The Shoestring Initiative

Advancing socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities

Shoestring Initiators

IDeA summary page: Opening the social class closet door

I did know we were poor

I did know that people made fun of welfare

I remember a kid named Y

There were a bunch of kids

Sitting around the field singing: “Y’s on welfare! Y’s on welfare!”

            I’m gonna shut right up!

Daisy shut right up

And so she remains

Laberge, 2017, p. 22

Dangerous Other, disgusting subject, disposable population, underclass, Welfare Queen, trailer trash, the unwashed, moral outcast, and the (un)deserving poor, are a mere smattering of the colonial social class narratives that have been planted in our psyches. We also know these narratives through the American Dream, meritocracy, rags-to-riches, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps tropes.

Social class is alive and well in Canada as a colonized nation but it is a taboo subject. Social class matters for those not in positions of privilege, those who cannot pretend social class inequity and inequality do not exist.

This is an uncomfortable topic. It is more difficult for those who are in poverty. Socioeconomically disadvantaged post-secondary individuals continue to live in the shadows and margins because of the shame and stigma. The Shoestring Initiative is changing this by opening the social class closet door.

The Shoestring Initiative is a grassroots enterprise to build community, support, learning, mentorship, and advocacy among University of Victoria community members who identify as from and/or living in poverty, from/in foster care, from working-class backgrounds, and first-generation.

Shoestring honours lives in the making from an intersectional lens. That is, a respect for how lives are shaped by the intersection of multiple social characteristics (ability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age)—and, social class. Key to this is creating a culture that addresses persistent inequality.

Shoestring does more than create community through special events—on a shoestring budget. People come together to support one another and share their lived experiences, challenges, and knowledge.

margaret rose”

That moment when you’re not alone
That silence

(Laberge, 2017, p. 276)

At the heart of the Shoestring Initiative is advancing socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities. We have learned that we persist, together. This is why we are coming out of margins of the higher education landscape and honouring lived experiences and diversity.

The Shoestring Initiative is dedicated to increasing accessibility in Canadian universities. Low socioeconomic status is a persistent barrier which is compounded by ability, mobility, language, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. We work towards shifting attitudinal and systemic barriers. This includes, for example, making university leaders aware that the cost of textbooks, supplies, housing, food, and tuition can be extremely problematic for students who do not have familial resources, who have ongoing medical issues, single parents, students who have to sacrifice school to work multiple jobs—and, students who do not know how to navigate the higher education landscape and polices. Something as simple as being able to attend class remotely (if a person has a computer and internet access) can make all the difference.


Six years
I still struggle
I’m not good enough
Still question if I’m meant to be here

(Laberge, 2017, p. 287)

We are advocating for societal and legislative changes by engaging with poverty reduction coalitions, provincial/territorial and federal governments, Universities Canada, student associations, and other post-secondary institutions.

Key to addressing socioeconomic barriers to university is retention rates, which are problematic for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Thus, we are involved in supporting these university community members from a holistic perspective (e.g., developing a mentorship program). As such, we make visible how students experience precarious housing, not being able to afford dental work, the impacts of not being able to eat or afford nutritious food, the fear of being ousted if they cannot pay their tuition fees on time, the stress of mounting student loan debt…. It is how we go about our advocacy that is crucial.

This initiative is by and for community. Everyone involved has lived experiences with socioeconomic disadvantage. As such, we bring a sensitivity to the stigma surrounding poverty. Although this is grassroots work, it is already reverberating and creating shifts. Using evidence-based research, and our ongoing relational advocacy, we are opening up what are often tension-fraught conversations. The research is clear: students whose lives are shaped by socioeconomic disadvantage are often judged as less-than. We are dedicated to shifting the dominant narratives that work towards upholding inequality and inequity.

Creating an inclusive university culture is essential for social justice. Higher education can be a determining factor in, for example, escaping poverty. However, currently, people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds continue to struggle to get to university and complete their studies. They can find higher education landscapes hostile and foreign. This is why the Shoestring Initiative, in a very short time, has become so crucial for those who are composing lives on the higher education landscape. Community members consistently report explicit and implicit discrimination from the assumption that, for example, every student owns a computer and has secure housing. Yet, when we come together as a community, there is a collective sigh of relief knowing that none of us are alone and all of our lives matter.

Works CitedLaberge, E. (2017). The reverberations of childhood poverty: Composing lives in higher education (Unpublished thesis [MA]). University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

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