The Shoestring Initiative

Advancing socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities

Homelessness, poverty, Shoestring Initiators, social class

Shoestring Accessibility Solutions

Enhancing and developing initiatives for low socioeconomic status students

KEY FINDINGS: Echoes of poverty: Composing lives in higher education (MA research)

For exploratory and subsequent master’s research projects in sociology (University of Alberta), Elaine Laberge conducted a nine-month narrative inquiry into how persistent childhood poverty shapes undergraduate students’ experiences as they compose lives on the university landscape:

  1. This inquiry makes visible how profoundly silenced “poverty-class” students’ lived experiences are on the university landscape and within EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) strategies;
  2. Professors’, advisors’, and administrators’ belief in (Elbow, 2008) participants was a game changer and crucial for their survival and learning in university;
  3. While poverty is seen in a box, persistent childhood poverty cannot be erased from participants’ embodied selves. That is, childhood poverty shapes an entire life in the making (Adair, 2003; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; so many more);
  4. Participants live in the shadows and margins of university landscapes for fear of being “outed and ousted” if their origins become visible (Laberge, 2017);
  5. Participation in this research was an act of resistance to being Othered;
  6. “Poverty-class” students must be a key source of knowledge in shaping socially just higher education policies, practices, and pedagogies. That is, these students must be part of the discussion rather than the object of discussion (Adair, 2003).

PHD RESEARCH: Pushing privileged pillars

For Elaine Laberge’s Vanier-funded (2018-2021) doctoral research, she is bringing her MA research and findings from the trenches to the grassroots level. She seeks to push the pillars of privilege through a critical investigation into how social activism can attract and retain students from “disadvantaged” social class backgrounds. She seeks to understand how civic engagement may shape EDI policies, practices, and pedagogies. A key goal of this research is to contribute to social innovation models to advance socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities. In this light, Elaine Laberge led the creation of the Shoestring Initiative. This is a grassroots enterprise at the University of Victoria to build a community of support, learning, and mentorship for UVic community members who self-identify as coming from poverty and/or living in poverty, working-class backgrounds, from/in foster care, or are first-generation. This is a case study at UVic and an integral part of Elaine’s doctoral research.

While Elaine’s research specifically focuses on those whose lives are shaped by former and/or current poverty, it is crucial that those from working-class origins or who are first-generation students are also part of this initiative. At the heart of her research and advocacy, and at the centre of preoccupations of her colleagues, is the critical role that social class plays in determining who even has access to higher education. That is, like UVic’s leaders, we all have a deep understanding of the structural reasons for persistent inequality and inequity. Further, we are all deeply committed to student retention and ensuring these populations have amazing and transformative learning experiences.

The Shoestring Initiative

This is ground-breaking, problem-solving, interdisciplinary, collaborative work happening right now at UVic. It is work that aligns with UVic’s strategic framework and student enrolment management goals. To date, this initiative has received tremendous support from the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Equity and Human Rights, the Faculty of Humanities, and the Faculty of Social Sciences. Some of our community-building activities include: Presence at the weeks of welcome for undergraduate, graduate, and Indigenous students;

  • Grassroots Picnic on the Quad – April 24, 2019;
  • Ideafest 2019: Living in the margins of higher education (50+ people in attendance);
  • Shoestring Tuesdays, a weekly gathering specifically for students to come together in solidarity and support. Professors, advisors, counsellors, librarians, etc. will be invited in subsequent meetings to provide educational guidance and share their own lived experiences of composing lives on the higher education landscape;
  • On December 7, 2018, we held the first Shoestring Initiative Holiday Gathering;
  • Ensuring ample food, feminine hygiene products, community-sponsored gifts, and school supplies are available—and available to take home—has been an important part of our community-building efforts. For example, Equity and Human Rights supported the Holiday Gathering by collecting supplies to support students through final exams, such as food, pads of paper, pencils for writing exams, kleenex, toilet paper, tea, juice, and Post-it-notes;
  • Boots-on-the-grassroots ground networking. That is, sensitive, one-on-one connecting with UVic community members to inform them of this grassroots community-in-the-making;
  • Building communication strategies to get the word out across disciplines, such as our own website, Facebook group, and email listserv;
  • Development of an interactive session accepted for IdeaFest 2019 (March 7) entitled Living in the Margins of Higher Education. 50+ people in attendance;
  • An inaugural gathering on November 1 with 35+ students, professors, and advisors in attendance.

Creating Inclusion through Mentorship

As members of the Shoestring Initiative, we recognize that student retention is more than simply getting folks here, and is more than being “just about the money.” That is, while adequate financial support to cover basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, and books is essential, it should be acknowledged that there is a culture shock involved in entering the environment of higher education. This cultural difference affects social relationships, language and communication, and values. For example, students from and/or living in poverty or working-class origins may be ill-equipped to advocate for themselves or ask for help when they need it most, no matter how meagre their requests may be. This can result in missed opportunities for instructors and counsellors to reach out and provide support to students who are struggling despite their best efforts to integrate and engage with their education.

Student “success” in universities is largely defined by assimilating to the middle class, not only economically but also culturally (i.e., “higher education culture”); this can prove to be a double bind for Indigenous students in particular. Even in the event that generous financial support might be offered to students, in effect, we are asking students to leave behind their familial education, cultural experiences and values, and adopt those of the middle class. The unspoken rules and norms of academia can leave these students feeling alienated and shamed thus, financial resources alone cannot resolve this issue.


To address some of these issues, the immediate short-term and longer-term goals for Elaine Laberge through her research, and the Shoestring Initiative include (but are not limited to):

  • Local (i.e., UVic-centered) activities, such as:
    1. Developing a resource package for new students informing them of on-campus and off-campus resources for affordable food, housing, clothing, financial advice—and, educational resources;
    2. Reaching out to professors and alumni from poverty- and working-class backgrounds who are willing to be identified as potential mentors for new and currently enrolled students;
    3. Developing a training program of sorts for faculty and staff to educate them about the diverse and unique needs of “poverty-class” and working-class students. This would be potentially something similar to the Positive Space Network training on campus that indicates safe spaces for individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+. The dandelion is often used as a symbol of strength and resilience for persons from and/or living in poverty and working-class backgrounds, and we envision a symbol of the dandelion could be placed on doors of professors and staff who are welcoming of and able to provide support to students from and/or living in poverty and working-class backgrounds (we are in the process of having a Shoestring Initiative logo designed around this theme);
    4. Creating communications and promotional strategies that are shaped by and for this population (e.g., developing language that teaches and informs rather than excludes, that is, which is sensitive to the internalization of social class and dominant narratives);
    5. Conducting research on and, where appropriate, developing interventions surrounding unique mental health and well-being needs of students from and/or living in poverty or working-class backgrounds;
    6. Designing UVic community information events;
    7. Putting forth a proposal for 5 Days of Action 2019 that would include: (1) Bringing in speakers who have profound knowledge of social class and higher education and those who work on the frontlines with those whose lives are shaped by poverty; (2) Developing and delivering an intensive, interactive, and educative workshop to educate UVic community members on how to incorporate social class into their EDI strategies, policies, practices, and pedagogies. We will be applying for funding through the SSHRC Connections Grant and UVic faculties, departments, and other instances;
    8. Securing a dedicated location on campus to hold all initiatives and that will provide a reliable space for students from/and or living in poverty or working-class backgrounds with requisite resources;
    9. Connecting with and engaging UVic alumni.
  • Provincial-level activities, such as:
    1. Engagement with, for example, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services on how to work towards socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities;
    2. In January, approaching the Honourable Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills & Training regarding supporting socioeconomic diversity in British Columbia’s universities.
  • Federal-level activities, such as:
    1. Continuing to bring forward the importance of this work with the Federal Government and Universities Canada. Specifically, why social class must be part of EDI initiatives and mandates—and, employment equity acts;
    2. Continuing to advocate for more nuanced definitions and measurements of poverty other than the proposed Market Basket Measure currently under consultation.
  • Collaborative activities, such as:
    1. Continuing connecting with, and learning with/from, universities/colleges in Canada and globally who are actively engaged in Strategic Enrolment Management initiatives and activities (part of Elaine Laberge’s ongoing research);
    2. Elaine Laberge will be disseminating her doctoral research in real time using diverse traditional and new technologies to encourage greater inclusion of voices, lived experiences, and knowledge. Her research at UVic will culminate into a documentary-dissertation and other performative pieces;
    3. Elaine Laberge will continue to collaborate with the award-winning filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Dr. Michael MacDonald (MacEwan University) and Charity Slobod (University of Alberta, Faculty of Graduate Studies), to develop a full-length documentary to make her master’s research, Echoes of childhood poverty: Composing lives in higher education, accessible to those who are engaged in widening access to and participation in higher education for “poverty-class” students in Canadian universities;
    4. Building and fostering relationships with advocacy organizations such as Peers, in Victoria;
    5. Co-creating and co-organizing a national conference to bring together social class experts (including students) for which we will be applying for a SSHRC Connection Grant;
    6. Elaine Laberge will be pursuing SSHRC’s New Frontiers in Research Fund—Exploration for her research and beyond, as well as for a nation-wide study to address an alarming and growing issue for some Canadian higher education students. Collectively we will be exploring how the Shoestring Initiative’s undertakings may qualify for this funding.

Why this matters

In 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau mandated the creation of a Poverty Reduction Strategy because poverty rates are increasing for the most vulnerable populations: single mothers, newly arrived immigrants, people with disabling conditions, and Indigenous peoples. In the initial call for consultation, higher education was listed as an important mechanism for mitigating poverty and generational poverty. The final report and recommendations have drastically reduced addressing access to higher education. Part of this stems from the continued exclusion of social class, the myth of the classless society, American Dream fallacy, and bootstrap dogma, and the role social class plays in excluding a large portion of the Canadian population. It is becoming more crucial to address socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities in order to resolve individual and generational poverty—and, the structural/systemic reasons for poverty. A few key findings from Elaine Laberge’s research, literature reviews, connections, knowledge mobilization, and research dissemination efforts:

  1. Universities Canada, following the Federal Government’s definition of who is considered marginalized in this country, excludes from EDI those from poverty and working-class backgrounds. That is, the class-based, invisible minority (low SES students);
  2. Unlike countries such as Australia, Chile, the UK, the USA, and Zimbabwe, Canadian universities are not sufficiently engaged in increasing retention and widening access to, and participation in, higher education for poverty- and working-class students;
  3. Research on higher education and low SES is largely based on working-class students. Students from poverty are typically ignored or excluded from the analysis and research agenda;
  4. There is a tendency to homogenize groups thus “poverty-class” versus poverty-class. This has many negative consequences such as creating “social characteristic silos” (Laberge, 2017) and risks, as Adichie (2009) says, the danger of creating single stories that further Other low SES students;
  5. Our historic understandings of the ideologies and beliefs that shape Canadian higher education institutions are largely not understood or made visible;
  6. As a colonized nation, there is not sufficient understanding of the deeply embedded British belief system of social class;
  7. There is a poverty-class/working-class divide that lacks nuanced understandings;
  8. Initiatives may reduce barriers to economics, which fails to capture the lived experiences, needs, and amazing knowledge and skills that low SES students bring.

A few of the things we can bring to Goal 1c, Strategy 4

  1. Recent data from an intersectional lens and from an interdisciplinary perspective (i.e., Elaine’s research and extensive literature reviews);
  2. Understandings of the multiple social characteristics that shapes lives across time, social relations, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000);
  3. A definition of poverty that respects the complexity of lived experiences and provides more nuanced understandings of how social class shapes lives in the making. That is, poverty is defined subjectively by students, professors, advisors, administrators, etc. so as to respect their lived experiences;
  4. Insider knowledge of the impact of dominant and damaging narratives about those from and/or living in poverty and working-class backgrounds;
  5. Knowledge of shifting from deficit-based, accommodation beliefs of these invisible populations;
  6. How including for students’ social class in EDI is part of decolonization;
  7. Ample up-to-date knowledge from a doctoral student who is doing her research in this area specifically at UVic;
  8. Ideas for professors, advisors, administrators, etc. training on social class and EDI;
  9. The critical role of experiential learning for these populations;
  10. The development of SEM Goal 1c, Strategy 4 initiative metrics that could be provided by Elaine Laberge’s research;
  11. Ideas on how to fund this critical grassroots initiative and create sustainable strategies, policies, plans, and pedagogies for low socioeconomic student (and professor, advisor, counsellor, administrator, staff);
  12. Professors, advisors, administrators, counsellors, and staff who are committed to this issue as part of their service work and the role higher education must play in its social contract with local, national, and global societies.

We have come together as a collective because of our shared and diverse experiences as those from these class-based invisible minority populations on the higher education landscape. We all have lived experience of this topic, through an intersectional lens, including those of us who identify as Canadian minorities (both ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic minorities), women, and immigrants. We are cognizant of those who could not come before us and how our efforts will shape the footsteps of those who come after us.

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