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.

How to get mental health help for your child

Do you have a child or teen who’s struggling with their mental health and aren’t sure where to get help? We reached out to several experts to put together this tip sheet for parents that can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.

SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING

One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag.  “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.

WAYS TO GET HELP:

IN AN EMERGENCY

If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.

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FAMILY DOCTOR

Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support.  A recent Toronto Star article notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.

COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES

There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and in some cases, supported by organizations including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto.  The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.

SPECIALISTS

Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in both Toronto and York Region who offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”

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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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.”

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What does the Throne Speech mean for communities?

PedroBarata

Pedro Barata
Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs
United Way Toronto & York Region

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.

Earlier this week, the Government of Ontario issued a new Speech from the Throne with a stated focus on balancing the economic and social priorities in communities across the province. This means that it positioned job and economic growth as a top priority for the government but also reinforced the importance of investments in social services, programs and infrastructure—such as child care and community space—that helps people build better lives. The speech also reinforced the anticipated milestone of reaching a balanced budget by 2017.

The Throne Speech contained some welcome news on several issues we are focused on—including early years development, community hubs and building a labour market that works. These announcements are good news—communities are only strong and prosperous when everyone is given the right opportunities to build a good life.

DSC_8185Community Hubs: The first “new” item in the Speech focused on a commitment to expand child care. There is also a reference to the role of community hubs in helping individuals and families access much-needed health, social, educational and recreational supports. This announcement reflects the government’s ongoing commitment to supporting social infrastructure, including the appointment of a special advisor on community hubs to work with community and other groups to ensure these shared public spaces best meet the needs of the people they serve. We’ve had the great fortune of seeing ways our own community hubs have transformed eight priority neighbourhoods, expanding access to services and bringing residents together. It’s why they are a central component of our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy, which focuses on targeted investments, resident-led programs and community infrastructure that supports strong, vibrant neighbourhoods.

united-way-4Workforce Development: This week’s Throne Speech also prioritized a training and skills agenda and reinforced the importance of the provincial youth employment strategy. That focus on skills training—for people of all ages— can bridge employer, worker and community interests—and good jobs and a strong workforce go hand-in-hand. United Way will continue to work with our partners across the province (including the Government of Ontario) on several initiatives that help young people connect with meaningful jobs and long-term economic security. This includes our Career Navigator™ education-to-employment program (part of United Way’s Youth Success Strategy) that helps young people get job-ready by connecting them with a set of customized education, training and support services. We’ll also continue our work/advocacy on groundbreaking new Community Benefits legislation that will help connect residents from priority neighbourhoods with apprenticeship and work opportunities on infrastructure projects such as Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown transit line.

Energy relief:  The Throne Speech also made a commitment to reducing cost pressures on households and businesses across our province in the form of a much-anticipated 8% HST rebate on rising electricity bills. It’s an important step in acknowledging the tremendous financial pressure on households—particularly low-income households—and we look forward to hearing more about how we can ensure that the most vulnerable people and families in our communities get the help they need.

The Throne Speech is a promising blueprint for where this government may go in the months and years ahead.  By prioritizing much-needed social supports and infrastructure— including community hubs, child care and skills training programs for young people—progress can be made for the people and families that United Way works to support every day.

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!

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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.”

#ShootForPeace

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!

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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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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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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.

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.

 

 

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.

The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts

 

We live in a great city. A city known for its cultural diversity and the welcoming, generous spirit of its residents. A city rich in possibility for everyone who lives here.

As 2014 draws to a close, we thought we’d take the opportunity to compile some of the most heartwarming videos, stories and pictures that tugged at our heartstrings and made us all grateful to call Toronto home.

ImogenphotoA LITTLE LEMONADE STAND WITH BIG HEART: We couldn’t help but be inspired when a seven-year-old Toronto girl named Imogen and her Dad dropped by our offices last September to surprise us with a $75 donation to United Way. Imogen wanted to do something for her city, so she set up a 25-cents-a-glass lemonade stand to raise money for individuals living in poverty. That’s a lot of lemonade! But more importantly, it’s also a pretty enormous gesture of kindness from such a pint-sized fundraiser-in-training.

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Photo credit: Lindsay Foster Photography

THE PRIDE OF PARENTHOOD: This breathtaking photo of two Toronto fathers holding their baby boy for the first time took the Internet by storm when it went viral last June. Little Milo was born to a surrogate mother during last summer’s WorldPride festival. “This is a moment of pure love and acceptance. Milo is surrounded by unconditional love and he will grow up knowing many different types of families and accept everyone. Love has no colour nor gender nor sexual preference. Love is unconditional,” wrote Milo’s dads, both Toronto teachers, in a Facebook post on birth photographer, Lindsay Foster’s Facebook page. A beautiful celebration of all types of love.

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A team of Nahom’s Access Alliance colleagues climbed the CN Tower in his honour.

STEPPING UP FOR A LOCAL HERO: Last September, we lost our dear friend Nahom Berhane to a tragic act of violence. Nahom was a dedicated youth leader and passionate community builder who worked at United Way Toronto’s Access Point on Danforth Community Hub. The beloved father-of-two was well known in Toronto’s Eritrean community and was also a graduate of CITY Leaders, a leadership development program for young people working and volunteering in the city’s social services sector. The impact of Nahom’s remarkable contribution to his community continues to live on. This past October, a group of his Access Alliance colleagues delivered a touching tribute to their fallen friend by climbing the CN Tower for United Way in his honour.

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Photo courtesy of CTV News

THREE BABIES, TWO CITIES, ONE HEARTFELT RESPONSE: We’ve always known that Toronto is made of good stuff. So it’s no surprise that Torontonians rallied in support of three triplet boys from Edmonton who were born with a rare form of eye cancer. Every couple of weeks, this adorable trio and their parents travel to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto where the boys receive treatment. After the family reached out on their blog for help, Torontonians answered their call: offering financial support, a place to stay and even babysitting help. “The support we received really brought us back up,” the triplets’ Mom told CTV. One heartfelt response for three very deserving little tots.

PAYING IT FORWARD: And finally…a nod to our incredible workplace partner, TD Bank, who made a heartfelt investment in the communities it serves with its inspirational #MakeTodayMatter campaign. The idea? To spread out 24 acts of kindness over 24 days in 24 different communities in Toronto—and across North America.

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.

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.

Lisa Donnelly: Opening the door to a new identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bushra Nabi: Hearing and valuing the voices of youth

This city is a place that I call home. I’ve seen the best and worst of it. I’ve spent over a decade working towards making this city better. I am an activist, a youth worker and a counsellor for those I feel are underprivileged.

I imagine a Toronto where people actually hear the voices of the youth and look past their appearances. I know of a place–and perhaps it’s far away–where the youth are motivated, confident and making change in their neighbourhood through the encouragement of those that have supported and inspired them. With funding put into youth mental health and arts programming, I imagine a Toronto that is strong, independent and competent.

I love my city but there is no denying even the best needs work. We the people can make this happen if instead of hate we gave love and instead of failure we saw the best in people. If teachers would stop being biased and if we gave our youth a place to discuss, teach, learn and create then we would learn more from them than that which we have taught them.

Imagine a Toronto where we don’t underestimate the young but instead we shut up and listen to what they have to say. A youth counsellor once told me that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  But nobody wants to listen to the youth because everyone is proud and they think they know best.

Bushra Nabi is a warrior for social change in Toronto, working and volunteering with youth affected by violence and trauma in high priority neighbourhoods. She seeks to empower them through art therapy and writing so that they may flourish greater successes.

Why can’t programs like YouthReach be in every neighbourhood in Toronto?

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Mario (left) and his friend Jamon, both participants in the YouthReach program offered by JVS, a United Way member agency.

Before I found out about JVS I just used to hang on the street with my friends. I dropped out of school because I didn’t see the point. I wasn’t doing well anyhow. I figured I’d just get a job and then I’d have cash to do what I wanted. But I couldn’t get a job because no one would hire me. I didn’t know what to do next. Continue reading

Giving youth work opportunities is a good way to make big changes in our city

Orville Wallace and two JVS YouthReach clients stand outside the agency. YouthReach helps connect young people who have been inconflict with the law to work opportunities. You can learn more about this fantastic program and many others offered by JVS (a United Way member agency), by visiting jvstoronto.org.

I got my first job working at McDonald’s when I was a teenager. I remember an odd combination of feelings on my first day — nervousness, excitement and pride all mixed together. That job taught me basic lessons that have served me well throughout my career. Show up on time. Provide good customer service. Work well with others.

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Providing youth with opportunities to succeed

Teatured Image of Orville Wallace

At JVS Toronto our aim is to bring people and work together. I focus specifically on helping connect kids with job opportunities. Because many have been in conflict with the law at one time or another and many haven’t yet developed the life skills needed to hold a job, let alone put together a resume, this is not always a straight forward process. But I and any number of youth outreach workers here at JVS – as well as other city youth agencies – can tell you that getting the basics right makes all the difference. What kind of basics am I talking about? The kind of basics kids in our Jane and Finch neighbourhood are not necessarily used to receiving.

In our minds, it’s straightforward. Give kids our full attention, speak to them, not at them, find out what they are good at and encourage the heck out of them. Build in them a sense of ownership and confidence, and self-esteem follows. It does, though, take patience, a long-term vision, and more hours than there are in a day. 9 to 5 this is not. People who work with marginalized youth do it because they love it, and see the potential hiding in even the most uncommunicative. At JVS, we provide access to everything from life skills training, resume writing, and interview support. We also go out and actively advocate for our youth with potential employers. Unfortunately in many cases we have to. Potential employers see Jane and Finch on a resume and often stigmatize the youth based on address alone. How frustrating is that?! Part of our role is to help them see past the address to the actual potential of the youth.

So what do I imagine can help to make a better city for the youth I spend my days with? Here’s what I think is important:

  • Support needs to start with good housing, a healthy environment, and a room to themselves where they can study and think.
  • We need to reduce the number of youths in conflict with the law. I can’t easily tackle that topic in one post, but mutual respect is one place to start. I’m happy to say that just last week, JVS Toronto, along with a number of other agencies in Ward 8, were invited to meet with a new Unit Commander and new Inspector from our neighbourhood division. I came away hopeful that they are serious about building and sustaining relationships with our community.
  • Neighbourhoods must work together. Inter-generational discussion is crucial. Neighbours need to watch out for each other’s kids on the streets, help ensure they get home from school safely. Community leaders need to watch out for and provide mentoring for young families. It may be an over-used cliché, but it’s still true: it takes a village to raise a child.
  • Continue core-funded youth programs for high-risk youth. Encourage more youth-led initiatives. Initiatives like the recently announced Youth Action Plan are right on the money! Please don’t let anyone refer to Youth programs as “hug-a-thug”.
  • Provide a safe, interesting place for activities that engage and promote social interaction, and promote physical health. Community/recreation centres are vital.
  • Give youth a chance. If every person with a stereotype is willing to break through it, a youth may get the first chance in life they’ve ever truly been given.

Can you imagine what a young person with that kind of self-esteem could do?

The stories from youth that stick with me

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

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

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

If you imagine it, you can achieve it

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

Why role models for youth make a difference

Photo of Kadeem Robin

When I was a child, one of the many things I loved about Scarborough was the winter time. Rolling giant snowballs, sledding, and having snowball fights were some of the things I loved about winter. With all of that fun, there were some days where the snow was so deep that I had a hard time just walking from one place to another.

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Let’s get the conversation started…

Picture of Susan McIssac, President and CEO, United Way TorontoEach day, United Way works with individuals and organizations across Toronto to build a better city for us all. It’s something we’re deeply committed to and passionate about. But even as we work it’s good to take a step back and reflect from time to time — to think about the kind of city we’re working to create.

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