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.


What if you could turn a parking lot into a community garden?

What if you could turn an unused parking lot into a community garden?


Pretty cool, right? That’s the idea behind a recent bylaw called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning that will give high-rise tower communities in priority neighbourhoods greater control over local development.

Why does it matter? Because in addition to creating opportunities to bring in new jobs, shops and services,  RAC zoning can also help to transform tower neighbourhoods into vibrant, livable and walkable communities.

United Way was proud to play a key role in bringing this new legislation to fruition by working with partners, including the City of Toronto and ERA Architects.

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

5 community events you can’t miss

Toronto Islands, C.N. Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, Canada’s Wonderland. With the season halfway over, chances are you’ve already visited one of these summer hot spots. So we put together our own list of community events happening right across our region. Get outside, have some fun and get to know a new neighbourhood.

1. HOPE Community Garden BBQ – August 11, 2016

Community Garden BBQLooking for an event that brings together residents, young and old? The 5th Annual HOPE Community Garden BBQ takes place August 11 in Vaughan. It’s organized to celebrate the seniors who help grow and nurture the community garden, many of whom participate in this project through wellness programs funded by United Way. It’s a great opportunity for elderly residents, who are more likely to experience isolation, to participate in a community-building event. Come for the BBQ…and stay for an action-packed day full of intergenerational fun!

2. Dragon Boat Race for United Way – August 13, 2016

Dragon Boat option 2


Taking place in beautiful King City, the Dragon Boat Race for United Way is more than just a fundraiser; it’s a community-building opportunity with something for everyone. Watch the paddlers race to support their region while enjoying music, yummy BBQ, and plenty of activities for kids. With 100% of the fundraising from this event going directly to changing lives across our region, it’s sure to be an incredible day!




3. Good Food Market at CICS – August 12 and 26, 2016

Good Food market option 1Show your support for a local community garden in Agincourt by visiting the Good Food Market at the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services, a United Way-supported agency. It’s a great way to get affordable, seasonal, and organic veggies and to see firsthand the vital role innovative urban gardening programs play in helping get healthy, nutritious food to the nearly one in 10 households in Toronto that experience some level of food insecurity.

4. Moonlight movies in the park – August 12-13, 2016

Outdoor movie

Want to enjoy a fun flick with your family in some of Toronto’s many beautiful parks? Park People, a non-profit organization, has teamed up with parks and recreation centres across Toronto—including United Way agencies—to bring movies to the masses this summer. Malvern Family Resource Centre is co-hosting The Lego Movie at Little Road Park on August 12 and Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office is co-hosting Madagascar at RV Burgess Park on August 13. Bring your own snacks, camping chairs and blankets and grab a spot for some blockbusters that also bring communities together.

5. Scarborough Community Multicultural Festival – August 5-7, 2016

Multicultural eventCome out to this 3-day festival to celebrate the cuisine, music, and art of the many diverse cultural communities that make up Scarborough. This year, the festival will also host a Canadian citizenship ceremony to welcome some of the nearly 75,000 newcomers who arrive in Toronto and York Region each year. So get out to Scarborough Civic Centre this summer to celebrate your own cultural background or learn something new about your neighbour.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us how you’re getting to know your community this summer!

Food for thought on food security


What does it mean to be food “insecure”?

  1. Running out of food before there is money to buy more
  2. Not being able to afford a healthy, balanced diet
  3. Missing meals
  4. Not eating for the whole day

According to the World Food Summit, the answer is: all of the above.  Here are three more things you might now know about food insecurity.

  1. Food insecurity affects 1 in 8 Toronto households: The latest Household Food Insecurity in Canada report says 12.6%, or one in eight, households in the Toronto census metropolitan area experienced food insecurity in 2014. Food insecurity isn’t just about hunger either. It’s a serious public health issue that affects individuals’ health and well-being, impacts their ability to do well in school, contribute successfully to their workplace and be active members of their communitieDSC_9131
  1. 1 in 6 Canadian children experience food insecurity: The report also finds that a shocking one million children in Canada under the age of 18 live in food insecure households. Research tells us that missing breakfast is associated with decreased academic, cognitive, health and mental-health performance among children. In a survey, nearly 68% of teachers believe there are students in their classrooms who come to school hungry.  That’s why United Way helps children and their families access healthy food through meal and school snack programs. We also support programs that encourage healthy eating—including nutrition classes that teach low-income families how to make healthy baby food.


  1. Cost isn’t the only barrier to healthy, nutritious food: The average food bank client has only $5.83/person/day left over after spending the majority of their income on fixed expenses such as rent and utilities. Cost is a major barrier to accessing food, but it isn’t the only one. What many people don’t know is that there is a lack of healthy food outlets—places that sell nutritious, fresh and culturally-appropriate food—in Toronto’s inner suburbs and low-income neighbourhoods. That’s why innovative solutions such as urban agriculture and healthy food corner stores play an important role in improving nutritious food access and bringing community members together through the growing of food and the cooking and sharing of meals.


Want to help bring nutritious, culturally-appropriate food to people who need it most? Donate to, and volunteer with, our Malvern Urban Farm project—and see how your gift can grow a community, too.

5 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! We’re excited to share this list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live.


1. Ratna Omidvar: Ratna knows firsthand the struggles of being a newcomer. Born and raised in India, she immigrated to Canada with her husband in 1981 with the hopes of a better life. After years of trying to find work as a teacher, the Order of Canada recipient eventually landed at St. Stephen’s Community House, a United Way–supported agency—and hasn’t looked back since. During her decades-long career in the non-profit sector, the founding executive director of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange has made it her personal mission to help immigrants settle and find jobs once they arrive in Canada. She’s become one of the country’s leading experts on migration, diversity, integration and inclusion and has championed several causes—including DiverseCity onBoard, an innovative program that connects people from visible minority and underrepresented communities to volunteer board positions. Ratna’s passion for her job —and her ability to mobilize community, corporate and labour partners in a common cause of caring and action—is truly awe-inspiring. Recently, her trailblazing efforts helped welcome hundreds of Syrian refugees to Canada by launching Lifeline Syria which recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups. “My work helps ordinary people on their way to success,” explains Ratna. “But what’s more, the work that I do helps Canada re-imagine itself in light of its new demographics, which shapes our identity, values and how our institutions behave.”

2. Hannah Alper: She may only be 13 years old, but this Richmond Hill resident has already demonstrated her ability to create big change when it comes to the world of charitable giving and social justice. When she was just nine, Hannah started a blog to share her growing concern for the environment. She wanted to show the world that doing little things can add up to make a big difference. Soon, she found herself on the speaking circuit, sharing her views on everything from animal rights to youth empowerment. She is an ambassador for Free the Children and ByStander Revolution and a Me to We motivational speaker. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. Recently, Hannah was a speaker at a United Way of Winnipeg conference where she shared tips with youth leaders to make their communities better. “Take a look around you,” says Hannah. “Find your issue—that thing that you care about—and then get involved. There’s always a way to pitch in.”



3. Cyleta Gibson-Sealy: In this Toronto Star article, she was hailed as the “ticket out of poverty” for children in her Steeles-L’Amoreaux neighbourhood.  All because of a homework club she started almost a decade ago after a group of local kids asked for help with reading. Cyleta’s passion project grew so large and so popular that she eventually moved the “Beyond Academics” club to the ground floor of a community housing building at Finch and Birchmount. Today, you can find her helping local children with everything from reading and math to civic literacy and lessons on leadership. “She’s one of those special people who transform streets into communities,” writes the Star’s Catherine Porter. “She sees problems. But she devises solutions.” But that’s not all. In her spare time, the 54-year-old grandmother runs local baseball and soccer camps, started a parents’ club and sits on a community liaison committee. She says much of her community work was inspired by United Way’s Action for Neighbourhood Change that helps local residents create the kind of change they want to see in their community.


4. Denise Andrea Campbell: Denise’s lifelong mission to create fairness and equity for all people inspires us. As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, she has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. In fact, she’s been working as a social change agent since she was 16 years old. She’s collaborated with federal cabinet ministers to create youth engagement programs, has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has even worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. Most recently, Denise led the development of the city’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy. “In order to level the playing field, we need to pay attention to those that are most vulnerable and most distant from opportunity,” explains Denise. “That means changing our policies, our programs and even our perspective to support these Torontonians and ensure they have access to the opportunities all people deserve.”


5. Julie Penasse: For years, Julie Penasse struggled with poverty, abuse and addiction.  But with a whole lot of perseverance and a little help from a United Way–supported agency, she turned her life around. But that’s just the beginning of Julie’s inspiring story. Ever since, she’s been using her personal experience to help others—influencing social policy by ensuring the unique voice of women living in poverty is heard throughout the community. Most recently, she was a key contributor in the city’s community consultations on poverty reduction where she inspired other women to share their stories and advocate for what they need most—things like stable work, affordable housing and childcare. “When you better the woman, you better the world,” says Julie. We couldn’t agree more.

Inspired by one (or more!) of the women on our list?  Send a note of encouragement to and we’ll pass your message along.

3 things you made possible in 2015

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowIt’s almost 2016!  As the year draws to a close, we wanted to say a big thank you to each of you who work hard every single day to help change lives and create possibility for tens of thousands of people across Toronto and York Region.

Here’s a recap of 3 things you helped make possible in 2015:

  1. A future that works: Precarious, or insecure, employment affects more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA. With the support of people like you—who care about the big issues—we were able to further our research and delve deeper into this vital socioeconomic problem. We released The Precarity Penalty last March and convened partners from across the province to discuss solutions for a labour market that works. And the best part? By shining a spotlight on this important issue, individual lives are changing for the better. Angel Reyes, for example, spent years working in precarious, or insecure, temp positions and dealing with the daily, harsh realities of living on a low income. When he was laid off from his most recent job earlier this year, he worried about making ends meet. But there’s a happy ending to this story. After sharing his journey with the Toronto Star, the 61-year-old was inundated with messages of support. The Star reports Angel has since found a permanent, unionized job and a new, subsidized apartment. “My intention is justice,” Angel told the Star. “Not just for me. It’s for the many, many workers in Ontario and Canada and the world who are living in circumstances like me.”

  1. Historic legislation for communities: Heard of Bill 6? This new law—passed by the Ontario government on June 4, 2015—brings benefits such as employment and apprenticeship to young people in the same communities where it works. You played a key role in bringing Community Benefits to fruition, which includes large infrastructure projects like the Eglinton Crosstown line. We’re proud to be part of this initiative that connects residents in priority neighbourhoods with skills training, community supports—and jobs with a future.


  1. A roadmap to help end poverty: TO Prosperity—Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan—was unanimously passed by city council on November 4, 2015. This historic initiative sets a 20-year goal for tackling growing inequality and improving access to opportunity. It promises good jobs and living wages, more affordable housing, expanded transit in the inner suburbs, and better access to community services. United Way is proud to have played a key role in shaping this groundbreaking strategy, thanks to your support.


How to show you’re a company that cares

The holiday season is here. Around this time of year, we hear from many of you who are looking for opportunities to give back to the nearly 1 in 5 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty.

This also includes many small- and medium-sized businesses that are looking for thoughtful and impactful ways to change lives locally—but might not know where to start.

So we put together a few suggestions. One place to start? Seasonal volunteer opportunities—such as delivering holiday meals to individuals and families in need or packing holiday hampers.

“It can be a lot of fun to come together with your colleagues outside of a work environment in the spirit of giving back,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto, which currently has several holiday-specific volunteering opportunities listed on its website.

Since volunteering opportunities in the non-profit sector tend to go quickly around the holidays, Chambers has a few other ideas for employees and businesses to give back. These include organizing a clothing drive at your office, creating care kits for homeless shelters, contributing to local toy drives or even donating items such as food and blankets to animal shelters.

Another way to demonstrate that your company cares? Make a gift through an online giving catalogue such as United Way’s Warmest Wishes.


It’s a quick and easy way to spread some warmth—including much-needed winter necessities such as clothing, food and care—to people right here in our communities.

And the need is great. On any given night, some 5,000 people in Toronto alone find themselves homeless and facing winter’s harsh realities. A meal, a pair of winter boots or a warm winter jacket can help change a life.

“It makes us feel good to be able to give back locally,” says Andrew Buck, CEO of Toronto-based Juice Worldwide. “Gift giving opportunities like this are a win-win for us. Our staff can demonstrate in a very tangible way that they really care about making a difference in the lives of people right here in our communities.”

Chambers agrees. “In recent years, we’ve increasingly seen consumers looking to buy local and to really support their local communities,” says Chambers. “Whether it’s buying a winter jacket for someone in need or wrapping presents for a charity toy drive, giving back in these ways really puts a heart behind what companies are doing.”

Now we want to hear from you. What is your workplace doing to give back this holiday season?  Why not join others in giving the gift of warmth?


Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes


Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 7 to approve the interim report on the city’s poverty reduction strategy: TOProsperity. The plan calls on a collaborative, community-driven strategy to tackle the effects and root causes of poverty. United Way played a key role in the development of this strategy, by helping residents in priority neighbourhoods connect with city staff during the public consultations that took place.

Here are three things you need to know about #TOProsperity moving forward:

1. A final report on the city’s Poverty Reduction Plan will be presented to city councilors in the fall. The plan will outline a roadmap on how the City and its partners will implement the key recommendations contained in the strategy, including short- and long-term targets and a multi-year funding plan.

2. 2035: The deadline set to achieve an equitable city with opportunity for all Torontonians including: access to good jobs, adequate income, stable housing, affordable transportation, nutritious food, and supportive services.

3. United Way will continue to work with community facilitators and residents to engage people with lived experience of poverty in the implementation phase of the strategy.

Residents speak up on poverty reduction


United Way community facilitator Harriet Cain

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.


Why civic engagement matters


Our guest blogger is Tina Edan, a member of The Maytree Foundation’s communications team. Tina has worked on leadership, storytelling and advocacy initiatives in the non-profit sector for more than 15 years.  

We talk a lot about resident and civic engagement. But what does it really mean? And why is it so important to building a stronger, united city?

We know from our research that people are healthier when they feel like part of a community and when they can count on family, friends and neighbours for support.

They’re also more likely to stay and raise their family in a neighbourhood where they have strong social connections to the people who live there.

Vibrant communities are built from the ground up. This means engaging and enabling the people who live in these communities—big and small— to enact the changes they want to see. Changes they know will help other residents, and entire neighbourhoods, thrive.

The best part about resident and civic engagement? No project or initiative is too small. Sewing clubs. Little free libraries. Community gardens.  All have the power to bring residents together, encourage local leadership, cultivate creativity and strengthen neighbourhoods.


Another example?  The Toronto Youth Summit, hosted in partnership with United Way Toronto on March 21 and 22, which asked our city’s young people how they would create possibility for youth in Toronto. To read some of their inspiring ideas, click here.



Need some more suggestions on how to get engaged with your city? How to transform ideas into action? Here’s a sampling of civic engagement initiatives and activities across Toronto—and Canada:

  • What better way to generate new ideas than over a meal? In October 2014, through 1000 Dinners TO, 1,000 people hosted dinners for up to 10 people across the city. They discussed how to make Toronto an even better place.
  • We Are Cities is a national campaign that engages Canadians to shape a vision and action plan for building cities that are exciting and healthy places to live, work and play.
  • These days, if it’s an idea worth following, it has a hashtag. #2forTO is a campaign initiated by Metro Morning to activate civic engagement in our city through small, achievable commitments from creating street libraries to picking up litter.
  • If you’re looking for a menu of opportunities to share, discuss and create the future of Toronto, you’ll want to check out Shape My City, a platform that aggregates ideas from people across the city on how to improve life in Toronto.
  • And finally…there’s 100in1Day, a city-wide civic engagement festival co-presented by United Way Toronto and Evergreen. On June 6, 2015, you can join thousands of Torontonians as they engage in small-scale events—everything from taking over parking spots to planting gardens—that result in stronger, more connected and resilient communities.

Through connection we can cultivate ideas; through action we can make change. And today, we have more opportunities to engage than ever.

Levelling the playing field for Toronto

Michelynn LaflecheOur guest blogger this week is Michelynn Laflèche, United Way Toronto’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation. She recently appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss our region’s rapidly-changing labour market and is regularly quoted in the media on socioeconomic issues including employment precarity. Prior to joining United Way, she worked as a consultant with Civic Action and was Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, a leading social policy and research charity in the UK.

What happens when all Torontonians don’t have equal access to opportunity?

That’s the focus of our groundbreaking new report—The Opportunity Equation. Our research shows us that rising income inequality in Toronto is undermining fairness and causing a divide between Torontonians who are doing well financially—and those who are not.

Opportunities to build a good life—including quality jobs, affordable housing and meaningful social networks—aren’t equally available to everyone in our city.

According to the study— conducted in partnership with EKOS Research Associates and the University of Toronto—income inequality has grown faster here than in other major Canadian cities, outpacing both provincial and national averages. From 1980 to 2005, income inequality has grown by 31% in Toronto, more than double the national rate of 14%.

In 2000, Toronto’s income equality rate surpassed that of other major Canadian cities, and by 2010 found itself in the unenviable top place. People are also worried about this growth, with 86% of our survey respondents indicating that they feel the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large.

The numbers also tell us that hard work is not seen as a guarantee for success. People feel that circumstances beyond individuals’ control, like one’s postal code, family income and background, have become barriers to a good future. Inequality is also deflating our hope for the future. More than half of us worry the next generation will be worse off than their parents.

The result? Entire neighbourhoods fall behind. Our city’s youth face an increasingly uncertain economic future. And the social fabric of Toronto is threatened.

Levelling the playing field for everyone in our city will require the commitment of multiple partners including government, the private sector, labour groups and community organizations.

Our Blueprint for Action lays out three goals and eight priority areas to address the issue of income inequality and its impact on opportunity in Toronto. This includes creating partnerships for youth success and ensuring our city’s young people have the education and employment opportunities they need to build good futures.

It also means leveraging economic development for community benefit, ensuring fairness for all workers and building tools to help promote quality jobs. A renewed focus on affordable housing, poverty reduction and building strong neighbourhoods will also help ensure we can remove barriers to opportunity based on background and circumstances.

The time to act is now. Working together we can restore hope, fairness and opportunity in our city. Learn more here and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook using #buildingopportunity



What does it mean to be Black in the GTA?

February is Black History Month. An opportunity for Torontonians to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary achievements and contributions of Black people across the Greater Toronto Area who have done so much to make our city the culturally diverse, compassionate and prosperous place that it is.

What does it mean to be Black in the GTA?



The Black Experience Project’s Marva Wisdom

The Black Experience Project—a joint initiative of the Environics Institute for Survey ResearchRyerson University’s Diversity InstituteUnited Way Toronto and the YMCA of Greater Toronto —is a groundbreaking research study focusing on the lived experiences of the Black community across the GTA. The project aims to identify untapped strengths and capacity of this highly diverse group and to investigate the extent to which members face social and economic inequalities.

“When we started our exploration in 2010, we set out with one important principle in mind,” says Marva Wisdom, who led Phase 1 of the initiative and is also responsible for project outreach. “Research conducted by, and with, the community is of utmost importance. As one participant noted, ‘No research about us without us’.”

The first phase of the project, which involved consultations with nearly 300 community and youth leaders, local organizations and community members-at-large, was completed last January.

“What we learned is that there is no single ‘Black experience,’ but rather multiple experiences,” says Wisdom. “But as diverse as this community is, we need to find a way be more united in our diversity.  Without the power of the strong voice, it’s difficult to be heard when policies are being developed, when governments are making decisions and when we need to advocate on behalf of our youth.”

With the help of a dedicated team of individuals from the community, Phase 2 is already underway.  This part of the project will entail in-depth interviews with a representative sample of up to 2,000 individuals across the GTA who self identify as Black, on issues ranging from mental health and education to employment and racial identity.

The third, and final, phase of the Black Experience Project will involve widespread sharing of the results, and most importantly, a conversation around how to put the findings of the study to work both within, and beyond, the GTA’s Black community.

“Our community really owns this study, and it’ll be up to us to decide how to use and adapt the results,” says Wisdom. “I’m hoping this project will drive transformative change in how we view the Black community, and how we are able to leverage our own strengths.”

We’ll bring you more information as the rest of this exciting initiative unfolds. In the meantime, we invite you to get in touch with BEP by following them on Twitter, visiting their website and checking out their Facebook page where each week in February a new video will be posted showing different people sharing their story about being Black.

You can also check out Black History Month events happening across Toronto here.



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?

Designing a blueprint for social change

sm_Zahra EZahra Ebrahim is the principal and founder of archiTEXT, a design think tank and consultancy in Toronto. She is also the recipient of a 2014 Bhayana award for her role in the Community Design Initiative and teaches design at OCAD and the University of Toronto. Imagine a City spoke with this up-and-coming urban designer to discuss how design can be a powerful vehicle for social change.

Tell us a little more about archiTEXT and the idea behind ‘design thinking’: Our organization works primarily with the public sector—government, charities and not-for-profits—to help support community projects. Design thinking brings an added layer to projects by finding ways to engage communities—particularly those that might otherwise be left out of the process—throughout the entire life cycle of the project. This approach takes analytical thinking and equally values imaginative thinking so that communities can really take ownership of both the process and the outcome. Designers and architects are so well positioned to understand people. By strengthening our ability to understand the experience of other human beings, we can design projects that have the highest impact possible, even with limited resources.


The transformation of The Storefront is 50% complete and will include an additional 6,000-sq.-ft. of internal/external space.

Describe the Community.Design.Initiative: This project is a unique collaboration between architects, designers, artists, urban planners, academics and residents that is transforming East Scarborough Storefront-Tides, a United Way Toronto-funded agency, into an innovative, 10, 000-sq.-ft. community services hub in Toronto’s priority neighbourhood of  Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). We engaged 75 local youth—many of them facing barriers like poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban community agency. We started six years ago and we’re about half-way done. This past summer, we installed a splash pad and sports structure and we’re about to launch a capital campaign to expand even further. This project is a great example of finding ways to engage people who wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in a multi-year building initiative like this.


The Sky-o-Swale, a splash pad and sports structure designed by local youth, was installed last summer.

How has this project led to meaningful social change in the Kingston-Galloway community? CDI is about so much more than just a building. The project has dramatically increased the decision making and leadership capacities of local youth. It’s also transformed the community into an amazing place to stay, to build your life and to invest in. Residents know that their contributions are reflected in the projects they’re involved in—and are truly valued by the community. Youth in KGO know that whether they’re going to design a building, a service or an afterschool program, the first thing they need to do is convene the people they want to serve and ask them what they want. There’s this connective tissue that grows between the professionals, residents, youth and social service providers. The social infrastructure has become so strong. The community trusts its own capacity to change itself.

Design isn’t just about bricks-and-mortar. It can also be used to re-imagine processes, projects and services within the social sector. Any examples? Our studio also works with charitable organizations, foundations and governments to help them use design thinking to more creatively approach their projects. We’re currently working with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and its Youth Opportunities Fund to fundamentally change the grant-making process for youth-led initiatives. We also led the design workshops for last year’s 101 in 1 Day, a civic engagement festival supported by United Way Toronto and Evergreen CityWorks. We’re also working with Evergreen and the McConnell Foundation —a co-created national urban agency—to engage citizens in 30 cities across Canada to develop a policy agenda together.

What are you most excited about moving forward? Design thinking is still a fairly new field. If we can continue to approach social change from a design mindset, I think it will be transformative for the social services sector. It will make entire communities more resilient by increasing collaboration and strengthening their ability to understand each other.


Bringing home solutions for affordable housing


Pedro BarataOur guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata,Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at United Way Toronto. He has experience working within, and across, a variety of settings: from community-based organizations, to strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

The conversation about affordable housing is not new to Torontonians. But some of us might be surprised to learn that there are residents in our city who wait almost 10 years before being offered an affordable home.

According to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association’s annual report, the province’s wait lists grew by more than 6,600 households to a record 165,069 in 2013. This is the largest single-year increase since 2010.

It’s time for a fresh approach. The GTA Housing Action Lab is an initiative of Evergreen CityWorks that brings together a number of partners across a variety of sectors, including United Way Toronto, to build a more sustainable, affordable and equitable housing system.

By working together to find common ground among our collective programs, policies and practices, the GTA Housing Action Lab aims to create:

  • Programs and policies that support the affordability of housing to ensure residents of all incomes have the best chance to live in a suitable home and have a choice in their housing.
  • A more sustainable housing system in the region by increasing public support for intensification, awareness of the benefits of complete communities, and policies that support creative infill in our urban centres and a connected region.
  • A policy and regulatory framework that encourages diversity in form and tenure, intensification and affordability and creates incentives aligned with the needs of the residents of the region while creating an economically-viable housing sector.


    Ed Clark, former President and CEO of TD Bank Group, is calling for leadership from all sectors to put affordable housing on the public policy radar.

Innovative approaches to affordable housing require leadership and collaboration from multiple partners. At a forum convened by the GTA Housing Action Lab on November 19, former President and Chief Executive Officer of TD Bank Group Ed Clark, added his voice to the conversation.

Clark called for leadership from all sectors to put affordable housing on the public policy radar. He talked about the need to support innovative and new approaches to old problems and pointed to the role that non-profit organizations and programs can play in this respect.

Habitat for HumanityEgaleWoodgreen’s Homeward Bound and United Way’s Toronto Enterprise Fund are demonstrating concrete ways in which we can help break the cycle of poverty and take a holistic, collaborative approach to addressing not just the symptoms of poverty—but the root causes.

Hopefully, this will inspire public policy support to scale these examples to the benefit of more and more people.

Bringing home solutions for affordable housing is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight. But as Ed Clark says, “No one should sleep on a slab of cement.”

And change is up to all of us.



Toronto’s child poverty rates among the highest in Canada

Photo of Nauman Khan

Nauman Khan,
United Way, Public Affairs

This week we welcome back Nauman Khan as our guest blogger. He is a member of United Way Toronto’s Communications and Public Affairs team.  Thanks to a career in broadcast journalism and politics, he has built a strong understanding of how governments influence community building through strategic investments.  He also thinks Toronto is the best city in the world to live, work and raise a family.



Subway. Light Rail. Property Taxes. You have likely heard these ideas repeatedly over the last several months as Toronto gets ready for the 2014 municipal election.  The idea that you have heard much less about is poverty.  And that is surprising considering the latest data from Statistics Canada that shows poverty has reached unprecedented levels across Toronto. The full analysis of the data can be found here.

Poverty undermines our strength and resilience as a city and is an issue for all Torontonians. All of us — no matter where we live or work — should be asking what municipal candidates will do to reduce poverty in Toronto.  Despite living in a city that is the economic engine of Canada, hundreds of thousands of children, families and individuals are living in low-income.

  • Nearly a third of all children in Toronto now live in low income households
  • 15 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods have child povetry rates of 40% or more and 55 of the city’s neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30% of more.
  • When compared at a neighborhood level, there is alarming disparity in child poverty rates, ranging from 5% in Leaside to more than 50% in Regent Park, Moss Park, Thorncliffe Park and Oakridge.

Analysis of the data also shows Toronto faring much worse than other cities across Canada when it comes to poverty — overall rate of 23% — and the worst across jurisdictions in the Greater Toronto Area, such as Peel, Durham and Halton.  Spurred in part by these dismal numbers, Toronto City Council voted unanimously in April this year to pass a motion asking staff to develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy. That work is underway now and United Way Toronto is working with city staff to lay the groundwork for a strategy that is inclusive, responsive to residents and has clear targets.

Addressing poverty is all of our responsibility. On October 27 we will be making some important decisions. We will be deciding who will represent us at city council for the next four years. As we consider our options, we need to make sure the issues that affect us all are part of the conversation. Torontonians need to ask mayoral and council candidates what their vision is for a more equitable and prosperous Toronto.  What are they planning to do so that thousands of people do not have to choose between a TTC metropass and their next meal, between paying their rent and living in a shelter, between watching their days go by in hopelessness and feeling like empowered, engaged citizens who have a role to play in making Toronto better.

The time to have the conversation about poverty — is now.

Hey you…wanna get engaged?

Vision. Idea. Action. Let's get engaged to make Toronto the best city it can be.

Vision. Idea. Action. Let’s get engaged to make Toronto the best city it can be.

Here’s your chance to get engaged…with our city! For the first-time-ever, Toronto is hosting 100 in 1 Day, a festival of civic engagement with a presence in 13 cities around the world.

Together with Evergreen CityWorks, we’re inviting every Torontonian to get creative and submit an act of urban change or intervention for making Toronto the best city it can be.

Whether you’re thinking about choreographing a community dance to promote a youth organization like they did in Cape Town or addressing pedestrian safety by transforming a crosswalk like they did in Montreal, starting a community garden, hosting a music workshop or connecting with neighbours by inviting them for a tour of your eco-friendly home — your idea — completely new or based on an existing initiative — is welcome. It just has to take place on June 7, 2014.

We are looking for 100 interventions from individuals, community groups or organizations to be part of the day-long city-wide festival.

So, get involved:

  • Register your idea/intervention.
  • Spread the word about 100 in 1 Day via Twitter (#100in1day), Facebook and in-person (even at your own dinner table!) to get people in your network to register an idea/intervention.
  • Join us on June 7 and experience the transformation of our city through 100 citizen-driven interventions.

Not convinced yet? By contributing an intervention, you’ll have an opportunity to share out an existing idea or test out a new one that you are passionate about and have it profiled as part of a big day for city building. It could also be selected as one of three interventions which the Toronto Community Foundation will contribute $10,000 to developing. Evergreen CityWorks will also contribute non-financial support to the long-term feasibility of the idea.

Come on Toronto. Let’s get engaged! Starting now.


Guest blogger, Tina Edan.

Thanks to our guest blogger, Tina Edan! She’s part of the United Way team and has worked on leadership, storytelling and advocacy initiatives in the non-profit sector for fifteen years. She believes all Torontonians have a role to play in telling the story of our city.


Making a bold vision reality

Members of the community celebrate with Susan McIsaac at the announcement of the $116.1-million raised in support of our city.

Members of the community celebrate with Susan McIsaac at the announcement of the $116.1-million raised in support of our city.

On January 31, we announced an incredible achievement—$116.1-million raised to help build a strong, healthy and vibrant city. That kind of support wouldn’t have been possible without people rallying behind a shared understanding of why the support is needed, how it’s invested and to what end.

The vision we share is a bold one. It’s one where the lives of people living in our city are very different from what they are now. We envision a city where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential and they aren’t disadvantaged by where they live. Where there are no gaps in access to services, opportunities or between neighbourhoods.

I think all we recognize that what we imagine for our city won’t be easy. We know that it will be a long road. But when I consider the 22,000 volunteers, 900 workplaces, corporate and community leaders, government partners and more than 200 social service agencies working together, it feels possible.

When I think about what we’re all working towards and the road ahead of us, I’m reminded of the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Written by T.E. Lawrence, the book chronicles his remarkable experiences in North Africa (1916-1918). What was most inspiring about Lawrence was his unwavering commitment to a vision of what North Africa could be in a time when it didn’t seem possible.

 Lawrence writes: “All men dream:  but not equally.  Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity:  but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” 

When we all work together, we are acting on our dream, our vision, with our eyes open and our goal clearly in sight. Together we are bringing our city—every moment, every day, every year— one step closer to making our bold vision a reality.

Karina Aparicio: A city with no limits

What I imagine for Toronto is a city with no limits. A city that is culturally diverse and self accepting of all differences no matter of age, race, religion, beliefs and gender. A city that knows how to ground themselves and help those who are in need of help without expecting anything in return; a city that sees all classes of people as equal, stigma no longer branding any person.

What I imagine for Toronto is a city where we are interconnected with each other; person to person, hand to hand and heart to heart. That together we as a city will raise above discrimination, hate, differences, oppression, and poverty. We will enrich ourselves with knowledge, education, and acceptance; so that we may lead as a city so that other cities may be able to follow our steps and create more positive change.

Because as one small city, the good we do today will make a big difference in our lives for a better tomorrow and perhaps the rest of the world.

Karina Aparicio is a hopeful student striving to become a social worker, to help bring a positive change in today’s society. 

Kyla Kelley: Stepping out of our comfort zones

I imagine a city where we are not afraid to support each other.

I imagine a city where streetcar riders will not uneasily look the other way as a group of teenagers verbally taunt a fellow passenger.

I imagine a city where others will join me as I challenge the group of youngsters to show respect to all people, rather than avert their eyes and bury deeper in their phones and papers as they do now.

I imagine a city where the taunted man will sit up straight and thank me, rather than looking down and telling me not to bother supporting him, that “it’s really not a big deal”.

I imagine a city where we are brave enough to admit it IS a big deal, and to actually do something about it – not by blogging and commiserating in the safety of our peer groups, but by actually acting when these situations present themselves.

I imagine a city where all citizens are proud to step out of their comfort zones and support each other at EACH and EVERY opportunity.

Kyla Kelly is a married mother of one and expecting her second. She works in downtown Toronto and used to live in Roncesvalles but chose to leave Toronto when she started a family. Why? She felt she couldn’t afford to buy a home in a neighbourhood which felt safe for her family and where neighbours would look out for one another. 

Bushra Nabi: Hearing and valuing the voices of youth

This city is a place that I call home. I’ve seen the best and worst of it. I’ve spent over a decade working towards making this city better. I am an activist, a youth worker and a counsellor for those I feel are underprivileged.

I imagine a Toronto where people actually hear the voices of the youth and look past their appearances. I know of a place–and perhaps it’s far away–where the youth are motivated, confident and making change in their neighbourhood through the encouragement of those that have supported and inspired them. With funding put into youth mental health and arts programming, I imagine a Toronto that is strong, independent and competent.

I love my city but there is no denying even the best needs work. We the people can make this happen if instead of hate we gave love and instead of failure we saw the best in people. If teachers would stop being biased and if we gave our youth a place to discuss, teach, learn and create then we would learn more from them than that which we have taught them.

Imagine a Toronto where we don’t underestimate the young but instead we shut up and listen to what they have to say. A youth counsellor once told me that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  But nobody wants to listen to the youth because everyone is proud and they think they know best.

Bushra Nabi is a warrior for social change in Toronto, working and volunteering with youth affected by violence and trauma in high priority neighbourhoods. She seeks to empower them through art therapy and writing so that they may flourish greater successes.

Samuel Getachew: My commitment to Toronto

I do not like big mega cities however Toronto is an exception. It is a city with a heart. Is it perfect? If it was – I do not think I would have moved to this beautiful city.

I moved to Toronto and in its imperfection, I created a role for me as an activist and citizen. I moved to Toronto to be closer to the action and also play a role in its shortcomings.

The rebuilding of all our communities, the fulfillment of the promise of all of our citizens and the viability of our newest immigrants to play a role in the direction of OUR Toronto is a role I have played over the years. It is a citizenship role that has given me more than I have given in.

I envision a Toronto – that no longer needs “priority neighborhoods” but find all our neighborhoods priorities. I dream of a Toronto where young people are welcome in the political direction of our city. This is an ambitious destination I want my city to arrive in – sooner than later.

I envision my city as a place where we respect the determination of our elders to still play a role and enrich us with their wisdom.

Is Toronto perfect? I am playing a role to make it more perfect.

That is my commitment to Toronto.

Samuel Getachew is a Toronto activist. He is a regular blogger with The Huffington Post,, TZTA and Generation Next newspapers.

See Samuel on The Agenda with Steve Paiken talking about engaging youth in politics

I like where we’re headed with tower renewal

I love the way Graeme describes the potential of Toronto’s high-rise rental apartment buildings. He paints a hopeful picture of what the future could be. With community gardens, playgrounds and restaurants, things that bring neighbours together, these buildings could be more dynamic and more sustainable. Better for everyone. Continue reading

It’s never too late to change your life

When things were at their worst, I never imagined that one day Jully Black would be the guest speaker at a graduation banquet. Someone famous from my own Jane and Finch neighbourhood came back to say “way to go.” Pretty amazing. At my worst, I couldn’t even imagine attending a course, let alone graduating. Thanks to Women Moving Forward (WMF), I can now actually imagine building a pretty great life for me and my son. Continue reading

Why can’t programs like YouthReach be in every neighbourhood in Toronto?

Photo of Mario Honoré

Mario (left) and his friend Jamon, both participants in the YouthReach program offered by JVS, a United Way member agency.

Before I found out about JVS I just used to hang on the street with my friends. I dropped out of school because I didn’t see the point. I wasn’t doing well anyhow. I figured I’d just get a job and then I’d have cash to do what I wanted. But I couldn’t get a job because no one would hire me. I didn’t know what to do next. Continue reading

Why role models for youth make a difference

Photo of Kadeem Robin

When I was a child, one of the many things I loved about Scarborough was the winter time. Rolling giant snowballs, sledding, and having snowball fights were some of the things I loved about winter. With all of that fun, there were some days where the snow was so deep that I had a hard time just walking from one place to another.

Continue reading