Maytree blog

How Toronto Neighbourhood Centres is championing people-centred civic engagement

Published on 30/10/2019

Toronto Neighbourhood Centres (TNC) is an association of 28 non-profit multi-service organizations dedicated to strengthening local neighbourhoods by supporting the efforts of individuals in all sectors of society to participate fully in the processes that shape their communities. For the latest installment of our blog series on rights-based participation, we reached out to Sree Nallamothu, TNC’s Director of Networks and Engagement, on a new initiative aimed at shifting the culture in non-profit agencies towards people-centred civic engagement.

If you work in the public or non-profit sector, you’ve likely heard the term “civic engagement.” But what does that mean?

We often think of civic engagement in terms of electoral participation, but it means more than just voting during elections. Civic engagement is cleaning up parks so our kids have safe places to play; it’s lobbying local governments to put in speed humps to slow down cars in heavily trafficked neighbourhoods; it’s building support from diverse stakeholders to set up safe injection sites; it’s putting in the time to learn from the historical and ongoing oppression that gives context to the injustices Indigenous communities face today so we can be better allies; it’s making sure our neighbours can pay their rent and that our communities and homes are safe places.

Civic engagement that leads to collective action to address issues of public or community concern should be a primary focus of agencies, as our work is grounded in serving the needs of communities. But to be truly effective, civic engagement must be people-centred and led by residents living in the communities or created in partnership with them.

In our line of work, we see that history, laws, policies, and practices are often the root cause of marginalization or exclusion. Those forces and frameworks often bar people from equitable socioeconomic participation, which in turn drives the need for the work done by the non-profit sector. A people-centred approach ensures that the living and lived realities of this systemically driven marginalization and exclusion are at the centre of our work.

In recent years, alongside the evolution from more traditional charitable models of non-profit work to community development, we’ve also seen this shift toward civic engagement that emphasizes the meaningful participation of people with living and lived experience. Our next shift is elevating that engagement to a culture that sees people with living and lived experience as co-pilots in the planning, design, and delivery of activities that not only meet their needs but are also driven by their aspirations.

This approach is characterized as people-centred or resident-led. While there are varying definitions of these terms, at the heart of resident-led civic engagement is listening – so that when we advocate, when we act, we can be confident we are doing so mindfully, alongside the people and the communities we serve.

To this end, TNC is exploring ways to expand and deepen people-centred practices through its Community Voices for System Change initiative.

In the spring of 2018, the TNC Civic Engagement Affinity Group, made up of 24 staff across 10 member agencies, held a network-wide civic engagement forum that shared strategies and tools with frontline staff not typically engaged in civic engagement work. Staff participants expressed great interest in integrating these tools and strategies in their youth programs, ESL classes, community gardens, and many other programs and activities.

Out of this forum and the ensuing enthusiasm for civic engagement came the Community Voices for System Change initiative. This new initiative is about clearly defining what the practice of people-centred civic engagement looks like, remedying the gaps that exist in our work, and learning from successful models at member agencies.

In addition to building the capacity of colleagues to integrate civic engagement practices into their work, the initiative also aims to enhance existing people-centred practices by building on the core strength of resident-led civic engagement so that people are not only at the centre, but have more opportunities to be at the forefront of the change they want to see.

One such example of resident-driven change is the Member Advocacy Committee at TNC member agency St. Stephen’s Community House. Inspired by their lived experiences, the members of the Committee created a Canadian Harm Reduction Bill of Rights. They are now spearheading efforts to seek endorsement from the federal government.

We all understand how crucial it is for community members to feel invested in their communities. We also understand the extraordinary influence they can have on their neighbours and the potential power they can exercise when they come together. What we hope to explore through the Community Voices for System Change initiative is what our roles are as service providers, community developers, and local agencies in championing, supporting and enabling these effective approaches.

Our roles and the way that we spend time with people will likely shift, but exploring how best to implement people-centred practices and how to build the infrastructure needed to make it most impactful is central to our current work.

The core of people-centred practice is facilitating a sense of belonging. From belonging comes a context for our lives, our sense of accountability to those we live alongside, and an understanding of our rights.

Resident-led civic engagement builds off these things and opens up opportunities for community members and agencies to act collectively. For example, after residents attending the English Speaking Circle for Women at the Dorset Park Hub raised concerns about safety in the neighbourhood, these issues were addressed collectively in concrete ways via a safety group that was set up and supported by TNC member agency Agincourt Community Services Association. The group was led by residents who served as safety ambassadors.

For community members, civic engagement is acting on feelings of belonging and seeking solutions to challenges. For staff, it’s having the advantage of seeing the bigger picture and helping to connect the dots between self-advocacy and collective agency against systemic barriers.

Over the next couple of years, the Community Voices for System Change initiative will develop a standardized definition of resident-led practice and create a checklist for agencies as a framework to work from.

The initiative includes professional development in people-centred practice for staff, building tools around civic engagement activities for non-election periods, supplying colleagues with the tools and training they’ve asked for to feel confident integrating civic engagement into regular programming and services, and developing accessible and informative case studies on best practices around people-centred civic engagement work happening at our member agencies and community partners.

Underscoring it all are regular network-wide sessions for staff to pick up new strategies and reflect on the ones they’ve tried, tweak the tools as needed, and share challenges and successes.

To see resident-led civic engagement in action, take a look at this short video.

To learn more about Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, visit its website.

Sree Nallamothu is a media arts educator, community builder, and documentary filmmaker with extensive experience in participatory media. She is the Director of Networks and Engagement at Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. She also serves as Field Documentarian for an international global health research team on HIV/AIDS at Factor Inwentash School of Social Work at the University of Toronto.


[Series: Rights-based participation] The non-profit sector is seeing a shift toward people-centred civic engagement. Sree Nallamothu from Toronto Neighbourhood Centres writes about how the organization is exploring and strengthening this practice.