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How the power of partnership is building neighbourhoods

November 08, 2023 by Vawn Himmelsbach, Special to the Star

Bryan Peart wears a grey sweatshirt and glasses and stands at an intersection in front of sign that reads "Golden Mile"
Bryan Peart is the Golden Mile coordinator with the Working Women Community Centre and also a local resident. With 77 residential towers slated to house more than 50,000 people, he said a top area of focus in the community is about ensuring affordable housing.

Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Program aims to ensure people can remain in their community even when it is going through monumental changes and there are concerns about residents being pushed out

What happens when some of the GTA’s most powerful decision makers from private, public and community sectors sit at the same table to tackle the issue of shared prosperity and equitable city building?

That’s what the Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity (ILEO) initiative set out to do. The United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) is working with myriad stakeholders to ensure that future development avoids the pitfalls of gentrification and displacement that reinforces inequalities.

In the Greater Golden Mile (GGM) neighbourhood — an inner suburb of Scarborough — more than 60 per cent of residents were born outside of Canada and over 75 per cent identify as a visible minority.

“The Greater Golden Mile is one of the city’s lowest-income communities with the highest unemployment rate, and yet, it’s among the highest number of newcomers and immigrants with post-secondary education,” said Daniele Zanotti, CEO of United Way Greater Toronto.

This area is slated for major development, with 14 private developments planned over the next two decades — and residents were concerned about being pushed out.

During a series of town halls, stakeholders came up with the Golden Mile Community Benefits Framework that identified three priorities: good jobs, affordable housing and strong community services. This framework is informed by more than 20 community-based organizations and almost 700 resident voices speaking 18 different languages.

“We have different service agencies at the table. We have residents at the table, and we have construction companies that are going to be leading the project at the table. So, it’s the first time that we actually have all these people at the table,” said Bryan Peart, Golden Mile coordinator with Working Women Community Centre.

With 77 residential towers slated to house more than 50,000 people, a top area of focus is affordable housing, said Peart, who himself is a resident of the GGM. With everyone sitting at the same table, it’s easier to work toward meeting different objectives. “A unified message is needed, so everyone’s saying the same thing,” he said.

Economic opportunity is another top concern. That’s why the Aecon-Golden Mile (A-GM) joint venture was created, to ensure the community would benefit from more than just jobs as the neighbourhood revitalized. As a 51 per cent community-owned construction company, more than half of the profits generated by A-GM will be reinvested into the community with the goal of expanding economic opportunities for residents.

The Good Jobs initiative is also helping to solve a long-standing challenge where job seekers with skills and training have been unsuccessful in finding employment, while simultaneously helping employers with recruitment and retention for certain roles.

Offered through UWGT and ACCES Employment, Good Jobs is a neighbourhood-based, employer-focused program that aims to create opportunities for local job seekers in the GGM neighbourhood where many residents face barriers to employment.

“Insurance companies have said they have a shortage of disability claims officers, and yet we know in the Greater Golden Mile we have an abundance of foreign-trained professionals in the health sector,” said Zanotti.

Sun Life was the first employer to participate in ILEO’s Good Jobs initiative in late 2020, with its first hires in March 2021. “Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice,” said Rowena Chan, president of Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc. and senior vice-president of retail advice and solutions with Sun Life.

“Sun Life wanted to get involved with this initiative because we recognize that economic growth doesn’t benefit all communities equally,” she said. “We saw an opportunity to bring meaningful and inclusive change to communities across Toronto through employment opportunities.”

This has involved co-developing a hiring pathway for high-demand disability claims adjudicator positions for its Group Benefits Disability team.Sun Life provided four-week customized training programs to 17 local applicants referred by ILEO agencies. After this training, Sun Life conducted interviews and hired seven cohort members who then went through its full training program.

To help them succeed post-training, it assigned a mentor to each participant for ongoing questions, support and feedback.

Chan herself is a first-generation immigrant who moved to Canada from Hong Kong, so initiatives like these are close to her heart. “I arrived in Canada on a student visa to study sociology and economics at the University of Toronto, so I truly understand the value of mentorship and finding the right opportunities needed to grow and thrive,” she said.

As of October 2023, four members of the original cohort, plus an additional four individuals from a second cohort, are building careers at Sun Life where they receive full-time employment benefits.

Across ILEO’s network of corporate partners, more than 130 job seekers from the Greater Golden Mile have been hired in fields like insurance, office administration, concierge services, accounting, property management, project management, consulting and finance.

At the same time, there are benefits for corporations. “Partnering with Good Jobs can help organizations address recruitment and retention challenges and work toward building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce,” said Chan. “Diversity at its core — whether it’s gender, thought, culture, race, religion, age, disability and much more — opens powerful and endless opportunities for a company and individual growth.”

ILEO is a model that could be replicated in neighbourhoods across the region. While UWGT and the ILEO team are looking to expand this program to other neighbourhoods, they won’t take a cookie-cutter approach. Rather, the program would be tailored to each community’s distinct wants and needs.

“What makes a city complete is a series of healthy neighbourhoods that have access to services, access to jobs, have a mix of affordable housing. And this project gives us an opportunity to think about solutions that come from neighborhoods,” said Zanotti.

Over the past five years, ILEO has grown to include 32 partners across all sectors and industries, with five pilot programs (each demonstrating early indicators of success) and more than 130 residents hired.

“We’re now four to five years into this work. And we know it’s going to take us at least another decade or two,” said Zanotti. “But I do feel that for other neighborhoods in the GTA, the power of collaboration and the power of partnership has real change potential.”

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