Features

Local Heroes

In UTSC's partnerships with its local community, residents, faculty and students work together to make the neighbourhood - and the campus - a better place

John Lorinc

When UTSC geographer Susannah Bunce was doing graduate work at York University in the early 2000s, she joined a collective called Planning Action, made up of professors, students and non-profits whose members wanted to challenge the way the City of Toronto did its planning—including the lack of social representation in planning decisions.

That’s how Bunce first connected with Anne Gloger, executive director of the (then-new) East Scarborough Storefront, a non-profit hub of service agencies. Planning Action and the Storefront worked together to raise awareness about east Scarborough and why the area had drawn the short end of the planning straws.

When Bunce joined UTSC’s Department of Social Sciences in 2008, she decided to extend her work with Planning Action by offering students an opportunity to do neighbourhood-scale research and collaborate with residents on local issues. She re-connected with Gloger to talk about the idea.

Those preliminary discussions led to an innovative and far-ranging alliance between the campus and a high-needs community. now in its third year, the KGO/UTSC “cross-sectoral” partnership—developed as a pilot project by United Way Toronto and the Galin Foundation—has expanded steadily, and includes activities involving undergraduates, athletes, faculty, residents, businesses and east Scarborough agencies. a recent evaluation of the project found that to date, about four dozen UTSC Cities Studies students have spent 1,300 hours working with residents’ groups on a range of community improvement and research projects. And that’s just one example. The result: reducing the divide between the campus and its neighbours.

But the benefits have flowed in both directions. The evaluation found that hundreds of youth, seniors and parents have participated in programs linked to the partnership, from sports camps for kids to information seminars on water conservation. Several UTSC faculty members have offered free courses through the Storefront and, in the process, learned about teaching in a community setting. “From day one,” Bunce recalls, “Anne Gloger and I really wanted this to be a reciprocal arrangement. Students benefit, and the community benefits as well.”

•••

The Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park community, located a few kilometres south of UTSC, is one of Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods. according to 2008 City of Toronto statistics (the most recent available), about a third of KGO families are led by single parents. The community has a lot of young children, many newcomers, a large proportion of low-income families and an unemployment rate that tends to be higher than Toronto’s average. A “walkability” study commissioned by the city noted that little more than a quarter of KGO residents have driver’s licences, even though the suburban neighbourhood was built around the car.

In 2004, United Way Toronto (UWT) identified KGO as a neighbourhood lacking in the social and physical amenities many middle class communities take for granted. Since then the city, the UWT and the provincial government have pushed to provide new services and amenities to KGO residents, as well as to Toronto’s other priority neighbourhoods.

Yet in KGO, as in other at-risk communities with reputation problems, the reality on the ground is far less stark than the priority neighbourhood label might imply. Jamie Robinson, UWT’s neighbourhood lead, notes that the area has numerous outdoor food markets, kids sports leagues and community garden plots. residents’ groups work to enhance public spaces and to improve access to local natural features like the morningside ravine.

Fledgling organizations have sprung up in recent years to work with the East Scarborough Storefront, social service agencies and landlords to improve the green spaces around aging apartment complexes and provide greater access to community rooms, many of which sit locked and unused. “These are people who are immensely proud of their community,” says Robinson. “They want to roll up their sleeves and address some of these issues.”

•••

Late on a blustery January afternoon, several young people are hunched over the public access computer terminals in the bright and spacious resource centre of the East Scarborough Storefront, located in front of a phalanx of aging apartment buildings on Lawrence Avenue East. Inside the front door there’s a wall of information about programs and services offered by partner agencies, which all take place in one location. One wing of the Storefront is dedicated to employment and small business support (offered in partnership with employment ontario) while several smaller offices opening off the main room are available to partner agencies from across the city for providing services. art and photography by local residents adorn the walls.

Ewa Cerda-Llanos and Kimberley Tull walk together through the building, which was a police station until 2007 when the Storefront moved in. Cerda-Llanos is the manager of community-university initiatives at the Storefront and Tull is UTSC’s manager of community development and engagement. In 2007, Cerda-Llanos recounts, the Storefront was at a crossroads. Its original location at morningside mall was set to be demolished and its funding was threatened. Local residents organized a Save our Storefront effort, including a letter writing campaign—and it worked.

When the city agreed and the lease was signed for the former police station, the Storefront enlisted local teens to work with the designers to help re-configure the space. The garage was retrofitted as a space for dance and yoga programs, and one wing was converted to an industry-grade kitchen now used for adult education and training, and by local food entrepreneurs to test new recipes. The work done by local teens was “pretty phenomenal,” says Tull. “They’re really smart and talented.”

Just down the street from the resource centre is a building nicknamed The Point, where the majority of resident engagement activities take place. UTSC has an office here.

So do the local residents’ association and the team of Storefront staff who support resident engagment activities. Here, too, is where UTSC students attend off-campus courses related to their neighbourhood research programs.

Bunce launched the courses in 2009. Undergraduates work with local organizations, conducting research on neighbourhood issues. a service-learning course places students with east Scarborough social service agencies, local initiatives and municipal departments. Cerda-Llanos says the neighbourhood research focuses on searching for ways to improve the community’s physical layout— conducting walking safety audits, for example, or identifying gaps in amenities such as sports venues.

Last year a team of 22 UTSC students fanned out through the area to do a thorough review of the play and recreation options available to KGO children and youth. This project was part of a Storefront-led effort to obtain a “Youth Friendly Communities” certification provided by Play Works, a partnership of organizations concerned about ontario youth. The final report, which included recommendations on current and prospective play options, serves as a tool to help urban planners to help encourage new investment.

Before the students team up with residents to do this kind of research, they’ve already learned a lot about life in the KGO community. Cerda-Llanos and Gloger teach a course in community development, introducing the students to some of the realities of a neighbourhood with high poverty levels, and the challenge of household budgeting on a welfare income. “[The students] are blown away by the budget exercise,” Cerda-Llanos says. “[They say], ‘no one could possibly live off that.’”

Tull says much of the learning, as well as the Storefront’s outreach, is geared towards strengthening networks of residents who can then band together to advocate for improvements. “The students may be surprised by how important relationship building can be. It takes time to understand the difference between volunteering and actual community development.”

Bunce points out that students in the program are trained to be reflective about their interactions with residents’ groups, and to take their cues from the neighbourhood. “The idea is that they’re providing a service to the organization,” she says. “The student isn’t bestowing their skills and knowledge. It’s a shifting of the power dynamic.”

Over the past two years, the partnership, which is governed by a KGO-UTSC steering committee, has evolved beyond undergraduate programs. Several UTSC professors, including historian Dan Bender and creative writing lecturers Daniel Tysdal and Andrew Westoll, offer free lectures for local residents at the Storefront classroom.

This idea came from a KGO resident who knew about similar enrichment classes in Regent Park, given by professors from the U of T St. George campus. Fazilatun Nessa Babli, who had immigrated from bangladesh in 1996 with a master’s degree in sociology and a track record in volunteer work, participated in the Regent Park courses and served on a community group that helped develop them. When she moved to KGO in 2004, she pressed the Storefront to create something similar.

The courses, Babli says, provide people with learning, practical information, and also confidence. She says the UTSC professors have created a harmonious atmosphere that is conducive to more participation: “We feel very comfortable learning from these professional people.”

The partnership has also kick-started some youth sport programs that make use of UTSC’s tennis facilities and the coaching skills of student athletes. UTSC athletics and recreation Director Scott McRoberts says these programs provide transferable skills beyond sports, and participants receive information on healthy nutrition. on a campus tour, he says, “I even heard a couple of the kids say, ‘I’m coming to this school when I’m older.’”

There’s been some new thinking about how to invigorate the area’s economy thanks to the partnership. Unlike many Toronto neighbourhoods, the KGO has no Business Improvement area, and its main artery, Lawrence Avenue, lacks retail amenities. The dearth of local businesses is linked to the community’s other challenges—lack of jobs including part-time work for young people, and lengthy shopping trips for those residents who don’t drive.

To take on these economic issues, the partnership has launched the Inclusive Local Economies Network (ILEN) to build collaborative relationships between the community and local businesses and entrepreneurs. Last year, ILEN organized a breakfast networking session for local entrepreneurs, and an advisory group now meets monthly to discuss ideas for promoting the KGO brand as a destination.

“There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for business owners to get together and share their concerns and find common ground,” says Victoria Armit, the Storefront’s local economic opportunities specialist. Armit says ILEN is now looking at finding more ways for UTSC students and faculty to help KGO entrepreneurs. UTSC City Studies students have already contributed a series of research reports outlining various approaches to boosting economic development.

•••

This year marks the close of the three-year pilot project phase of the KGO-UTSC partnership. an evaluation study has identified a series of success factors including the focus on capacity building, the reliance on established social networks in the neighbourhood and the central role of reciprocal learning. The report also pinpointed the partnership’s unique governance structure and its commitment to “co-created” programs, and proposed extending the partnership for another five years.

So how does Susannah Bunce envision the future of a partnership that has evolved far beyond what she’d imagined when she arrived at UTSC in 2008? She demurs when asked: “My ideas are only as good as what the community wants.”

•••

Opening the court

Anna Sullivan has been playing tennis all her life, and coaching since her teens. So when Scott McRoberts, UTSC’s director of athletics and recreation, asked her to coach a program for local children, she didn’t hesitate.

The children in the program range in age from 8 to 13 and many have no familiarity with the sport, so Sullivan, now in her last undergraduate year at UTSC, focused on basic coordination activities and games involving ball handling. “We aim to let the kids have fun.”

That description could apply to hundreds of programs in Toronto. But this is no ordinary tennis camp.

Two years ago, at a presentation by UTSC and the East Scarborough Storefront, McRoberts suggested a tennis camp for children from the area, with free lessons on the UTSC tennis facilities. The proposal fit well with a bequest to the university from the estate of Henry Norrington, which was specifically created to support tennis in priority neighbourhoods.

UTSC’s south campus sports facilities, says McRoberts, “are a mini-paradise. A lot of these kids live three or four blocks from here and never knew they existed.” Participants got free transportation provided by the Boys & Girls Club of East Scarborough, as well as a free snack, access to equipment and an outing to the Rogers Cup.

The tennis program is just one of the sports initiatives to have emerged from the UTSC-KGO partnership. The campus is providing facilities and coaching support for KGO Kicks, a children’s soccer league established by a group of local parents. UTSC’s basketball team, the Maroons, have also teamed up with the Boys & Girls Club and the Scarborough Native Child Centre to offer basketball programs for youth in the community.

In the Henry Norrington Tennis Program’s first year, 23 participants signed up. Since then, demand has surged. In year two, the roster had swollen to 118 participants. About 150 are expected for this summer. As Sullivan says, “We don’t want to turn anyone away. We’re looking forward to expanding.”
 

•••

Learning by doing

UTSC finds myriad ways to collaborate with the community. Last year, health studies Prof. Michelle Silver introduced an innovative fourth-year health studies seminar that paired students with local service learning opportunities.

One of her students at the time, Natasha Rajaratnam, had assumed the only way to pursue a career in health was to become a doctor, an academic or a nurse. But Silver’s course opened her eyes.

Rajaratnam did her placement at the Canadian Mental Health Association where she explored the impact of the social determinants of health on Sri Lankan immigrants’ access to mental health services in Toronto.

“I learned a lot about the barriers and social inequalities individuals living with mental illnesses face,” she says. “It put everything I learned in class into perspective.”

Silver’s goal with the course was to give students a working knowledge of the social factors (such as income, employment status and neighbourhood resources) that shape a person’s health. Through their work with community partners students also develop their own research skills. She’s currently teaching a course in health and aging in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care; in this course, students must develop a research proposal for an actual policy issue.

These courses, says Silver, give students “a better understanding of how to carry out a research project in the real world.”

“It’s one thing to hear a sound bite on the news about certain studies, but it’s a very different thing to actually get out there and figure out how to collect the data.”