Meeting Margaret: Understanding poverty and community

I walked into the Momentum Calgary offices having done zero research about what it was and with some nerves and excitement to meet Margaret Yu. Momentum works with low-income individuals in Calgary to empower them with financial literacy skills so they can improve their own situations. It was quite an eye-opening experience to learn about the ways that poverty affects Calgarians and how little of it is really apparent from the outside. I was there to listen and to learn as part of a new campaign called Challenge Poverty YYC that seeks to challenge the perceptions we have about poverty in our city.

Early into our conversation, Margaret — a registered Social Worker and facilitator that works with directly with those living in poverty — and I quickly discovered that we share a lot of common passions. A love of food, to start; an interest in seeing our communities thrive; and, most importantly, a love for our families who have supported us as we have pursued our passions.

Margaret was, like me, born and raised in Southern Alberta and considers Calgary home. Our families share similar stories, too. We both have parents who worked very hard to give us the opportunities we have today, going back to school, moving around, and working multiple jobs to make sure we always had everything we need. And, indeed, I never felt poor growing up, though certainly, if you looked at the numbers, I’m certain we were.

And it’s something I’ve thought about often. How did my family pull through those tough years when so many struggle more? And some possible answers to that questions came up in my conversation with Margaret. When you have a strong community and support system around you, it can prevent you from falling through the cracks that our flawed society has where you might find yourself in an impossible situation living in poverty. I’ve had my own fair share of struggling with little money, no time, and a seeming lack of resources. But what I have always had is family and friends who have supported me both financially and emotionally over the years. I've often thought how grateful I am for that because surely there have been times when I could have found myself in those cycles of poverty too.

Margaret also shared with me her deep love and respect for her family and the support they have been to her over the years. For her, it's her mom, especially, that has been a source of strength. For me, that has been my dad. Perhaps because my dad and I are so similar in so many ways that I turn to him when I need help. He has always been my biggest fan and the person who has pushed me when I needed it. Without the ways that he has given to me over the years, I don't think I would be the person I am today or succeded in the ways I have.

And for those who are coming to a place like Momentum to learn financial skills, many don't have the kind of support of family that Margaret and I have been privileged to know our whole lives. They are new to the city, don’t have family around, dealing with debilitating mental illness, or are still learning English, and, as a result, find themselves struggling to keep up and meet the demands of life in the city. Working multiple low-paying jobs in order to pay rent and buy food. When I’ve struggled to buy groceries, my parents have given me grocery store gift cards or invited me over and fed me. My dad has changed my oil when I couldn’t afford to pay someone (and, to this day, continues to do so). As I’m writing this, part of me feels ashamed of the help I’ve received from my parents because our culture tells us that we shouldn’t rely on other people, that we should be independent and never ask for help. But I strongly believe that living in community is the ultimate freedom. Saying yes when someone extends an offer of help is humbling and terrifying but it should be empowering and freeing. But we need to build these strong communities and support systems so that no one gets left behind.

Recently I moved into a new apartment building downtown. It’s not your typical concrete condo building, rather, it’s an old manor that’s been converted into suites. One of the greatest surprises about moving in was finding out that an acquaintance through the arts was living in the apartment above me. When I’ve been stuck outside in the endless snow, he’s graciously helped shovel me out, a few times. We’ve had drinks together and talked about having fires in the summer out back. My family and friends have been a great support to me but it must extend beyond that. Talk to your neighbours, bake some bread, ask them in and listen to their stories. We are all stronger when we do.

Acknowledging the supports around you is so important, which is why photos of those people are important, too. The following are images that Margaret shared with me of her primary support system — her mom, her dad, and her brother. I've also shared a few images of my dad, mom, and brother who have always supported me. Not everyone has families that can, or will, offer the support they need in times of crisis. It’s so important to recognize our own privilege and the underlying, systemic causes of poverty (colonialism and capitalism to start) that leave people without support or help. While I can’t change the way our culture works myself, what I can do is support my community and reach beyond it to my neighbours and city when I can.

Elyse Bouvier