The testimony of Mareike Brunelli

A new home


In 2014, the experience with the René Cassin bursary brought me to Winnipeg, in the heart of Canada. Thanks to the internship I was able to make many connections in the world of community development, and learn a lot from all those who work in the sector that I came across and I had the fortune to listen to. The René Cassin bursary allowed me to work on an International Development Research Centre funded project with the University of Winnipeg. The project culminated in Volume 4, No 2 of the Universitas Forum international journal titled Innovative Practices of Inclusive Urban Development and Poverty Reduction. The issue collected case studies analyzing efforts in poverty reduction in urban settings, trying to shed light on differences and similarities in this line of work across countries and continents. During this experience, I documented what I was learning on a daily basis from community organizations in Winnipeg. Meeting and visiting a number of agencies in the inner city was instrumental to understand this work and the needs it tries to meet, but also the practical implications of policies and government decisions, as well as the power of grassroots organizing.

After the Cassin experience, I stayed in Winnipeg with a contract from the University of Winnipeg to do some research for the Manitoba Research Alliance, a research project dedicated to solving the complex problems of poverty and social exclusion in Manitoba’s inner-city and Indigenous communities. In the summer of 2016, I obtained the Canadian permanent residence and, almost concurrently, started a job with the Spence Neighbourhood Association (SNA). SNA is a great organization, working in Winnipeg’s West End where many residents are living in poverty, providing a myriad of programs for all in the community: children, families, tenants, landlords, adults and seniors. My position as safety coordinator put me in the position of working with residents, stakeholders and businesses, as well as the Winnipeg Police Service, to create a safer community for all. That is made possible also through the work of many residents who volunteer their time with SNA, organizing the annual March for Peace in the West End, safety audits, reporting arson risks, and picking up needles from our streets and parks.

Providing recreational opportunities to adults in a low income neighbourhood creates spaces for folks to come together, get to know each other in a relaxed environment, make new friends and talk freely about their struggles, while being understanding and supportive for others. I was lucky to hear from many about their stories of homelessness, health problems, injustices, racism and overall powerlessness towards systems that exclude and perpetuate trauma. These front line jobs in the inner city really give you quite the clear insight into the life of the urban poor in Canada. 

The safety coordinator position also runs a drop-in for sex workers and exploited persons, in collaboration with two other amazing community groups (Daniel McIntyre St. Matthews Community Association and Sunshine House). Our Place (OPSS) is a safe space where folks of all ages, genders and Nations can access harm reduction supplies, programming and dinner, in an accepting and welcoming environment. Programming is offered on the basis of participants’ interest and aspirations: CPR and self defense, but also watercolour painting, make up lessons and karaoke night! OPSS throws a car wash fundraiser every summer, a beloved event among staff, participants and community members alike.

In September 2017 I accepted the challenge of a new position within SNA, as the director of community engagement in the Central neighbourhoods of Winnipeg (Central Park, Centennial and West Alexander), after the folding of the Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation in those areas. Through community input, consultations, surveying, focus groups, we are developing a new 5 year plan for the three communities, establishing goals around safety, housing, recreation, and more, to improve the community in a way that is led by its residents and stakeholders. Alongside, we are supporting existing and established groups in their activities, and holding community events to bring people together.

Without the René Cassin award, I don’t know where I would be. My life as a recent graduate had no clear direction. I was second guessing my decisions of taking an educational path studying things that I liked, instead of one with a tangible career ahead. Then the René Cassin lightning struck my life, and opened me the doors to Winnipeg. Winnipeg: the rough and tough city with the heart of gold. Here people put their trust in me, believed in me and saw my value, they invested in me and welcomed me. I found my vocation, built support systems at work and life outside work, found friends and folks that treat me like family. None of this would have been possible without the opportunity KIP and the Emilia Romagna Region gave me, and without all the supports put in place for me in Winnipeg once I got here.

In 2018 I will be eligible to apply and become a Canadian citizen, if I so choose. Who would have thought that? What started so temporary is now my new home.

Mareike

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