Presentation to United Way Task Force 2004

By Kay Blair

Role of Community Infrastructure in Building Strong Neighbourhoods

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to meet with you today and talk about some of the problems - and perhaps, some of the solutions, associated with poverty - in our city, in our communities, and our neighbourhoods.

For today, I will focus my thoughts on the social implications of poverty. Specifically, I want to look at how the community infrastructure - which, as so many reports have shown is in serious decline - impacts the strength of the community and our neighbourhoods.

My intention is not to repeat those reports. All have documented clearly the conditions of the poor in the City of Toronto, especially racialized communities, women, and youth.

Instead, I'd like to look at the lives behind the statistics, the studies, and the research conclusions:

First, I want paint a verbal picture of a strong and vibrant Toronto neighbourhood

Next, I'd like to share some of the characteristics of a neighbourhood in decline.

Then, I'd like to look briefly at the role in this issue played by governments, business, labour and educators, and briefly describe the situation many of our community agencies are facing.

Finally, I'd like to talk about some effective models that have been developed and are producing good outcomes but which lack the long term vision needed for their sustainability.

What do you see when you're in a strong community?

You see:

Signs of life

....children playing in the street
...people walking about, enjoying the scenery and the opportunity to be with friends

People making connections and business organizations working to promote solid social interaction between the residents and the businesspeople and both with local government hubs - corner stores, coffee shops, libraries, community centres, parks, where people can go and make connections with others in their neighbourhood or larger community


...people reacting without fear, with respect for each other, valuing and supporting each others' differences

In a strong community, people are happy to be where they live, working near their homes and finding everything they need within walking distance of home. Streets are always full of life, with a mix of people - old, young, working, retired, singles, families - out enjoying the weather, having coffee together, exploring the shops and chatting with shop owners. Everyone knows everyone else, by sight if not by name, and no one feels like a stranger very long.

Compare that picture with this one:

Isolated pockets of high-density residences intermixed with small family businesses struggling to survive. Every building is in an indifferent state of repair, separated from the next by highways, fences, or patches of scrub vegetation. The major signs of life are people getting off the bus, or exiting their cars, and quickly scurrying to a faceless cube of concrete or broken-down storefront to begin and get through another day. After 5:00 pm the light of day is replaced by sporadic illumination from aging street lights, and by that light all you can see is a great industrial expanse of darkened buildings and empty parking lots. The only people you see are cocooned in their cars or on the bus, zooming from here to there as if trying to escape from the emptiness that surrounds them

Why is there such a difference?

The difference is we've becoming a society without a strong focus on people we do research, we write reports but we don't engage people in developing solutions.

Let us examine some factors that contribute to the continued decline in community social attitudes. It's no surprise that across society, we are seeing a hardening of attitudes.

Especially significant are:

  • Diversity/Immigration has increased - tolerance has decreased
  • Increasing emphasis on "me" without regard for the effect on "they"
  • Lack of leadership regarding and commitment to the implementation of the Human Rights Code and the creation of equitable opportunities for skilled people
  • Unwritten permission to practice racism and discrimination - results in racialized communities experiencing reduced opportunities for education, housing, and employment and this impact the quality of life for youth and children of affected families.

Hardened Government Policies

These same reports have pointed out that hardened government policies such as:

  • welfare changes
  • changes to the Landlord-Tenant Act
  • reductions in subsidized housing and childcare
  • rigid immigration policies
  • cuts to funding that supports community agencies

have contributed to the problem,

Senior levels of government have failed the city, through the downloading of responsibilities without resources.

Government's lack of concern for the realities of the poor have resulted in people having , in some cases, being placed in the very real position of choosing between paying the rent and buying food / putting the children in recreation programs or buying needed prescriptions for their families.

Absence of Corporate Leadership

Business has a key role to play in building and maintaining strong communities and neighbourhoods. However, there is an acute shortage of corporate leadership:

  • corporate outsourcing of work means a decrease in jobs and constant growth in the levels of unemployment
  • impact of globalization contributes to pay rates that keep people at subsistence living
  • there is a lack of corporate social responsibility in supporting communities in which they conduct business
  • in some cases, there is an absence of practices that encourage and promote a poison-free work environment for all

Corporate leaders need to understand their responsibility in maintaining the relationship between the welfare of workers and the general well-being of society as a whole.

Reduced Protection of Workers

Historically labour has always been seen as the voice of the poor and the protector of workers and workers rights. Today, sweeping neo-conservatism in society is silencing the voice of the unions.

There is a need to revitalize the labour movement to give hope to workers

Unions need to incorporate diversity to better understand and represent the needs of today's workers

They also need to address the growing vulnerability of the working poor and their fear of speaking out about unfair labour practices.

Educators Abdicating Responsibility

Discrimination in education must end. Kofi A. Annan, has said: " educate a girl is to educate a whole family...[Nothing else] is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and promote health..."

Educators must not abdicate their responsibilities to the community. Efforts must be made to reach out and rethink how we educate our children.

For the most diverse city in the world (City of Toronto) to adopt a zero tolerance in the schools means children only learn zero tolerance for others and the devaluing of human life.

Erosion of Community and Neighbourhood Services:

Community and neighbourhood services foster increased levels of social inclusion and equality through specific supports for vulnerable and marginalized individuals and families.

Inequities and indifference have had a substantial impact on the capacity of community organizations to fulfil their role effectively.

As organizations, they suffer from the same inequities and indifferences that their own clients - "Pay the rent or buy the food" translates to "Pay the rent or provide the service" even as clients come, again and again, for some kind of support to lift them beyond a permanent mode of basic survival.

What are the main issues for community agencies?

  • Recent shifts in government funding methods have eroded administrative and planning structures in community agencies
  • Lack of resources to recruit and support volunteers
  • Lack of resources to recruit and develop talent in the community
  • More agencies are dedicating more resources to fundraising, to ensure provision of essential community services
  • Absence of core funding and the shift to project-based funding
  • Absence of support for community agencies to perform effectively in a technological environment

Community agencies need to move away from falling victims to draconian public policies and unrealistic funding requirements

They also need to resume their roles in conducting public education, fostering positive race relations and advocating for the vulnerable members of our communities without fear.

Essentially, we all need to actively pursue the building of strong neighbourhoods, to shore up the decaying infrastructure. We need to change the present so our children will have a future.

Especially, we need to consider the needs of youth. We need to change youth's disillusionment by finding ways for them to unlearn their feeling of hopelessness. We need to find ways to rehabilitate troubled youth.

The solution is not just a short-term training program for getting youth off the street. The issue associated with youth in our disenfranchised neighbourhoods is a multi-issue problem that needs more than s single-issue solution. The solution will not be found in jail terms: jails offer no opportunity for rehabilitation, to unlearn what they learned that got them there in the first place. Let me take a moment to give you an example.

We need to collectively ask ourselves:

  • Where are the neighbourhoods?
  • Where are the parks?
  • Who can do what to change/ solve the current problems?
  • Who can help?
  • What is really needed?
  • Who are the local officials, business, government, labour and educators who will support positive, effective, sustainable neighbourhoods?
  • How can we reduce employers' fear of their neighbours and potential employees?
  • What incentives could be offered to employers to encourage them to hire locally and solve local problems with local solutions?

The answers to these questions are not simple, however, the task force has the power to make change, to initiate a process that will build strong communities and neighbourhoods. It is important to note that the vulnerable members in our communities do not need another report; practical solutions with long-term positive change are needed.


In closing, the task force will need to:

  • Develop an effective strategy to get corporate involvement in their communities and to work together to build and revitalize the community.
  • Appeal to elected politicians and leaders in the city to effectively fund and support community organizations to build strong neighbourhoods.

Most important is to implement strategies that reduce the continued growth in poverty; look at preventative strategies, early intervention and turn around the current decline.

Let us no longer research, write reports, wring our hands, and despair. Let us plan, implement, and do.

Let us see the communities we live in grow more peaceful and more beautiful, so that the communities we live in becomes the best of all possible communities, and eventually becomes the best of all possible gifts we give our children, our neighbour's children, and all the grandchildren to come.