The City of Toronto recently released its Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy,which calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to end poverty. The City of Toronto partnered with United Way to ensure the strategy was reflective of those voices with lived experience of poverty. Working together, we helped identify 23 community facilitators from priority neighbourhoods and community agencies/groups. We then partnered with the Maytree Foundation to train residents to lead small group discussions aimed at engaging community members in the process. A total of eight, City-led “Days of Dialogue” were held across Toronto earlier this year. Imagine a City spoke to Harriet Cain, one of United Way’s community facilitators, on why it’s vitally important for residents with lived experience of poverty to add their voice to the conversation.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: I’m originally from Barbados. I moved to Toronto in the late 1980s. I lived in Brampton for a year and then moved to Scarborough. I came here on a work permit from my country and I had high hopes for building a good future. But I didn’t get a lot of help from friends and family when I first got here. Back then there were no Community Hubs and it was hard to access social services. I found it difficult to pay the rent and my work as a cook and personal support worker was never steady. I relied on food banks.
Tell us a little bit about your neighbourhood: I currently live in Taylor Massey, which is considered a priority neighbourhood. It’s a big community, and many times, you cannot walk from one part of the neighbourhood to another without having to go around something. These physical barriers cause us to be isolated from one another. It’s quite dismal and dark in some parts of the neighbourhood. In terms of food, I would call our community a ‘food desert.’ Healthy, fresh food is far away from us. We also find that the grocery stores around here are expensive. We are a very diverse community. We have European, Caribbean and South Asian cultural groups. But many of us are struggling for food, for rent, for jobs and for childcare. It’s very frustrating for the women who have professions and can’t find jobs that utilize their trained credentials. Mental health is also a challenge for many people in our neighbourhood.
How did you become involved in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction consultations? Describe your role as a Community Facilitator. I have been a volunteer with United Way’s Action for Neighborhood Change in Taylor Massey for about seven years. I was really happy when they asked me if I’d be interested in helping to lead small group discussions among residents with lived experience of poverty. My job was to listen to the others, to make sure they understood and to motivate them to add their voice. I helped keep the dialogue running. I was able to use my own experience of living in poverty to help other residents clarify, and expand on, their own challenges and experiences.
How important was United Way in helping facilitate these discussions? United Way has long-term, well-established relationships with residents and community groups/agencies in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. They helped the City bring residents to the table to have these important conversations. They helped give us a voice and allowed our voice to get stronger and to get bigger.
What did you hear from residents at these community consultation sessions? We heard from a wide cross-section of people across Toronto. They’re struggling for food, they’re struggling for rent, they’re struggling to get daycare so that they can go to work. One young woman we heard from had just graduated from college and was frustrated because she couldn’t find a job. She had to give up her apartment and move back home because there was no money coming in. Lots of residents spoke about their struggles accessing healthy, affordable, nutritious food. We also heard a lot about employment. Some residents felt they were being discriminated against because of their postal code even though they had all the credentials for the job. Many of the people we spoke with were employed, but were earning minimum wage. They were working two jobs but still unable to purchase healthy food. They found it very difficult to find extra money to take their children to extracurricular or entertainment activities, even just once a month. Finding money for transit was problematic too.
Why is it so important for resident voices to be included in Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy? People who are impoverished are not ignorant, we understand our needs. That is a big myth that needs to be removed. Even the uneducated person still knows what they need. If we are going to reduce, or end, poverty in our city, it’s vitally important that the people with lived experience of poverty have a say in how the problem gets fixed. You might not be able to give me everything, but to honour and help me, I believe that you need to talk to me. If I needed shoes, for example, you might think I need shoes with heels. But I don’t even like shoes with heels. It’s important to take the time to really understand how I’m going to benefit from your help.
What did it mean to you to be personally involved in these City-led consultations? I was very moved that the City was at the table with the residents. They heard the voices and saw the faces of poverty. They heard about our struggles, they heard about our frustrations and they heard that residents are eager to do better. They came into our neighbourhoods and let us know that they are here for us. I am hopeful that we can work together to create real change.
TO Prosperity: Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy goes to City Council on July 7 and 8, 2015, for approval. Follow United Way on Twitter and Facebook for updates and use #TOProsperity to join the conversation.