MacEwan University’s annual United Way fundraising campaign kicked off last month with an event designed to educate students about the realities of poverty.
United Way’s Poverty Simulation is an hour-long replication of a month in the life of an impoverished family. Each participant is given a role to play in a simulated family, while United Way volunteers take on the roles of business owners, teachers, police officers, agency workers, service providers and government employees.
For many participants, the simulation was more than just an hour of role playing; it challenged preconceptions, debunked myths and shifted perspectives.
An endless cycle
For sociology student Richard Garside, the experience was eye-opening. “Prior to the simulation, I was under the impression that impoverishment was more or less self inflicted,” he admits. “I believed that for the most part, those in poverty simply lacked the initiative to get themselves out.”
After taking on the role of a young, working father with a wife and child in the simulation, Richard saw first-hand how the cycle of poverty perpetuates itself. “One of the biggest realizations I had is that poverty is a cycle that very few people will be able to get out of without assistance,” he says. “I spent so much time just meeting our needs that I had no time to work on improving our lives. So at the end of every week we would end up in the same place, alive and needs met, but there was no progression.”
Poverty in a Canadian context
Upon moving to Canada from Cameroon, participant Pauline Essanyou was surprised to find that many of the problems that plagued her home country were just as prevalent here. “Coming from Africa, I would say I had this primitive notion that poverty didn’t exist in the first-world countries,” she says. “I thought [Canada’s] system of government and its policies had the well-being of all its citizens all planned out for them.”
Participating in the Poverty Simulation reinforced what Pauline already knew to be true about poverty, while placing it in a Canadian context. “Having experienced poverty for almost my entire life, I still couldn’t help being impacted in this role of working extremely hard but still living from paycheque to paycheque,” she says. “At one point, I felt very angry, frustrated and anxious . . . I felt like giving up on life, but was that going to be the best solution? And those are exactly the kinds of feelings that poverty brings forth.”
The Poverty Simulation might be just that—a simulation—but it has a real effect on how participants view poverty and their role in ending its cycle. “I am motivated to be a huge influence in [ending poverty] by doing things as simple as volunteering, donating and running food drives,” says Pauline. “Without asking for great heroic actions from anyone, but by all together embarking on these little steps, we will slowly but surely eradicate poverty to its minimum and build a better country for all.”
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.