Questions We Must Answer to End Poverty

Over my career in the human services sector, I have been a part of many collaborative and cross-sector efforts that were formed to address a critical social problem. In most cases, if not all, the social problem being addressed was interwoven with economics. So, the problem was more accurately a socio-economic problem. As well every problem we worked on was understood and addressed through myriad lenses. Government, business, non-profit lenses were abundant and then of course each individual from those sectors brought to the table their own mindsets, beliefs and biases.

One of the critical challenges to solving poverty beyond what is simply described above is to find ways to accept the divergence of mindsets while authentically seeking a convergence of ideas and actions that will actually work to effectively address poverty.We require a method of inquiry that refuses to ignore the questions that divide us. Instead we need to engage in provocative inquiry which is often called engaging in “wicked questions.”

“Brenda Zimmerman, a professor at York University, defines [wicked questions] as a tool ‘used to expose the assumptions which we hold about an issue or situation. Articulating these assumptions provides an opportunity to see the patterns of thought and surface the differences in a group. These patterns and differences can be used to discover common ground or to find creative alternatives for stubborn problems’” (Retrieved from, December 1, 2013).

What is important in this method in inquiry is to check our tendency to communicate positions and allow our dialogue to become more like a debate than actual investigation of what it is we all wish to understand and act on. Wicked questions are a way to share our respective mindsets with one another in a manner that helps us understand what is behind our positions. But for such inquiry to be productive, everyone involved has to be open to changing their minds (i.e. changing their positions). That’s the hard part of course and most of the time our inability to change ourselves is what inhibits, if not prohibits, advance on the matter at hand.

Here are some wicked questions I suggest we need to address if we are truly serious about addressing poverty.

1. Who benefits from poverty and how? And how do we identify new and better benefits to those identified that would be true if poverty was eradicated?

2. What am I doing (or my government, business, or agency) that gets in the way of ending poverty for individuals and for the community at large?

3. What do we need to give up in order to end poverty and how will that benefit all of us?

4. How does our “safety  net” of services and programs further entangle people in poverty?

Another way of addressing poverty is through a technique I call, “Upside Down Thinking.” This method of engagement goes further than wicked questions in that no question is asked. Rather the group is faced with what I call a heretical proposition or proposal and then asked to prove that it is true. The proposition is heretical because it goes against the grain of conventional thinking. It gets at our sacred cows so to speak and forces us to support (at least during the exercise) an idea or a proposal that up until the beginning of that exercise, we did not support.

I am not suggesting wicked questions or upside down thinking should be viewed in terms of which one is better than the other. Rather, I suggest these are two methods of inquiry or exploration that we should have in our tool box.

Typically an upside down question is rather outlandish. In fact, for most of us, our first inclination will be to react to it negatively because the proposal is too extreme, unworkable, and so forth. The value in upside down thinking is that, if we can abandoned such judgments and positions, we might very well find new perspectives and new truths and perhaps innovations we can undertake together to end poverty.

Upside down thinking is about freeing the mind of the individual and the collective “mind” of the group to move through all that can stop us from discovery. It calls us to celebrate the boat rockers, to welcome the lone – and often irritating– voice of dissent or upsetting perspective. It welcomes the big audacious idea and welcomes new messages, counter intuitive ways of seeing what is right in front of us, and perspectives that at first glance run against our values or sensibilities.

One might say that upside down thinking is a visioning exercise we undertake to prove to be true what we believe is not true or cannot be true. At the end of the day, success is not so much measured by proving the heresy true but rather is defined by a deeper understanding of ourselves, the person next to us, and the group as a whole and the identification of new or different ways to seeing the problem and seeing possible solutions.

Here are a few upside down thinking propositions that might help us do that:

1. The minimum wage in Alberta should be $20  per hour and here’s how that would benefit our citizens and businesses and the government.

2. Every major development in Edmonton (e.g. arena, museum, city office tower, etc.) should include a community benefits component that directs 20% of the cost of such development to affordable housing. Here is why that would make our city a world class city.

3. Every low income neighbourhood in Edmonton should include a community hub that offers one stop shopping for supportive services, employment services, a community food centre, and free child care. Here is how doing that will benefit our overall community.

I know. Our first reaction is that we can’t afford that. We tend to say that even while we celebrate the close to the many billions of dollars we will be spending on the development we want to spend on our city. In the context of upside down thinking, we set aside our resistance and work together to prove the heresy to be true and then seek to understand what elements of our proof might actually help us end poverty.

Ultimately, ending poverty is about big change. And the big change we require will impact everyone of us. If we are not prepared to change, we will be engaged in another exercise that at best will deliver tweaks to systems and small changes that do not achieve what we said we wanted to achieve.

Provocative inquiry and heretical proposals – two needed tools we need to use together to build a better community for everyone.


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