Stories of homelessness shared with community thanks to foundation laid by Political Science grad

Madeleine Jones-Aceituno’s fourth year of university helped inspire change in her career trajectory — and perhaps in the community.

It was in early 2020, as part of her POLI 4P95 winter internship placement, that Jones-Aceituno (BA ’20) spent time laying the foundation for a project that would see stories of social housing and homelessness shared with the Niagara community.

The Living Library would welcome seven ‘Living Book’ participants to open up about their experiences of homelessness or accessing Niagara Regional Housing or Homelessness Services with members of the public. But just two days prior to the event date, the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt.

The timing was heartbreaking for Jones-Aceituno, who was eager to share the important messages the Living Library had to offer.

Now, nearly 20 months later, she was thrilled to see the project come to fruition, albeit in an online form.

A joint initiative by the Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Region and Niagara Regional Housing, the Virtual Living Library — Stories of Housing and Home launched on the Niagara Falls Public Library’s website Oct. 20.

The website includes participants from the Lived Experience Advisory Group and the Niagara Regional Housing Tenant’s Advisory Committee and is available virtually for viewing and interaction.

Jones-Aceituno says that working on the project, including preparing and conducting interviews with participants, helped her see beyond stereotypes about homelessness. She hopes that visitors to the Living Library website will have a similar experience.

“Homelessness can happen to anyone at any time, as one of the participants actually helped me understand,” she says. “It is not something someone chooses for themselves. Social programming such as Housing and Homelessness Services are extremely valuable and necessary.”

Jeffrey Sinclair, Homelessness Action Plan Advisor in Community Services at the Niagara Region, who supervised Jones-Aceituno during her time with the project, said her contributions have not been forgotten.

“Madeleine’s work created the foundation for the partners to complete the project a year later as a virtual Living Library,” he says. “Niagara Regional Homelessness Services and Housing Services strive to provide meaningful experiential education opportunities when we engage with post-secondary students, and because affordable housing and homelessness are priority issues in the community, we’re finding students coming forward who are really passionate about these issues.”

Laura Martin, Manager of Community Development and Programming at the Niagara Falls Public Library, agrees.

“The framework Madeleine helped build for the original project created a road map for Living Libraries that enabled both the transition to this virtual presentation and future Living Library collaborations, either virtual or in person,” she says. “We appreciate that foundational work, which will empower other organizations to bring their lived experiences into a Living Library.”

After graduating in June 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, with a minor in History, Jones-Aceituno is pursuing a teaching certificate at the University of Ottawa with a focus on supporting marginalized communities.

“I chose to become a member of the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC), so all of my classes are taught with a social justice lens focusing on racism, classism, ableism and more,” she says. “My experience with Niagara Region Homelessness Services had a huge impact on me when I chose the cohort, and it has enhanced and transferred over to my learning.”

Joanne Heritz, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and a researcher with a strong interest in housing issues in Niagara, says there are benefits on all sides when students have the chance to engage practically with the concepts they have studied for years.

“The experiential education aspect of 4P95 Internship creates opportunities for Political Science students to partner with a variety of social services, legal and political organizations to link the knowledge and skills they have acquired in their undergraduate studies to real life situations,” says Heritz, who supervised the Living Library project from the Brock side. “It also provides a keen source of talent for partners in our community who are seeking assistance with short-term projects.”

Sinclair says the benefits of the Living Library project are also many and varied for different stakeholders.

“This is a really important initiative because it allows for people with direct experience of either homelessness or community housing to share their stories and perspectives on these topics,” he says. “It helps us better design programs and policies to meet the needs of the community members they are intended to benefit, and it helps increase understanding by addressing biases, stigma and misunderstandings that other community members may have.”

Cara Krezek, Director of Co-op, Career and Experiential Education at Brock, is always pleased to see how students’ experiential learning opportunities contribute to building their skills and enhancing their knowledge of course materials through applications in real-world settings.

“It opens the students’ minds to new pathways for their career and their learning,” says Krezek. “When students encounter an experience that excites them, it can light a spark of passion that they follow which is where they find purposeful work that they enjoy and excel at.”

With her theoretical background in Political Science, History and now Education, Jones-Aceituno hopes to have an impact on policy and practice.

“With an understanding of the past and attempting to unravel where our present systemic barriers stem from, I hope to work to change education in Ontario,” she says. “I am very passionate about equality within education and believe that my experience in the UCC, learning politics at the undergraduate level and my experience with Niagara Regional Housing and Homelessness Services have given me the tools to do so, perhaps at the curricula level.”

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