A story about learning from the participation—and the non-participation—of people living in poverty

This article by Dr. Orna Shemer was first published in the Israeli Journal of Social Workers, “Meidaos”.* Irit Aizik translated it from the original Hebrew.

Participation starts from within

In honor of 80 years of social work in Israel, I was invited to write about the changes that took place, over the years, in the practice of participatory practices. I was moved by this request. Much has happened in history of social work in Israel. The participative discourse received more legitimacy and collaborative practices have expanded; academic education for partnership and participation has deepened; and the experiences of some service-users now include themes of participation. And yet, it did not seem right to me to write this time a theoretical or empirical article about these topics.

Like the slogans “change begins from within”, “beauty begins from within”, apparently so does partnership and participation processes. So I chose this time to start from within and share some of my insights. I chose not to write about, but to write inward, as in self-study that looks in retrospective and resonates throughout life’s paths. A lot of social workers whom I saw working in partnership with their clients know how to be reflective and aware of their practices. They open up to these connections out of their ability to learn meaning for themselves, out of a willingness to examine new knowledge; out of awareness and readiness for the uncertainty that usually accompanies these processes and from their ability to observe their inner space and also change it in order to include others.

I chose to look at the power of participative practices through examples illustrating the outcomes of this practice that has been deepening in recent years. I will demonstrate this through practices of collaborative dialogue spaces with people living in poverty. The products of these spaces are also added to the participative discourse because they demand the continuation of a participative discourse and the development of a culture, tools, and skills that enable and promote discussions between people living in poverty, professionals, and society at large.

In this article, I will share key insights that I have learned over the years from people living in poverty and from those working with them, and I will share the “homework” that I think is implied from it. Since the practices that enable and represent participative practices are also creative, abstract and nonverbal, I sought to convey these insights through photos. The photos that will accompany the text are taken from a project called: “The Roles We Play”. This project was carried out through participatory practices and it shows the varied roles people have in their lives with their families, communities and with society at general. The project illuminates their experiences, legitimates their achievements and challenges the negative and stigmatising attitudes often directed at families living in poverty, exclusion, and vulnerability throughout England (ATD Fourth World UK 2014).1

The stories are those told by people living in poverty as they chose to tell them. The photos were also designed and chosen by the people photographed. The stories did not pass through the hands of others who framed and interpreted them. They are presented as they were told, with photographs taken in the locations people chose. In this way, they present people through the roles they play in their lives, as members of society who make a contribution to their community. We see that they have dreams, leisure, and abilities, as well as difficulties and disappointments. Each person is presented as active and meaningful.

After learning with them about the successes achieved in the project described2, I became more aware of the fact that people who live in poverty are not “clients” or “programme participants” but unique people who have faces, roles, self-definition, messages, meaningful experience, knowledge, and goals. This realisation is not new; however, a new understanding is that its fulfilment requires in-depth partnership and dialogue. The publication of their pictures, their names, and the role they chose to represent themselves was approved by them. I felt that that it would be the right thing for me to add my picture to theirs and share with them this exposure.

Through the example of the discourse on life in poverty, I would like to show here that when diverse spaces of discourse are opened, the human rights to understand, articulate, decide and influence are realised. Furthermore, knowledge increases and becomes stronger and more stable and takes on a liberating nature aimed at an action.

The lack of partnership in the hushed and not-seeing discourse space

My journey to working in partnership started back in my days as a student of social work and then as a new social worker. At the beginning of my path, there were too few partnerships, a lack of discussion about poverty, and a lack of tools to understand the discourse around it. While a discussion is a concrete speech in which there is an exchange of opinions, negotiations, sharing, and decisions, discourse is the mechanism that establishes perceived reality3. I did not understand the elusive discourse about poverty that was based on structured knowledge paradigms, terminology, decisions, and actions that strengthen its marginal position on the social, political and academic agenda — all of this under the guise of discussions about equality, nurturing, motivation, and multi-faceted problems.

After completing my BA in social work, I began working as a general social worker at the social services office in a neighbourhood where all the people who lived there lived in poverty. We dealt with a range of problematic situations, from individual to communal problems—domestic violence, assistance to single mothers, absorption difficulties of new immigrants, parental involvement in children’s education, advocacy for rights, treatment of special age groups, assistance in community organisation, and cooperating with community leadership. The list was very long, but poverty was never mentioned. It was not part of the list nor was it talked about—not in the team, not in the training, not in the work plans. Yet poverty screamed from every corner of the public space and from every home. Mostly I remember that poverty was visible in the bags of clothes dumped at the bus stop at the entrance to the neighbourhood. Clothes left behind by people who believed they were helping the people in the neighbourhood. Those clothes, scattered around the bus stop, fluttering in the wind, filling up with dust, were a silent testimony to what Israeli society sees and does not see. A testimony that defines the neighborhood with cheap donations as if to say: we did our share. This is a discourse that sees and does not see, speaks and does not speak.

And today—I wonder why we did not talk about poverty? Why did I, as well as my managers and supervisors, also see and did not see?

When I began to explore partnerships in my academic work, and particularly the processes of working in partnership with people about decisions in their lives, I wanted to understand and promote what I lacked then and I could not name. In the epilogue of my first research, I wrote that I did not know then the meaning of the concepts—partnership and participation, and the concept of empowerment were not yet taught in social work faculties (Shemer, 2003). But I did understand that as a social worker I took part in wide social processes I did not fully understand, that I represented non-participatory systems, and that I helped maintained a bureaucratic, alienating and hierarchical social order. I wanted to be precise about what I felt and did and what I did not feel and did not do. I still did not create a space that enables meaningful participation and I have not yet discussed poverty per-se.

Over the years I have wandered in the paths of participation and came to an important insight: just as social work practice needs to be more inclusive, so do learning and research need to enable more participatory work and to be closer to people. This closeness is necessary so that, among other things, we will name correctly each social situation and present the truth that we often hide behind professional dry terms and weaken behind a rational language. Thus, such practices as practice wisdom, extracting experiential knowledge, learning from success, peer consultation, became more than technical means of creating empirical knowledge (Ellenbogen-Frankowitz, Shemer & Rosenfeld, 2011; Zaira 2000; Shtorm 2016; Shemer & Bar-Guy, 2004).

Over the years we have learned many lessons from people who live in complex life situations (Hadas Lidor, Lachman, Alon & Rothschild, 2007; Kromer Nevo, 2006; Kromer-Nevo & Barak, 2006; Branfield, & Beresford, 2006). We have also been able to discover the practice-wisdom of professionals who achieve successful results, which often come about as the result of a humble presence, partnership, and closeness. In academia as well we began to make room for lessons, tasks, training, and knowledge of this kind (Bloch, Stieglitz & Sykes, 2011; Gutman, Kraiem, Criden & Yalon-Chamovitz, 2012). There is still much to be done but I will point out some insights that were made possible, in my opinion, because they were made in participatory spaces.

What did I learn from people living in poverty?

Since I am not part of the group I am writing about, I have an ethical obligation to formulate my insights while remaining faithful to the knowledge I was exposed to and, of course, avoiding generalisations. Even if the knowledge presented here was not always organised and systematic, even if it was not clear enough, fragmented, accompanied by feelings, or based on partial information, even if it was mixed with private or group interests, it is relevant and meaningful knowledge. We must invent more methods to extract additional knowledge for ourselves to discuss and work from within, to call things by their proper name, and to merge this knowledge with other knowledge.

We must talk about poverty

Poverty is man-made, and as such it can be changed by people. Poverty is also not a problem of personality nor is it pathological or a genetic problem; it is foremost a social problem. Living in poverty does not mean just being below the poverty line, and certainly, it is not just a material thing. Life in poverty is about one’s identity, social status, worldview, perspective on the past-present-future, and often it is about knowing how to navigate safely in a complex reality.

It seems that the wider society has fenced itself in with invisible fences so that it will not see poverty in its midst or call it by its name. People living in poverty are pushed into the backyard territory. They are almost invisible in the media, in leisure, in higher education, in economics, in government—they are invisible and therefore do not interfere—so it is also possible not to talk about them. But from people who live in poverty, we learn that everyone, and especially social workers, must see, know, and understand poverty. We have learned with them that living in poverty should be discussed in many possible ways: in groups, in a learning process, through photographs and exhibitions, by writing to different audiences, through documented biographies, by activists trying to influence policy, and by crying out loud in the city square.

People who live in poverty want to see professionals as active and visible partners in their war, and not as representatives of a society that doubt their competence and worth.

Eric, freedom fighter

People who live in poverty want and know how to speak to people who influence their lives

I was present during a powerful and profound discourse in a learning group with people with life experience in poverty. In that group, various statements about social services were made and messages were conveyed about the attitude of social workers. The issue of removing children from their home was the most significant. People who live in poverty asked social workers to give them more support, to see the positive sides of parents and also give them the tools to keep their children with them. They also suggested that people be seen not as private individual problems but as part of a family, community, and society that could be the focus of intervention. They stressed the importance of devoting time to build trust, with great emphasis on building a relationship. They suggested at the same meeting that the subject of knowledge from life experience would receive a more significant place in the training process, and suggested that social workers receive help to improve their communication skills and clarify the language they use.

I was particularly struck by the paradox that one of the participants pointed out: that there are people who are afraid to turn to social workers for help, lest they enter their homes, judge them and even take their children; while at the same time it is clear to them that social workers are those who can support them and maybe prevent the escalation and aggravation of situations in which they find themselves.

These were the messages spoken at that learning session. It was a fast and accurate lesson. For me, the main message was the process. I took to heart the insights from this lesson. It was a lesson that made me change—what we want to happen in every good lesson.

Tammy, proud mother

Poverty exacerbates every problem

Poverty is not the cause of every problem, and material support is not always the solution. However, we cannot ignore the fact that living without sufficient resources aggravates every problem and makes coping with it more complex. Let’s think about a child with learning disabilities, an elderly woman with diabetes, or a young woman with mental disabilities. Mental health and physical health problems require travel for tests and treatments that cost money, as do medications. The difficulty to function, often caused by those diseases, only aggravates the difficulties even further. The need to take a day off work to get to the doctor is also very problematic and endangers the stability of employment.

People who live in poverty have no choice but to “neglect” their health—they give up proper dental care that enables them to eat properly, physical therapy that can ease walking, physical fitness that lowers blood pressure, pills for a child with ADHD, contraception, and a healthy diet. And all these have implications. We have to look at small details to be able to act in complexity. If you do not take blood pressure medicine, your morbidity will increase. A child who does not concentrate in school will probably not be able to graduate and will not have a diploma or a suitable job, and so on. Failure to solve one problem produces more problems and over time more solutions are needed.

People living in poverty ask social workers to be sensitive to these complexities and to strengthen and appreciate those who are able to cope with the ever-escalating problems and with new ones that develop over time. Being able to survive in poverty requires sophistication, the ability to prioritise, the ability to enlist people to help, to learn from experience, to calculate right, to take risks every morning anew.

Derek, entertainerPoverty is violence

This is the main conclusion of a study published by ATD Fourth World in 2012 entitled “Extreme poverty is violence; breaking the silence; seeking peace” (Brand & Baron, 2012). The introduction to the study states that the materials are both instructive and shocking at the same time—and indeed they are. For four years people living in poverty took part in an international learning process where they pointed out that extreme poverty is a hidden form of violence. The data were collected meticulously, as the authors explain,  only by human closeness and recognition of the importance of people’s statements.

We are used to thinking of violence in terms of battle, loss, trauma, injury, war, and lack of personal security. But here, people who live in poverty have given different meanings to these familiar concepts. They describe a form of war that is less externalised, even hidden, quiet or silenced war. Theirs is a long struggle that is almost invisible and is not recognised enough. The weapons in this struggle are not only policies but also stigma, lack of knowledge, disregard, exclusion, contempt, judgment, and indifference. Violence causes deep pain and does not let go and forces the people in it to defend themselves every morning anew.

People with lived experience of poverty feel they suffer from violence because the harm is to their souls. Damage is done to their relationships with their children, their identity, their health, their hopes. From this study, we learn that violence is manifested by being exposed to injustice and the inability to be protected from it; that lack of shelter is violence; the loss of a child who has been removed from the home is a shattering blow; that not being recognised as a person is agonising and devastating; that a sense of abandonment, silence, and alienation from the society around you causes sadness and fear; that hunger is a physical pain; that unemployment can cause trauma; that police treatment of people in poverty is usually aggressive; and on and on.

We tend to talk about people who live in poverty as a generalised situation—but there are groups of people for whom the experience of poverty is most difficult—children, women, sick people, immigrants, the elderly. Their vulnerability amplifies the experience of violence in poverty. Together with the dismantling of the concept of violence in the context of poverty, this participatory research also learned from people with lived experience how to break the silence and promote a more just and peace-oriented society.

Moraene, anti-poverty campaigner

It is shameful to feel isolated and labelled

Some of the dimensions of poverty are social and psychological, and shame is one of them. I learned this when I took part in a learning group consisting of people living in poverty, professionals ( mainly from social work), and academics. This group studied together issues related to poverty with the aim of creating awareness and change.

In their discussion on the subject of poverty and shame, there was a common feeling that the attitude of politicians, professionals, media people, civil servants, and academics perpetuate stereotypes and focus on presenting the difficult aspects of living in poverty. In doing so, they cause people living in poverty to be ashamed of themselves and cause society to disapprove of them. When the examples were given in the room it seemed that everyone felt ashamed. At the meeting, it was frankly stated that disrespect brings about judgment, leads to isolation, to humiliating treatment, to an experience of invisibility.

From the literature, we learn that shame is perceived as a difficult feeling of containment, like a malignant tumor that spreads and overshadows other emotions (pseudonym, 2014; Gupta, 2015). It is an emotion that can be destructive. Therefore, it was not easy to sit in that shared space and learn about the challenges of dealing with shame, especially in light of testimonies about meetings with social workers. In this context, we learned about confusion because they could not understand the professional terminology, inability to understand professionally written reports, or inability to take an active part in decisions about their lives and the lives of their children. “You feel stupid when you do not understand” one of the participants said. Another pointed out that he felt powerless when he felt excluded from discussing his life, even though he was physically present in a meeting.

People with lived experience asked to be treated as those who are seen, and that their individuality and that of their families to be recognised. They noted that there are some social workers with whom they felt no shame because the social workers were trying to get to know them, whether through conversations with other professionals or even by going fishing together. One of the participants proudly noted that “the social worker told me that she had learned from me”. Another social worker explained in detail the process taking place in the child protection decision-making committee. These are acts that show that people are visible, heard and respected.

Seamus, defender of human rightsExclusion from social service is very painful

From conversations with people with lived experience, we have learned that social services can be harmful if they do not work correctly with the people for whom they are designated. Discrimination by professionals whose job it is to help is extremely painful. Disappointment from a service that is intended to be of benefit extinguishes hope and reduces trust in society in general.

Exclusion from social service comes in different forms: the absence of service, provision of partial service, lack of physical/economic/social access to service, procrastination in treatment, patronage, inefficiency, and negligence which makes people stay away from service providers. People who live in poverty testify that they know when they are listened too, when they are cared for and when the social worker makes an effort to find solutions that will benefit their lives. They also know when someone believes in them. A central narrative shows that there are social services and employment bureaus that show disrespect and often give the person the feeling that he/she is invisible, deceiving, and whose opinion is not taken into consideration.

Social workers, from the first year of undergraduate studies, are trained to work in partnership and from an individual’s strength. Yet the gap between this message and practice in the field is considerable. Even if the social workers themselves are often subject to systemic oppression, which forces them to reduce and distance themselves from the distress, the exclusion from the social system that is supposed to promote inclusion, closeness, and assistance, increases the paradox in which social services find themselves.

Angela, ambassador

So what is my homework from this learning experience?

Each of the following insights carries with it a message of partnership and participation.

1) Change the paradigm of knowledge: Sayings, feelings, experiences, opinions, behaviours, artistic expression – are all knowledge, worthy of learning.

We need to strive to produce this kind of knowledge that comes in diverse expressions, and to help it become relevant through being fully present, ready to interact with all forms of knowledge and ready to be shared with others. It is important that we find theories of action that exist among people who live in poverty and among those who work with them and live alongside them. We need to cherish them and recognize the legitimacy and contribution of this knowledge.

Along with collecting quantitative data, it is important that we listen to other dimensions of knowledge. Emotions and experiences are a different kind data. They can express the subjectivity of poverty (and any other subject we want to understand) because they teach us what it means, and poverty cannot be understood without them. Poverty is a different experience for different people, even when they are from the same family. In the moving testimony of Janet Wells (2005) in the book (and a film produced from it, 2017) The Glass Castle, the author is letting us see, like in an X-ray of her childhood, her experience growing up in extreme poverty in America. Her childish (and then adolescents) insights, her survival strategies, her choices, her dreams, and her conclusions are not at all like those of her parents and siblings, and represent another narrative.

Recognition of these interpretive and subjective inputs is also important for people working with those who live in poverty. Some time ago a colleague told me that their team had decided to learn about poverty. Apart from learning about the dimensions of poverty and its consequences, they read together monologues written by people who experienced poverty, and they also went around the shopping center in their neighborhood and reflected on this experience to learn about their feelings and thoughts. They did not give up learning in partnership and through self-reflection — sharing of one’s self.

2) Create and find spaces for further learning; develop more and more connections with people in the field

It is not an option to hear people living in poverty. It is mandatory. In academia, too, joint learning is needed, for example in groups of discourse and even in joint teaching. Research and writing practices are also needed in this spirit, with the participation of more people in the learning process. Such dialogues require recognition, tolerance, and adapted ethics. They, of course, also require budgets and personnel dedicated to these methods, and even institutional and professional policy.

About twenty years ago, in England, a groundbreaking project was documented in the book: “Poverty first hand – Poor people speak for themselves” in which knowledge was collected from various focus groups of people living in poverty (Beresford, Green, Lister & Woodard, 1999). The book showed how much knowledge people have about living in poverty and the meaning of that life. But not less important, the solutions they offer. This is a poignant book, surprising and most of all instructive. This knowledge and similar knowledge must be recognized, taught in universities and to social workers trained in the field. It should influence social workers’ training programs and contribute to building common knowledge (eg, Kromer-Nevo, Shimei and Timor-Shalvin, 2015; Strier, 2013). These dialectic spaces that undermine the traditional power structure, often rely on the creativity, daring and tenacity of their initiators.

3) Teach how to learn, no less than teaching content

The knowledge that comes from the participatory learning processes discussed here is different from most systematic, logical and clear academic knowledge. Some of the knowledge is not organised in theories and models. It is a tacit knowledge that has to be extracted and mediate. It is sometimes presented in unfamiliar terminology, its contents do not necessarily reconcile with common theories, its validity sometimes comes from a good experience or gut feeling. This is a knowledge that is not backed up by a distribution system through professional articles, presentations or websites and has no financial and social support, nor is it always perceived as legitimate knowledge. It does not always has the opportunity to be discussed together with more knowledge of facts, opinions, and reflections – and therefore as such does not develop nor becomes more precise and valid. The absence of this discussion and conceptualisation makes this kind of knowledge less relevant.

Participatory methods are often required, and sometimes a continuous human connection is also important in order to extract knowledge, such as self-reflection, peer learning, participatory action research, community dialogue or other methods based on partnerships, openness, and closeness. In order to learn from this information, one must learn how to learn openly using different methods that will enable knowledge to be absorbed and to influence. It is important to ‘study with’ – and not just ‘study about’.

When this important knowledge undermines or collides with some of the basic foundations of academic knowledge, we face challenges of finding ways to present this knowledge in the field and in academia. These challenges also require us not to adhere to concepts, not to be “locked up in theories” (as Prof. Jona Rosenfeld says), but to remain open, to be prepared for learning and change.

4) Learn from the “battle heritage” of the war on poverty

In preparing for war, a battle legacy must be learned. Over the years, social workers, social organizations and people living in poverty have accumulated various successes. We should learn what worked – which social programs influenced more, how a woman living in poverty managed not to give up and rehabilitate herself, how an individual obtained all his/her rights, how allowances and pensions were obtained and more. From professionals who have begun to implement the battle heritage of the people they serve–there is the sense of revolution.

Gilat Spayev-Lavie (2008) in her article about support centres for people living in poverty in Jerusalem, tells about the change she went through. When she was helpless to present solutions, she began to hear what had worked for her clients. She tells about her learning, among other things:

“They, who are supposed to be powerless, they move systems and they can make me sway between hope and despair… from this process, I, as a social worker, learned to look more closely at the subject of rights and to understand what is written between the lines in order to understand what clients deserve and why they do not get their rights. Hence, the real importance of the constant dialogue between the social worker and the client. From a service responding to requests that actually became part of the bureaucracy that preserves the social order – to a service whose flag is social change. A service that represents its clients and is ready to be the spearhead of learning as a way of social change … I found that it my job to enable, motivate, find alternative ways, and not to see my role as part of a bureaucracy whose job is to maintain the industrial peace. ” (Spive-Lavie, 2008; 10).

5) Cooperate with other disciplines to eradicate poverty and its implications

Poverty is a multidimensional problem – and the report of the Committee for the War on Poverty (2014) emphasises this very well. Hence, the solution lies in mixed tools, inter-organisational, inter-sectoral and interdisciplinary cooperation. This is also a practice of partnership. Social work, as a profession that operates within the social sphere, which believes in the systems approach, that understands the hearts of people, that recognises the complexities of social systems, and that believes in working in partnerships as one of its main practices–the task of the profession is to contribute to this connection and even to lead it. Social workers are not the only ones who have to carry on their shoulders the war on poverty, but they are responsible for improving the person’s social functioning, and that of the family and the community (the Social Workers Law, 1996).

Orna Shemer, in the sharing paths

In summary – partnership starts from the inside and strives outward

Partnership is a worldview and way of life, it is not an event. It is not a residents meeting, parents’ participation in a decision committee, participatory research or a steering committee. It is a daily defiance of reality that excludes so many people from the real ability to influence their lives. And not only people who live in poverty. This text is relevant for working with other groups and individuals in the society. I do not think that it is always effective to work in partnership or that it is possible to reach high levels of participation and partnership in any situation, but I would like to instil it as a moral professional requirement that will be always in front of our eyes when we act as a team or participate in individual, group or community processes.

The opportunity to look inward and to share the text here reflects the path already travelled on the way to partnership, but especially the one that should be further paved and prepared. For me, the path of participation and partnership is not natural, it is not a “reflex” that responds to every opportunity. I first face my wish to be independent, a sense of threat from bringing others into my space, fear of losing control of the process, lack of trust, time pressure, not enough resources, belonging to organisations that do not promote it, and many more barriers. I have still a way to go along this path.

So–what about you?


ATD Fourth World UK. (2014). The Roles We Play: Recognising the Contribution of People in Poverty. Photographs by Eva Sajovic. London.

Beresford, P., Green, D., Lister, R. & Woodard, k. (1999). Poverty first hand. Poor people speak for themselves. London: CPAG.

Brand, A.C. & Baron, B. (2012). Extreme poverty is violence, Breaking the silence, Searching for peace. France: International Movement ATD Fourth World.

Branfield, F. & Beresford, P. (2006). Making user involvement work. Supporting service user networking and knowledge. York: Solnun. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 26-48.

Gupta, A. (2015). Poverty and Shame – Messages for Social Work. Critical and Radical Social Work, 3 (1). 131-139. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/204986015X14212365837689

Gutman, C., Kraiem, Y., Criden W. & Yalon-Chamovitz, S. (2012). Deconstructing Hierarchies: A Pedagogical Model with Service User Co-Teachers. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 31(2). 202-214.

For further bibliographic references in Hebrew, please contact the author: ornashermer4@gmail.com

*Issue 84, pp. 32-41, November 2017. The article was based on a lecture given by Dr. Shemer during a seminar marking the opening of the Department for Social Work in Ruppin Academic Center, 2015. The lecture was entitled: “Poverty, knowledge and academia–lessons we learned from people living in poverty”. Dr. Shemer is on the faculty of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
1The project was organised by ATD Fourth World. The photos were taken by the artistic photographer Eva Sajovic, who is also a lecturer in the academy and a social activist.
2Participative action research seminar -Learning from the Success of the Roles We Play, 2016.
3The discourse is made of a thicket of thoughts and actions that shape the social field and define it through codes, representations and interpretations. It is the explicit and tacit expression of world views through behaviors, actions, thoughts, sayings, feelings, dressing, construction of the physical space and more. Therefore, what is said and not said is part of the discourse.