Building on Strengths: Inclusive Design that Rebuilds Lives
Updated: May 5
I’m a big believer in knowledge mobilization and sharing lessons learned, reflections, failures and areas for ongoing improvement. Lucky for me, many of the people that I work with also feel the same way about sharing their experiences. I recently prepared a program review of the Women and Micro Enterprise Project for Women’s Habitat, and below are a few key learnings related to inclusive and equitable program design.
Background and Context
Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke is a community-based, feminist organization providing vital support to women and their dependents who are survivors of violence. The mission of Women’s Habitat is to provide a safe refuge, counselling, support and advocacy for women and their children who are fleeing violence, while also working towards a more equal society where the inherent value of all women is recognized.
Women’s experience of violence is directly correlated to experiences of homelessness, poverty and economic inequality. In addition to the traumatic emotional and physical effects of violence, gender-based abuse isolates women, diminishes women’s sense of control and self-advocacy, and depletes women’s financial, personal and social assets. The interconnection between violence and poverty creates numerous obstacles to women’s ability to rebuild their lives and financial independence.
The Women and Micro-Enterprise Program (WMEP) was piloted between 2015 and 2017, and provided self-employment training and related supports to women who were rebuilding their lives after experiencing violence. The program was designed to address the unique barriers faced by women who are survivors of abuse and living in poverty. The curriculum and program approach supported the development of business skills, life skills, and included access to critical wrap around supports. Women interested in exploring micro-enterprise development, those with a business idea or those who may have already started a micro-enterprise were invited to participate. The main elements of the program included:
Workshops on micro-enterprise start-up and development of a business plan
Life skills training
Business testing opportunities
Lesson #1 Create an inclusive environment for women to engage and successfully participate
To engage women, inclusive program design starts with removing the barriers to participation and supporting the capacity of women to learn and engage during the program. Recognizing the complex experiences and needs of women that have experienced violence, the program model included customized solutions that enabled women to successfully enter, participate and complete the program. WMEP purposefully applied a low barrier approach to the program recruitment and delivery, this meant that there were minimal restricting criteria applied that may have excluded women from participating in or completing the program.
Staff noted that utilizing a broad recruitment approach enabled Women’s Habitat and their partners to support “hard-to-reach” women that they were unable to assist before, including women that experienced complex barriers to financial independence. Responding to the needs of women who are at different stages of asset and/or business development (exploring entrepreneurship versus start-up versus launch versus expansion) requires a greater variety of wrap around supports and flexibility in terms of the program structure and format.
Based on the WMEP learnings, to apply a more inclusive and low barrier approach to participant recruitment the following promising practices should be applied in order to mitigate some of the challenges related to participant readiness and the range of participant needs:
Utilization of assessment tools that explore women’s strengths, assets, needs, interest areas, skills, and knowledge related to micro-enterprise
Ensure clear communications on the expectations and requirements needed to complete the program and assess readiness factors (in partnership with participants)
Offer comprehensive wrap around services that support women to successfully complete the program
Provide a flexible program structure that enables women to manage their other responsibilities
Work with skilled instructors, facilitators and coaches who can easily modify the curriculum content and activities to suite the needs of a diverse cohort
“I’m excited about continuing the journey and building the business. Things are still far from perfect, there is still insecurity and uncertainty but I feel I am more prepared, I feel ready, I feel stronger.” Program Graduate
Lesson #2 - Apply a strength-based and participatory approach
When using an asset based or strength based approach, women are encouraged to observe and recognize their existing skills in all aspects of their lives including past education, training, volunteering, and in their roles as mothers/caregivers (even if at first they seem unimportant or irrelevant). The idea is to build from a place of strength, demonstrate to women how their skills can be transferred to the workplace or their business, and set goals to enhance their skill set. Likewise, asking women for input and feedback on the program design and supports is another way to recognize their skills and acknowledge their unique experiences.
Obtaining input from experiential women (past, current and potential program participants) ensures that the program structure, wrap around supports, curriculum content and other program features complement the needs of participants and reflect their life experience and current situation. Staff managing the WMEP created opportunities to engage with participants on program design so that the supports, courses, training delivery was customized to meet their needs. A participatory process can be developed through focus group meetings, surveys or the establishment of an ongoing advisory committee. Creating a small advisory group of experiential women could act as a feedback loop for ongoing monitoring and course correction. Structuring the process as an ongoing advisory group also provides a leadership opportunity for women and could expand to include networking, and professional development opportunities for the women involved. Compensating women for their time and insight must also be built into the process as well as resources that foster accessibility and inclusion including (but not limited to) costs for childcare, transportation and translation services.
Lesson #3 Develop strong partnerships that are committed to inclusive design
Innovative sector partnerships are vital to creating a fulsome model of micro-enterprise training and supports. Since no one organization can provide all of the services needed to assist participants as they transition out of poverty, funding partnerships are critical for the early stage program planning, development and delivery costs, micro loans/grants and post program initiatives. WMEP created meaningful partnerships with several community agencies, government partners and social justice funders throughout the duration of the project. For example, Toronto Employment and Social Services (TESS) provided support to participants using the Intensive Case Management model. TESS also provided a grant (up to $2,500) for capital start-up costs or related business development expenses to eligible participants.
“The engagement of TESS illustrated that government can be a willing partner at the table and demonstrated the value of political will and championing of new approaches.” Key informant
A community partner that was engaged during the very early development stages of the initiative was Scadding Court Community Centre. They developed a “Business of Out of the Box” model that provides affordable retail space in the form of shipping container markets for micro-entrepreneurs. This partnership aimed to address a significant barrier identified by women themselves –the lack of affordable and accessible venue spaces in the community. Community based partnerships are also vital and an efficient way to offer wrap around supports, business testing, marketing and incubation opportunities, mentors and other supports and services needed for micro-entrepreneurs. Taking the time to develop program goals, objectives and expectations in collaboration with community and funding partners, is vital to developing a sustainable program. Documenting clear responsibilities, expectations and roles of all partners is also key to building and maintaining good partnerships.
Microenterprise training and development can change the trajectory of a women’s life, especially women that are rebuilding their lives after experiencing violence.
How does your program design or processes contribute to the meaningful engagement of participants and equality of outcomes for all women? To learn more about Women’s Habitat, visit their website at: https://womenshabitat.ca/