Leading on poverty reduction: lessons from Scarborough
Published on 14/04/2016
Last fall, Maytree supported West Scarborough Community Legal Services to provide training through its Community Leadership Building program for community leaders to educate them about important poverty, human rights and housing issues in Scarborough.
We spoke with program lead Regini David, Outreach and Law Reform Coordinator/Paralegal, about what they learned and how other communities might benefit from their experience.
What role does West Scarborough Community Legal Services play in the community?
Regini David: West Scarborough Community Legal Services (WSCLS) is a non-profit organization and legal aid clinic in east Toronto. We prioritize community development and law reform. We have been a key participant in the ongoing fight to legalize rooming houses in Toronto suburbs to create safe and affordable homes for low-income individuals. We also advocate for better protection for precarious workers under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) and the Employment Insurance (EI) program. The Community Leadership Building program is another initiative that aims to empower members of our community and give them a voice.
Who did you engage in the program, both through its development and implementation?
RD: At WSCLS, we always listen to community concerns and identify the community leaders who want to do something to make change. Through our years of work with our east end legal clinics, we have identified key issues affecting our community. Employment issues – particularly those faced by precarious workers and the working poor – are critical. We’ve also identified community members who want to make a positive change. Many of these individuals contacted us because of their own issues related to poverty.
Through the Community Leadership Building program, WSCLS has trained 21 community leaders who are unemployed, people of colour, women, new immigrants and/or marginalized workers. In December 2015, we held a two-day leadership training program for community leaders, focusing on:
- Public speaking
- Leadership skills
- Ontario’s Employment Standards Act
- Law reform: Looking at the Fix EI and Rooming House campaigns
- Outreach techniques and how to organize our communities for change
What would you consider to be the greatest success of the program?
RD: The program has created opportunities for community members to support one another, as well as helped advocate for law reform. Our community members participated in Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review by making submissions to the review’s Special Advisors and to the Ministry of Labour. Their submissions gave voice to the struggle of precarious workers – a voice that must be heard in this review.
The members of the leadership group helped organize the launch of Toronto East Employment Law Services (TEELS) and gave a presentation as to why free employment legal services are important in their community, which garnered positive feedback from Premier Kathleen Wynne and Legal Aid Ontario.
Were there any outcomes that you did not anticipate?
RD: We did not anticipate the growing positive effect that the project would have on the other parts of the city. This has happened in a few ways – primarily because some of our community leaders have moved, and are bringing their leadership and influence to their new communities. Second, our community leaders are connected to ethnic media and to social media, and so have “spread the word” further and more effectively than we anticipated.
“I worked hard and my employer did not pay my vacation pay for two years. When I asked I was targeted and got terminated. I learned that it is illegal. WSCLS is helping me to obtain my basic rights. It is important that other community members know about the free employment services available to them in their neighborhoods so that they can get help to fight to obtain their basic rights. I am proud to be a member of the leadership group and take the knowledge I have learned to my community.” Prabakaran, member of leadership group
How will the program contribute to reducing poverty in Toronto?
RD: Precarious workers are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. When they are not paid what they are owed, they experience poverty and cannot afford lawyers to fight for their rights. Having to piece together part-time work also affects their quality of life. Most of these precarious workers are part-time workers, seasonal workers, contract workers, temporary workers, people of colour and women. Free employment law services can help individuals obtain their unpaid wages or EI benefits – to survive and pay their bills.
The Community Leadership Building program takes this a step further by engaging community members in law reform work that could benefit precarious workers more widely. For example, many part-time and seasonal workers are not eligible to collect EI benefits because they do not meet the minimum 910-hour requirement to qualify to receive benefits.
Our leadership groups – along with many others, including labour groups, legal clinics, and other community organizations – have been advocating for EI reform for a long time.
We are so thrilled to see that the federal government has allocated money to improve the EI program. One of the changes included in the federal budget is to reduce the 910-hour threshold for new entrants and re-entrants as of July 2016. This is a big victory for many precarious workers. (Read more about EI changes in the budget.)
Working with other legal clinics and our communities, we have now secured permanent funding for this program so that we can continue to help precarious workers in the underserved area of east Toronto.
“I have been treated differently because I am a temporary worker. I was not allowed to sit in the lunchroom with other permanent workers. I was not invited to the Christmas party. I was paid less than other permanent workers who did the same work as me. This is discrimination and I want to make a change in my workplace and be treated equally. Therefore I decided to advocate for temporary workers’ rights. The leadership program provided a space and opportunity to bring our voice to light.” Ondine, member of leadership group
What can other groups learn from your experience?
RD: Organizing community members is a tough job and a long-term commitment. It is important to see community members as advocates and not as victims. Sometimes people have a hard time with this concept, because we often see them as victims in need of aid.
Understanding where these people are coming from, giving them agency to affect the decisions that will impact their lives, and allowing them to have a voice will bring about change in their community, and in society as a whole.
The community voice is powerful; politicians and decision makers will listen and pay attention.
“I am so empowered as I was able to build my knowledge through the leadership training. I always wanted to do something for the community but I did not know how to go about it. The leadership training helped me to find myself and get involved with confidence.” Renuka, member of leadership group
“Under the current policy there is no paid sick leave for workers and I had to work while I was sick. This is not fair. I joined the leadership group because I want to change this. The leadership training gave me the confidence to speak about our concerns to the decision makers.” Akilla, member of leadership group
What are the next steps for the alumni and the program?
RD: The leadership group alumni have already started to build more awareness in their communities via community media and social media. They have created a monthly schedule that outlines community advocacy and outreach for the rest of this year. Some of the activities they will be working on include creating media and content that will increase awareness about the group, law reform work and continuing outreach. Alongside this, the members of the group will continue to speak and advocate for multiple campaigns, including those aimed at reforming EI and the Employment Standards Act.