Dec 16 2016


When a person is phoneless and disconnected from society, a chronic deprivation of power and resources occurs. Without a phone, access to employment, training, health care and housing is denied. The current system requires you to phone, fax, email or google a website for advancement of any kind.

The City of Prince George has found a solution to the disconnection problem that has been depriving people for so long. It has launched a program called the Community Voice Mail. This program allows people to regain their power to make positive changes in their lives by connecting to services that have a shared value in reducing poverty.

The Community Voice Mail program provides free voice mail phone numbers to people without a phone. Removing the stigma, participants personalize their voice mail by using their own voice to tell service providers to “leave a message.” Twenty-five community service providers are all connected to this program by distributing the free voice mail numbers, ensuring that they will never lose contact with their clients.

An additional feature of the program, pulling the community even closer together, is the broadcast message sent out every week to inform people that are cut off from society, a list of workshops, training events, employment fairs, free haircuts, free holiday dinners and anything else that the city has to offer to address challenges. The clients and front line workers receive this broadcast and pass on the information to others. The Community Voice Mail program is a pivotal example of community engagement, born out of a need for social innovation.

The service successfully meets people’s needs, allowing them to move on to a better life. As people exit the program, new clients enroll, creating a new cycle, this time with success embedded into the system. Re-organization is at work here.

The Community Voice Mail has been so successful in Vancouver, B.C., Prince George, B.C., and Calgary, Alta., that there are plans to launch the program in Winnipeg, Man., and Terrace, B.C. The opportunity remains wide open for scaling up. Let us dive in further and connect Canada and witness the incredible success as communities pull together.

Learn more:

Originally published on the Tamarack Institute website.


Kay Robinson is the Community Voice Mail Coordinator at the Aboriginal Housing Society of Prince George.

Nov 16 2016


On Wednesday, September 29, 2016, approximately 30 individuals attending the Tamarack Community Change Conference filed onto a bus to travel to Toronto’s vibrant Parkdale neighbourhood for an innovations in poverty reduction workshop and walking tour.

Our first stop on the tour was the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), where we were greeted by Executive Director Victor Willis. PARC was the ultimate host and starting place for the tour, considering the pivotal support it has given over the last 30+ years to the neighbourhood’s high proportion of low-income and marginalized residents.

To kick off our workshop, Toronto’s Deputy Mayor, Pam McConnell, took the floor to share some of the issues and challenges affecting vulnerable people in Parkdale, as well as other high-risk Toronto neighbourhoods like Rexdale and Regent Park. She cited access to nutritious food, affordable housing and equitable transit as some of the major issues that came to light through a two-phase community engagement process that the City led between October 2014-September 2015, and ultimately led to the development of Toronto’s first poverty reduction strategy: TO Prosperity. The strategy identifies six issues areas, Housing Stability, Service Access, Transit Equity, Food Access, Quality Jobs and Livable Wages, and Systemic Change, under which 17 recommendations were linked to an action plan to be carried out between 2015–2018. Some of the City’s current priorities include the provision of affordable transit fares, social procurement, and the development of a Lived Experience Advisory Group.

The Deputy Mayor’s overview of the Toronto strategy provided the perfect backdrop to the conversation that followed, about PARC’s work toward building “a community where people rebuild their lives” where members of PARC, anyone who walks in through its open doors, can access services and develop relationships with its staff and peers through four core areas of operation: a drop-in centrea peer-informed Community Access Programsupportive housing, and PARC’s Community Meal Program.

PARC’s other programming includes activity and recreation opportunities like music, soccer and writing groups, and a Coop Cred program that came to life after a research report was published in 2010, entitled “Beyond Bread and Butter: Toward Food Security in a Changing Parkdale,” which also marked the early beginnings of the Parkdale People’s Economy project (PPE).

The PPE is a collaborative community project that includes 20+ partner agencies and organizations in Parkdale which seeks to build just local food economies through a community land trust model, a local currency program and community-based food distribution and procurement initiatives through Community Food Flow project.

Following the introduction of the PPE, our tour group was ushered to take a stroll down bustling Queen Street to the West-End Food Co-Op, where a colourful sign on brick siding welcomes guest shoppers and Parkdale residents alike.

Here we learned more about the alternative currency “Co-op Cred” program which was designed by the West-End Food Co-Op in collaboration with PARC to address systemic challenges that prevent many of Parkdale’s low-income and marginalized people from fully participating in the local economy. Through Co-op Cred, participants can earn “credits” in exchange for their hours of labour and to use them to purchase healthy food available at the Food Co-Op.  In short, the program enables trade of labour for goods without converting that labour into wages.

Onward we walked toward our last tour stop, down a beautifully graffiti-painted back alleyway to Parkdale’s Milky Way Garden. This garden was the first land purchase made by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT) which was established in 2012 to acquire land in order to remove it from the real estate market in order to better meet the community’s needs. The PNLT is a community-controlled non-profit organization of residents and local agencies which owns the land on behalf of the community and leases it to non-profit partners which can provide community benefits. It is an important initiative that seeks to address the challenge of ensuring that everyone, particularly those with fewer resources and lower incomes, can benefit from the changes currently taking place in Parkdale, primarily rapid growth and development.

The remarkable relationships and activities taking place in Parkdale provide an incredible example of what a committed group of citizens can do to support an at-risk inner city neighbourhood.

To our workshop tour partners, Victor, Mandy, Josh, and everyone else involved in making the incredible Community Change Institute’s Parkdale neighbourhood tour happen, thank you for hosting us and showing us what inspired action for community change looks like!

Learn more

Originally published on the Vibrant Communities Canada website.


Kirsti Battista is Manager, Vibrant Communities Canada at the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement.

Oct 13 2016


In a time when disruption, insecurity, uncertainty and lack of funding are felt by many non-profit organizations, it’s important that an organization has a solid, healthy and passionate board at its helm. To be successful, non-profit organizations, both big and small, need to have good governance: it helps their management teams make good decisions, it protects them from risks, and takes on an operational role during times of change and transformation.

Over the years, Maytree’s longstanding lunch-and-learn program, Five Good Ideas, has asked a number of governance experts and experienced non-profit leaders to address the question of good governance from different angles. The experts agree that organizations with strong governance:

  • Cultivate board diversity;
  • Foster good board-executive director relationships;
  • Insist on transparency and continuous information sharing; and
  • Strive to engage their boards in the most meaningful ways.

Tom Williams, Professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queens University, argues that a non-profit board’s two most important objectives are supervising the management, especially the executive director, and ensuring that the organization’s mission and major goals are being met. Even though the board’s role is not to manage everyday operations of an organization, it must be well informed about the organization’s activities. The directors must be prepared to ask difficult questions of management to be sure they have the right information required to make informed decisions.

Medhat Mahdy and Tim Penner, drawing on their own experiences at the YMCA Greater Toronto, as the President and CEO and Chair, respectively, agree that a healthy executive director-board relationship is essential. Willingness to learn from each other and being open is necessary to create a trusting relationship. This requires ongoing, unstructured, free-flowing dialogue and investment of time. To build trust, the board must adopt a servant leadership approach. At the same time, the non-profit’s leader – a CEO or an executive director – should be ready to be open with the board about any weaknesses or problems, as this is an opportunity to hear another perspective to address challenges and get good advice.

In an atmosphere where demand for services is growing but revenues are limited, effective boards are essential to maintain and fulfill our mission. In his Five Good Ideas presentation, Rick Powers, professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, discusses how to ensure a board can be effective:

  • Embrace increased transparency: Organizations need to be able to respond to requests for information and be forthcoming in their dealings with media and donors.
  • Be aware of the need for increased accountability: This does not refer only to donors and funders but also to those groups charged with ensuring that the organization operates within the regulations and laws applicable within their sector.
  • Pay close attention to conflicts of interest: Direct conflicts of interest are usually pretty easy to identify. Indirect conflicts are more difficult. Just as important, the perception of conflicts of interest needs be to addressed with the same rigour.
  • Determine the skill sets you need: Regardless of the organization, strong governance requires particular skill sets. Representative boards are no exception. Determine what you need and get to it.

In her Five Good Ideas presentation, Helen Hayward, Director, Western Management Consultants, addresses the importance of diversity on boards and that it should be more than just another box to check off. Diverse organizations understand their community and clients better, and a diverse board helps build social capital and supports fundraising and marketing more effectively.

Helen says that in creating more diverse boards, organizations should look beyond their current needs and shortcomings. A well-articulated strategic plan that includes broad stakeholder engagement sets the direction for the organization and the priorities in the next several years. An important step in this process is developing a board matrix that includes an objective analysis of current make-up, future needs in governance competency, expected turn-over, board structure and membership.

Last but not least, good governance is characterized by an engaged board of inspired and passionate board directors. Robin Cardozo, Chief Operating Officer, SickKids Foundation, discusses how to put together a passionate and committed board of directors, given multiple distractions, busy schedules, and the limited time that volunteer board members have to commit.

Using the starting point that engagement is “inspiring someone so that they want to take action,” Robin shares several examples from his more than 25-year-long governance experience. He highlights the importance of the recruitment process – which includes an assessment of a candidate’s capacity to become passionately engaged, and a thoughtful orientation process that helps create a strong connection with the cause of the organization. Board engagement should be maintained by continuous, actively planned and meaningful conversations, as well as by looking for opportunities to get out of the boardroom and have fun.

Putting these good ideas into practice takes time, commitment and hard work. But once the foundations of strong governance are in place, an organization will be more resilient and better prepared for sailing the rough seas of uncertainty and disruption.


Katarina Vukobratovic is the Grants and Program Officer at Maytree

Oct 05 2016

Collage of ideas

If you affect relationships at the local level, you are working for global change.
– Frances Westley, J.W. McConnell Chair in social innovation, University of Waterloo

It isn’t just a sound bite. The reason it was tweeted and retweeted dozens of times after Frances Westley’s keynote address at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute (CCI 2016) is that it resonated.

It’s all about relationships. The message was reinforced over and over again, by Frances Westley, by Severn Suzuki, by Steve Patrick and by the 230 people who gathered during the week of September 26 at CCI 2016 to build relationships, learn together and reaffirm fundamental truths about our collective work of effecting positive change in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, the conference wasn’t about patting each other on the back and singing kumbaya (though there certainly was some of that). Equal time, however, was spent wrestling with difficult issues. There were heated exchanges about privilege, race, class and the environment — at some stages there were even tears. We didn’t agree on everything, nor did we want to. Another statement from Frances Westley’s keynote that resonated was that conflict sparks creativity — and the discussions were certainly creative!

I admit to going into this intensive five-day conference with a certain amount of trepidation, but I left feeling hopeful and inspired. I just spent the week with 230 other people who get that relationships matter. That whatever we do, whatever scale we work on, whatever issues we are passionate about, if we focus on how we work with people, before we consider what we are going to do with them or for them, we are in fact changing the world for the better. To do this, we have to remember that it is more important to nurture a meaningful relationship than it is to be right.

In one conversation I had with a doctor working to improve access to care, I saw both the frustration and elation cross his face when, as if a lightbulb was going off, he said “it seems everything comes back to empathy.”

The practice of perspective empathy means that we are able to respect a persons’ or a peoples’ right to be angry or frustrated; it means working through where we differ, accepting and embracing those differences while at the same time focusing on our shared humanity.

These ideas are not soft, “touchy feely,” extras of our work. Focusing on relationships is the foundation for radical change, and indeed, some of the most difficult work that we will ever do.

When Severn Suzuki asked a Haida elder what we need to do to save the planet, she, after some time replied, “respect.” If, as we walk in the world, we were all to place priority on authentic and respectful relationships, then environmental and human degradation would find no fertile ground on which to grow. Instead, mutual understanding, equity, and the earth would flourish.

Respectful relationships can bring about radical change and nurturing them is some of the hardest work we will ever do. This week I was inspired by 230 people up for the challenge and there are thousands of us out there. We are doing the difficult work of social change by focusing on relationships. We are, as Liz Weaver so beautifully put it, disrupting with empathy.


Anne Gloger is Principal of the Centre for Connected Communities and East Scarborough Storefront.

Sep 22 2016

Report cover

When it comes to lawmaking, one would expect the Canadian government and parliamentarians to uphold the Constitution of Canada — and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms therein. But does it always happen in reality?

In its newest report, Charter First: A Blueprint for Prioritizing Rights in Canadian Lawmaking, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) raises concerns about the frequency and ease with which laws with clear constitutional vulnerabilities have been proposed and passed by Parliament — only to be challenged later, and, in some cases, be struck down by the courts for violating the Charter. Key examples include parts of the Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10), the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (Bill C-31), the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (Bill C-51), the Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23), the Act to amend the Income Tax Act (requirements for labour organizations) (Bill C-377), the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), and the physician-assisted dying legislation (Bill C-14).

This has forced affected individuals and public interest organizations, such as CCLA, to launch Charter challenges as the only available recourse. How unfortunate given that some of these challenges — which come at a significant cost not only to the applicants but also the public — could likely have been avoided had Parliament done its duty. And while these lengthy court cases play out, often over many years, the laws in question remain on the books, unfairly and unlawfully restricting the fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians.

CCLA’s Charter First report and campaign seek to address critical accountability and transparency gaps in Canada’s federal lawmaking process that can enable the advancement of unconstitutional laws. At no point in the current process are ministers or parliamentarians required to publicly defend the constitutionality of bills they introduce, or of amendments proposed, with any sort of rigorous analysis. At the same time, many parliamentarians simply do not have the resources at their disposal, or the requisite knowledge, to effectively assess the constitutionality of the laws they are asked to enact.

Meanwhile, the limited safeguards currently in place are simply not working. Under section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act, the Minister of Justice is required to report to Parliament when he or she finds government legislation to be inconsistent with the Charter. However, government officials have suggested that the Minister need only report when there is no credible argument to support a bill’s constitutionality. This standard is bafflingly obtuse and so low that, in practice, not a single report relaying concerns about Charter compliance under section 4.1 has ever been made to Parliament. The reason why should be fairly obvious: a government would rather avoid scrutiny — especially on Charter grounds — just as it proposes a bill. Furthermore, none of this covers private members’ bills or Senate public bills — other forms of legislation that can and have raised constitutional concerns.

Thus, the goal of the Charter First report and campaign is to see that new checks and balances are introduced into Canada’s federal lawmaking process — ones that would increase transparency and accountability surrounding Charter issues, and raise the standard of Charter compliance of laws enacted by Parliament. This way, we can help ensure we get it right, from the start, and put the Charter first.

Here is a summary of CCLA’s recommendations:

  1. Parliament should amend the ineffective section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act such that the Minister of Justice is required to issue a detailed statement of Charter compatibility when a government bill is introduced in Parliament.
  2. Parliament should create a position of Charter Rights Officer, with a staff and mandate to provide independent assessments of the Charter compliance of bills, and to serve in an advisory role to parliamentarians and parliamentary committees on Charter issues.
  3. The Senate and House of Commons should review and revise their respective amendment admissibility rules to allow committees to debate and vote on amendments that address Charter concerns regardless of whether they go beyond the “scope and principle” of a bill.
  4. For all government bills, the Charter Rights Officer should issue an independent assessment of Charter compliance, ideally prior to Second Reading in the House or Senate (depending on where a given bill is introduced). If amendments are made at any subsequent point, the Officer should issue addendums, ideally before final votes on the bill are taken. (If the bill was introduced in the Senate and amendments are made by Senators, then the Minister of Justice should issue an addendum to the government statement of compatibility at First Reading in the House.)
  5. For any private members’ bill or Senate public bill that passes Second Reading in the House or Senate respectively, the Charter Rights Officer should issue an independent assessment of Charter compliance. If amendments are made at any subsequent point, the Officer should issue addendums, ideally before final votes on the bill are taken.

To download the Charter First report and join the campaign, please visit


Jonah Kanter is Communications and Advocacy Specialist at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Sep 15 2016
Collage of images

Photo by Pete Rockwell

August 12, 2016, 3:30 a.m.: The last tent is coming down from the courthouse lawn on the corner of 850 Burdett Street in Victoria. As the last remaining residents of what was Super InTent City (SIC) peacefully leave the grounds, I experience a moment of great sadness. I reflect on what the last ten months have meant to the people who have made a community here. What solutions have come about as a result of their struggle? And what lessons remain to us – this city, province, and country – in grappling with widespread and growing homelessness?

Victoria is like many cities across Canada in that it is faced with a protracted crisis of homelessness. A crisis with a straightforward remedy: build more housing. Despite the simplicity of the solution, Canadian cities have not been able to stem the tide of homelessness.

A lack of housing and housing options is the overarching problem. And while the solution may be obvious, Victoria, like other Canadian cities, has been unable to make a meaningful difference in confronting this crisis for far too long. SIC changed the intractable nature of the problem here. Now that the tents have all gone, we have a clear view of what has been accomplished by tackling the issue locally, and can look forward with optimism to what we can do more widely in the future.

Tent cities in B.C. are the visible manifestation of failed public policy, decades of disinvestment in social housing, an abysmal social safety net with welfare rates frozen for nearly a decade, and the lowest provincial minimum wage in the country. Together, these contribute to some of the highest overall poverty and child-poverty rates in Canada. In B.C.’s capital of Victoria, the impacts of these short-sighted public policy priorities have been acutely apparent. In fact, on the night of February 10, 2016, the date of the 2016 Greater Victoria Point in Time Count (PiT Count), there were approximately 1,400 people experiencing homelessness in Greater Victoria. This is shameful.

The provincial government responds

The establishment of a homeless-led community and the beginnings of the SIC movement on the courthouse greenspace in the fall of 2015 was a direct response to this crisis. A year later, we can see that it has resulted in unprecedented levels of investment in the solution. We have been and are building more housing.

Here is what we have seen so far:

  • $86 million investment in housing options; and
  • 714 units of housing for homeless people.

These are directly and indirectly attributable to the existence and advocacy of SIC.

Greater Victoria’s regional government, the Capital Regional District, has released an implementation plan for $60 million in funding that includes:

  • 268 supported housing units at provincial shelter rates;
  • 175 affordable housing units; and
  • More than 440 market rental units.

We have four new properties in our region dedicated to both permanent and transitional housing that have become operational since November 2015, with many more slated to come online by 2018.

While the implementation plan for this housing is far from perfect, it must be noted that before SIC we didn’t even have a plan.

The residents of SIC can claim an important victory. First, every single resident of SIC now has the option of a home indoors. Moreover, in the near future, hundreds of other individuals will have access to housing that was not even contemplated prior to the stand taken by the SIC movement. The homeless leaders of SIC refused to “move along” with nowhere else to go to. They chose to stand up against being displaced back into the streets and doorways of Victoria.

Facing off against a provincial housing minister with over a decade at the head of the portfolio that has overseen – and through negligence, has facilitated – the rapid and tragic growth of homelessness in B.C., SIC was forced to go to court to defend its right to exist without daily displacement. The result was a groundbreaking decision in favour of homeless people. Because of SIC, we have lasting legal precedence that calls to account municipal, provincial, and federal authorities that would seek injunctive relief against homeless people who, when forced to live outdoors, seek to make homes for themselves.

tent city panorama

Photo by Pete Rockwell

Supporting Super InTent City

Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) is the small legal advocacy organization that I work for. TAPS got involved when we saw tents springing up at the court house a few blocks up from our office. We knew it was an important moment. We knew the people living there had been pushed too hard for too long, and that the time had come to take a stand.

I have worked at my desk here at TAPS for the past eight years, and over this time I have walked pretty much the same path from my apartment in North Park to the downtown core on my way to work every day. On my commute, I see the daily impacts of displacement. It’s a rare day when I do not pass police officers standing over a couple of people taking refuge under makeshift shelter erected near Pandora Green – people whose only “crime” is that they cannot afford a home.

I watch as people wearily push overloaded shopping carts with downcast eyes. They are obviously exhausted and hungry. They are headed down the street from neighbourhood parks towards Our Place, a local shelter, on their way to get a morning cup of coffee and a bite to eat. I have seen the number of people making this crawl grow year after year. I watched the pain of displacement and homelessness in action and felt powerless to do anything about it despite the fact that I pass this travesty on my way to work at an anti-poverty legal advocacy organization. What could we do?

TAPS first got involved by attending morning circle meetings held at SIC. This is where many of the residents would come together with members of the wider community to discuss the goings on of SIC. Having seen many of our past and current clients living in the community, we saw that there was space for us to grow our relationship with the residents and to bring whatever resources we could gather to support them in their stand. This meant recruiting and supporting pro bono legal counsel, Cathie Boies Parker and Jasmine McAdams, through evidence-gathering in preparation for two injunction hearings (British Columbia v. Adamson, 2016 BCSC 584 and British Columbia v. Adamson, 2016 BCSC 1245). It meant representing the residents of SIC in court. It meant liaising with local non-profits, churches, politicians, community groups and the media. It meant following the directions of the residents of SIC to support the organization of basic governance and decision-making.

Meeting of residents

Photo by Pete Rockwell

Our work in supporting the residents of SIC was a first for us. For the most part, TAPS provides a face-to-face legal advocacy clinic to assist individuals with administrative law issues in tenancy, welfare, disability and employment standards. Firmly rooted in a “justice not charity” framework, we have always lamented our inability to fundamentally shift the conditions that create homelessness and poverty. We have been overburdened by attacking the individual faults of an overall system we abhor. TAPS has spent countless hours raising public awareness, meeting with ministers and bureaucrats, and working with the media, but nothing has had as great an impact as joining with SIC and turning to the courts to challenge the treatment of people living without homes.

Super InTent City changed something in me and in our organization. We could not and will not continue to sit in our offices politely waiting for change. While certainly the victories belong to the homeless residents of SIC themselves, TAPS undoubtedly played a central and important role – a role that other organizations across this country can and must also take on. We all know this situation is not okay. Fundamental Charter Rights are being violated as the displacement of the poor continues in virtually every corner of every province and territory. I know now that when the opportunity comes around again in this community, we will be better prepared to respond to the needs of the poor. It is my hope that other organizations across this country will be prepared for similar struggles that lay ahead. We can accomplish much when we come together.

Claiming housing as a human right

SIC was not the only community response we have seen to the crisis of homelessness in Victoria. In 2008, community leaders struck the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, we have the peer-led Committee to End Homelessness Victoria, and numerous other homelessness-reduction initiatives led by the local non-profit community.

The difference between SIC and these earlier and ongoing approaches is that SIC brought a recalcitrant provincial government to the table to actually contribute to the solution instead of just talking about one. I am convinced that without the successful legal defense of SIC, the level of investment that we have seen in addressing the problem would never have been realized.

Occupants in front of the court building

Photo by Pete Rockwell

Municipal and non-profit charitable responses alone cannot solve homelessness. Organizations and the homeless themselves must prepare for future opportunities to bring federal and provincial authorities to the table in a way that ensures these actors are forced to do more than talk about the issue. These authorities, left to their own devices, will not make investments to meet the moral obligation of ensuring dignity and homes for all. Undoubtedly, there will be court dates to come. Our Charter of Rights and our Canadian values demand it.

To get there, we must have courage. We must be proactive in seeking out and building relationships with people who are homeless and to follow their leadership so that the next struggle is not one that we are merely reacting to.

I dream about what could have been accomplished had we been prepared in advance of the first tent going up at SIC. In order to realize housing as a basic human right, to move section 7 charter rights toward positive interpretation, we must be ready. We must be organizing now.

On September 12, 2016, the mayor of Victoria awarded Super InTent City with a Mayor’s Medal – Legacy Award. Congratulations to all involved! – Ed.


Stephen Portman is the Advocacy Lead for Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS).

Aug 24 2016

Sketch of nice housing area - iStockphoto

Around this time last year, I was invited to co-edit an anthology exploring inclusive city-building. I’d recently completed a photo essay documenting the social housing community where I lived before my mother completed her post-secondary education and moved us out. She was eager to leave behind all memories of social housing. For her, our time in the community was a shameful blip in a story of immigration and ascension to the “respectable” middle-class. For me, social housing has been a place of significance – a place where I spent my formative years developing unconditional friendships, resilience and city-building values.

It has also been a place fraught with numerous challenges including an under-aged sex trade that I witnessed, which claimed the life of a friend’s older sister. As an adult, working in placemaking and stakeholder engagement across academic and professional contexts, I’ve refused to accept the city’s growing disparity and increase in housing vulnerability. So in many ways when I was approached to co-edit and contribute to Subdivided, an anthology exploring inclusive city-building, my chapter on Designing Dignified Social Housing was already in progress. Using the aforementioned tragedy as a touch point, I explored social housing’s top-down design scheme, place-based stigma, lack of gender analysis and the urgent need to centralize human dignity going forward. I describe this chapter as a work of blood, memory and critique.

My work on the anthology and on this chapter in particular has led to an increased number of transformative social housing conversations with others working to create change. The following are just a few of the conversations that I’ve found to be particularly enriching.

Listening to alternative narratives and local knowledge

Sandra Costain works in a leadership role for a local organization and also lived in Regent Park for the first 23 years of her life. Early in my writing process, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with her to chat about the community and housing overall. Although fiercely proud of the neighbourhood, Sandra didn’t deny its shortcomings – widely publicized challenges such as public drinking, a drug trade and racial and geographic divisions. However, as a local insider, she also revealed the often overlooked beauty of the “old Regent Park.”

Along with her parents, Sandra was surrounded by a village of “aunties” – a local network of women who showered her with love and looked out for her as she attended neighbourhood barbecues or played an evening game of kick-the-can. The story that stood out most for me was about the now demolished Blevins building – a modernist high-rise designed by architect Peter Dickinson that became shrouded in violence and disrepair. What most people don’t know is that this same building was a place where Sandra mentored two generations of young women who created meaningful relationships with each other and later went on to pursue their post-secondary education.

Praise of Sandra’s work with these young women preceded my meeting with her and I was eager to learn more about the program. Due to a desire to engage young women in the neighbourhood, the organization that Sandra worked for tasked her with initiating a group for them.

The apartment unit the group was assigned was filthy-dirty and she asked the young women to meet her on the weekend to clean it up. Although she promised them homemade spaghetti, she secretly doubted that they would spend their day ripping up dusty carpets and scrubbing down every surface. When Sandra arrived to find the women ready to clean wearing head scarves and old clothing she was surprised. Many of these girls had been negatively labelled or written off by the wider community but all of them were dedicated to co-creating a beautiful programming space, which housed health education, life skills training and communal meals.

Most city-builders view the history of the Blevins building in a narrow and negative manner. However, when we take the time to listen to alternate stories told by people deeply enmeshed in social housing communities we can gain more nuanced understanding of specific neighbourhoods, which can help inform programming and placemaking initiatives.

An asset-based approach opens up new possibilities

I first met Michael McClelland, founding principal of ERA Architects, while working on a previous community engagement project and we quickly developed a warm rapport. So when I was invited to exchange ideas with him and his colleagues Ya’el Santopinto and Graeme Stewart, I was excited. We began with updates about our respective social housing initiatives and it was immediately clear that they embraced a comprehensive asset-based approach. I struggled to embrace their positive view of high-rise social housing towers. I’m a passionate advocate of the individuals inhabiting the towers – my early years in social housing exposed me to incredibly resilient and kind neighbours – but I’ve always been very critical of the design of most social housing towers.

However, these design leaders were emphatic that along with residents, the towers are an asset and, if properly retrofitted and maintained, they could be a part of the solution to social housing challenges. Given the firm’s expertise in the area of tower renewal and my general desire to lead by continually learning, I suspended my disbelief and listened intently.

The team outlined how Toronto’s strange configuration of high-density tower communities, built outside of the core, inadvertently facilitated the settlement of newcomers from around the world who require affordable three- and four-bedroom units. Instead of bemoaning the design of these towers, ERA has researched ways that these structures could be used to respond to not only the needs but also the skills and aspirations of residents. They found that outdated zoning bylaws were prohibiting residents from using existing space to better meet their needs.

In respectful collaboration with residents and a number of external stakeholders, such as Toronto Public Health, United Way Toronto & York Region and City planners, they recently addressed this barrier to transformation by advocating for a new, more responsive zoning by-law called Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC), which opens up new possibilities for residents to do things like run a part-time barber shop out of their apartment unit or initiate a youth art pop-up shop. This tangible example of how towers can be used for change has expanded my asset-based approach to include tower design.

Shared leadership model contributes to inclusion and succession planning

I was introduced to Stewart Chisholm by a colleague who suggested that we share a similar approach to resident engagement. I learned that Stewart has an extensive background in environmental planning and community mobilization. Like me, he is interested in the complicated intersections of spatial design and social justice. Our first conversation took place around a table with his fellow Toronto Community Housing (TCH) staff members leading a new, resident-focused, pilot project called Reset. We discussed a number of important topics including the need for evaluation and the value of building meaningful resident relationships. Stewart and I began to riff on the idea of a shared leadership model – a model that expands the number of people involved in decision-making processes.

It was apparent that Stewart has spent a considerable amount of time considering the value of this approach. We agreed that a shared leadership model prevents the favouring of TCH residents who are comfortable participating in formal processes. While these residents can bring an important perspective, their needs often differ from those residents more deeply ensconced within social housing’s margins. Stewart also pointed out that a shared leadership approach is practical; it’s a form of succession planning, which safeguards projects from falling apart when one or two individuals move out of the community or onto new opportunities. In a subsequent conversation we also discussed the ways that these hybrid grassroots-governance models can enable residents to take the lead on addressing local issues and also ensure that government doesn’t abdicate their responsibilities.

Equally important, Stewart openly acknowledged his privilege as a white male without lived experience of social housing tenancy or housing vulnerability. I shared that although I am a woman of colour and grew up in social housing, that I too was vigilant about my privilege. I’m aware of the ways race, class, ability and citizenship can create more or less space for individuals within a shared leadership model, and cities overall. Given the personal nature of housing, vulnerability of many residents and historical neglect, it’s important for all of us to be mindful and walk gently within the communities we are collaborating with.

These conversations about social privilege, shared leadership, local knowledge and systemic change are all integral in addressing an increasingly complex range of social housing issues. My work on Subdivided has created unexpected opportunities to talk with people from a wide range of professional and personal backgrounds. I’m more convinced than ever that true social housing transformation is possible but we need to create space for more inclusive, creative and action-orientated conversations.


Jay Pitter is an author, placemaker and senior stakeholder engagement professional.

Aug 11 2016

News desk (iStockphoto)

Some days, getting media coverage for the work we do at non-profits feels like a downright Herculean task. Other days it feels more like wishful thinking. What we do is important. So why is it so hard to get the media to pay attention? One reason is that the media environment is rapidly changing.

News rooms are getting smaller. Fewer journalists are expected to cover the same number of stories. They are overworked and overextended. Every day, they receive many news releases and are pitched dozens of times. Most emails are deleted without a second glance.

It would be easy to just give up – but we shouldn’t. The mainstream media play a profound role in shaping narratives about our society. It is worth your time to build a strong media relations program. However, as with all communications efforts, you have to do it in a strategic way.

For some good advice on how to reach out to the media to get your stories told, let’s hear what some media experts have to say. Maytree’s signature lunch-and-learn program, Five Good Ideas, has experts discuss powerful yet practical ideas on key issues facing non-profit organizations – including how to engage media in your work.

Carol Goar’s presentation on how to talk to the media is a good place to start. Carol, a recently retired Toronto Star columnist, acknowledges that the non-profit sector doesn’t always get the attention it deserves even though it has good stories to share. But, she cautions, don’t just blame the media. Unfortunately, non-profits make unnecessary mistakes that get in the way of getting their stories told.

Her first idea can’t be repeated often enough: Ask yourself why your message is important to the public – in particular the public that reads, watches or listens to the media you’re pitching to.

Before you make a phone call or send an e-mail to a member of the media, ask yourself: Why does my message matter to the public? That’s the first question an assignment editor is going to ask. If you can’t tell him or her why it’s newsworthy, you’ve lost the first battle.

In her session on media relations, Susan Reisler, one of Canada’s best-known public relations practitioners, talks about how to prepare your answer to that question:

Before you talk to a reporter keep your main point in mind. Can you summarize your message in three lines? Rehearse your comments with colleagues. You only get one chance to make the pitch. Reporters truly appreciate the headline that is short and succinct. Remember media is a business. You have a lot of competition for readers’ time as well as their hearts and minds.

While you are pitching, pay attention to the reporter’s tone of voice and/or body language. Are they interested in what you’re saying? Don’t provide too many details, and don’t overstay your welcome.

Susan also reminds us that your preparation starts long before you have a story idea. It starts with being a consumer of media. You need to know who is covering your issues and what kind of stories they are writing about. You can reach out to journalists – anytime, not just when you want something from them – and compliment them on their stories when they do a particularly good job. That way they know who you are when you do have something to pitch and they are more likely to open your email and respond.

Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn lays out five things to do when reaching out to the media:

  1. Respect a journalist’s beat and interest (and that of his or her readers).
  2. Tailor your pitch to the journalist (best way: start your email with the journalist’s first name).
  3. Flattery helps: read what the reporter is writing about and tell him or her that you read it.
  4. Make your pitch concise, human and not artificial.
  5. Include a photo, if you have one, in the body of the email (not as an attachment).

(Bob has five equally important don’ts for pitching – watch the session if you want to hear what you should avoid doing.)

Rob Steiner, Director of the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto, argues that you need to think beyond the major media outlets in your market. Instead, start focusing on smaller media that cover your special area of interest. They might have smaller audiences, but those audiences might just be the right ones for you.

Then, Rob takes it a step further and argues that you need to become your own newsroom. In his presentation, he explains how you can create a process within your organization to identify the important (and often untold) stories in your field. Start with your staff – and not just those working in communications. All staff can be trained to identify untold stories that could be of interest to media. In addition, they may even be interested in learning how to write, speak on a podcast, or even shoot a video. If your organization has clients, you could also train them to be reporters. Rob suggests identifying clients with an interest and offering them the same training you are offering to your staff.

For many of us, summer means planning for the second half of the year – an ideal time to refresh your communication strategies. Spending a morning or an afternoon with our Five Good Ideas media relations experts is an easy way to get started, and get inspired to kick-start your work for the fall.


Markus Stadelmann-Elder is Communications Director at Maytree.

Jul 21 2016

In our efforts to create social change, are we the proverbial David, or are we actually Goliath?

In this video, social and political entrepreneur Dave Meslin talks with Groundforce founder Chris Cowperthwaite about the art of using the “massive power of the masses” to build strong and engaged teams of people working towards social change.

Drawing on his experiences with the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) and Cycle Toronto, among others, Dave discusses the strategies and tactics he uses to tap into what he sees as the widespread desire to “do something meaningful” and to overcome the obstacles that can discourage people from participating in community action.

Find out:

  • What we can learn from stores about creating enjoyable and welcoming spaces
  • Why he prefers small donations from members to larger grants from foundations
  • When top-down leadership can help or hinder a team
  • Why it’s important to know your members’ postal codes
  • How quilts and exposed pipes can help keep people involved

Lastly, hear why Dave thinks that the last thing we need to make social change is more Dave Meslins.

Watch the video Leadership Development from the Ground Up.


Bonnie Mah is Policy and Communications Officer at Maytree.

Jul 07 2016

Children chasing butterflies

Maytree’s human rights approach to poverty reduction connects with my interest and experience working to improve the lives of children, a journey which began while working as a consultant with UNICEF starting in 1999. I quickly learned that children’s issues are not simply a matter of charity or needs, but a matter of justice and fulfillment of human rights.

Meeting immediate needs versus acknowledging rights

The International Convention of the Rights of the Child was signed by world leaders in 1989 as a special agreement that recognized the right of children to special care and protection. It has received unprecedented international support. In fact, the only country in the world that has not ratified it is the United States. However, in spite of ratifying the Convention, many governments continue to respond only to children’s immediate needs rather than their rights.

Needs- and rights- based approaches present different starting points. Focusing on immediate needs follows a charity model of addressing poverty. In the interest of only addressing the needs of children, it does not consider the broader context and systems which created those needs in the first place. For example, because children may be institutionalized before the details of their situations are assessed, they are vulnerable to the choices that governments or other institutions might make on their behalf. By not looking at a child’s entire situation, it is impossible to recognize where the system might be failing them. This exposes them to band-aid solutions which can result in actions that exacerbate the problem. Declaring a child “at risk,” for example, focuses on how to mitigate that risk or achieve an outcome that separates the child from risk. As a result it does not address how the child landed in the situation in the first place.

In contrast, a human rights approach based on the Convention of the Rights of the Child starts with a holistic view of a child’s situation and considers where the system may be failing him or her. It identifies which rights are not being guaranteed or protected, as well as the root cause of each violation. In the case where parents are not able to protect rights because of poverty, unemployment, marginalization or other circumstances that make them vulnerable, it is the responsibility of the government to provide support and work with them to enable the family to fulfill their children’s rights.

The Convention also guarantees children the right to have their voices considered in relation to decisions that affect them. This means expressing their views in their own voices in a medium of their choice and giving their views due weight. Such an approach adds to the government or institution’s understanding and assessment of a child’s complete situation which can help identify where their rights are not being acknowledged or where the solutions being implemented do not meet their needs.

Labelling children ignores issues with the system

During my time at UNICEF I was responsible for legislation and public policy in accordance with the Convention. This included compiling best practices for juvenile interventions.

In Latin America, where social institutions are often under-resourced, children considered to be “at risk” are institutionalized, rather than having their situations assessed in detail. To do so would require more social workers and healthcare practitioners, more coordination and ultimately an analysis of the system. In the needs-based approach, governments are quick to label children as “street children” or “children at risk,” detracting from the fact that there are systems that are broken that are creating these conditions.

It is a one-size-fits-all approach that treats all children the same, ignoring the specific needs of children with disabilities, those facing domestic violence, sexual exploitation, or who have to work to sustain their families.

I once interviewed a Chilean man who grew up during the 1980s. Government authorities found him begging in the streets and not going to school. Without considering or exploring the details of how he got there, the authorities labelled him “at risk,” separated him from his family, and decided that institutionalization was the best solution for his case. They placed him in an orphanage where he was supposed to be provided with food, education and healthcare.

After experiencing abuse, he escaped and fell into a life of crime. He told me that all the children he met in the orphanage were put through the same procedure, regardless of the details of their situation. Those in charge of the system neglected to assess their individual situations in their entirety, therefore addressing their needs only partially.

A needs-based approach systematically fails children because it doesn’t begin from an analysis of their rights. This approach to “protecting” children was standard procedure in many parts of the world during the second half of the last century and continues in many places today.

What it means to focus on the rights of children

Looking at the above example, what would a rights-based approach look like? When government authorities found the child begging in the streets and not going to school, they would have referred him to social services. He would have met with a social worker, who would have asked about his family and had his overall situation assessed. If possible, the family would have been contacted and interviewed and, from there, they would have assessed and reported on his situation in its entirety.

During the assessment, the social worker would determine whether he was in an abusive situation (i.e. domestic violence or sexual abuse) or if there was a lack of resources to care for him. If it was a case of abuse, this would lead to charges against the adult responsible and their subsequent removal from the home. Before putting him into an institution, social workers would try to find another family member to care for him.

Protecting children’s rights means recognizing that poverty is created and systemic. It also requires us to look at everyone’s ability to claim economic and social rights. This includes rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare and education.

Children’s rights in Ontario

Children’s rights were recently acknowledged in Ontario through the report Because young people matter, released by the Residential Services Panel convened by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS). It follows a system-wide review of Ontario’s child and youth residential services and offers a critical look at what needs to be done to ensure that children receive quality care.

It is encouraging that during the research phase of the report, among the 865 people consulted across the province, 264 of them were young people. This reflects one of the report’s central themes that the voices of children need to be heard and their rights respected.

Among the recommendations suggested in the report are that MCYS create:

  • An advisory council of children, youth, families and caregivers to provide access to clinical expertise and lived experience;
  • A Data Analytics and Reporting Unit to collect and analyze all data including Serious Occurrence reports, quality of care assessments, as well as data related to gender, race-based and identity rights; and
  • A Continuity of Care Unit mandated to monitor changes in placements and care trajectories of each child in care.

Even though the report does not use a formal rights-based approach, some recommendations and elements are consistent with it, including:

  • Creating mechanisms for accountability and governance;
  • Measuring progress within an organized system of updated and coordinated data and information;
  • Providing access points and improving the quality of service through training and capacity building of staff, addressing the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit young people in residential care and adequate services to marginalized groups; and
  • Including those with lived experience to poverty, in particular youth and their families, in the decision making process.

While the report makes no overt reference to the Convention of the Rights of the Child or to the improvement of the domestic legislation or regulation, it is an important step toward examining the systems that create poverty, protect children’s rights, and ensure that children can actively assert their rights.


Amaya Renobales is an International Human Rights Consultant and Maytree Intern