Last night I attended the opening of a conference about Asset Building. My work is sending me. I'll be there all day today and Saturday morning. The conference is in Burnaby, and I expected people from parts of BC, but last night I met people from other parts of Canada too. Public sector people and not-for-profit types mostly, but also people from VanCity, Western Economic Diversity, The Vancouver Foundation and SEDI (Social Enterprise and Development Innovations).
Someone asked me yesterday what "asset building" is. I admitted that I'm not really sure, but I think of it in two ways. When I am optimistic, I think of it as tapping into all of the power and good in the community that lies dormant when we don't invite people to participate or when people and agencies don't work together. When I'm being cynical, I think of it as making the people and agencies who are still standing during tough times work together to pick up the burden laid down by those who could not go on.
Last night we heard from 3 women who have particpated in asset building programs in their communities. In this case the programs were sponsored and supported by VanCity. In each case, people were invited to begin Individual Development Accounts - basically bank accounts where they could save $15 to $50 per month for up to 3 years, saving for a specific goal (home ownership, education or small business startup). They attended monthly financial management meetings and received individual mentoring. VanCity matched their savings 3:1. Each woman was able to save enough to start something new: One, who is an immigrant with a degree that doesn't count in Canada went back to school for a year and now has work. Another started a home-based business that blossomed. A third impressed the VanCity people and ended up getting a full-time job with their company. Programs like this are being piloted all over the world. What impressed me in what the women said was how the experience changed their convictions about their own potential to participate and be successful and independent. One said, "I just wanted someone to give me a chance. Nobody did that before."
I.D.A.s are just one form of asset building. I'm going to learn about other models and case studies and meet other people from other organizations interested in doing this kind of work. My work thinks it's my job to do this, which is really cool.
I am curious and warily impressed. I know this can't be the panacaea for poverty and financial accessibility, but just the fact that 200 people have got together to find out more about what they are calling "an investment economy" as in investing in people's potential, is very compelling. The keynote speaker last night woke up my brain by saying that in order to do this we would have to "get into bed with people who we hadn't considered before." He talked about people setting aside political differences and public sector/not-for-profit and business working together. For someone like me who is very suspicious of anything big companies do, this is an uncomfortable stretch. I will go to the sessions with my optimism turned on, but my skepticism running in the background. I would love it if we could continue our social welfare system to take care of people, and at the same time, developed policy and practice to effectively enable more people to participate in productive and self-sufficient living. Are there really companies with hearts? Is there the political will to make these changes? Can I (and should I) drop my prejudice against rich people and their corporations and give each one a chance on his/her/its own merits?
Question: That is the question
Mompoet: wanting a paradigm shift, not a bait and switch