by Gwennaelle Horlait
28th June 2021

This article echoes the voices of a community of activists united around the world, who are offering peer support, their knowledge and their experiences to overcome poverty. The chapter also shows how the work of ATD Fourth World empowers people and promotes epistemic justice.

From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Bolivia to the UK, people already struggling with poverty have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the weight of the challenges, the ATD (All Together in Dignity) Fourth World community – which is spread across 34 countries on five continents – maintained its close-knit solidarity while developing new approaches. At the heart of ATD’s approach is ‘giving poverty a voice’: listening to the realities of those who struggle the most, valuing their contributions and supporting their freedom of expression. Holding fast to these principles throughout the pandemic, ATD has continued strengthening bonds among members of its community by exploring different mediums, such as arts, education, peer support and advocacy, and research partnerships. Social distancing couldn’t put a brake on any of that.

Using video-conferencing or telephone when possible, or paying visits to people in remote areas with no access to electricity, activists maintained connections between local communities and ATD’s international movement by providing information and essentials, bringing activities for children and lending a friendly, supportive ear to all. Everywhere, people in poverty stressed the fact that this empowerment approach helped them feel valued, capable and ready to speak out: “Hearing about ATD elsewhere – different races helping each other – gives joy. We’re building a society on different values: less judging, more accepting.”

This long-term work has deep roots. In Northwest New Mexico, for example, since 2011, ATD’s ‘Story Garden’ mobile arts education project has offered activities that support the learning and creativity of children from the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo, whose access to educational opportunities is severely limited. When the pandemic caused schools to shift to remote teaching, this left most children in these communities struggling because of their lack of reliable internet access. To support these children’s learning and access to the wider world, ATD facilitators put the Story Garden on wheels to travel throughout rural communities running regular after-school activities for small groups. They also began helping to deliver food boxes with essential supplies.

Esther, whose grandchildren take part in the Story Garden, is part of the effort and inspires others to do likewise. She says: “Teaching my grandchildren to volunteer is very important to me. They ask, ‘Are you getting paid?’ I say no, and they ask ‘Why do you do it then?’ I tell them for the joy of helping.” Esther’s commitment is one link in the thread that unites activists across the globe in their effort to improve their communities and support one another.

The pandemic has also affected the right to family life. In the UK, most family court hearings have had to be held remotely. The Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN), which was founded in February 2020 and of which ATD is a member, is led by parents with lived experience of social service intervention who make a strong voluntary commitment to providing peer support and parent-to-parent advocacy to those experiencing similar situations. In autumn 2020, PFAN carried out research with parents to understand their experience of remote court hearings during the pandemic. Taliah Drayak, one of the parent activists of PFAN, explains:

“We wanted to gather their stories to find a better way forward – a ‘do no harm’ approach to research. Our goal was for them not to feel discarded, used or abandoned. After finalising the research, we continued offering support through individual phone calls and emails. We’re still in touch with many who request it because we’ve given them hope.”

With the loss of human contact resulting from services moving online, parents feel traumatised, even less supported, and less able to understand decisions. “It’s injustice that drives me,” one mother says. This is what motivates many PFAN and ATD parents who, despite their activism’s repercussions on their personal and work lives, feel it is they duty to fill the support gap and be available 24/7.

In these and other projects, ATD Fourth World promotes epistemic justice by building emancipatory knowledge. The founder of ATD Fourth World, Joseph Wresinski, believed that an intrinsic part of valuing another human being is to recognise them as a thinking person with the capacity to hold and share knowledge and to offer insight into the human condition. Failing to recognise their knowledge amounts to epistemic injustice and results in a loss of precious insight. Wresinski identified three types of knowledge about poverty – from first-hand lived experience, from practice, or academic – and insisted that all three be given equal weight in the coproduction of knowledge. In this form of participatory action research, all stakeholders are involved on an equal footing at all stages of the research process. The goal of the research cannot be extractive and theoretical; it must aim to effect social change. This is why ATD cultivates the conditions for people in poverty to be treated as equal partners in working towards social justice and developing collective wisdom. As one of them explained, this way of working “feeds our souls”.

Gwennaelle Horlait is a Project Worker for ATD Fourth World UK.


Authoritarian Contagion coverFind out more about ATD Fourth World in Socially Distanced Activism: Voices of Lived Experience of Poverty During COVID-19 by Katy Goldstraw, Tracey Herrington, Thomas Croft, Darren Murrinas, Nicola Gratton and Diana Skelton available on the Policy Press website for £5.59.

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Image credit: Dan Healey