3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

Changemakers to watch: Mojgan Rasouli & Amitis Nouroozi

The following article originally appeared on October 30, 2016, in the Toronto Star as part of a special insert on United Way. It features the inspiring work of community champions and dynamic duo Mojgan Rasouli and Amitis Nouroozi.

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At the heart of any strong, healthy community are its residents.

That was the resounding message during a recent series of educational workshops created by two United Way volunteers, architect and RBC Immigrant Awards 2016 finalist, Amitis Nouroozi, and urban planner, Mojgan Rasouli.

Nouroozi and Rasouli live in the Bathurst-Finch area and met in 2013, bonding quickly over a shared love of their community, and the desire to improve it.

The following year, the pair led their first Jane’s Walk, a movement of free, citizen-led tours that happen across the globe, inspired by the late activist and urbanist, Jane Jacobs.

Last spring, Nouroozi and Rasouli hosted a six-part workshop called You Are Where You Live in hopes of energizing people to become involved with making positive changes in their areas.

The series ran from April to June and was made possible through a United Way initiative called Action for Neighbourhood Change, which supports community members looking to lead changes through local projects and enhancements, such as increasing parks and garden spaces, and boosting recreational and cultural activities.

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“The power of the individual is a fact we can’t ignore,” says Nouroozi, who came to Canada from Tehran in 2013, the same year she met Rasouli.

“It’s not just one person. I can take something and report it to, say, my daughter, and my daughter takes that knowledge with her to school,” Nouroozi adds. “Involvement of the individual is so powerful, and engagement of the immigrant helps them to feel at home, that I can do something to make this city a better place to live, and this helps me feel responsible. It brings a sense of belonging.”

The workshops addressed the needs of an area that’s not downtown, but also not in the suburbs. In other words, the inner suburbs—commuter communities built in the ’50s and ’60s for those working in the downtown core.

“We have lots of immigrants coming each year to this neighbourhood,” explains Rasouli, who immigrated to Canada from Iran in 2010.
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“We need to give them the sense that they are in a very good place, so they can accept that neighbourhood as their home,” she says. “Changing a neighbourhood is very hard. For immigrants, understanding their city is important. They have adopted this city and this neighbourhood and the residents need to be educated about how it works.”

Densely populated, the inner suburbs are often teeming with a vibrant mix of cultures and cuisines. Yet, they also face unique problems, some that may seem unfamiliar to those living downtown.

“The inner suburbs can be described as communities in the City of Toronto that form a ring outside of the old city,” explains Alex Dow, director of Neighbourhood Initiatives for United Way.

“We know these communities tend to have less access to services, less walkability, higher populations of racialized persons, higher unemployment and underemployment and less transit access. As well, our research tells us these communities also welcome large numbers of newcomers and immigrants. The inner suburbs contain high volumes of dense tower communities as well, many of which are apartment towers surrounded by green space, but little in terms of services and commercial activity.”

Many of Toronto's inner suburbs are also considered "food deserts"

Due to the design of these areas, another notable characteristic reins—vehicle dependency.

Picture the contrast between being able to stroll through one’s neighbourhood, chatting with locals at shops and cafes, with the isolation of driving, or taking multiple public transit routes, to even find such places.

“The inner suburbs often have a number of challenges related to their auto-oriented design and lower-density built form,” explains Dow. “There are plentiful green spaces and parks, however there are fewer opportunities for citizen engagement and more barriers to participation in ensuring that these spaces reflect the needs of the community.”

Dow offers the example of a high-rise community situated near a ravine and watershed, but without trails or access points. He says such spaces can be upgraded by adding entrances that allow residents to get out and explore the nature surrounding them.

dsc_4789These are some of the improvements Nouroozi and Rasouli are pushing for.

“There is a big gap between the newcomers and long-time residents,” Nouroozi explains. “There needs to be a way of exchanging local knowledge and encouraging newcomers to participate in their neighbourhood. There needs to be public spaces where residents can get connected. People talk about wanting to have patios and meeting areas to make it more alive, vibrant and livable, which is not really that difficult to do.”

During the workshop, organizers offered insight into how city planning works, offered ideas for getting involved and implementing change, and examined ways of building sustainable, walkable communities, among other topics.

“This is our adopted country,” says Rasouli. “Here we are living in a democratic country and there is a lot of opportunity to take part in how a community develops. If you educate people and inform people, you can raise their ideal of how they are living.”