Susan McIsaac is CEO of the United Way of Toronto. Since 1956, The United Way has been working to provide services to the poor and needy in our city. Historically, their efforts to counteract the effects of poverty have been limited to the downtown core. Recent studies, however, have revealed that poverty has migrated to Toronto’s inner suburbs. Spacing sat down with Susan to discuss both how the United Way has adapted to this new reality as well as the effectiveness of their programs.
Spacing: What does the United Way do precisely?
McIsaac: Traditionally, the United Way raises and disperses funds to various local, community building agencies. However, a number of years ago, we looked at having a broader impact across communities. We’ve now moved into providing technical support to agencies who we raise money for and analyzing systemic issues to identify the root cause of problems in various communities.
Spacing: How did the the 2004 report Poverty by Postal Code alter the United Way’s mission and activities?
McIsaac: That was a seminal report for us because it was documented evidence that poverty had shifted and had become concentrated in Toronto’s suburbs. It became clear that to have the greatest impact, we needed to develop a more targeted “place based approach.” In 2004, we then partnered with the City of Toronto to establish the Strong Neighbouhoods Task-force which focuses on the inner suburbs.
Spacing: What are the underlying causes of poverty in Toronto’s inner suburbs?
McIsaac: They are big and there are many. At the core of the issue, it’s individuals and families lacking access to opportunity, whether it’s education or solid employment. In many cases, we know that poverty is intergenerational and at this time, it’s also racialized.
Spacing: Can you tell us more about the Strong Neighborhoods Strategy?
McIsaac: We determined that we needed to have a multi-pronged approach to address poverty and so we looked at our different capacities and assessed what existed across different communities. The strategy became focussed on three key areas. First, it meant collaborating with resident leadership and strengthening capacity of residents to provide their own analyses and solutions to various problems. Secondly, we wanted to improve access to social programs. We realized that services provided by multi-service agencies were only available downtown. We wanted to bring those out to the suburbs to improve access. Finally, we knew that agencies needed space to both deliver programs and set-up community health centres, youth centres, and recreational facilities.
Spacing: What is the status of of Strong Neighborhoods Strategy in terms of present and future levels of funding?
McIsaac: It continues and therefore we continue on the three fronts just described. That being said, this is a really tough fiscal environment and we are constantly looking at how to maintain funding. We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years on our campaigns to ensure that funds come in and we’re delighted that we’ve been able to maintain funding to our agencies. So from our perspective, there’s no immediate risk to funding. However, all three levels of government are clearly working on austerity budgets, so we continue to work with them in the hope that they acknowledge the scale of the problem.
Spacing: How are you able to determine if United Way funded programs are successful in terms of alleviating the issues you’ve discussed?
McIsaac: It’s hard for us to measure but we’ve put in place some evaluation mechanisms. Some of what we know is anecdotal. We tend to look at the level of engagement, the number of residents involved, the number of agencies that have opened satellite locations across the inner suburbs, and the number of programs that are being delivered. Increasingly we’ll rely on more quantifiable outcome based measures. The City’s new Well Being Index will be a great tool for us in evaluating our progress.
Spacing: Since Strong Neighborhoods was launched, the United Way has received a substantial amount of public and private funding. What has that money bought?
McIsaac: Unbelievable programs to develop local leadership both for youth and adults. Working with community development workers and our resident leaders, we know that there is much better access to programs. On a more basic level, the money buys facilities, equipment, and tangible programs that provide employment services, daycare, and leadership development. Community health centres have been set up in various hubs. Residents tell us that they’re now able to gain much quicker access to good health care, right in their own communities. I would describe all of these things as tangible outputs from the work that has been underway in the last 5 years.
Spacing: Why is the funding of these facilities and programs necessary? What are the consequences for various communities if they didn’t exist?
McIsaac: If I look at the tragic events of the last month, one of the things we’ve all been struck by is the importance of offering youth some alternatives. Young people actually need great support in educational attainment. They need to have good programming outside of school hours that provide them with personal leadership, recreation and good role modeling. We also need to help youth develop manageable skills that they can use in pursuit of both part-time and long-term employment.
Spacing: Is gang prevention one of the stated or unstated goals of Strong Neighborhoods?
McIsaac: It’s an unstated goal. I would redefine it not as gang prevention but as creating meaningful opportunities for our youth so that they have viable options to gain employment and don’t have to turn to gangs.
Spacing: Why should a Torontonian who doesn’t live in a priority neighborhood care about poverty?
McIsaac: I honestly believe that we should all care about what happens in our city. If we allow some neighbourhoods to fall behind, it impacts us all. It also goes beyond poverty. There has been so much work done in the last few years around the issue of income inequality and what it actually does to the health and well being of a city. Primarily, we should care because poverty and inequality affect fellow Torontonians. Secondly, we should care because a lack of access and opportunity creates a divide in this city that takes many decades to overcome.
Photo by jaygoldman