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.”

Are Community Benefits a roadmap for the future?

PEYMAN SOHEILI FOR THE TORONTO STAR

PEYMAN SOHEILI FOR THE TORONTO STAR

That’s the idea behind groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on large infrastructure projects like Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.


Watch this video to hear more from our very own Pedro Barata, VP, Communications and Public Affairs, on what’s next for Community Benefits.

That means that in addition to building much-needed transit that connects communities, these projects can also provide pathways to better jobs, and more secure futures, for people living in poverty. This includes young people who face significant barriers to employment.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this legislation to fruition by working with our partners—including Crosslinx, labour unions, the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the provincial government and the City of Toronto—to get the green light on this exciting initiative.

And at a recent Board of Trade summit, Premier Kathleen Wynne signaled her support to commit to local employment targets on the Eglinton Crosstown project.

We’re hopeful this will pave the way for scaling up career opportunities for young people who have faced barriers so that everyone can contribute and share in our prosperity.

Why Community Hubs matter

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Laura Harper Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

Laura Harper
Manager, Dorset Park Community Hub

What are community hubs? And why are they so important for people and families living in poverty across our region? If you’ve been following the news recently, you may remember that Hubs garnered an important mention in the Ontario government’s latest Throne Speech. That’s because these “one-stop-shops” for social and health services—all under one roof—play an important role in ensuring that everyone across our province has access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

To learn more about these important resources—a crucial part of United Way’s community-building work—Imagine a City spoke with Laura Harper, Senior Manager, Programs and Services, Agincourt Community Services Association, and Hub Manager at United Way’s Dorset Park Community Hub.

1. What is a Community Hub?

Working together with donors and community partners, United Way has opened seven Community Hubs throughout our region with an eighth currently in development. These Hubs serve more than one purpose. Although they act as a one-stop shop where people can access vital programs and services all under one roof, they are also places where residents come to build community. In 2005, Toronto identified 13 priority neighbourhoods that are home to some of our most vulnerable residents—many of whom are isolated from crucial social services, supports and infrastructure. Community Hubs bridge these gaps. Although neighbourhoods throughout our communities differ greatly, that’s the common thread between them. Whether a neighbourhood is made up of a high concentration of newcomers, residents living on a low income, single mothers or youth who aren’t graduating, Community Hubs bring together resources to provide a place that supports the diverse growing needs of a community.

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2. What services do they offer? 

Community Hubs offer a wide breadth of services based on a community’s needs—that’s why the Hub model is so effective. We’re able to work with community leaders and residents to identify needs and discuss what their vision is for the space. For example, at the Dorset Park Community Hub, we were able to match community partners to the needs of the community to offer food bank access, newcomer settlement supports, early childhood programs and employment resources. We also offer recreational space including a computer lab and community kitchen.

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3. Why are Community Hubs so important?

Community Hubs are an important part of building stronger neighbourhoods because they involve people who live in the community—and know the issues first-hand—in every stage of the development and ongoing operation. Residents are engrained in the decision-making process because they want to make their community better. When Dorset Park residents saw that a Community Hub was opening, they felt truly invested. They felt that a funder like United Way believed in them so they took ownership of the space. The Hub represents opportunity for the community—opportunity to have their needs met, cultivate new relationships, discover a sense of empowerment and to become active participants in creating a stronger neighbourhood. 

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4. What role do local residents play in supporting the activities and ongoing operation of the Hubs?

Community Hubs could not thrive without the support of residents. Before the Hubs opened, residents wanted to get engaged in their community, but lacked the infrastructure, mentorship and organization to get community-led initiatives off the ground. They wanted a space where they could come together and start projects of their own.

An example I always highlight is the Women`s English Circle that started when a group of women identified that many newcomers in the community wanted to learn English. Though the program was initially successful, when it moved over to the Dorset Park Community Hub, membership grew exponentially. Now, 80 women actively participate in the program, most of whom were formerly isolated. This resident-led program not only gives women the opportunity to learn English, but perhaps more importantly, it’s connecting them with other women in the community. Now, the participants are actively engaging in other resources, have become volunteers and are even running initiatives of their own.