Working with Community

The Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), DUKE Heights BIA and Osgoode Hall Law School organized the March 23 and 24 Creating Opportunities Summit to take a good hard look at what truly makes great communities. In our efforts to find the perfect solutions, we often ignore big problems and make matters worse by doubling down on things that aren’t working. Whether it’s capacity building in marginalized communities, local policy making in neighbourhood improvement areas (NIAs) or just plain racism, no one answer fits all. If the summit had one great takeaway for me, it’s that finding shared prosperity will come through working with community and not for community.  

The summit was an amazing chance for communities to come together with agencies, government workers, thought leaders and entrepreneurs, to really drill down and explore community benefits together. The two-day event kicked off with a bus tour that took delegates along the future Finch West LRT route. The route holds much promise for investment where there has been so little for nearly 40 years. There was a short detour to the future Woodbine Racetrack redevelopment, another possible place for community benefits. An incredible “poster exhibit” on community benefits was moved to Day-2 because of the strike at York University and even the strike didn’t put a damper on the success of the event. The bus tour was followed by a celebration dinner at York University’s Underground restaurant. The dinner included a speech from Senator Ratna Omidvar who will sponsor the Community Benefits Bill when it reaches the Senate from the House of Commons.

The conference which took place the next day at Jackman Law Building at the University of Toronto was full of timely information on what community benefits can mean and how they can be achieved. The opening panel discussion included a passionate address from Hamilton City Councillor Matthew Green who has been at the forefront of the community benefits movement in Hamilton. Other incredible speakers included lawyer Anthony Morgan who spoke on racial justice issues in Canadian law and policy. Climate change and its impacts on communities were also covered. There were case studies on community benefits in action and there were new friendships hatched and plans for future cooperation laid out. I’ve only scratched the surface here of all the amazingness that happened over the 2 days – I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next year.


Lynessa: Hard at Work, Happy at Work

How can a young girl who likes playing with Lego find fulfilling work when she grows up? If you ask Lynessa White, she’ll tell you the best way is to follow your instincts. Lynessa, a racialized woman from Downsview, has strong instincts; she defied everyone who ever gave her career advice. Raised in a traditional family, she says despite her desire to fix things and a childhood dream to be a carpenter, her mother made sure she learned to cook. She still fixed things, she did it all the time.

How do women resist such discouragement, whether it’s the guidance department steering you towards a career as a nurse, or your mother telling you to find an office job? Lynessa thought a career in the film industry would be a satisfying compromise so she attended film school in Toronto. The film set didn’t bring her the fulfillment she craved. It wasn’t until she arrived on a construction site that she discovered what was missing.

When Lynessa talks about the construction project she is working on, her joy is palpable. When I first met Lynessa, she was part of the team building the Bentway Skate Trail under the Gardiner Expressway. Every project she works on involves a new approach, a new puzzle to put together, a new problem to solve. Lynessa finds that there isn’t a set way of doing things on a construction site and that’s what drives her.

Through Building Up, a Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) social procurement partner, Lynessa found her path to becoming a licensed carpenter. In addition to Building Up, the process also included Carpenters Union Local 27, and Peter Kiewit Sons ULC, a private contractor. Lynessa is one of TCBN’s greatest success stories.

TCBN envisions Toronto as an inclusive, thriving city in which all residents have equitable opportunities to contribute to healthy communities and a prosperous economy. TCBN is a coalition of organizations and individuals working in direct partnership with other grassroots, community, labour and anti-poverty organizations to build a strong community benefits movement in Toronto. We believe that all Torontonians should have access to the opportunities stemming from infrastructure investments, including women like Lynessa.


Safe and Smart

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the Smart City is passive surveillance. I come by my paranoia honestly. I was born in apartheid-era South Africa and because of Pass Laws my parents had to carry a special ID book on them at all times. If they were caught without what was more colloquially known as their ‘Book of Life’, they could be imprisoned without cause.

A headline told me recently that the modern smart city is just as likely to help us deal with inclement weather and wouldn’t that be great! Imagine never having to shovel your sidewalk again because the sensors in the sidewalk are melting the snow as it falls. Imagine traffic bottlenecks as a thing of the past as vehicle GPS systems, working in tandem with traffic lights, resolve issues before they happen.

Then of course there are the ongoing issues of safety. ‘Safety,’ the word that for so many racialized men in Downsview is just as likely to mean ‘danger’. Think about the promise of Waterfront Toronto’s redevelopment taking place on the city’s eastern waterfront in partnership with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google. The redevelopment will have technology built into every corner to make our lives better. What if our racialized person from Downsview decided to visit this smart development with a smart phone in their pocket? If they were carded at some point in their life, they may trip a sensor requiring their movements to be redlined. Remember, when Toronto put restrictions on carding, the police were not forced to destroy all the unlawfully gained data already in the system. Could this level of scrutiny go to the next level in the name of ‘safety’; every physical space they walk into alerted to their presence. Young racialized men who have been subjected to carding programs have a challenging enough time walking around feeling free, will they self-sensor and never visit this new and special corner of the city?

Will we be guaranteed that we will remain free of potential abuses of these smart spaces? Waterfront Toronto has already been asked to be more transparent in how the development deal was originally struck. What else will Waterfront Toronto, an arms-length agency of the city, try to keep from us to enhance the specialness of this place?