Spotlight on Poverty: Derek Cook
“When we begin to realize that ‘the poor’ are not a different species, but really just ‘us’, we will have come a long way toward ending the discrimination that is associated with poverty.” – Derek Cook, CWP Board Member for Alberta
At Canada Without Poverty, all the members of our Board of Directors have a lived experience of poverty. To honour their experiences and explore questions of poverty and inclusion, we have been running a Spotlight on Poverty blog series that allows our Board Members to tell their stories in their own words.
Today we’re introducing the latest instalment of the Spotlight on Poverty which highlights our Board Member for Alberta, Derek Cook.
Q. In five words how would you describe your experience of poverty?
Cold, afraid, and alone, but determined and resilient.
Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself because of living in poverty?
Living in poverty taught me that I am capable of hope. Hope is the foundation of resilience. When you have hope you can withstand almost anything and find the strength to continue even when things are darkest. It drives you to be resourceful, to figure things out and to seize whatever opportunities come your way.
When you are in a situation of poverty the thing you lack most is choice, so you have to make the most of whatever limited choices you have. Sometimes, you manage to get lucky. But you are always confronted with the fact that you have no ability to make your own path.
When you are living in poverty you do not really think about deciding what you want and making it happen, because you typically don’t have that luxury. Rather, you are always manoeuvring, trying to make the best way forward with the limited opportunities others are sending your way. It makes you resourceful, but not in control. This is the underlying sense of powerlessness that pervades your thinking when you’re in that situation.
Q. Can you tell us something about poverty we might not know?
Living in poverty you are often confronted with both the best and worst of human nature.
The worst of human nature comes in the form of your compromised humanity where you become “the other”. Systems don’t treat you as a fully human individual, nor do people. For example, rules are strictly applied based on the assumption that you’re trying to somehow cheat the system, rather than the open appreciation of unique circumstances. Or, when you enter a store you are ignored because of how you look and the assumption that you can’t afford to be there.
Yet, at the same time, you can be confronted with the best of human nature when you least expect it. Like the older guy at work who noticed I never brought a lunch to work so quietly took me aside, told me he had noticed, and slipped me twenty bucks. So, while we focus our work on systems, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are ultimately dealing with individuals and our work stands or falls on the strength of the relationships we forge and the humanity we hold. This is why I always give money to those on the street who ask.
Q. What is the greatest misconception you’ve heard from those not living in poverty?
People who haven’t experienced poverty often assume that they haven’t been in poverty because of their own hard work and initiative, and therefore never could be. The reality is there is a really thin and blurred line between who is and is not “poor”.
People tend to exaggerate the “deficiencies” or “mistakes” of those who are poor, while discounting the support that they themselves have received from other people or systems, and even often their own plain luck. People are easily misled by the myth of the independent “self-made” man or woman. We all exist in a community and our individual prosperity grows out of that soil.
Q. What drives you to do anti-poverty work?
I am driven to do poverty work out of a sense of justice, as well as from a place of deep hope and faith. I believe that we have not only the material resources, but also the spiritual resources to end poverty in Canada. If I didn’t wholeheartedly believe this is so, I couldn’t continue in this work.
There is also a sense of responsibility I feel. Having lived through my own experience of poverty and emerging in a better place, I understand the extent to which I was supported to find my feet. Without the benefit of social systems, family, community and often the kindness of strangers, I would not have found my way from that place.
At the same time I understand all too well the barriers that you confront on that journey. This, and a sense of compassion and understanding for those who now struggle, is what continues to give me strength for this work.
Q. Is there anything unique about poverty issues in Alberta versus the rest of Canada?
What is somewhat unique in Alberta is the fact that most of those who are living in poverty here (at least in Calgary) are working. We have a deep problem of working poverty. So the traditional response to poverty of “get a job” just doesn’t apply; most people already have one, or likely two.
The other unique aspect to poverty here is that most people in Alberta have come from somewhere else. What that means is that they have often left their family and other networks of support behind. So when they do find themselves in a crisis (or even poverty) they may have less support around them than in other places. Isolation is a significant challenge for many, not just those who are poor, but especially for those who find themselves in poverty.
Q. What do you think people in Canada, both living in poverty and not, can do to address discrimination toward people living in poverty?
We have to move beyond an “us / them” understanding of poverty and realize that poverty can (and does) affect every one of us. While some people are born into situations of poverty, for many it hits you unexpectedly. It can come in the form of a sudden illness or accident, the sickness of a child, the breakdown of a marriage or the loss of a job.
When we begin to realize that “the poor” are not a different species, but really just “us”, we will have come a long way toward ending the discrimination that is associated with poverty. Perhaps we need to stop talking about “the poor” completely, and just talk about what all of us need as human beings and members of a community.
It is said that poverty is a form of trauma, a trauma that exists as a tear in the social fabric. If so, we as members of that social fabric, are all a victim of that tearing. We cannot be whole within a community when that social fabric is torn.
Derek Cook (Calgary, AB) grew up in a poor household in rural Ontario and experienced first-hand the impacts of exclusion that results from a lack of access to the resources of society. Learning of the value of social justice, Derek has dedicated the past 20 years to social change – including assisting in the creation of local living wage policies and organizing the group Poverty Talks which engaged over 500 low-income Calgarians in the development of a local poverty strategy. Derek previously served as the Executive Director of the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative, a community-based strategy to reduce poverty in in the municipality.
Canada Without Poverty is a non-partisan, not-for-profit, charitable organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty in Canada. CWP is here because of your support. We would not be able to continue our work in eliminating poverty without your help. Please consider making a donation to CWP to support our work in ending poverty for everyone in Canada.