3 women who inspire us

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

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

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

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

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.