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.

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.

IAC_HomePage-Slide-5InspiringWomen

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!

2015_make_the_month_homepage_slide

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 moms who inspire us

With Mother’s Day just days away, we wanted to celebrate three amazing moms we met over the past year. With hard work and a whole lot of love, these dedicated women are working to create opportunities for their children to ensure they have every chance at a bright future.

Najwa1

From left: Najwa Issa Khalil and her children, Aya, Alaa and Ibrahim.

1. Najwa Issa Khalil: Najwa is a true testament to courage and resilience. Following the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria, she and her family were forced to leave their hometown of Aleppo. For the sake of their children, they fled to Canada—leaving behind everything to start a new life in an entirely new country. Najwa inspires us because she demonstrates the sacrifices mothers make to ensure the safety and well-being of their family. Today, with the help of a United Way agency, the family is integrating into their new community and are ready for what is sure to be a bright future. “I’m happy,” says Najwa. “We feel welcome and very safe in Canada.”

Sushi

2. Sushi Rosborough: For years, Sushi struggled with poverty and addiction. But, despite a life of uncertainty, this mother’s love for her son remained steady. In order to ensure he had every opportunity to thrive, Sushi knew she needed to break the cycle that had controlled her life for so long. After getting support at Street Health, a United Way agency, Sushi eventually enrolled in a peer outreach program. Today, she works as a peer support worker at the centre. ”My son is 26 now and he’s doing awesome,” says the proud mom. “He’s a security guard and really enjoys what he does.” The epitome of strength and perseverance—and proof that the love for your child can be the hope you need to turn your life around.

Gladys

Justine Chen See and her mom, Gladys.

3. Gladys Chen See: Gladys wanted a promising future for her daughter. But, Justine was born with an intellectual disability, and following high school, had no next steps to transition from adolescence to adulthood. So, Gladys decided to do something about it. With a little help from a United Way agency, Gladys, along with other parents of special-needs youth, turned a once-vacant tuck shop into a place where their kids could learn valuable life skills. It’s an opportunity that has changed both of their lives. “I’m hopeful she’ll have a future,” says Gladys. A mother who’s helping her daughter create a pathway to a future she never thought possible. And, confidence in her daughter’s ability that is nothing short of admirable.

Home-Image-1000x400Think your mom is awesome, too? Show her how much you care by making a gift in her honour. You’ll help moms in our community give their children opportunities to thrive. Plus, you’ll receive a Bloomex gift card to spend on flowers for Mother’s Day or beyond.

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.

RatnaOmidvar

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.”

CyletaGibsonCealy

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.

DeniseAndreaCampbell_Modified

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.”

JuliePenasse

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.

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.

Precarity Penalty FINAL lowres for web-1

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

 

 

Warming up winter

Winter is still officially three weeks away, but we all know Canadian seasons don’t exactly stick to the calendar’s stipulations.

And as November turns to December, and the weather turns colder, sharper and harsher, we’re starting to hear a lot more about Torontonians who are struggling–whether experiencing homelessness or facing personal circumstances that make the winter months difficult. Fortunately, there are some excellent community agencies working in our city that are helping to turn up the heat in a slew of ways—from warm clothing to hot turkey dinners. Here are a few examples that United Way donors help support and they top this year’s “Nice” list:

  • Sistering serves a sit-down turkey dinner for over 300 low-income women living with homelessness or health issues. Guests also receive a $25 gift card to purchase food, clothing and other essentials. The cost for each meal and gift is tiny for lifting spirits that high. (For more on Sistering’s work, check out Toronto Star‘s profile from this summer.)
  • Many adults living with severe mental illness find themselves isolated from their families, which is especially painful during the holidays. The Canadian Mental Health Association of Toronto provides winter clothing and personal-care items, along with small gifts that parents can give to their children.
  • Jessie’s—The June Callwood Centre for Young Women welcomes 150 young moms and their children for a festive meal and pictures with Santa. And what’s a visit to the man in red without a small gift to mark the occasion? It’s one small way that your support makes a big difference. (Local blog She Does the City featured a moving personal story about a young women’s experience at Jessie’s.)

These are just a few of the many examples of how community agencies and generous donors are making our city a better place this winter, and throughout the year. Drop us a line in the comments and let us know what you think Toronto needs as the mercury drops.

Ambar Aleman: A Toronto for all women and girls

Imagine a city where young women and girls had equal opportunities to thrive. A city where women and girls’ energy, skills, resources, intelligence and passions were fostered through equitable programs, structures, institutions and systems that addressed key social issues facing women and girls everywhere. That’s the Toronto that I work towards because women and girls’ rights are at the centre of socioeconomic and political change everywhere.

When the disparity between gender minimizes, systemic and institutionalized oppressions decrease and our Toronto has so much potential to accomplish and unravel. I’m committed to an inclusive Toronto where women and girls’ full and equal participation in society is normalized and is part of our core fundamental values.

Imagine Toronto, a progressive and champion city that supports women and girls from diverse communities and backgrounds and addresses the intersectional links between all forms of oppressions. A Toronto where all its residents work towards the elimination of systemic barriers to end violence, poverty, gender inequality, racism, housing, homelessness so that we can all have a better tomorrow. This is the Toronto that I not only imagine but that is being realized through the thousands of individual and collective efforts happening every moment our city breathes.

My vision for Toronto is one where social justice is promoted and fully sustained by its entire people. Just imagine: our city, our home, our Toronto.

Ambar Aleman has been actively involved in social justice and young women activism since her early 20s.  As part of her work, Amber leads the development of national girls and young women’s leadership programming and coordinates advocacy initiatives and public policy research.  Amber is a young feminist passionate about politics, culture and languages, civic engagement, youth leadership, traveling and personal finance.

It’s never too late to change your life

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

No one understands a woman like another woman

Anne-Marie welcomes our photographer to The Redwood where some of the agency’s clients have gathered. One of the core values of the organization, respect, is displayed on the door, reminding the women not only what they deserve from others but what they owe themselves.

Three years ago, I got to be a mentor to a young woman taking part in United Way’s CITY Leaders program. She was ambitious, hard working, and just starting to build her career in social services. She called me the other day to tell me about her new job at a community agency and I was so excited to hear about her work and the progress she’s made. Continue reading

Dignity, justice and self-determination for women and girls. It’s what I imagine for our city.

Anne Marie (right) and Abi Ajibolade, shelter coordinator at The Redwood (left) hold up the image of a butterfly that symbolizes a woman’s personal journey out of an abusive relationship.

I imagine a city where all women and girls are safe, confident, respected at home, on the street, at work, at school. But it is not always the city I see. Continue reading