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.

Why should we care about a strong social safety net? 

Debra Shime
Senior Vice President, Community Impact
United Way Toronto York Region

What is a social safety net? And why is it essential for taking care of individuals and families across our community? Imagine a City spoke with Debra Shime, Senior Vice President, Community Impact at United Way Toronto & York Region to learn how a strong social web ensures everyone in our community has access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

1. What is a strong social safety net?

A social safety net wraps a person in a network of community supports, ensuring the help they need is available, right where they need it. For that to happen, these services must be available in all corners of our community—so someone can visit an agency and find the help they need all in one place, or with referrals to other agencies nearby. United Way is part of that safety net because we invest in a network of agencies that ensure crucial services are available in neighbourhoods where people need them most. A resident once told me that she was so glad the network of agencies was there. It made her feel better knowing it was available if and when she needed it. That’s a good reminder for everyone in our community that you never know when you’re going to need support personally or for your family or friends.

2. Why is this “circle of care” around our community so important?

We often don’t focus enough on what would go missing if we didn’t have a strong community services sector. Of course, crucial supports would not be available, but we’d also lose the glue that brings us together in times of celebration, culture-building and neighbourhood advocacy. We’d lose the integration of our community. It’s those community connections that really make a person feel like they belong. At United Way, we want residents in a community to have the resources, ability and capacity to come together to feel that sense of belonging. And to then have the resources to build upon it and keep it alive and well.

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3. How do single issues like poverty and youth unemployment fit into this larger embrace of our community?  

Many individuals come to community agencies for help with one particular issue—whether it’s a newcomer who was referred to an ESL class or a young person attending a resume writing workshop. For many, they show up for that service, but there can be a number of related issues they also need help with, like the newcomer who shows up for the ESL class, but also needs help finding a job or enrolling their kids in school. That’s where single issue meets circle of care. You arrive for one issue, but you enter into a network of services that can wrap around your entire family—daycare for your child, a gym where you can play and seniors programming for an elderly parent. That’s the beauty of multi-service community agencies and why United Way is committed to investing in creating a connected, strong, coordinated social safety net. That doesn’t mean a focused approach to a single issue isn’t important. We do it, for example, in our new Youth Success Strategy focused on increasing the employability of young people or our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy that looks to deal with the issues related to a concentration of poverty in certain neighbourhoods. But just as important is investing in the larger, foundational support provided by a strong community services sector that acknowledges the complexity and interconnectedness of all the challenges people face.

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A love letter…

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Dear Community,

There are a lot of reasons we love you. Maybe even too many to count? But if there was ever a day to try and list them, today is it.

We love your diversity. We celebrate all the many different languages, ways of thinking, abilities, ideas, and yes, the food, that makes us proud to call you home.

We love the agencies working in your every neighbourhood, caring for us all in the selfless ways they do. And the art galleries, museums, community festivals, stores and local restaurants that make you a vibrant and exciting place to be.

We love the streets, alleys, parks, buildings and houses that combine to make you. You feel like a place we want to be, to raise our kids and go to work and visit with friends.

We love that everyone that is part of you cares about one another. There is a sense of belonging in you and enough abundance that everyone can have a good life.

We love the people who walk your streets, who take a stand for what they believe is right, who fight for the things we value as Canadians, and who don’t stand as individuals but as a connected whole.

We love you despite the problems, the challenges, those things that can seem hard and unsolvable. In fact, it makes us love you more. Love you harder.

So, to you on Valentine’s Day, we send our love. We think you’re amazing, Community. And that’s not just today. It’s every day, and, in the years ahead we’ll show our love in everything we do.

Xo

United Way

 

 

 

We asked our CEO these 3 questions…

Community. It’s at the heart of what we do. And for our President and CEO, Daniele Zanotti, it’s the reason why we work every single day to create an “uprising of care” that supports the people in the places where we live and work.

Watch the video below to hear Daniele’s answers to three questions that are close to his heart.

Stay tuned on Imagine a City to hear more from our CEO—and don’t forget to submit your own questions that Daniele can answer on our blog over the coming months.