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Living SJ 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

Blog Post #19: A look back on the first year of Working 4 Change: Learn & Go, a project of the Social Innovation Fund 

Making change, one person at a time 

Program fosters connection

The staff of Working 4 Change: Learn and Go knew their program was positive and powerful, but even they are astounded at the transformation they see in participants. 

 

“It’s unbelievable,” says Sharon Amirault, executive director of the Saint John Women’s Empowerment Network, a non-profit that helps to improve the lives of low-income women, which offers the program. “People come with great skills and great potential, but life has somehow thrown them a curveball. This gives them such a jumpstart.” 

 

“The surprise isn’t that they can do it. The surprise is how quickly they change.” 

 

Working 4 Change is one of eight projects supported by the Social Innovation Fund, a five-year, $10-million provincial investment in new ways of combating generational poverty in Saint John. Managed by Living SJ, the Fund, which started funding projects in 2018, allows for approaches to be tested. If they work, they can be scaled. 


The Fund allowed SJWEN to scale Working 4 Change from one cohort a year to four and add a one-on-one coaching component. The quadrupling in scale posed an early challenge to recruitment, which is often through word-of-mouth, but now past participants, as well as other organizations, are helping to promote it and fill the spots.

The Waterloo Village Warriors, a Working 4 Change: Learn & Go community group.  

The surprise isn’t that they can do it. The surprise is how quickly they change.” 
- Sharon Amirault

The Pulse Rockets, a Working 4 Change group. 

“The projects are great, but it’s really about the individual and their journey.”  
- Tara Parlee
Building up the individual

Working in small, neighbourhood-based teams, participants get four weeks of skills workshops on subjects like communication, team-building and pitching. Each group comes up with a local project. Initiatives run the gamut from safer crosswalks and streets to gardening and healthy food initiatives and much more. The participants then spend six weeks working on the project in groups with amazing community mentors. 

 

“The projects are great, but it’s really about the individual and their journey,” says engagement coordinator Tara Parlee, who runs the program with Angie Power. 

 

Angie says the program is really about connection, especially as many participants are isolated. 

 

“And connection means many different things for different people,” she says.  

 

It could be social connection to peers or community. It could be connecting to organizations that deliver sessions as part of the program or to the volunteer mentors from Irving Oil who work with the groups. 

 

That connectivity extends to SJWEN itself, which often refers people to other programs and organizations, and offers ongoing support. 

 

While eventual employment is one of Working 4 Change’s goals, it’s not the only indicator of success. Some people may not now, nor ever, be employment-ready, for a range of reasons, from family responsibilities to health problems. But they can still make a difference in their lives, homes and neighbourhoods. 

 

“Some get involved in their communities and are contributing greatly to society,” Angie says. 

 

The inclusive program includes participants who are living with mental health problems and disabilities and those who have experienced other barriers, including language or literacy.

 

Whatever their situation, “we meet them where they’re at,” Tara says. 

 

The coaching component, new this year, is a way to perpetuate the program’s momentum. While uptake was low in the early days, Angie and Tara have seen demand increase to the point they could now have a full-time coach on staff. 

 

Sharon says this ongoing, incremental and coordinated approach to building people up one at a time – and over what is sometimes a long time – is how change happens.  

 

“People want a big fix for a big problem,” she says. “But if we’re ever going to make an impact on generational poverty, we have to work with the individual. It’s their life. It’s their journey.”