of Strategic Initiatives, Paul Vermette, agreed upon complex poverty as a social theory to help guide our work. Tell us what that means.
A lot of people believe that poverty is a simple thing: a lack of money. At a base level, that’s what it is, but it’s actually much more complicated than that.
Poverty isn’t just one thing; it’s a web of interrelated factors that create a situation in which individuals are marginalized, socially excluded, or have poor life outcomes.
Also, poverty isn’t linear: if you are not well, chances are your income will be lower. We know that poor health leads to poor income. But the reverse is true, as well. If you don’t have a liveable income, the probability is that you will have a poorer holistic health outcome, as well.
You often mention the word holistic when describing social theories. Can you explain that a little more?
A model like complex poverty provides a holistic way of looking at marginalization, which means that you’re dealing with the whole complexity of someone’s need. Why do individuals find themselves in need? If you support someone to find housing, you’re helping them with an immediate need. But if you’re not also looking at what their health needs are, how their mental health is, or what income supports they might need, you’re not really seeing the whole picture. The probability of the impact on that individual’s life will be greater if we are truly seeing all the ways that poverty impacts them.
Why do you think complex poverty is the right model for RCN to consider when it comes to moving our strategic goals forward?
Firstly, it aligns with the other important beliefs of your organization. The charisms of the Sisters is the root of all that you do. Catholic Social Teachings are very much reflected in the complex poverty theory.
Similar to the social determinants of health, complex poverty is becoming more well-known among those outside of academic circles. Often, funding is tied into social theories, which would make it easier for projects that you support to secure other types of funding or funders.
Lastly, you’re already doing this work, we just found the model that clearly outlines it. For example, the upcoming Youth Hub that is being established by several RCN organisations provides a lot of potential ways to address complex poverty. It’s easing access to services for youth, it’s focusing on providing information and referrals in the way that works best for young people, and it’s including their families and caregivers.
Your network members are already deeply invested in the areas identified in complex poverty theory, and now we have the language to frame that work when it comes to strategic goals. Making a difference takes planning and conscious decision-making. This theory will help anchor your work all across the network.