Changemakers to watch: Jesse Thistle

Homelessness. It’s not simply an issue of not having a place to live. It’s complex, interconnected with other issues like mental health and addiction that combine to trap people in an endless cycle. People experiencing homelessness become disconnected, isolated and left on the fringes of our community. But, according to Jesse Thistle, this week’s Changemaker, understanding homelessness—particularly for Indigenous people—gets us all one step closer to finding a way to tackle it that goes beyond a hot meal and a place to sleep.

WHO: When it comes to understanding Indigenous homelessness, Jesse is more connected to his work than most. “For 10 years I experienced episodic homelessness,” says Jesse, who is Metis-Cree. “I was struggling with addiction and was in and out of jail. I started to notice that there were a lot of people like me in prison, on the streets and in shelters.” In fact, in Toronto alone, approximately 15 per cent of all homeless individuals are Indigenous, yet they make up less than 1 per cent of the city’s population. After overcoming addiction, and with sheer will, determination, and tons of support from his mentor, Carolyn Podruchny, and wife, Lucie, Jesse made it his life’s mission to study the issue in an effort to use his experience to help others. He’s become a top Canadian academic and has received a slew of awards for his work including being named a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar. In 2016, the PhD student became the National Representative for Indigenous Homelessness for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH).

WHY: Jesse is helping to literally “write the definition” of Indigenous homelessness for the COH. Plus, through scholarly work, advocacy and storytelling, he’s working to help all Canadians better understand the issue and collectively move us closer to finding long-term solutions. “Indigenous homelessness really isn’t about not having a place to live—it’s about a loss of relationships,” he says. “If people don’t have good relationships, they become disconnected from society. Growing up, I didn’t have those supports and it led to my homelessness.” Jesse’s lived experience, academic insight and passion to help others has not only made him one of the leading experts on how social issues like homelessness stem from historical trauma—it’s made him one of Canada’s most impactful voices of Indigenous advocacy. “When I look at the person that I once was—an addict, criminal, homeless, without an identity—I can’t help but want to help others out of that position.”

WHAT’S NEXT: You’ll be seeing a lot of Jesse in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, he was featured in a CBC Radio interview exploring his ancestry, as well as his current work studying 20th century road allowance communities—makeshift Metis settlements built along roads and railways in northern Saskatchewan. In October, he’s hoping to release the definition of Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference, and will also be featured in a TVO special that offers an in-depth look into his Metis-Cree family history.

GOOD ADVICE: 

Federal budget: Crunching the numbers for our community

Pedro Barata
Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs United Way Toronto & York Region

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs at United Way Toronto & York Region. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

Annual budgets are always anticipated events, because they offer a government’s blueprint for how it plans to raise and spend funds—for health, education, transit and so many other things that we as citizens rely on. They are also policy documents, announcing and hinting at new government policies with respect to taxes, strategy development and investments.

The 2017 federal budget was especially top of mind, since the government had raised expectations on addressing the growing crisis of housing affordability across our country.

Here’s our take, as it relates to our work, and the future and prosperity of our community.

While investments in early learning fall short of what is currently required, this year’s budget did make a historic commitment to housing, childcare and skills development for youth. Building on 2016’s game-changing down-payment on a Canada Child Benefit—helping to lift thousands of kids out of poverty—this year’s budget also announced more than $11 billion (on top of the $2 billion from last year) to address homelessness and housing affordability.

Many of the proposals in this budget respond to ideas generated by the National Housing Collaborative (NHC). Convened by United Way Toronto & York Region, the NHC is a Canada-wide action group that has brought housing advocates, foundations, government agencies, and developers and landlords together to reach consensus on practical solutions to housing affordability. United Way is particularly encouraged by the creation of a $5-billion National Housing Fund, which will spur local solutions to systemic barriers to housing affordability. It will also prompt new investment models for our tower-renewal work within priority neighbourhoods.

We are equally excited to see investments in child-care spaces. Our work has shown that low-income households—and those affected by precarious employment—face a greater risk of choosing between a job and caring for their children.

Finally, youth facing multiple barriers, including poverty, racism and mental health, are more likely to have difficulty accessing tools and training for a successful career. We see it as smart public policy for the government to expand the Youth Employment Strategy in this year’s budget, with supports for at-risk populations. United Way’s Youth Success Strategy seeks to serve those kids who are farthest from the labour market, and we continue to discuss alignment and evaluation of the two strategies with officials in the federal government.

Our world is characterized by uncertain times, and it is very encouraging to see our federal government cast a vision—and lay the groundwork—for collaboration with United Way and other organizations. With that, we have the promise of growth, progress and systemic change to make our communities stronger. And our future that much brighter.

Changemakers to watch: Hadley Nelles

Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to call home. For Hadley Nelles, it’s this rallying cry and commitment to social justice that inspires her to work to tackle our city’s affordable housing crisis. In 2015, more than 82,400 individuals and families in Toronto found themselves waiting for affordable housing—with an average wait time of over eight years. Driven by skyrocketing rental rates and dwindling vacancies, it’s a crisis that won’t go away without community conveners like Hadley. She believes passionately (with the research to back her up) that a home is the foundation of a good life and a gateway to stability, security and opportunities that put people on the path to a better life.

WHO: Hadley helps spearhead affordable housing work across Toronto as Housing Initiatives Lead at Maytree, a foundation dedicated to advancing solutions to poverty. She’s also been a pivotal player in a number of other housing projects including the United Way-led National Housing Collaborative—a group of partners that help put policy into action so that people with all levels of income can find a suitable home, while also having a choice in their housing. She also co-launched an ideas incubator in the heart of Regent Park that helps community innovators tackle complex social issues like poverty and unemployment.

WHY: “Housing is essential for building healthy, productive lives and a key ingredient to strong communities,” says Hadley. “When we help people access affordable housing and strengthen community connections, neighbourhoods become more inclusive and resilient.” Hadley’s passion for making a difference, as well as her skills as a highly-effective partnership broker, is leading to real results in the housing sector. One of the secrets to her success? “Collaboration is key,” she says. “A big part of my job is working with individuals, organizations and government partners across numerous sectors and communities to look for durable solutions to affordable housing and poverty.” One example? She’s currently helping to guide the Tower Renewal Partnership. Funded and co-led by United Way—and informed by our research—the project aims to transform aging apartment towers in the inner suburbs—often in dire need of repair—into more affordable, livable and vibrant places to reside for people living on a low income. This includes giving high-rise communities more control over local development—bringing jobs, shops and services to neighbourhoods that need them most. Hadley is also making sure the voices of residents are being heard loud and clear. “Sustainable solutions come to light when we engage residents in the decision-making process,” she says. In fact, just this past year, Maytree partnered with United Way to convene conversations with residents to help inform Canada’s National Housing Strategy. “New forms of social policy, like advocating for a housing benefit that can support folks in their affordability gap, play an important part in achieving our goal.”

WHAT’S NEXT: With Hadley and the Partnership continuing to roll out renewal projects in Toronto and Hamilton, they’re looking for new collaborators that can broaden the scope of their work across the GTHA; their goal is to create even more on-the-ground “showcases” that demonstrate the benefits of keeping housing affordable and sustainable—for residents, developers and entire neighbourhoods. Maytree is also supporting housing advocates across the city to protect everyone’s right to housing. In Parkdale, for example, they’re working to keep the ever-evolving neighbourhood diverse and affordable.

Ask The Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

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Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and well-being of children and families. She’s also the national coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.
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3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.
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5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their well-being. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

Stephen Gaetz Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night.

But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 7 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

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Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet.

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2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

Looking for a unique way to give back this holiday season? United Way’s Warmest Wishes ensures necessities like clothing and food are there for people experiencing poverty at a time when they need it most. Visit Warmest Wishes to make your gift today.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

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3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.

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4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.

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5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.

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6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Changemakers to watch: Kofi Hope

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Kofi Hope
Executive Director, 
CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals

Meet Kofi Hope. He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

WHO: As the Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, a United Way Youth Challenge Fund legacy initiative, Kofi has played a pivotal role in connecting youth with the holistic supports they need for a promising future. This includes creating pathways to meaningful jobs, part of United Way’s bold new Youth Success Strategy that puts the long-term economic security of some of our region’s most vulnerable young people front-and-centre. “It’s not enough to just move a young person from unemployed to employed,” explains Kofi. “You have to build up the person by focusing on the unique aspects of their life.” And he’s doing exactly that—recognizing that stable employment is crucial to economic security—and a springboard to a promising future. “When you empower a person to take control of their life, they realize the barriers they’re facing will not be there forever,” he says. “They’re just problems to be solved and overcome.”

In fact, helping young people overcome barriers has been a life-long affair. He’s been a child and youth champion since he was a teen, organizing programming to address the growing needs of kids in his community. By university, he was advocating on behalf of Black youth as the founder of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence. And by 28, he had a PhD from the highly-esteemed University of Oxford.

WHY: Kofi’s ability to bring together and mobilize community members, business leaders and decision-makers in a common cause of action is inspiring. In addition to his groundbreaking work with CEE, he’s also led meaningful change beyond our borders. He’s a passionate public speaker who has captivated audiences overseas, and has even advised on a land claim struggle in South Africa, effectively bridging the gap between community and authority as a cross-cultural communicator and negotiator.

WHAT’S NEXT: Earlier this year, Kofi joined the board of the Toronto Environmental Alliance where he’s tackling important social issues that intersect with environmental concerns. “Environmental and social justice are not competing causes,” explains Kofi. “Good public transit helps reduce our carbon footprint, but also opens up economic and social opportunities to marginalized people in underserved areas. You’re saving the environment and building a more equitable society for everyone.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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What can we accomplish when we collaborate for youth?

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Liban Abokor
Executive Director, Youth LEAPS

Our guest blogger this week is Liban Abokor, Executive Director of Youth LEAPS. His niece recently took part in United Way’s CN Tower Climb, and as part of her preparation, set out to learn more about the story of teamwork and collaboration behind our city’s historic landmark. The following article, which has been edited and condensed, originally appeared on October 30, 2016 in the Toronto Star.

Reportedly, it took 1,537 workers, operating 24 hours a day, five days a week for 40 months, to complete construction of the CN Tower. This labour force included electricians, steel workers, crane operators, engineers and carpenters, among many others. Each team member, delivering on a particular task, contributed to what still stands as a testament to human achievement.

The story of the CN Tower and how it was built offers valuable insights into the promise of collaboration and teamwork. When that many people come together for a common purpose they can accomplish an astounding feat.

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It is an especially important lesson for Toronto’s social service sector as it faces increasing pressure to do more with less.

At a time marked by greater competition for remaining resources and growing need in the community, more and more organizations realize that collaboration enhances the impact of their work toward achieving transformational change.

In much the same way, United Way also seeks to move the dial on some of our most pressing social issues by fostering a social service sector driven by a culture of collaboration.

The role United Way plays is best described as part preacher, part practitioner. The organization seeks to not only popularize the spirit of collective effort, but also make the necessary investments. An example of this is the CITY Leaders program and Community Hub model that set the stage for collaboration to flourish.

Early in my career, I participated in the CITY Leaders program, which was an exciting opportunity to work alongside and learn from other emerging young leaders from various fields in Toronto. It was an immersive experience, driven by a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, that taught me to look at issues as systemic.

dsc_7983Soon I would come to rely on these lessons in my role as executive director of Youth LEAPS, a registered not-for-profit seeking to improve educational attainment outcomes for at-risk youth.

Located in Scarborough, Youth LEAPS operates out of the Dorset Park Hub, which includes several other service providers offering essential supports including health care, settlement, employment, child and seniors care.

At the hub, we recognize that community members—many facing multiple barriers, often access several services simultaneously, which bolstered the case for greater collaboration and offered a clear opportunity to better align our service delivery to achieve greater impact.

dsc_8203Working closely with hub partners meant we could better co-ordinate services, share resources, exchange knowledge and enhance engagement protocols, such as the referral and monitoring processes.

A great example of this is our Learn2Work Initiative where we work with social service, employment, and health-care partners to create a classroom-to-careers pathway for youth between 18-29 years old, without their high school diploma, and receiving Ontario Works.

More so today than ever before, examples like Learn2Work can be found across our sector thanks to United Way’s investment in the development of young community leaders and the idea of collective problem solving and collaboration, imperative to achieving systemic change.

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.

Ask the Expert: What’s the best way to equip youth for the future?

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Christine Walsh
Associate Dean & Professor, Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary

Christine Walsh is Associate Dean and professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She is considered a leading expert on vulnerable youth, including young people living in poverty. Her research interests include child and family health, Aboriginal health and individuals affected by social exclusion, poverty and homelessness. Prior to academia, she also worked as a clinical social worker at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. Imagine a City spoke with Christine for our “Ask the Expert” series to understand the best way to equip youth for the future.

1. United Way is committed to ensuring the success of young people, particularly those youth who face ‘barriers.’ Describe some of these barriers.  

Vulnerable youth are those who face barriers that prevent them from achieving or maintaining well-being. They’re vulnerable because of personal, social and structural factors, such as a lack of family support, stable housing or access to education. These factors not only affect their physical and mental health, but greatly influence their ability to contribute to society.dsc_5334

2. What are some of the contributing factors to vulnerability?

Things like family breakdown, poverty, racism, violence, childhood trauma and physical and mental health issues are significant contributing factors to youth vulnerability. Newcomers or LGBTQ+ youth also experience many challenges including social isolation. These types of barriers make it extremely difficult for young people to excel in school, find stable employment or connect with their communities, making it much harder for them to succeed.

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3. Why is the transition from adolescence to adulthood often so difficult for young people who face barriers?

Transitioning from youth to adulthood is challenging for all young people, but it’s especially tough for those who face barriers such as poverty and different forms of violence. Attaining an education, entering the workforce and establishing financial independence are key components of becoming an adult. Unfortunately, many youth simply don’t have access to the supports they need to successfully transition into this life stage. To cope with these challenges, youth are vulnerable to high-risk behaviours like alcohol and drug use, which can lead to longer-term consequences such as becoming street-involved or even homeless. These long-term health issues can also have implications on our justice system and health and social services sectors.

4. Why is it so important to invest in youth during this critical transition period into independent adulthood?

Many of the decisions made, and the opportunities that are available or lacking during the transition into adulthood, have long-term impacts on a person’s future. That’s why it’s so important to address vulnerability during this time. If a young person lacks the supports they need to finish school, adequately prepare for the workforce or find affordable, stable housing, then that’s going to impact the rest of their life.dsc_6965

5. What are some of the best ways to support youth facing barriers to build brighter futures?

Community supports are one critical piece of helping young people thrive. These supports include things like mental health counseling, career workshops and mentorship programs that can enable young people to change trajectories, even helping them acquire the tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty. It’s these type of what we call ‘wraparound’ supports  that are so crucial to ensuring youth have access to the opportunities they need to build stable, secure futures. United Way plays an important role in this because it’s embedded in the community in a really profound way. Social supports offered by community-based organizations enable youth to make good decisions throughout the developmental process. Engagement is also extremely important when it comes to young people. When we engage youth in meaningful ways, they become active participants on a personal and community level.

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6. Why does youth success matter to communities at large?

Youth, including those who face barriers, have tremendous skills and potential. When we support them, we capitalize on their talent. These young people play a vital role in society because they’re the future of our communities. They are the ones who are going to be working and raising their families here. If we want safe, healthy, livable communities where every young person feels supported to build a better life, then we need to ensure we create the conditions that allow all youth to benefit and contribute in a multitude of ways.

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How much do you know about food security?

Healthy food is an essential building block to our overall health and wellbeing. It helps children do well in school, ensures we can put our best foot forward at work and allows us to contribute as active members in our community.

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But for too many people living in Toronto and York Region, access to healthy, affordable, and culturally-appropriate food has become a major barrier to a good life. We also know that income is the root cause of food insecurity, and that in order to address this growing problem, we need to work together to close the gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not.

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That’s why United Way invests in a network of agencies across our region that help people get the food they need through meal programs, community gardens and kitchens and a mobile food truck. By bringing people together around food, we’re also connecting kids, adults and seniors to their communities, which we know is another essential step in helping them move from a life of poverty to possibility.

To help you learn more about food security, we put together a quiz to test your knowledge.


For detailed answers, click here.

Changemakers to watch: Hibaq Gelle

hibaq1Meet Hibaq Gelle. She’s a community mobilizer and a powerful youth champion committed to bringing good jobs to people in her Rexdale neighbourhood. Using innovative ways of working, she’s empowering community members to take ownership of their neighbourhood and revolutionizing the way community change is made.

WHO: For Hibaq, building vibrant communities isn’t just a pastime—it’s a commitment she lives and breathes every day. As a graduate of CITY Leaders, a leadership program co-certified by United Way and the University of Toronto, Hibaq knows a thing or two about empowering youth. A staple in many priority neighbourhoods across Toronto, she’s helped youth facing barriers, including poverty and racialization, connect to the programs and supports they need to thrive.

But Hibaq is not only passionate about bringing opportunities to youth here at home; her impact can be felt province-wide. As a political appointee on the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, Hibaq—one of just 25 people selected by the Premier—represents Ontario’s youth by bringing their voices to the table. Most notably, Hibaq advised on Ontario’s Youth Action Plan, a crucial $55 million investment in programs and services to tackle issues like youth violence and unemployment so that young people can transition successfully into adulthood.

WHY: It’s no surprise Hibaq has become a well-known name in Rexdale—community activism is a family affair. “Growing up, my mom was a go-to resource in the community,” says Hibaq. “Whether she was organizing women’s programming or helping newcomers navigate community resources, if you needed support, she was the person you would turn to.” And although Hibaq has undoubtedly followed in her mom’s footsteps, she’s definitely carved her own path. “Young people are not succeeding in the way that they should be,” says Hibaq. “By engaging non-traditional stakeholders and community members, we can start building new tools to tackle local issues in entirely different ways.”

One of the big barriers: unemployment. The tool: Community Benefits Agreements—partnerships that connect residents from priority neighbourhoods to work opportunities on local infrastructure projects. It’s a new way of working that United Way is also behind. Just last year, our advocacy led to provincial legislation that ensures Community Benefits will be included in all provincially-funded infrastructure projects moving forward.

WHAT’S NEXT: While a fellow in MaRS’ prestigious Studio Y program, Hibaq created the My Rexdale project, where she began working to tap into planned infrastructure projects in Rexdale—like the proposed casino at Woodbine Racetrack—to connect youth, precariously employed individuals and newcomers to work opportunities spurred as a result of planned development. Through community outreach (and the massive billboard she leveraged next to Highway 27), the idea is on its way to having a big impact in the lives of residents—who are equally thrilled at the prospect of good jobs coming to their neighbourhood.

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And Hibaq’s Community Benefits work is just getting started. So far, she’s established a core team of community builders and is assembling a steering committee for the My Rexdale project. She’s also gotten Rexdale residents on-board through community consultations, door-to-door outreach and social media—educating community members about the investments coming so they can advocate on behalf of their community. “We need a strong base of support before we start conversations with big stakeholders,” says Hibaq. “The community is united behind it. This is just the beginning.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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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?

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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.

ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!

What is hidden homelessness?

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.

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5 Women who inspire us

For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!

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What if you had to choose? 

Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.

3 things you should know about income inequality

IAC_Home-Page_Blog_Good-to-knowWhen most of us think of income inequality, we think about gaps between those who are doing well financially and those who are not. But you may be surprised to learn that income inequality is about much more than just a pay cheque.

Here are 3 more things you might not know about income inequality:  

1. It undermines fairness: With the rise of income inequality, it’s not simply your effort that determines whether or not you’re going to do well. Increasingly it’s circumstances beyond your control including your background, where you were born, how much money your parents make or your postal code,” says Pedro Barata, United Way’s VP of Communications & Public Affairs. This creates deep divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” undermining fairness and creating an environment where hard work is no longer seen as a guarantee for success. Watch this video to learn more about the importance of ensuring individuals and families across our region have equal opportunities to build better lives and stronger futures.

2. It makes entire communities feel “invisible:” “People living in poverty will often talk about lack of access to material items such as money for transit or food. But they may also mention their inability to do things like buy a birthday present for a friend, go to the movies or catch up over a cup of coffee. Sometimes they can’t afford to leave their house,” says Barata. “All of this adds up to social isolation and feeling excluded. People living in poverty will often say they’re invisible.” There is also a tendency towards thinking that the voices of people living on a low income aren’t important. “Who gets to talk to politicians? Who gets quoted in newspapers? Who gets to go to meetings? For a variety of reasons, it’s typically not people living on a low income,” adds Barata. “Often they’re too busy holding down a number of jobs and they live in communities that are too often left out of decision making processes. The consequence? Entire neighbourhoods become divided along income and social lines and we don’t live up to the promise of being a region “where everyone can come from all walks of life and live in harmony.”

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3. It deflates our hope for the future: Rapidly growing income inequality is worrisome to all of us. In a recent report conducted by United Way, 86% of survey respondents indicated that they felt the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large. A joint Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way report also points to a decidedly gloomy outlook as only the smallest number of citizens believe the next generation will experience the progress achieved by previous generations. In fact, for the first time in a century, young people are expected to be materially less well off in adulthood than their parents. For youth facing additional barriers—including poverty, lower levels of education and discrimination—the challenges are even greater. 

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To learn more about how we’re working together with our partners to bring hope, fairness and opportunity to individuals and families across our region, read this guest post from Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation.

Who would you nominate?

We get to meet—and work with—some pretty amazing people here at United Way. So back in January we decided to launch our very own ‘Change Maker’ series to introduce you to some of the brightest, most passionate and hard-working people who are igniting change in the social services sector. Here’s a wrap up of these incredible individuals.

Zahra_photoZahra Ebrahim: She’s been called a “civic rockstar” by her fans on social media. She was featured as one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life’s Most Influential issue. And she recently shared her city building passion as a featured speaker at TEDxToronto.  But it’s the urbanist’s trailblazing work connecting 75 youth from a Toronto priority neighbourhood with an opportunity to completely transform their local community hub that earned her a spot on our list.

YasinYasin Osman: He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.

MebDr. Meb Rashid: He’s the medical director of Toronto’s only in-hospital refugee clinic who has dedicated his career to serving “the world’s heroes.” With his lean, but mighty team, Meb is changing the way care is delivered in the city—and ensuring a refugee’s new life in Canada begins with a healthy start.

MichaelBraithewaiteMichael Braithwaite: He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

Kofi Hope2Kofi Hope: He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us who inspires you and nominate your very own Change Maker. He or she could be featured on our blog!

Food for thought on food security

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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.

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  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.

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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.

Changemakers to watch: Kofi Hope

Kofi Hope2Meet Kofi Hope. He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

WHO: As the Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, a United Way Youth Challenge Fund legacy initiative, Kofi has played a pivotal role in connecting youth with the holistic supports they need for a promising future. This includes creating pathways to meaningful jobs, part of United Way’s bold new Youth Success Strategy that puts the long-term economic security of some of our region’s most vulnerable young people front-and-centre. “It’s not enough to just move a young person from unemployed to employed,” explains Kofi. “You have to build up the person by focusing on the unique aspects of their life.” And he’s doing exactly that—recognizing that stable employment is crucial to economic security—and a springboard to a promising future. “When you empower a person to take control of their life, they realize the barriers they’re facing will not be there forever,” he says. “They’re just problems to be solved and overcome.”

In fact, helping young people overcome barriers has been a life-long affair. He’s been a child and youth champion since he was a teen, organizing programming to address the growing needs of kids in his community. By university, he was advocating on behalf of Black youth as the founder of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence. And by 28, he had a PhD from the highly-esteemed University of Oxford.

WHY: Kofi’s ability to bring together and mobilize community members, business leaders and decision-makers in a common cause of action is inspiring. In addition to his groundbreaking work with CEE, he’s also led meaningful change beyond our borders. He’s a passionate public speaker who has captivated audiences overseas, and has even advised on a land claim struggle in South Africa, effectively bridging the gap between community and authority as a cross-cultural communicator and negotiator.

WHAT’S NEXT: Kofi has big plans for the year ahead. Recently, he joined the board of the Toronto Environmental Alliance where he’s tackling important social issues that intersect with environmental concerns. “Environmental and social justice are not competing causes,” explains Kofi. “Good public transit helps reduce our carbon footprint, but also opens up economic and social opportunities to marginalized people in underserved areas. You’re saving the environment and building a more equitable society for everyone.”

GOOD ADVICE: 

Changemakers to watch: Michael Braithwaite

Meet Michael Braithwaite. He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

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Michael Braithwaite
Executive Director, 360°kids

WHO: Michael has a long history is the social services sector. Before taking the lead at 360°kids, a United Way–supported agency, he spent over two decades with the YMCA—spearheading everything from day camps in Niagara Region to a men’s shelter in downtown Hamilton and employment programming in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. But as a father of three, Michael is especially drawn to the youth demographic. “My kids look no different than the young people that I work with everyday,” he says. “I like working with youth because they have so much to offer. If they matter to just one person, that can be the hope they need to turn their life around.”

WHY: In March, 360°kids was named “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards. And with good reason. Thanks to a partnership with the Regional

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Michael and his daughter, Irene, following the 360° Experience.

Municipality of York, 360°kids is operating out of a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Richmond Hill, increasing its youth drop-in capacity. Prior to the expansion, there were only 27 shelter beds dedicated to youth throughout the rapidly-growing region. “Housing is a major issue in York Region, especially for young people who are experiencing issues at home,” explains Michael. “These crucial spaces allow youth to live semi-independently while accessing the supports they need to get back on their feet.”

Michael celebrates 360°kids' award for "Best Non-Profit" at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

Michael celebrates 360°kids’ award for “Best Non-Profit” at the Richmond Hill Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Awards.

It’s an issue Michael knows well—because it hits close to home. For years, his sister struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and, at just 16, found herself in and out of precarious housing. “It can happen to anyone and any family,” says Michael. “This cause drives me because if my sister had access to an organization like 360°kids growing up, she might have broken that pattern a long time ago.”

But Michael’s impact is more than just bricks-and-mortar improvements. His team has also been the brains behind 360° Experience, which invites business and community leaders to experience a day in the life of homeless youth—braving the cold, hunger and isolation. “I wanted to do something that really has an impact,” he says. “You might only endure these struggles for one day, but it’s an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

Michael and Phil Dawson, Fire & EMS Chief, East Gwillimbury, struggle to keep warm during the 360° Experience.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drawing on innovative ideas from across the globe, Michael is now piloting a preventative program—in partnership with Raising the Roof—that will see outreach workers visiting schools to identify early signs of struggle that could lead to homelessness. He’s also working to create the first LGBTQ youth shelter in York Region, and plans to have 360°kids become the first Night Stop-accredited agency in Canada—a UK-based program that matches individuals and families who have space in their home to young people in need. “It would only cost $4,000 a year to place a child in an actual home—whether it’s a couple whose grown children have moved out or a senior who feels isolated and could use some extra help around the house,” he explains. “It would be beneficial to both parties, and the best part: a child would have a real place to call home.”

GOOD ADVICE:

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Join us in ensuring young people have access to the opportunities they need to thrive. Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work people like you make possible.

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.

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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.”

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BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR

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.

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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.”

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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 uweditor@uwgt.org and we’ll pass your message along.

Your social media cheat sheet: February edition

Good_Act_to_Follow_HomePage_SlideWe know you care about the big issues. Things like poverty, youth unemployment and neighbourhood inequality.

That’s why we do our best here at Imagine a City to keep you up-to-date with the latest on social issues that affect us all—and what we’re doing to tackle these challenges.

A big part of this discussion happens online—right here on our own blog and in countless other social media forums where community partners, thought leaders, journalists and other influencers weigh in on important issues.

Here’s our list of some of our favourite blogs, websites and social media accounts we think are worth checking out.

1. Sara Mojtehedzadeh (@SaraMojtehedz)

Sara Mojtehedzadeh

Sara Mojtehedzadeh
Work & Wealth Reporter, Toronto Star

Are you in-the-know when it comes to poverty and labour issues in our community? If so, Sara Mojtehedzadeh probably has something to do with it. The Toronto Star Work and Wealth reporter is a leading authority on precarious employment and equity issues across the province—and a total must-follow on Twitter. We’re a huge fan of Sara because of her tireless efforts to give some of the most vulnerable residents in our community a voice and because she’s a champion of change. She’s also helped shine a light on our groundbreaking research into precarious employment that revealed more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA experience some degree of insecurity in their work. “It’s important to acknowledge how absolutely fundamental work is not just to income and wealth, but to our sense of purpose, identity and well being,” Sara explained in a recent interview with the Canadian Media Guild. And with a background in conflict and peace studies and comparative politics, it’s evident that covering the work and wealth beat is more than just a job for Sara—it’s her passion.

2. Kwame McKenzie: Wellesley Institute blog

Dr. Kwame McKenzie

Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute

How are health and poverty related? Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, and a regular blogger for the organization, recently wrote this compelling post on the importance of ensuring everyone has equal access to healthcare, regardless of the barriers they face. Kwame is also a United Way board trustee and a CAMH psychiatrist who is considered a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness, suicide and the development of effective, equitable health systems. He argues that socioeconomic challenges such as income inequality, poor housing, stress and access to nutritious food drive disparities in health, making it more difficult for low-income individuals to be healthy and to access health services. Kwame believes that all three levels of government and multiple partners across the city need to work together to ensure that health and policy go hand-in-hand.

3. Furniture Bank (@furniture_bank)

Furniture Bank

We think Furniture Bank is a really great example of an innovative social enterprise. This socially-driven business, supported by United Way, helps individuals and families who are newcomers or are transitioning out of homelessness or abusive situations turn a new house into a home by providing furniture at no cost. It also provides training and work opportunities to people facing barriers to employment. Visit Furniture Bank’s Instagram account for photos of funky furniture items they receive for donation and inspiring stories of lives changed—including one Syrian refugee family whose home was furnished just in time for the holidays.

Want to learn more about social enterprise? Then be sure to check out the upcoming Social Enterprise Toronto Conference on March 10.

Don’t miss a second of the conversation! Subscribe to Imagine a City to get the top social influencer, blog and website recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Changemakers to watch: Yasin Osman

We’re pretty excited to introduce you to Yasin Osman.  He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.

Yasin

WHO: Yasin grew up in Regent Park with his mother who worked hard to make ends meet. He often saw firsthand the impact that a lack of opportunities can have on a neighbourhood—from poverty to unemployment. But despite the challenges faced by many Regent Park residents, Yasin is remarkably hopeful about the revitalization of his neighbourhood. His stunning photos tell stories of perseverance, resilience and the power of community. And others are taking notice of Yasin’s talent, too. He’s won numerous awards for his work including a Basquiat Neon Crown from the Art Gallery of Ontario and an Adelaide Gyamfi Award from The Remix Project, a United Way–funded agency. He’s also been named one of Pique’s Top 100 Artists from Toronto.

WHAT: Yasin uses his camera to document everything from pictures of kids out for an -evening bike ride.

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To breathtaking cityscapes.

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And candid snaps of residents in his community.

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But what caused Yasin to pick up a camera is just as interesting. At 13, after noticing the structural changes happening in his neighbourhood, he decided to use the camera on his mom’s cell phone to capture the transformation. Years later, he decided to pursue photography more seriously—a decision his fans (including us!) are thankful for. Now, he’s working with big-name companies including Facebook, Adidas and VICE.

WHY: Yasin loves kids. So when he’s not working as an ECE at Community Centre 55, he’s running his budding #ShootForPeace program, an initiative that brings young people from Regent Park together to learn about photography. It all started when some local kids noticed his Instagram and asked him to teach them how to take similar photos. “At first, I wasn’t sure if they were serious about learning photography, but they were,” says Yasin. “Sometimes we undermine the intelligence of children, but they’re capable of so much when it’s something that interests them.”

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Yasin Osman (centre) with #ShootForPeace program participants.

Participants have soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Yasin—not to mention guest artists that join the weekly program including NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay and even Oliver El-Khatib, the manager of Toronto’s own Drake. “A program like this isn’t something all of us had when we were younger,” explains Yasin. “One of the kids told me that he never thought he could be so good at something. It’s amazing to see how it has changed the way they see themselves.”

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Youth in the #ShootForPeace program check out a photo taken by NBA Canada photographer Charlie Lindsay.

WHAT’S NEXT: Yasin has big plans in store for 2016! “I’m constantly hearing from kids across Toronto who want to get involved,” he says. “It would be amazing to offer this program to more kids who would normally not have the opportunity to learn about photography.” And so Yasin’s putting the wheels in motion to do exactly that. Currently, he’s in talks with a community organization to expand #ShootForPeace across the city. Stay tuned to see what this Changemaker is up to next. We’re sure it’ll be nothing short of inspiring!

GOOD ADVICE:
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What is “hidden” homelessness?

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Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night.

But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 8 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet.Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

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To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 20 and 21. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

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What does homelessness look like where you live?  Visit ProjectUnited, for eye-opening videos, audio and written stories of people experiencing poverty right here at home. Conceived and created by two engaged Ryerson University students, ProjectUnited is a volunteer-driven partnership with United Way that aims to raise awareness of the barriers people face in our community.

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Changemakers to watch: Zahra Ebrahim

It’s a new year—and we’re excited to introduce you to some trailblazing changemakers across our region. With innovation, passion and a whole lot of hard work, they’re helping change lives and transform entire communities.

First up? Zahra Ebrahim, Co-CEO of Doblin Canada, a design-led innovation firm based in Toronto that works to solve tough business challenges in the non-profit, government and private sectors.

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WHO:  She’s been called a “civic rockstar” by her fans on social media. She was featured as one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life’s Most Influential issue. And she recently shared her city building passion as a featured speaker at TEDxToronto.  But it’s the urbanist’s trailblazing work connecting 75 youth from a Toronto priority neighbourhood with an opportunity to completely transform their local community hub that earned her a spot on our list.

WHY:  With a background in architecture and design, Zahra played an integral role in the Community. Design. Initiative., an award-winning collaboration between architects, designers, urban planners, academics and residents. The multi-year project is transforming a United Way agency—East Scarborough Storefront—into an innovative, 10,000-square-foot community services hub in Kingston Galloway Orton Park. “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—including young people living in poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban agency,” says Zahra. Learn more here.

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An architectural drawing of East Scarborough Storefront.

WHAT’S NEXT? Zahra will be busy in 2016! She’s currently fulfilling her dream of bringing design thinking education to high school students across Canada through her support of The Learning Partnership. She’s also helping some of the country’s biggest organizations rethink how they do business by introducing consumer-first strategies that put equal emphasis on financial and social bottom lines. Zahra also continues to be passionate about driving change in the non-profit sector by connecting communities and decision makers to create meaningful, sustainable change. “I believe passionately that we need to share ownership with communities. I’ve always been really focused on the ‘how’ of change-making in the non-profit space versus the ‘what’.”

GOOD ADVICE:

 

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.

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  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.

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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.

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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? Warmestwishes.ca

 

You asked: Is there a right amount to give?

There’s an old saying that goes, “it’s better to give than to receive.” And as the holidays approach, we are reminded how true that is of countless Canadians who open their pocketbooks every year to help those in need.

John Hallward, Founder & Chairman GIV3 Foundation

John Hallward,
Founder & Chairman
GIV3 Foundation

A  2012 Statistics Canada report on charitable giving found nearly 24 million of us—or 84% of the population aged 15+—made a financial donation to a charitable or non-profit organization, for a total of $10.6 billion. Canadians clearly understand the importance of philanthropy.

Yet we often receive questions from many of you wondering if there’s a right or appropriate amount to give.

According to a 2010 Ipsos survey, the majority of Canadians believe the answer is 3% of income (based on an average annual household income of approximately $65,000.)

The survey also asked nearly 1,000 people across the country what they thought was a “fair and reasonable” amount to give at different income levels. As income levels got higher the answers as a percentage of income also rose.

At $200,000, for example, the majority of respondents said approximately 5% was an appropriate amount to give. This dipped to 1.8% for a personal annual income of $30,000.

In reality, however, according to Revenue Canada T1 tax returns, we only average about 0.8% of income, says John Hallward, founder and chairman of the GIV3 Foundation, a Montreal-based non-profit whose mission is to encourage Canadians to give more time and money to causes they’re passionate about. GIV3 is also involved in educating Canadians about the impact of their giving as individuals—and collectively.

Hallward explains how even a small increase in annual giving could add up to big change for society at large. “We know Canadians care—and that we have the capacity to give,” says Hallward.  “If we could get Canadians from 0.8% to 1%, that’s a $2 billion gain annually to the non-profit sector. If you can double that to 1.5% that’s an $8 billion gain,” he adds.

That’s a significant amount of additional funds to invest in important causes—here at home and globally—ranging from medical innovation and the environment to poverty and human rights.

Hallward adds: ”In a sense, we have a moral obligation to give back for all of the benefits we have received from prior generations of donors. If you can’t give money, you can contribute in other ways. You can volunteer, give blood or even teach a child the importance of donating $5 from their piggybank.”

“Philanthropy is very emotional and very personal,” he adds. “My advice to donors is to invest in causes they’re involved in and passionate about. It should actually feel good to give.”

Now we want to hear from you. Do you agree?  Is there a right amount to give?

Building futures through Community Benefits

Pedro Barata

Our guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata, Vice President of Communications & Public Affairs at United Way Toronto & York Region. He has experience working within, and across community-based organizations, strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

When the Ontario Government passed Bill 6: Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act, the province opened the door to ensuring that infrastructure planning and investment across the province includes community benefits.

These community benefits mean that we have the opportunity to strengthen communities every time we build infrastructure. It’s historic legislation, and United Way has helped bring this exciting idea to fruition, working alongside a growing movement that includes labour, community groups, agencies, local and provincial government, Metrolinx, foundations and local residents. In particular, we have dedicated ourselves to working with all our partners to create a multi-sector partnership that can more effectively connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with the career opportunities that will emerge from arising new rapid transit expansion.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see the real impact that legislation makes on people’s everyday lives. But for residents in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods, the possibilities of the new legislation are already within sight.

Take the Eglinton Crosstown line, which is being built near five of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. Thanks to a new Community Benefits Framework that involves Metrolinx, the provincial government and the community through the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the five-year, 19-kilometre-line will give local residents access to career opportunities. It is one example of how the new Bill 6 legislation can come into action. Recruitment, skills building, training programs and wraparound supports are now being brought together to give new skills to prospective workers and have people ready to help deliver this project on time, on budget and safely.

Community benefits are inspiring change. Bill 6 legislation enshrines community benefits as a smart, sustainable and transformative solution to build our region’s future. What’s new about this bill is that it actually names specific groups that are often left out of opportunities like this—at-risk youth, low-income communities, Aboriginal populations and people with disabilities.

United Way research shows a growing divide in access to opportunities for residents. At the same time, availability of skilled labour has been a constant concern amidst the region’s construction boom. Bill 6 signals a new era of collaboration, bringing the goals of government, labour, not-for-profits and business, closer together.

Toronto’s first-ever anti-poverty plan passes

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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

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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.

 

What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger is Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, co-author of The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. Wayne is also a professor at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics.

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The Precarity Penalty

Today, PEPSO, a research partnership between United Way Toronto and McMaster University releases its new report, The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. The Precarity Penalty examines the social and economic effects of short-term and insecure employment. It asks, what are the challenges facing workers in short-term employment in terms of getting ahead, establishing healthy households and participating in community life. The findings are troubling.

Uncertain future employment prospects can increase anxiety at home.  Lack of benefits can make even small unexpected medical costs a crisis.  Unpredictable work schedules can make finding suitable childcare very difficult.  The short-term nature of the employment relationship can limit a worker’s access to the training needed to get ahead. Together, the added challenges associated with insecure employment represent The Precarity Penalty.

In short, precarious employment not only creates significant stress on individuals and families today, it also creates conditions that can trap those who are in precarious employment from opportunities to get ahead.

Given that insecure employment is the fastest growing form of employment, we should all be concerned about what this means for our families, our children and our communities.

A new body of research (see references below), much of it focused on the troubles in the U.S. economy, suggests that public policy has fallen short, and at times exacerbated the challenges facing precarious workers. These policies have exposed workers to more economic uncertainty, reduced supports that help build healthy families and made it more difficult than in the past for workers to negotiate improved working conditions. There is evidence that Canada’s own public policy environment has not fared much better in terms of protecting vulnerable workers.

What policy has enabled, policy can change.  It is not inevitable that a growing number of Canadian workers find themselves in relationships that make it difficult to get ahead. The mechanisms we use to regulate labour markets, including how contracts are negotiated, how we set and enforce employment standards, how we support workers between jobs, how quality training is provided, and how workers can finance unexpected health costs and old age were all formed when permanent full-time employment was the norm.

We need to revisit these mechanisms in light of the spread of less secure employment and ensure that our public policies match the realities facing Canadians today.

Other countries have accepted this challenge. Canada can do the same.

REFERENCES

David Weil, The Fissured Workplace

Lawrence Mishel, The State of Working America

Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality

 

 

Planning for change in Tower neighbourhoods

Jennifer-Keesmat_606x544As the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat is committed to creating places where people flourish.  Over the past decade, she has been recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners and OPPI for her innovative work in Canadian municipalities.  Most recently, Jennifer was named as one of the most influential people in Toronto by Toronto Life magazine and one of the most powerful people in Canada by Maclean’s magazine. Her planning practice is characterized by an emphasis on collaborations across sectors, and broad engagement with municipal staff, councils, developers, business leaders, NGOs and residents’ associations.  Jennifer is also a member of United Way Toronto’s  2015 Campaign Cabinet. Imagine a City spoke to Jennifer on why community consultation is key to building more livable neighbourhoods.

One of your key priorities as Chief Planner is to make neighbourhoods across Toronto more livable. What does this mean exactly? Livable communities are complete communities. They’re neighbourhoods where you can undertake many activities, and access most services, within walking distance from home. Things like work, childcare, doctors’ offices, food shops, community centres and playgrounds.  In order for neighbourhoods to be safe and to thrive, they need lots of diversity. They need diversity in terms of ages groups, in terms of uses and in terms of how you can move and walk around.

We know that livability in our city’s inner-suburban “Tower Neighbourhoods” is a serious challenge. Toronto contains the second largest concentration of high-rise buildings in North America. Today there are more than 1,000 of these concrete towers across our inner suburbs. When they were designed in the 1950s primarily for the middle class, they were designed for one “use” only—housing.  Tower Neighbourhoods weren’t planned to be diverse. You couldn’t go to the doctor, you couldn’t buy groceries, you couldn’t go to a restaurant. They quickly became less desirable places to live than other vibrant urban centres. They weren’t well-connected in terms of their pedestrian access and they weren’t connected to transit. These communities were subsequently abandoned by the middle class and became landing pads for new immigrants, many living in poverty.

United Way’s Tower Neighbourhood Renewal strategy aims to improve quality of life for residents in these high-rise communities. An important part of this strategy is consulting with residents who live there and engaging them in the planning process. We consult with thousands of residents in this city every year. But one of the things we’ve discovered is that the participants in our planning process are generally white, middle-class homeowners. Last year, as a result of collaborations with a variety of different partners, including United Way Toronto, we were able to bring in voices from Tower neighbourhoods that desperately needed to be at the table: voices from immigrants, voices from marginalized residents, voices from people struggling with poverty, voices from people that don’t have English as a first language and voices from people who are more reliant on social services in our city. These are the people that typically have a really hard time accessing our processes in the first place. United Way has worked very hard to build trust and relationships within the communities that we would like to better engage in our planning processes. They’ve helped us to understand the poverty that exists in this city and the need to work more intensively in the Tower Neighbourhoods.  Broadening participation in our city building processes underpins creating an equitable city for all Torontonians.

What was the outcome of this community consultation? As a result of tremendous on-going analysis and new collaborations that have involved United Way Toronto, Public Health and the Tower Renewal Office—to name just a few of the players—approximately 500 existing apartment sites in Toronto’s inner suburbs have been identified for inclusion in a new zone—the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) Zone. Zoning is essentially the regulations and laws that we have in City Planning that determine which uses—commercial, residential, etc.—can go where. The RAC Zone bylaw loosens up what types of uses are permitted in these Tower communities. For example, it will allow small shops, food markets, cafes, learning centres, barbershops, doctor’s offices, community centres and places of worship that are of benefit to local residents. This is a key step towards creating more complete, livable, walkable communities in Toronto’s Tower neighbourhoods.

Talk about some of the other ways you’re engaging Torontonians in the city planning process? We are broadening participation in City Planning with the goal of making Toronto the most engaged city in North America—at least where planning is concerned. We’re beginning to see social media as an essential tool for communicating engagement opportunities with the public and for people who might not otherwise feel comfortable participating in a community meeting due to physical, financial, family or work constraints. As part of our extensive Eglinton Connects study, for example, 25% of participants heard of the opportunity to participate through social media. We’ve also been working with the City Manager’s Office to pilot IdeaSpaceTO, which is a social media tool that facilitates a high-quality online discussion between residents and the City.

 

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?

 

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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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

Bringing home solutions for affordable housing

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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.

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    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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Big win on precarious employment

 

On November 6, the Ontario government passed new legislation that introduces further protections for vulnerable workers.

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PEPSO report highlights new labour reality

United Way Toronto, in partnership with McMaster University, was instrumental in bringing about changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, which included a call to government to introduce protections around lost wages for precariously employed individuals.

This new legislation is an important step forward in building a labour market that works.

Read more about precarious employment and its effects here:

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Precarious employment takes a toll

Job loss. Unemployment. Income gaps. Over the past couple of months—and during the lead up to Toronto’s recent municipal election—there’s been a lot of talk about all that ails the city’s increasingly fractured labour market. Job creation has slowed considerably. Toronto’s youth unemployment rate is more than double the national average. And the income gap between older and younger workers is growing at an alarming pace.

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This joint report between United Way and McMaster University examines our region’s rapidly-changing labour market

While the city’s muted job creation tends to grab most of the headlines, there’s an equally concerning labour trend afoot. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a 50% rise in precarious, or unstable employment, according to research conducted by United Way Toronto and McMaster University.

In fact, more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA region experience some degree of precarity, or insecurity, in their work, which has serious economic and social consequences for Toronto.

As this recent Globe and Mail article points out, “the shift to a just-in-time labour market creates a host of difficulties for long-term planning, eligibility for jobless benefits, and often results in a diminished ability to save.” Erratic hours “also create challenges in pursing an education, arranging childcare and qualifying for a mortgage.”

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United Way’s Michelynn Laflèche recently appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss precarious employment.

“Individuals in precarious work face many challenges,” says Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, who recently appeared as a guest speaker on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss this new work reality. “They earn 46 per cent less than those who are securely-employed. They delay having families, are often unable to pay for their children’s extracurricular activities and experience higher levels of anxiety and stress. Precarity impacts the health of individuals and families and the way in which people can contribute to their communities.”

Fixing the problem won’t happen overnight. But solutions for mitigating the impact of unstable work on individuals, families and entire communities are already underway. “Our research, combined with United Way’s influence, was instrumental in bringing about changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act by introducing protections around lost wages for precariously-employed individuals,” says Wayne Lewchuk, a co-author of the “It’s More than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being” report and a professor in the economics and labour studies department at McMaster University.

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“Closing the Prosperity Gap” looks at solutions for reducing income and employment inequality

The findings of this report also helped spark a much larger conversation about how to build a better labour market that works for everyone.  “I think we have to make employers in the government, private and charitable sectors understand what the risks are to families, communities and to businesses,” says Laflèche.  “We need to build a case that helps employers think about how to operational their business in a way that  treats people with dignity and respect and provides the kind of support people need to live a decent life.”

Closing Toronto’s prosperity gap

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Beth Wilson, Toronto Region Board of Trade Chair

Our guest blogger this week is Beth Wilson, chair of the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Managing Partner of KPMG’s  Toronto office. She also leads the auditing firm’s community leadership strategy and has been active on  United Way Toronto’s Campaign Cabinet and with the Women Gaining Ground initiative.

Imagine 520,000 new jobs opening in the Toronto region over the next five years. This is not just an idea but a reality of what we could be seeing based on economic and demographic growth, and the retirement of older workers. At the same time, imagine that despite all this growth, many of our own residents will not be able to tap into these opportunities.

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“Closing the Prosperity Gap” examines solutions for achieving economic and social success.

A report released last week by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way TorontoClosing the Prosperity Gap, reveals the emerging paradox of workers who should benefit from an increase in the number of jobs openings, but could continue to face barriers to accessing these opportunities.This is a prospect that is, quite simply, unacceptable. In a region that prides itself on balancing a high-degree of social cohesion with a high quality of life and economic competitiveness, this potential reality is troubling.

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40% of people in Hamilton-GTA are precariously employed

As the report highlights, we are facing a prosperity gap in our region. It is based on geography, job quality and is generational. We are seeing that where you live determines the level of access you have to services, transit and good jobs. There are also more and more people working in temporary and part-time jobs, often with no security or benefits.

For our young people finding jobs is increasingly difficult — youth unemployment is above 18% across the Toronto region and nearly 22% in the City of Toronto. Newcomers are disproportionately affected as well. In fact, we’ve seen that undervaluing newcomer’s qualifications and experience is costing our economy. As the Board revealed in 2010, the estimated cost to the Toronto region’s economy is between $1.5 billion and $2.25 billion every year.

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Education to employment programs help young people like LaShane succeed

Fortunately, there is a way forward. Closing the prosperity gap is possible, but it requires immediate political leadership and action. During this election, the Board and United Way are calling on all civic leaders to commit to working with business, labour, the community and educational institutions to respond to these big challenges. A better quality of life for residents is not only better for the community as a whole, it’s good for business — it will attract investment, create jobs and spur wealth creation.

We are making an important contribution by providing new labour market forecasts for the region over the next five years. This regional job demand data—a first for Toronto in many years— provides five-year projections based on industry, occupation and geographic locations in the region. The report tells us the fastest job growth is expected to be concentrated in finance, insurance and in professional, scientific and technical services. The second fastest sector will be health and social services.

This information is critical now because it will enable job seekers, career counsellors, and colleges and universities to make informed decisions about career paths and educational programs. By understanding where the region’s labour market is headed, young people, newcomers and others embarking on new career paths can successfully transition into rewarding employment.

The report draws attention to some real solutions that leaders can champion and embrace across the Toronto region. They include ideas like community benefits provisions in major government procurements, intelligent zoning, social enterprise, and nurturing business clusters — all of which will help create local opportunities and strengthen our region.

Overall our report underscores the need for collaboration — having every sector, public, private, labour and non-profit at the table ready to work in new ways.

We can, and must choose to build a strong region with a high quality of life and a growing economy. The time for a more prosperous, productive, and socially inclusive Toronto region is now.

Literacy is every child’s right

Camesha Cox, The Reading Partnership

Our guest blogger this week is Camesha Cox, an Ontario-certified teacher who has worked in schools across Toronto and around the world. She has been recognized by the Ontario Women’s Directorate for her role as Managing Director of The Reading Partnership, a charitable initiative to improve child literacy, and for her contributions to improving the lives of girls and women across the province.

Cassandra knows first-hand the negative impact that low literacy in childhood can have in adulthood. As a teenager she struggled with low-self-esteem and became rapidly disengaged at school. She eventually dropped out and went on to endure a long history of being under-employed, with no choice but to rely on a system that barely provided for her family. She worries that one day, her six-year-old daughter Geonna will bring home schoolwork that she will not be able to help with, and in that moment she will stand exposed.

Cassandra’s story in many ways mirrors that of her mother’s and grandmother’s. Two generations of under-educated women who lived below the poverty line and struggled to read into adulthood.  Determined not to allow the cycle of poverty and low-literacy extend past her, Cassandra works hard to instill a love for reading in her daughter by keeping her busy in programs and community events in their Kingston-Galloway Orton Park (KGO) neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, Cassandra and Geonna’s story isn’t unique. Over the past five years, approximately 49% of KGO children in Grade Three have not met the provincial standard for reading. Studies show that children who continue to experience difficulty with reading in Grade Three seldom catch up to their peers.The likelihood of these children transitioning to post-secondary education and becoming gainfully-employed as adults is also limited.

Consider these troubling statistics from the Canadian Pediatric Society.  Fifty per cent of adults with low literacy levels live below the poverty line. People with low literacy skills are also twice as likely to be unemployed. Low literacy is a severe and pervasive problem with important health, social and economic consequences.

The Reading Partnership was established in 2011 to begin to uproot what is a dangerously systemic issue. Cassandra and Geonna were one of 12 families selected to take part in the inaugural reading program piloted in the Spring of 2012. This community-based literacy program, supported by a Resident Action Grant from United Way Toronto has helped children from more than 80 local families show improvements in literacy. Parents enrolled in the program are diverse in age, culture, religion, income level and education. But they all share a common belief that learning to read is integral to their child’s success in school and in life.

Reading should be a right for every child in KGO—and in communities across our city and country.  In the words of Canadian authors David Bouchard and Wendy Sutton, “Literacy is not for the fortunate few. It is the right of every child. Teaching children to read is the responsibility of every teacher, every administrator and every parent.”

The work that we are doing in KGO serves as a model for establishing a local culture of reading and learning that calls for not only parents, but the entire community to be active and engaged.

 

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.

What do these things have in common?

1. A time-pressed CEO, faced with a week of triple-booked meetings and urgent decisions to be made.
2. A person on a diet, counting calories.
3. A low-wage North American city-dweller, counting pennies.

According to Dr. Eldar Shafir—a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much—the answer is simple: They’re all facing some form of scarcity.

“When you’re facing a lack—of time, money, food—you tend to focus obsessively on the object of the scarcity,” says Shafir. “That leaves less mental room for other aspects of your life.”

This drain on what Shafir calls “mental bandwidth” explains why poverty can be so taxing, emotionally and intellectually. But poverty, says Shafir, is even more stressful than many other forms of scarcity, because the stakes are so much higher. “If a middle-class professional makes a bad call at work, they might fail at a particular task or project,” he says. “But if a person living at the precipice of poverty makes a bad decision, the result could be far worse—eviction, for example.”

With over half a million people in Toronto living in poverty, that’s a lot of lost bandwidth. And with the release of Ontario’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy, United Way Toronto and the Wellesley Institute co-hosted a presentation and discussion with Shafir last month to dive into the psychological issues related to poverty.

“There’s lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?”

Shafir cites studies indicating that people living on significantly low incomes often perform poorly on intelligence tests, when simultaneously contemplating difficult financial scenarios—but those intelligence deficits disappear when the money concerns are removed. Similar results have been observed in people living with any form of scarcity, including time scarcity, which impairs decision-making in a way that also has a measurable effect on intelligence tests.

Comparing poverty to other, relatable forms of scarcity (like the aforementioned time scarcity of the busy executive) help to create what Shafir calls an “empathy bridge.”

“The behaviour of people living in poverty looks a lot less strange when you consider that any form of scarcity lends itself to making snap decision, often bad decisions,” he says. “Like when we’re juggling a lot of demands on our time.”

No surprise, then that he supports public policy that can help with that everyday juggling, and “simply, provide more bandwidth.”

“I believe in government intervention,” he says, “so in many ways Canadians have it better than Americans….The five year plan Ontario has is a wonderful way to conduct policy and think about these things on a regular basis. Just keeping this in the public discussion—that’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Interested in knowing more? Check out this 2011 TedX presentation by Dr. Shafir:

 

When good advice goes bad

This week, Imagine a City is joined by guest blogger John Stapleton, founder of Open Policy Ontario and a fellow with the Metcalf Foundation. He has some much-needed financial advice for low-income earners, just in time for Financial Literacy Month. Here, he provides a rundown of what low-income earners really need to know, and how the financial-services industry can serve them better. (For more, see his comprehensive report, “Planning for Retirement on a Low Income.”)

People living on low incomes might wonder how the financial advice they receive differs from the advice given to middle- and high-income earners. The reality? It doesn’t. That’s a problem, because it can be toxic to those facing poverty. They live in a parallel universe where most, if not all, of the rules are different.

When assisting low-income people, for instance, many advisors will tell them to max out their RRSPs, forget about Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs), and wait until 65 or later to sign up for Canada Pension. They’ll also be advised to look closely at their taxes to capitalize on tax credits.

This is the same advice given (rightfully) to middle- and high-income earners, but for people making ends meet on lower incomes, it’s exactly wrong.

Low-income retirees are likely to receive something called the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), paid in addition to Old Age Security. So they should actually do the following: cash in their RRSPs before age 65, load up their TFSAs (if they have any savings), and apply for early CPP, around age 60. They should also forget about the non-refundable tax credits they will likely not need.

So, why is the right advice typically not given to low-income earners?

Two reasons: The first is that the GIS is an entitlement—the dreaded “E” word—and not a tax credit. Financial advisors are loathe to tell anyone to organize their affairs to maximize entitlements because entitlements are often seen as a drain on the public purse in a way that tax credits are not. The second is that the financial-advisory community doesn’t generally know much about the GIS.

Perhaps there’s a third reason. I’ve heard it before: there simply isn’t much money to be made advising low-income earners. And that’s true if information isn’t tailored to their specific needs, but if these individuals got the right advice up front, they would have money. A lot more money. Maybe financial institutions would even be justified in charging them for it. It’s just good, useful advice, after all.

What’s community all about?

What does community mean? We tried answering it ourselves in our 2013 campaign video.

Of course, it’s tough to pin down (and you can let us know if you disagree). There are 2.7 million of us in the city, and over six million in the GTA, and no two will answer quite the same way. Every street, household, church, mosque, temple, community centre and workplace is a community in miniature. Every international diaspora is its own community—and Toronto has representatives from 230 countries. As well, every one of us belongs to multiple communities, and each one changes every single day, as people move in and out, face success and setbacks, are born and grow old.

So nailing down exactly what we mean by community is a slippery task, but let’s start with the city’s 140 designated neighbourhoods.

Fortunately, the city makes it easy to take a very detailed, very local look at every single one of these neighbourhoods, with Wellbeing Toronto, an interactive map on the city’s website that breaks down a huge amount of data about each neighbourhood. You can zoom right down in on your community, and examine everything from income levels to tree cover to how many Urdu speakers there are nearby. And you can compare that data with the same information for every community in the city—it’s an illuminating look at Toronto. (And, if you’re so inclined, an easy way to wile away an hour or so with the wealth of data provided.)

You might start to notice a few things. Like a troubling discrepancy between the communities with the highest and lowest incomes. In fact, the data makes plainly visible the conclusions of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre, whose influential report “The Three Cities Within Toronto” highlights the growing divisions between Toronto’s communities on the basis of ethnicity, income, and geography. Our own research, Poverty By Postal Code and Vertical Poverty in particular, adds more insight into this widening gap, showing how poverty is concentrating in some of Toronto’s inner suburban neighbourhoods.

But there’s good news: While we can discuss endlessly what “community” means, there’s consensus that we have a wealth of data about those communities. The data and research  shows us exactly where our challenges are. Now we just need to tackle them—and each community has its role to play.

We’d love to hear what community means to you—what is your community, and what do you think of when you hear the word?

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.

Time for solutions: Job insecurity is not inevitable

PEPSO-reportYesterday, at a full-day symposium with McMaster University and the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group, United Way Toronto launched the ground-breaking It’s More than Poverty report. Representatives from the private sector, labour, government and non-profit organizations gathered to discuss the growth of precarious jobs—those without benefits and those with uncertain futures.

Confirming the anecdotes

This new report, based on a specially commissioned survey of over 4,000 respondents, confirms what our communities and member agencies knew, anecdotally, five years ago: that precarious work has grown in prevalence; that it impacts workers’ well-being; and that it is more prevalent among recent immigrants and people from racialized groups. The data also shows that the impacts of precarious work are more severe for people with low income, which remains a big concern for all of us. Additionally, we found that precarious work has spread—into all sectors, across the entire GTA and Hamilton region, and among all demographic groups and all income groups.

On some indicators, middle-income earners in insecure employment were even experiencing more challenges than low-income earners in secure employment.

Emerging questions

The report’s counterintuitive findings surprised us, and others. Some of the reaction focused on the issue of choice, in response to the finding that being in precarious work was affecting middle-income individuals and families. Could people earning middle incomes—between $50,000 and $100,000 a year—really be precarious? Wasn’t the kind of work that these earners were doing, like knowledge jobs at colleges and universities, or freelance design and other creative jobs, something they chose to do? Didn’t many of these workers live in households where one partner had a secure job and the other could afford to work on short-term contracts (and did so as part of a chosen lifestyle)?

The answer is split: yes, middle-income jobs can be precarious; and, no, it’s not all about choice. Choice is a complicated issue. We know that many in Toronto cannot choose the opportunities available to them. Indeed, over half of survey respondents employed in insecure work said that they would prefer more secure work. Our data also showed that, if the survey respondent was in a precarious job, their partner was more likely to be in a precarious job, too.

But the real issue for all workers in precarious jobs, whether they choose these jobs or not, is that the conditions in which they are working are harmfully affecting not just the workers, but also their families and their communities. Our labour market is no longer creating enough jobs that are pathways to income and employment security.

Continuing the conversation

As was so energetically discussed yesterday, we (as a society) got here one decision at a time. So the good news is that vulnerability and insecurity are not inevitable: we can escape this growing trend, decision by decision. It will take time, it will take clear ideas on what to do, and it will take a widespread coalition to make the necessary policy and social change, but it is not impossible. Our task, now, is to make this change happen.

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.