Journeys Through Unemployment

By Stephanie Mancini, Good Work News, June 2010

The Working Centre began as a drop-in centre focusing on the issues of unemployment in the early 1980’s. The pages of Good Work News, or a glance at our website, reflect many of the projects and activities that have grown from the responsive-listening model of community development that is a characteristic of The Working Centre. We start with each person, their particular situation, and an open engaged approach that looks for creative responses.

“How can we help you?” is still one of the first messages we share with each person we meet in our Job Search Resource Centre. The range of people we meet is quite diverse – someone recently unemployed and looking for a quick connection to their next job; a New Canadian struggling to enter their profession in Canada and needing assistance to navigate complex professional regulations; someone who is part of the casual labour force and is looking for their next job, an experience all too familiar to them in their attempts to support themselves; a worker who has spent 20 years in one occupation only to find their job is no longer there; a New Canadian with limited English skills looking for a survival job to support their family as they settle in Canada; a young person interested in work that supports their values; a young person who has faced far too many hardships and is trying to make their way forwards. Each person’s journey unfolds as we become allies in finding the next step.

Rather than presenting a list of services or activities that a person can get involved in, we first try to listen to the story or experience of each person we meet. This listening is quite important. We recently met someone and their situation was complex enough that we didn’t see an easy way forward, but committed to exploring things together. He went away for a while, and then returned. During that time he had been to a number of other places seeking assistance. When asked why he came back, he said, “Because you listened to me.” The answers are not usually simple, but things become more possible when we commit together to exploring the options.

Perhaps one concept that is true for everyone is that work is a significant part of our world. It defines what we do, how we support ourselves and our families and it often forms a significant part of our identity. The journey of looking for work is significant and unique for each person. We see our work together as the sharing of this journey – and we see our work together as a trust – whether the work is the sharing of information and job leads, crafting a resume that reflects the person, or tackling the other life issues that get in the way.

Respect is an important part of this journeying together – building personal resiliency during times of change is a very personal experience. Our goal is to always respond respectfully through this time of change.

All of this of course means that there is not one easy answer. All the technique of job search, of writing a resume, of networking, of making connections with employers, of settling life stability issues, is only useful if the techniques are relevant to the person before us. We need practical and useful answers, and the answer can be as different as the people we meet. This requires some careful thinking together, and some active trying of different ideas, before each person finds the solutions that work best in their situation.

In our work, we also try to think broadly – about community resources, about the variety of projects and resources around The Working Centre. Sometimes talking about a problem is not the answer, but solutions are aided by getting involved in doing something creative at Recycle Cycles, or building computer skills through our Computer Basics course, or joining with others serving a meal at the Queen Street Commons Café. If we focus together on what makes a person strong in community, the answers can more easily unfold before us.

Social services often provide services. Our goal is instead to be of service. We walk with the person as they respond to their current situation, finding solutions where possible, but also just becoming part of the journey. It can be a brief, or a long-term engagement, but if we remain committed to each person as an individual, we respond to their needs, and not to our needs to feel useful or to achieve certain outcomes.

One reality we have seen is that the systems around us are getting more and more complex – income support systems, admissions and funding for education, housing issues, and immigration systems. Navigating each system, and how one system affects the other can require some complex navigation skills. While we don’t profess to know all the rules, we join in the researching, unraveling and carefully navigating in order to sift and sort the various rules and procedures. Too often, our traditional networks of support don’t overlap and people are lost between rules that don’t align. When we follow the person, we find ourselves filling these gaps.

Uniting all of these principles, we strive to be hospitable and to develop real relationships. How can we make each person welcome, how can we position ourselves to be the most helpful, what are the pieces that each person offers to the exchange and common work we set out to do together?

The answers can be as practical as a private voicemail box for someone who doesn’t have a telephone, or as complex as a two to five year journey helping a New Canadian professional to enter work in their profession. The list of projects and services listed as a complement to this article show the range and diversity of projects that have emerged from this work, but what remains with us is the stories of the people we meet, the liveliness of the resource centre, and the active engagement of the work we do together.

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