Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?


Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.


3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.


4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.


5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.


6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?


Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.


ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!

What is hidden homelessness?

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.


5 Women who inspire us

For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!


What if you had to choose? 

Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.

Changemakers to watch: Yasin Osman

We’re pretty excited to introduce you to Yasin Osman.  He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.


WHO: Yasin grew up in Regent Park with his mother who worked hard to make ends meet. He often saw firsthand the impact that a lack of opportunities can have on a neighbourhood—from poverty to unemployment. But despite the challenges faced by many Regent Park residents, Yasin is remarkably hopeful about the revitalization of his neighbourhood. His stunning photos tell stories of perseverance, resilience and the power of community. And others are taking notice of Yasin’s talent, too. He’s won numerous awards for his work including a Basquiat Neon Crown from the Art Gallery of Ontario and an Adelaide Gyamfi Award from The Remix Project, a United Way–funded agency. He’s also been named one of Pique’s Top 100 Artists from Toronto.

WHAT: Yasin uses his camera to document everything from pictures of kids out for an -evening bike ride.

bike kids-5

To breathtaking cityscapes.


And candid snaps of residents in his community.


But what caused Yasin to pick up a camera is just as interesting. At 13, after noticing the structural changes happening in his neighbourhood, he decided to use the camera on his mom’s cell phone to capture the transformation. Years later, he decided to pursue photography more seriously—a decision his fans (including us!) are thankful for. Now, he’s working with big-name companies including Facebook, Adidas and VICE.

WHY: Yasin loves kids. So when he’s not working as an ECE at Community Centre 55, he’s running his budding #ShootForPeace program, an initiative that brings young people from Regent Park together to learn about photography. It all started when some local kids noticed his Instagram and asked him to teach them how to take similar photos. “At first, I wasn’t sure if they were serious about learning photography, but they were,” says Yasin. “Sometimes we undermine the intelligence of children, but they’re capable of so much when it’s something that interests them.”

group picture-2

Yasin Osman (centre) with #ShootForPeace program participants.

Participants have soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Yasin—not to mention guest artists that join the weekly program including NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay and even Oliver El-Khatib, the manager of Toronto’s own Drake. “A program like this isn’t something all of us had when we were younger,” explains Yasin. “One of the kids told me that he never thought he could be so good at something. It’s amazing to see how it has changed the way they see themselves.”


Youth in the #ShootForPeace program check out a photo taken by NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay.

WHAT’S NEXT: Yasin has big plans in store for 2016! “I’m constantly hearing from kids across Toronto who want to get involved,” he says. “It would be amazing to offer this program to more kids who would normally not have the opportunity to learn about photography.” And so Yasin’s putting the wheels in motion to do exactly that. Currently, he’s in talks with a community organization to expand #ShootForPeace across the city. Stay tuned to see what this Changemaker is up to next. We’re sure it’ll be nothing short of inspiring!


What is “hidden” homelessness?


Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night.

But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 8 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet.Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”


To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 20 and 21. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”


What does homelessness look like where you live?  Visit ProjectUnited, for eye-opening videos, audio and written stories of people experiencing poverty right here at home. Conceived and created by two engaged Ryerson University students, ProjectUnited is a volunteer-driven partnership with United Way that aims to raise awareness of the barriers people face in our community.


Hope and a new home for refugees


Mario Calla
Executive Director,
COSTI Immigrant Services

Our guest blogger this week is Mario Calla, Executive Director of COSTI Immigrant Services, a United Way-funded agency that provides programs and services to help newcomers and refugees settle in Canada. Mario is also a member of United Way’s Campaign Cabinet and sits on the steering committee of Lifeline Syria, an organization that recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups to welcome and support Syrian refugees coming to Canada.

Somewhere in Lebanon, Dima’s brother is desperate for luck to turn his way. He’s there with his wife and three young children. Not long ago, they managed a dangerous escape from Syria. Now they’re stuck in limbo as they search in vain for some way to get to Canada. Dima’s brother heard his family might find safe passage through Turkey — but they were forced to turn back when it became too dangerous. They returned to Lebanon, where they are right now. Still waiting. Still hopeful.

It’s a journey Dima knows only too well. And it’s a story I hear so often it has become painfully routine. At COSTI, I meet dozens of refugees every day. People fleeing Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan. The fact they are prepared to take such risks speaks to how hopeless things have become for them.

For people like Dima and her brother, escaping from suffering and persecution is just the first step in a long journey. When they arrive here in their new country, they encounter a new series of challenges. Thankfully, Canadians are compassionate. People are sponsoring families. Bay Street companies are fundraising to support their settlement. Groups of lawyers are offering pro bono assistance to help refugees with immigration paperwork. Our community is coming together like never before.

At COSTI, we’re doing everything we can too—alongside a network of United Way agencies that helps newcomers in every corner of Toronto and York Region. The Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre is the first home in Canada to over 17,000 refugees since it first opened its doors 26 years ago. We’ve been one of the first places refugees come when they land here in Canada. Some need medical attention. Others have issues that go beyond the physical—they need counselling and support to overcome post-traumatic stress. Everyone needs shelter, clothing, food—and friendship.

As refugees begin to settle into their new life, it’s our job to help them get their feet planted firmly on the ground. We help them find a place to live, open a bank account and apply for a social insurance number. We make sure their kids get enrolled in school. COSTI connects newcomers with employment supports and settlement services to help ensure their long-term success. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure everyone has everything they need. And it’s working. We’ve managed to help thousands of refugee families get the best start for their new life in Canada.

But our work isn’t done. Like so many others, Dima’s brother is determined to make his way here — and my wife and I are just as determined. We, with the support of friends, have applied to privately sponsor Dima’s brother and his family. Dima, my friends and family and the family of United Way agencies will be ready to greet them when they arrive. Working together, we can extend our embrace to all refugees who arrive in our country in search of a better life.

Visit United Way’s Facebook page to learn how you can help refugees and newcomers get the best start in their new life.

3 Reasons to step up (way up!) for our communities

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Will you be rising to the challenge at this year’s CN Tower Climb for United Way?

Before you lace up your sneakers, we thought we’d share a few tidbits about the CN Tower, and the awesome climbers and volunteers who step up year after year.

1. You’ll need to be quick: Think you’ve got what it takes to beat the fastest CN Tower climb time? Then be prepared to conquer roughly four steps a second! That’s right. The current record—undefeated since the 1989 CN Tower Climb for United Way—is a swift seven minutes and 52 seconds. That’s just over 222 steps a minute and over 20 minutes faster than the average climb time! Brendan Keenoy, a police officer, became the fastest person to climb the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. A remarkable feat that has been standing tall for almost 26 years.

CN Tower2. Tall is an understatement: Just looking at the CN Tower can make your knees wobble. Built in 1976—just one year before the first CN Tower Climb for United Way—the Tower stands a whopping 553 metres (1,815 ft) high. That’s the equivalent of four Canadian football fields and almost 11 times as high as Niagara Falls! Keeping with the Canadian theme, the famous glass floor can also withstand the weight of 35 moose.


But what’s even more amazing is the number of people who have climbed over the past 38 years in support of United Way—more than 230,000! Not to mention the 550 volunteers who attend each year to ensure that the climb is safe and fun. That’s a lot of people coming together for a common cause.

Particpants3. The calf burn is worth the reward: Since its inception, the CN Tower Climb for United Way has raised over $26 million! That’s a lot of money going toward building brighter futures for individuals and families, from the Toronto waterfront to the southern shore of Lake Simcoe. It’s true! Every step does change lives.

Registration is now open, so sign up today. You might just add to the legend at this year’s climb.

5 must-see summer photos


A picture is worth a thousand words – the notion that so much can be conveyed through a single shot. We agree. That’s why we’re introducing Snapshot – a new photo series that features the people and places across our diverse region that inspire us to work together to make a meaningful difference.

As summer draws to close, we thought we’d take the opportunity to kick off the feature with some of our favourite snaps of the season. Let us know what you think!


Summer is the season of play! We caught up with Uma, her son Jonathan and his friend, Jia, while they were having fun in the sun at Agincourt Community Services Association’s Child and Family Centre, a United Way-supported agency. Although Jonathan may be prepping for junior kindergarten, it sure looks like he and Jia are cramming in all the fun they can handle before the fall!


The only thing shining brighter than the sun in this photo is Abrone’s smile. We love this summery snap featuring the 23-year-old Weston-Mt. Dennis resident. We recently chatted with Abrone about his participation in an education-to-employment training program supported by United Way that’s helping put this inspirational young man on the path to a meaningful future full of possibility. That sure is something to smile about!


The Toronto 2015 Games may be almost over—but the legacy of beautiful community artwork left behind by the Pan Am Path Art Relay continues. We love this photo of Mayor John Tory serving up some summer volleyball fun at the J’ouvert Performance & Carnival, one of the stops on this 80-kilometre sports and art trail stretching across the city and connecting many of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods where United Way is working to build strong communities.


Nejat (see left) is an inspiring mother-of-five who’s stitching together a better life for herself and her family. In this photo, she takes a break from her job at Haween—a community-based social enterprise providing sewing and production training to newcomer women—to proudly showcase her handiwork. Despite a busy schedule, we’re glad Nejat found time to enjoy the sunshine!

Rat Race

Ready, set, scurry! We absolutely love this photo of a participant from this year’s Scotiabank Rat Race where supporters dashed through the streets for United Way. Whether you walked or ran, one thing is for sure – each stride was one step closer to building stronger communities.

5 Women who inspire us

In honour of International Women’s Day held on March 8, we put together a list of five women who inspire us. They’re remarkable citizens and Torontonians living right here in our city who work tirelessly every day to build the best Toronto possible.

Sabina-Ali_300x470Sabina Ali: Sabina’s incredible dedication to making her neighbourhood a better place to live is truly awe-inspiring.  A passionate and engaged local resident, Sabina helped transform a run-down park in her Thorncliffe Park community into a thriving neighbourhood hub. When the mother-of-four from India arrived in Toronto in 2008, the park had only two swings for kids to play on and was littered with garbage. She banded together with other residents to form the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee and got to work right away to clean up the space, which now features a Friday night market, splash pad, tandoor oven and arts and gardening programs. In 2014, Sabina was awarded the Jane Jacob’s Prize by Spacing magazine and was also featured in the Globe and Mail as one of 10 Torontonians who got things done in 2014.

ZHirji_smallZabeen Hirji:  Zabeen is a trailblazer and community leader within, and beyond, Toronto’s corporate sector. As RBC’s Chief Human Resources Officer, she has worked tirelessly to ensure corporate citizenship is a top priority at the bank. She passionately believes in the connection between the success of individuals and the success of organizations and communities. She applies this philosophy to helping employees reach their full potential, believing that when RBCers are engaged, everyone wins: employees, clients, communities and shareholders. Both at work and in her community, Zabeen believes individuals who truly feel included are much more likely to be strong, successful contributors.  At RBC, she has championed diversity and inclusion as one of the bank’s core values. “Having an inclusive workplace is both the right thing and the smart thing to do. I remember what my mother experienced arriving in Canada, being told ‘no Canadian experience, no job.’ I wanted to change that for the next generation,” she says. Zabeen has also lent her considerable talent and expertise to several community organizations where human capital development, youth and diversity prevail.

SharonSheltonSharon Shelton: Sharon’s commitment to her community has been a lifelong affair. When she started as executive director of Tropicana Community Services over 23 years ago, the agency was located in the basement of a strip mall.  With hard work, immense dedication and community collaboration, she has led her organization through a remarkable transformation, including the opening of a beautiful new agency building last year. “Our community has finally come home,” she says. “Everyone who walks into this building feels that sense of ownership and pride. We’ve become family.” Sharon’s unwavering commitment to her own family, including her accomplished adult daughter and a 22-year-old son with a rare genetic condition, is also a lesson in love and acceptance. “We’ve had our challenges throughout the years but Tropicana has always offered a place for my children to grow, develop and thrive,” she says. “I have the best support system in the world—and that includes my family, my agency colleagues and community members.”

Jess_MOD Jess Weber: Jess is an amazing young woman with cerebral palsy who reminds us that women and girls of all ages and abilities can create inspiring and meaningful change in their own lives—and in their communities. A tough transition from high school to adult life left Jess feeling “stuck” and having to rely on her mom for support at home and during recreational activities. She joined the March of Dimes’ LIFE program in 2013, hoping to become more independent in her wheelchair at home and out in the community. “I’ve had the chance to attend a Blue Jays game, check out the CN Tower and cheer on the Toronto Marlies,” she says. “I’m more confident, more responsible and more independent now.” With a newfound sense of autonomy, Jess decided to take what she’d learned and give back to her community. She’s a peer mentor for other LIFE program members and a strong and confident advocate for individuals living with disabilities. Way to go, Jess!

 evelynEvelyn Yuditksy: At 96 years old, Evelyn inspires us with her remarkable resilience and love of life. When she and her husband first moved to Toronto from Montreal in her early 70s, the couple felt isolated and alone. But after a cousin connected her with the Bernard Betel Centre, Evelyn quickly found her second home.  She’s been volunteering with the United Way-supported agency ever since, lending her time as a public speaker and baker, among other activities.  When her husband died a few years after they moved here, Evelyn relied on the agency’s supportive community to help her through a tough time. A year later she met a “handsome younger man” and fellow volunteer at the centre  (“I was 80, he was 78!”) and the pair were eventually married. “I wore the most beautiful dress and we had a lovely wedding with over 100 guests,” she remembers.  Evelyn recently had a hip replacement—but hasn’t let her surgery slow her down.  She continues to volunteer at the agency and share her experiences as a United Way Speaker’s Bureau member. “Bernard Betel keeps me young,” she laughs.

What does possibility mean to you?

We’re asking you: what does possibility mean?

We like to talk a lot about possibility. Possibility for individuals. For families. For communities. For our entire city.

We imagine a city where Torontonians from all walks of life have the opportunities they need for a better life.

We have the chance to write that future—together. And we want you to be part of the conversation. Using #WeArePossibility on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, tell us what possibility means to you.

How do you create possibility for others? Maybe it’s through a simple, small, act of kindness.Or perhaps possibility is something even bigger. Something that happens when you work with others to make a difference.

Possibility is meaningful change in one person’s life or an entire community.

The best Toronto possible depends on all of us. What does possibility mean to you?

The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts


We live in a great city. A city known for its cultural diversity and the welcoming, generous spirit of its residents. A city rich in possibility for everyone who lives here.

As 2014 draws to a close, we thought we’d take the opportunity to compile some of the most heartwarming videos, stories and pictures that tugged at our heartstrings and made us all grateful to call Toronto home.

ImogenphotoA LITTLE LEMONADE STAND WITH BIG HEART: We couldn’t help but be inspired when a seven-year-old Toronto girl named Imogen and her Dad dropped by our offices last September to surprise us with a $75 donation to United Way. Imogen wanted to do something for her city, so she set up a 25-cents-a-glass lemonade stand to raise money for individuals living in poverty. That’s a lot of lemonade! But more importantly, it’s also a pretty enormous gesture of kindness from such a pint-sized fundraiser-in-training.

2014 LFP

Photo credit: Lindsay Foster Photography

THE PRIDE OF PARENTHOOD: This breathtaking photo of two Toronto fathers holding their baby boy for the first time took the Internet by storm when it went viral last June. Little Milo was born to a surrogate mother during last summer’s WorldPride festival. “This is a moment of pure love and acceptance. Milo is surrounded by unconditional love and he will grow up knowing many different types of families and accept everyone. Love has no colour nor gender nor sexual preference. Love is unconditional,” wrote Milo’s dads, both Toronto teachers, in a Facebook post on birth photographer, Lindsay Foster’s Facebook page. A beautiful celebration of all types of love.


A team of Nahom’s Access Alliance colleagues climbed the CN Tower in his honour.

STEPPING UP FOR A LOCAL HERO: Last September, we lost our dear friend Nahom Berhane to a tragic act of violence. Nahom was a dedicated youth leader and passionate community builder who worked at United Way Toronto’s Access Point on Danforth Community Hub. The beloved father-of-two was well known in Toronto’s Eritrean community and was also a graduate of CITY Leaders, a leadership development program for young people working and volunteering in the city’s social services sector. The impact of Nahom’s remarkable contribution to his community continues to live on. This past October, a group of his Access Alliance colleagues delivered a touching tribute to their fallen friend by climbing the CN Tower for United Way in his honour.

triplets (2)

Photo courtesy of CTV News

THREE BABIES, TWO CITIES, ONE HEARTFELT RESPONSE: We’ve always known that Toronto is made of good stuff. So it’s no surprise that Torontonians rallied in support of three triplet boys from Edmonton who were born with a rare form of eye cancer. Every couple of weeks, this adorable trio and their parents travel to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto where the boys receive treatment. After the family reached out on their blog for help, Torontonians answered their call: offering financial support, a place to stay and even babysitting help. “The support we received really brought us back up,” the triplets’ Mom told CTV. One heartfelt response for three very deserving little tots.

PAYING IT FORWARD: And finally…a nod to our incredible workplace partner, TD Bank, who made a heartfelt investment in the communities it serves with its inspirational #MakeTodayMatter campaign. The idea? To spread out 24 acts of kindness over 24 days in 24 different communities in Toronto—and across North America.

Rethinking Progress:

Growing income inequality and its impact on opportunity

Guest blogger: Frank Graves, President, EKOS Research

Frank Graves, President of EKOS Research -- @VoiceOfFranky

Frank Graves, President of EKOS Research — @VoiceOfFranky

For more than thirty years, Frank Graves has examined and interpreted Canadians’ attitudes on some of the most pressing issues facing our country. As the head of EKOS Research, he has earned a reputation for insightful analysis, thoughtful public policy advice, and hard-hitting media commentary. United Way and EKOS are research partners on a report to be released in 2015 The Opportunity Equation: Building opportunity in the face of growing income inequality, which examines the growing income gap in Toronto, why it matters, and what we can do to improve access to opportunities for all Torontonians.

Amid emerging debate in the Canadian media about the fortunes of the middle class, recent EKOS research suggests that Canadians really do perceive their future prospects negatively. The promise of a better life, security, and the comforts of middle class membership is no longer assumed.

About a decade ago, for the first time, we saw evidence that young Canadians weren’t moving ahead of their parents’ achievements. The incidence of individuals who report having fallen behind their parents’ income at the same period in life grows higher as we move from seniors to boomers to Generation X.

Concern over short-term prospects turns decidedly gloomy as citizens ponder a future where only the smallest number believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. They see growing income inequality as a key factor. The point isn’t that Canada is in a state of economic distress – it clearly isn’t. Rather, the general perception is that the policies and institutions that produced progress and success don’t seem to be working the same way anymore.

But there is a way forward.

EKOS has found that an overwhelming majority of those we have polled want a new blueprint for the country. Canadians believe that a growing and optimistic middle class matters to societal progress, and they also want action to create these conditions again. And, importantly they want all elements of Canadian society to take part – from governments, to academics, to NGOs like United Way, to individual citizens – all of whom can play a role in a return to progress and prosperity.