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  Cities Reducing Poverty: Case Studies from Vibrant Communities
Cities Reducing Poverty Book Cover

In this podcast, Garry Loewen speaks with Mark Cabaj about Tamarack's new book, Cities Reducing Poverty - How Vibrant Communities are Creating Comprehensive Solutions to the Most Complex Problem of our Times which profiles the work of six different Canadian cities as they worked collaboratively to reduce poverty, synthesizing the experience of Vibrant Communities Canada over the past decade into a set of powerful lessons for any city eager to address this complex issue.

Learning Objectives:

  • To deepen understanding of how collaboration is helping address the complex issue of poverty
  • To identify key elements needed to successfully reduce poverty within cities
  • To glean core lessons and insights from the poverty-reduction work of six Canadian cities
  • To accelerate efforts to reduce poverty across communities

On this page you'll find:

Meet the Thought Leaders

Mark Cabaj

Mark Cabaj - is an Associate of Tamarack and Vibrant Communities and the President of the company Here to There. From 2002-2010, he was the Executive Director of Vibrant Communities Canada and a Director at Tamarack. Mark's current focus is on developing practical ways to assist groups understand, plan and evaluate policies, programs and initiatives that address complex issues. He is particularly focused on expanding the ideas and practice of developmental evaluation, a new approach to evaluation which emphasizes learning and design thinking in emerging and sometimes fast-moving environments.

Mark brings experience from a variety of sectors. In the 1990s, he served as the Foreign Assistance Coordinator for Grants in Poland's Ministry of Privatization, was the Mission Coordinator for the United Nations Development Program's first regional economic development initiative in Eastern Europe, and worked with International Privatization Group-Price Waterhouse. In Canada, he was the Coordinator of the Waterloo Region's Opportunities 2000 project - an initiative that won provincial, national and international awards for its multi-sectoral approach to poverty reduction - and served briefly as the Executive Director of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet). From 2002-2010, he was the Executive Director of Vibrant Communities Canada and a Director at Tamarack.

Paul Born

Garry Loewen - Garry Loewen helped found, and has been an active leader of, Vibrant Communities since 2002. Currently, he is involved in the management and work planning of this national initiative, in addition to serving as coach to the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council in Manitoba. As a coach, he helps the initiative develop its framework of change, supports and guides its projects and helps connect WPRC to Vibrant Communities and other comprehensive community collaborations.

Early in his working life, Garry held senior management positions with Air Canada. He then served as a parish minister for five years. He has founded or led several Winnipeg-based organizations, including the North End Community Renewal Corporation, SEED Winnipeg Inc, Opportunities for Employment Inc. From 1999 to 2000, Garry was Executive Director of The Canadian Community Economic Development Network. He was also Community Economic Development Director for the Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba from 1991 to 2000. Garry is currently self-employed as a community economic development consultant and is Board Chair of Assiniboine Credit Union in Winnipeg. Garry lives in Winnipeg with his wife Teri, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and extended family.

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Working Comprehensively

Vibrant Communities has tried to push the needle on whole system or community change on poverty. Mark shared three "quotes" from different sources to help listeners understand why it is important for community change efforts to work comprehensively instead of focusing on isolated aspects of an issue. Listen here as Mark shares a quote from David Shipler about why a comprehensive approach makes sense when working to address the issue of poverty.

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Asking the Right Questions

One of the challenges facing the Vibrant Communities team when they set out to develop Cities Reducing Poverty: Case Studies from Vibrant Communities was to be clear about their approach. On the one hand, each community's case was unique...and on the other hand, it was tempting to try and identify a single, "best" approach. In order to find a balance between this tension, Mark and the team looked for general patterns and themes that emerged across the case studies. In the following clip, Mark shares the three core questions that focused the team's listening:

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Stories from the Case Studies

The six case studies profiled in the book were all examples of poverty reduction efforts in urban centres across Canada. However there was tremendous diversity in the approaches adopted by each case study. In the clip below, Mark provides listeners with a brief overview of each of the case studies.

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Four Approaches to Comprehensive Community Change:

From a review of the six case studies the VC team uncovered four different approaches for working comprehensively to reduce poverty in communities. The four approaches are each summarized below.


Sowing 1,000 Flowers - This approach is typified by working on multiple different aspects of the issue simultaneously. In the clip below Mark highlights both the strengths and challenges of this approach.


Pool Ball Strategy - This approach is exemplified by approaches which aim at primarily addressing one factor in the hope of influencing other factors in a type of ricochet effect. In the clip below Mark shares some of the enabling conditions that contribute to the success of this approach.


Weaving Strategy - The weaving approach is an organic one in which a specific "entry-point" for addressing issues of poverty is chosen and, through the process of addressing the issue, additional insights and understanding of interconnected issues are identified and become the next focus of work. Mark offers a summary of this approach in the clip below.


Hybrid Strategy - This strategy is best described as a combination of all the previous three strategies. The case studies of St John's and Hamilton were cited as examples of this strategy. And, while these cases each generated significant impacts, listen here as Mark highlights some particular assets that they've learned are necessary for this approach to be successful.

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Common Elements of Success

In addition to uncovering the four approaches to working comprehensively to address poverty, the case studies also helped the VC to generate some elements of success that were common to all six efforts. The five common elements that were identified as:

  1. Getting the bird's eye and worm's eye view
  2. Navigating the local context
  3. Learning by doing
  4. Making vertical and horizontal links
  5. Being persistent and having appropriate expectations

In the clip below, Mark explains each of these five elements using examples from the various case studies as illustrations.

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Other Pieces of the Puzzle

Mark shared that the VC Team was very deliberate in its decision to focus deeply on exploring one dimension - working comprehensively - as they examined the six cities' poverty reduction efforts. However, he and Garry also emphasized that taking a comprehensive approach to poverty is only one of five component piece of the poverty puzzle. The five dimensions of work to reduce poverty that have been identified by Vibrant Communities and others are:

  • Understanding Poverty
  • Multi-sector Collaboration
  • Comprehensive Thinking and Action
  • Building on Assets
  • Community Learning and Change

Listen in the following clip as Mark summarizes each of these five dimensions as uses the work of the various cities to highlight them.

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Reflection Questions

  1. Which of the four approaches to comprehensive community change most resonates with the context of poverty reduction efforts in my city and what can I learn from it?
  2. How do I view my city's current efforts to reduce poverty in light of what I've learned today?
  3. Reflecting on the common elements of success, which do you see as strengths of our local efforts to reduce poverty?
  4. Which element would I most like to strengthen? And why?

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Links & Resources

An Excerpt from Cities Reducing Poverty - You can download the introduction to this latest resource developed by Tamarack and profiling the work of six Canadian cities and their efforts to reduce poverty.

Order Cities Reducing Poverty - Learn more about and order your own copy of Cities Reducing Poverty - How Vibrant Communities are Creating Comprehensive Solutions to the Most Complex Problem of our Times.

Vibrant Communities Canada - This online learning community has been created as a space where Canadians, and their cities, can learn, share expertise, advance common goals, and connect with one another about reducing poverty.

Poverty Reduction: Time for Governments to Lead - This article by Dr. Neil Bradford was featured in April 2011 issue of Engage!, Tamarack's e-magazine. In light of "mounting evidence of spatially concentrated poverty in Canadian cities" over the past two decades it makes the case that what is needed is a national poverty reduction strategy in which, "All levels of government must come to the table with fresh ideas and firm commitments to work with local communities."

Vibrant Communities (2002-2010) Evaluation Report - This report - and its summary - contain the findings of a nine-year experiment that demonstrates the positive impacts of an innovative and collaborative approach to fighting poverty that is driving individual benefits, neighborhood changes and large scale community poverty reductions.

Strategic Dialogue on Poverty - The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the Tamarack Institute hosted a strategic dialogue about place-based poverty reduction efforts in Canada. Forty-six business, government, philanthropic, academic and community sector leaders reviewed the strengths and challenges of working collaboratively to tackle poverty in Canada and the United States. Access the web page about the event.

Comprehensive Community Initiatives: Lessons Learned, Potential and Opportunities Moving Forward - The Wellesley Institute was commissioned to provide an overview of place-based approaches to poverty reduction in Canada. This paper describes the approach, trends, enablers, and impact. The paper also poses questions about next steps. Access the paper and the presentation.

Community Change Initiatives from 1990 - 2010: Accomplishments and Implications for Future Work - Published in Community Investments Spring 2010, this paper by the Aspen Institute, Roundtable on Community Change outlines the results from over two decades of investment in community change efforts in the United States. Access the paper and the presentation by Anne Kubisch of The Aspen Institute.

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Cities Reducing Poverty: Case Studies

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