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.

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?

What matters T.O. you?

Happy New Year! Thanks for visiting our blog and showing interest in the social issues facing our city. Now we want to hear from YOU!

What are the pressing challenges you’d like to read about in the months ahead? Skyrocketing youth unemployment? Toronto’s growing prosperity gap? Affordable housing?

Submit your ideas by leaving a comment at the end of this post. We’ll do our best to convene some of Toronto’s top thought leaders—from government, business, labour, community and education sectors—to discuss ways we can all work together to create the best Toronto possible. A Toronto where everyone has the opportunities they need to thrive.

United Way’s 2014 campaign video captures all that is made possible when we work together.

And don’t forget! If you haven’t already, subscribe to our blog to have our latest posts delivered right to your inbox every two weeks.

Here’s to a New Year full of possibility for everyone who lives here. Knowledge of the issues is the power to make a difference. We hope you’ll join the conversation.

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.



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.


Social enterprise and why it’s making a difference in Toronto

In February, when we released the research report It’s More than Poverty, we started the conversation about the importance of stable, secure jobs. Having a job you can count on affects not only your individual health and well-being, but the health and well-being of our whole community. The bottom line? Good jobs are important.

At United Way, we’re committed to helping people find jobs. We understand that, in order for people to reach their full potential, employment is a crucial foundation. But there are also a lot of people in our city who face significant barriers to finding jobs—including youth, newcomers and people who are homeless or living with mental illness.

This month, we want to introduce you to an innovative partnership that helps those people facing barriers connect with full-time, permanent employment.  

Watch our video about the Toronto Enterprise Fund and find out what social enterprise is and why it’s making a difference in Toronto.

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. 

Lisa Donnelly: Opening the door to a new identity

Toronto is a city with the world at its doorstep, and the welcome mat says “Bienvenue” in hundreds of different languages. It’s a city of diversity and dynamism – an ever-changing network of people who keep the country on its toes.

Toronto is also a place where change is not only needed, but necessary. I imagine a city with people who stand shoulder to shoulder, equal, instead of one behind another.

I imagine a city where children grow up with access to education, both in the classroom and in the community.

I imagine a city where poverty isn’t a way of life and social problems don’t leave people shrugging their shoulders.

I imagine a city where marginalization, abuse and discrimination aren’t the themes of our daily news stories.

Toronto can be an example for the world – we can show others that active engagement of citizens, governments and corporations can help drive real change in our city. Let’s open the door to a new identity for Toronto, and have the courage to walk through it, together.

Lisa Donnelly works in emergency management for Enbridge Gas Distribution.  She is a proud advocate for United Way and has gotten involved by volunteering as a Team Lead for her department’s fundraising campaign and at this year’s CN Tower Climb.

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.

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

Toronto’s future is in tower neighbourhood renewal

Toronto is unique. The Greater Toronto Region contains over 2,000 high-rise apartment towers built in the post-war boom. Unlike any other city in North America, these towers are found in nearly every community, from city centre to outer suburbs, and are home to more than one million people. These towers and the neighbourhoods they form are at the core of Toronto’s diversity, its urban form, and its future potential. Continue reading

The stories from youth that stick with me

Kwaku and Imisi at a summer camp wearing their leadership t-shirts

Imisi and Kwaku were two young men who participated in a summer program partially funded by United Way and run by the Albion Boys & Girls Club. It’s part of a partnership we have with the Ontario Ministry of Education and the school boards that helps to not only fund great programs in neighbourhoods where there aren’t a lot but also offers summer employment opportunities for youth.

This summer, I spoke to dozens of youth about the challenges faced by young people in Toronto today. Continue reading

If you imagine it, you can achieve it

Saleem HaniffI’m proud to be from Scarborough, and I imagine great things for our city and its youth. Growing up, my father taught me that “knowledge isn’t power until you act on what you know,” and I look forward to the activation of knowledge and potential of our young people being released on our city in the coming years. Continue reading