Posts tagged ‘Roots of Violence’

February 9, 2014

My neighbour, Jeffrey Baldwin

If I peek through the branches out my son’s bedroom, I can see the room where Jeffrey Baldwin lived, and died, he, the five-year-old who died from neglect, in my backyard.

At that time, when he lived, my children were close to his age, and I knew some of the hardships of this community and of our school. I remember the mother who asked me for $2 so her child could enjoy the school’s hot dog lunch. I remember the girl who carried the last bits of a bag of corn flakes to school for her lunch. I remember the boy who didn’t go to school because he had no winter coat until he got a hand-me-down — how he danced along the block then in that ugly corduroy coat! And I remember the kindergarten child whose mother was always ‘sleeping’ as she wandered our street, joining snack time on our porch.

But I don’t remember Jeffrey Baldwin, who also lived here in my neighbourhood. Instead, I vaguely remember the noisy crowd of adults that sat on his porch (one of them, Jeffrey’s aunt, trained in Early Childhood Education — another shocker).

Later, I learned that Jeffrey’s sisters were at the same grade school my children were, although, in different grades. We would all have gone to the same school concerts or gathered together out in the playground. Each day, Jeffrey’s sisters would have munched on the same daily offering of muffins or yogurt and carrots or apples from the small kitchen on the main floor where volunteers chopped and baked for the snack program.

At the inquest into Jeffrey’s death, a pediatric nutritionist said that this classroom food program probably saved Jeffrey’s sister; she too was targeted, neglected by her grandparents, but, unlike Jeffrey, she was ‘allowed’ to go to school, and so she ate.

I remember the snack program donation envelopes carried home in my son’s backpack each month. And I remember the hunt to fill it with the requested $20 donation each time. Times were lean in our household, but I knew some of my neighbours had it worse than we did so I felt that obligation.

Now, years later, having heard how the snack program had sustained Jeffrey’s sister, I sobbed aloud. I hadn’t understood the role of those scrounged pennies. “One doesn’t know,” I said to myself, “what makes a difference.”

I think Jeffrey’s awful death has stuck with me, not only because of the revulsion we all feel, but also, more personally, as a neighbour who failed him.

I remember a part of the murder trial for Jeffery’s grandparents, the testimony from another neighbour, who described how one day, Jeffrey’s grandmother asked her if she would take Jeffrey, then still a baby. She considered, but refused, having no way to know the atrocity to come.

‘We didn’t know’ seems an awful, sorry excuse. Bitter lessons.

In the closing days of the inquest into Jeffrey long neglect and death, Irwin Elman, the provincial children’s advocate said  “We expect and demand more. More from the child welfare system, more from the educational system, more from the neighbours, and more from the family who stood by and watched Jeffrey starve and die…We can do better.”

Elman’s right.

What neighbourhood-based solutions would have helped?  Better snacks? Better registration and attendance records at school? The parent-child drop-in where I found solace? Neighbourliness (what sociologists describe as stronger social connections and reciprocity)? More ‘eyes on the street’? Even, just more old-fashioned nosiness? Those questions continue to gnaw at me.

Some of the answers lie in the formal and informal networks of a neighbourhood. Perhaps, the inquest’s results will tell us more.

For now, a new family, full of kids, lives in Jeffrey’s house. They know the sad history of it, but, as another neighbour explained to me, they are re-writing it, making it better this time.

We all must.

read more »

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June 5, 2013

TDSB Census 2011 highlights student isolation

The most recent TDSB census of parents and students shows improvements where the school board has influence, such as including students’ experience, welcoming parents into schools, or creating an environment where students feel safe. This part is a good news story that shows that concentrated educational efforts can make a difference.

However, as media reports have highlighted earlier, students are also feeling more stressed. The census results also show that physical health and nutrition drop in higher grades. Similarly, students are more likely to report being tired, having headaches, or being less happy in higher grades.

One-third of students don’t want to go to school, regardless of their age.

Students are also less likely to report having at least one adult whom they “feel comfortable to go to for personal support, advice or help.”
  • 34% of Grade 7/8 and 46% of high school students said they have no adult in whom they could confide.
  • 34% of Grade 7/8 and 31% of high school students said they had one adult in whom they could confide.
  • 31% of Grade 7/8 and 23% of high school students said they had more than one adult in whom they could confide.

Students report being less comfortable participating in class, especially those in high school.

According to the census, overwhelmingly students feel safe in class, but do report feeling less safe in other parts of the school building or outside on the grounds.

These are startling initial numbers. The impulse will be to psychologize the results, to describe the deficits in TDSB students and in their families. However, I want to suggest an alternative.

The social science of sociology might shed better light on how to support students to succeed: When students feel they belong in their schools, they will thrive. Foresightedly, some Board staff and trustees are already taking some good first steps and so have struck a working group to look more closely at the issue of how school relations shape better learning.

While the comparisons have not yet been explicitly made, this committee might start with the widening demographic gap between teacher and students. Increasingly divided by age, culture and socioeconomic class, students have a pretty good reason to feel disconnected from the adults in their schools. It’s up to the adults to fix that.

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January 9, 2012

New Stats Can study: Youth crime patterns in Toronto neighbourhoods

I once showed a map of Toronto’s 2005 summer of shootings to a sociologist at the University of Hawaii and, without ever having visited our city, she was able to point out the main commercial districts, transit lines and low-income areas. These are the areas where urban crime cluster, she explained.

English: The northwest corner of the intersect...

Perhaps easily apparent, the patterns are always more interesting at a more granular level of detail.  So a new Statistics Canada report from the Crime and Justice Research Paper Series. has again given Torontonians another glimpse into criminal activity in our city. This time, author Mathieu Charron has focused on youth crime in Toronto. (His earlier 2009 paper on Toronto looked at broader patterns of crime.)

About 175,000 youth, aged 12 — 17, lived in the City of Toronto in 2006, the year which Charron used for his analysis. Using census tracts as a proxy for neighbourhoods, Charron looks at the geographic distribution of youth crime, and the characteristics of the places associated with it. He maps all police-reported incidents which involve a youth.

As anticipated, his maps show concentrations of youth crime along transit lines, in commercial areas, and then less frequently, around schools. But the study also finds some other interesting and confirming patterns:

  • About 1/3 of reported youth crime occurs in outdoors public spaces, and another third in commercial establishments. School properties accounted for the location of 12% of other reported incidents (2/3 occurring during supervised school activities). Public areas and local residences surrounding schools do not necessarily experience more youth crime, although local businesses do.
  • Neighbourhoods with lower mobility (i.e. residents more likely to have lived there for five years or more) experience less crime. Charron suggests more stable social networks may be part of the explanation for this.  And, as shown in other studies, neighbourhoods with higher levels of immigration are also less likely to experience some forms of youth crime. Family cohesion is usually seen as a contributing factor.
  • Neighbourhoods with more access to resources also are less likely to see youth accused of crime.
  • Central Toronto neighbourhoods (i.e. easily accessible) are more likely to experience youth crime in public areas.
  • Youth are more likely to be accused of a crime when they live in neighbourhoods with high adult crime rates, or higher residential mobility (people move homes more frequently) or where residents are economically vulnerable (low-income areas). Here, Charron cites other studies which attribute low levels of social control and/or exposure to violence as important contributing factors.
  • The characteristics of a youth’s home neighbourhood are more likely to predict whether youth become involved with the criminal justice system than the locations of where crimes take place. (Does that mean there are bad neighbourhoods? No, just vulnerable ones, with fewer resources.) This may be related to another of the study’s findings, that youth are more likely commit crimes outside their own residential neighbourhoods.

The most frequent sites of youth crime in 2006 were in commercial establishments, largely because of high traffic and opportunity. Property crime, especially shoplifting, accounted for 3 ⁄ 4 of the reported incidents. The maps Charron includes appear to confirm concentrations around shopping malls. The biggest apparent hotspot was Scarborough Town Centre with more than 250 incidents per square kilometre. Other crime hotspots (east to west) appear to be Yorkdale Shopping Mall, Dufferin Mall. Eaton Centre, Laird/Eglinton or Thorncliffe area, Cedarbrae Mall and Malvern Town Centre. These all showed rates between fifty to two hundred and fifty reported incidents. Outside of these large commercial centres, Charron found neighbourhood establishments, such as convenience stores and restaurants, were also vulnerable. Charron found a strong overlap between commercial areas which reported youth crime and adult crime, although youth were more likely to be involved in outlying neighbourhoods in the city.

In his next area of focus, outdoor public spaces, Charron found the prevalence of youth crime was much smaller, by a dimension of 25 to one (The upper range of outdoor events was only 10 incidences per square kilometre). As our Honolulu sociologist predicted, reported incidents were concentrated along transit and subway lines, in lower-income areas and near commercial areas. Charron also found some support for the “bored teenager syndrome,” that the number of reported crimes were higher in neighbourhoods with a higher number of youth, including central areas of the city where youth tend to gather and where household incomes are higher. Subway and other natural gathering points also attracted higher crime levels. The highest areas, reporting more than ten incidents per square kilometre, were around the University of Toronto, the Yonge Street downtown south of Yonge, Yonge and Finch, around Donlands and Danforth and the surrounding area (where five high schools are concentrated). Smaller problem pockets were found at Jane, south of Finch, the Mount Dennis area, Mount Pleasant and Eglinton (another high school), Pape Village, Greenwood Park, Kennedy subway station and its environs, and the Kingston Road and Morningside area.

The final location Charron examined are crimes which were reported to have happened in private residences. Largely concentrated in neighbourhoods with average employment incomes below $50,000 ⁄ year, the geographic pattern mimicked that of outdoor crime, especially outside the central part of the city. Charron found that crimes which occurred in houses were more likely to be property crimes, such as breaking and entering, theft and mischief. Crimes which occurred in apartments and other dwelling units were more likely to be violent offences. Residential crime was less likely to occur where there was a higher proportion of recent Canadian immigrants, where there are fewer youth or lower adult crime, or where local residents have access to more resources.

Charron concludes though by saying that neighbourhood characteristics, such as economic vulnerability, have less of an effect on youth crime than they do on adult crime — perhaps speaking to the early resiliency of youth.

More up-to-date data on crime in the city can be found through the Toronto Police Services Crime Statistics site and the City of Toronto’s Wellbeing Indices.
May 18, 2011

Toronto youth initiatives: Ground-level view of the stratosphere

After the “summer of the gun” in 2005, various funders and levels of government focused on the issues of youth and youth violence. The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence was produced. Funding appeared in the Priority Neighbourhood Areas through the Youth Challenge Fund (YCF). Laidlaw Foundation made youth a central focus of its work. United Way Toronto developed a “policy outcomes framework,” calling for coordinated action from the provincial government. Each summer since, through Focus on Youth, a provincially-funded program, the two largest public school boards have run programs providing youth employment and space for non-profits in Toronto schools.

So now, more

than five years later, some of that work is well established, and some of it, such as YCF, is near the end of its mandate. From the 30,000 foot level, things look good.

The provincial government’s youth policy framework is being developed, guided by “big brain science,” as one watcher called it. Literature reviews are done and developmental milestones are being firmed up. United Way Toronto has been hosting a multi-stakeholder Community of Practice for Youth and has developed evaluation frameworks with youth-serving agencies to develop a youth strategy. Consultations are underway for United Way’s development of a strategy. A city-wide Dialogue on youth violence working group is rolling along. A frontline youth workers crisis response guide has been developed. Laidlaw Foundation’s and United Way’s multiple reports and initiatives are well underway (see More below).

If youth of this city need strategies, guides, conferences and policy, the non-profit and government sectors are working it. But a recent conversation with a group of youth service-providers providers a more sobering reality check. While “capacity-building” and “skills-building” is being funded, program operating costs are scarce.

The south entrance of Dufferin Mall in Toronto...

Image via Wikipedia

One set of neighbourhood agencies have spent a year exploring after-school programming for local youth, but have stalled because they haven’t found a funder that focuses on this need. The Youth Challenge Fund, which focused on Priority Neighbourhood Areas, is in its last year. The City’s Welcome Policy is frozen – and this may be a seasonal occurrence. Youth settlement funding for newcomers is drying up. One youth worker explained he has no more funding to take youth to museums or other downtown excursions. His program cannot cover the tokens, never mind the admission costs of these attractions. Another worker lamented a summer of trips to the local park instead of places further afield, such as the Toronto Islands. The kids in these programs sometimes have never seen Lake Ontario. To raise funds for TTC costs, they are making arts & crafts to sell locally.

And community space for youth is still a crunch.

  • While LOFT has been able to open a youth social enterprise space, the Dufferin Mall space has closed.
  • Media centres have been or are opening in four Toronto libraries, but operating funding beyond three years is uncertain. What will happen to the city’s recreation centres is still to be determined.
  • Social Planning Toronto is working on a report to track how youth are able to access community space in Toronto. They are finding attitudes are as important a barrier as availability of space.
  • The provincially-funded Community Use of Schools program has opened 77 schools in the TDSB, but the hours are restricted to after 6 p.m. on week-days and week-ends. Because of the identified deficit, Board staff are actively discouraging bookings on week-ends because of the added overtime costs which eat into this budget.

A few sparks of hope continue to emerge, though. The Toronto District School Board, for instance, is playing with new ideas like delayed starts for the school day and more “schools of choice.” Even with the sluggishness of strategies or the scarcity of funding, people are being creative. However, in the end, all this thinking won’t be enough.  While we create more strategies, another generation of youth is moving through their teens.

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March 1, 2010

TDSB Achievement Gap Task Force

Update June 1, 2010: The Achievement Gap Task Force has released its draft report for review and consultation. Comments will be received until Oct. 31, 2010.

Dr. Chris Spence, the Director of of the Toronto District School Board, has a vision, a Vision of Hope. It’s hit a few bumps, knocked for proposing of a boys-only school and skewered by a trustee, in the media, for doing teacher P.D. in a sports arena.

Still Spence has set some hard targets.

An important part of the Director’s vision around student achievement focuses on building effective schools, as described by Ron Edmunds 30 years ago. Edmunds, Lezotte and others laid out a framework containing the following elements:

  • Clear and Focused School Mission
  • Safe and Orderly Environment
  • High Expectations
  • Opportunity to Learn and Time on Task
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Frequent Monitoring of Student Progress
  • Positive Home-School Relations

But as the saying goes, coming up with the idea is the easy part. The hard part is the administration of it.

So, working on a tight timeline, Spence has set Lloyd McKell, the Executive Officer of Student and Community Equity, to work with an internal staff team to look specifically at the underachievement of racialized and marginalized students.

The taskforce will report to the Board, through the Director, in April. The workload is daunting, including a literature review, a survey of current school programs and public hearings. The hearings are set for March 6. (See More below, for further details.)

A cynic would wonder why they are doing it. Do we really need another study?

As a student of Edmonds, Spence must understand that the first challenge is creating the political will. In Some schools work and more can, Social Policy (1979), Edmonds wrote:

Whether or not we will ever effectively teach the children of the poor is probably far more a matter of politics than of social science, and that is as it should be. It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements:

(a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling

is of interest to us;

(b) We already know more than we need to do that; and

(c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

So what remedies might we begin to consider? Our ideas must move beyond platitudes and be specific.

Speaking recently at OISE, Linda Nathan, a principal from an innovative arts school in Boston’s inner city, provided some insights into producing a strong urban education. She explains the problem is not one of an achievement gap, but of opportunity.

In her book The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test (Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences writes the jacket blurb), Nathan prescribes school administrators:

  • Develop a clear strategy, for students, parents, and teachers, of active engagement and ownership of the educational process.
  • Investigate the possibilities of incorporating, for example, an arts-based, science-based, or technology-based curriculum
  • Require a rigorous Senior Project that successfully reflects academic and non-academic learning as well as addressing a community need, recognized and documented by the student.
  • Build an assessment system that doesn’t determine student achievement and knowledge exclusively through the results of standardized tests.
  • Mandate paid time for teachers to talk about their practice and their students, and struggle with difficult questions.
  • Advocate for our public schools to equalize educational facilities, expand curricular opportunities, and reduce class size to match our best schools, this providing every child with the necessary education and skills to participate productively in our democratic. This necessarily costs more money!

Within a few months, we’ll see how the TDSB and Torontonians respond to the challenge of providing a good education to all its children.

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June 21, 2009

Community hubs recommended for young and old

The same week the Pascal Report on the implementation of full-day kindergarten in Ontario was released, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) released a Call to Action on building age-friendly communities. Bracketing opposite ends of the life cycle, the reports shared some very similar recommendations.

Both reports emphasized the role and importance of community hubs and the integrated delivery of services. Pascal recommended that schools serve families and the broader spectrum of their needs, while the OPPI called in a series of recommendations for government services to be delivered locally and for seniors and children’s services to be co-located. Both also addressed expanded learning opportunities for each age group.

The reports underscore the point that a focus on place-based strategies aids those who are most needy and least mobile: the elderly, parents with strollers, newcomers with more limited social networks and low–income people who rely on transit.

The benefits of this strategy are also shared. As the former mayor of Bogotà, Columbia, eloquently explained about some of his innovative strategies:

“Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children we will have a successful city for all people.”

—Enrique Peñalosa to Yes Magazine

___

A few other praiseworthy notes on the report by Dr. Charles Pascal, the Premier’s Special Adviser to the Ontario Premier on Early Learning:

  • By addressing the entire 0—12 age range, Pascal affirmed that the introduction of full day kindergarten was not a panacea to the challenges that many children face (he cites Willms’ research estimates of up to 60% of all children are vulnerable). As, as economist James Hechman shows, early investment must be followed up to be effective [emphasis added].
  • Pascal also recognized and named the summer learning loss which occurs for most low–income kids. The opening of schools as community hubs should bridge some of that gap.

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May 31, 2009

Key factors associated with youth delinquency

A Statistics Canada analysis this spring looked at factors associated with delinquent activity among immigrant youth in Canada. Ostensibly, the report was comparing newcomer and Canadian-born youth, but what it found was more about the importance of family and friends.

The report on property-related and violent activities relied on self-reports from the 2006 International Youth Survey.

Youth were asked if they had participated in a series of risky behaviours in the previous 12 months:

  • Property delinquency was measured as youth who had damaged something on purpose (including bus shelter, window or seat), stolen a bicycle or vehicle, stolen from a store, burglary and arson
  • Violent delinquency was measured whether a youth had snatched a purse or bag, carried a weapon, threatened someone with harm, participated in a fight intentionally.

Here’s what the report found:

Rates of both property and violent delinquency vary by generational status within Canada. Native-born youth reported the highest rates of property-related delinquency, while youth who had immigrated to Canada after the age of 5 reported the lowest rates. However, factors other than generational status were found to account for differences across generational groups in rates of property-related and violent delinquency.

Having delinquent peers has the strongest effect on all youth in terms of explaining rates of self-reported delinquency. The odds of reporting property delinquency were more than three and a half times higher for youth who had delinquent peers than for those who did not. Youth who reported having peers involved in delinquent activities were almost three times more likely, as those without, to report violent delinquency.

Relationships with family also play an important role. Youth who reported a good relationship with their mother were less likely to report violent delinquency.

Youth who spent the majority of their time with friends were also more likely to report property  and/or violent delinquency. Youth who were isolated from family or friends reported higher levels of property delinquency.

If youth reporting being a victim, they also were more likely to be involved in delinquent behaviour. Those who had experienced a theft were more likely to report property-related delinquency. They were also more likely, along with those who reported having been hit violently, to report violent delinquent acts.

Finally, schools play a role as well. Youth who aspired to university were less likely to report either type of property or violent activities while youth who skipped school were more likely to do so. Youth who felt that their school was ‘unsafe’ were also more likely to report having committed acts of violent delinquency.

In sum, protective factors for youth included aspirations for university and spending time with family and/or close relationship with mothers. (Recent immigrants were most likely to enjoy these conditions, and therefore were least likely to be involved in delinquent behaviours. Stereotypes, be damned!)

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March 22, 2009

Advocacy in a time of change

To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Discrimination, 130 community activists gathered at the  School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. The auditorium was filled with familiar faces, with familiar messages in this old, familiar place (the old Toronto School Board office). However, this time, there was change in the air.

“We can’t sit around and watch our children die anymore,” said one presenter. “The Ontario government will use the economic downturn as a reason not to act on its commitments to poverty reduction and to the Roots of Violence recommendations,if we don’t act.”

Akua Benjamin, Ryerson Social Work professor, underlined the point, that young Black men are the ones who are dying most often, and that we need to address this specifically. Too often the broader terms of racism or people of colour occlude the particular issue of anti-Black racism.

The keynote speaker was the honourable Alvin Curling, co-chair of the recent Roots of Violence report. He has been making the rounds to numerous community meetings since its release because “writing that report was just one part” of what needs to be done.

If the recommendations are to be implemented, he explained, citizens need to push the government to carry out its commitment and to develop an implementation plan with hard goals and timelines.

Curling sounded pessimistic as some of the deadlines from the fall report loom.  However, he had people laughing out loud as he described the structural problems which lay in the way of successful implementation of the Roots of Violence report.

Siloed government ministries are like the kids in a family who each have to have their own iPod. Now, he explained, they can’t use their iPod 24 hours a day, but they also cannot share, so they each go out and get one. In fact, he explained, they won’t even tell each other what they have on their playlists.

The problem is so deep, he said, that there is no way we should throw money at it “unless the government gets its act together.”

In response to a question, Curling highlighted the recommendation on mental health supports, though, noting that this was the one recommendation which had money attached to it because of the seriousness of the issue.

Curling also touched on the topic of race-based collection of statistics, recounting a story from the consultations.

“We can’t do that,” the review was told by law enforcement officials. “The Blacks [sic] don’t like us to collect that.”

“Oh no,” snapped back one of the staff. “We just don’t like what you do with them.”

Other presenters at the day:

The City of Toronto public health report,  The Unequal City (2008), which demonstrates how different health outcomes are tied to income.

Sarah Blackstock, from the Income Security Advocacy Centre, exemplified how the 25 in 5 Network has ably kept poverty reduction on the agenda. [Conflict of interest, 1st alert, I sat onthe Steering Committee for a number of months.] The Network has had to balance maintaining an authentic link to community and labour while balancing Blackberries and meetings with the Premiers’ Office and the cabinet-level Results table, now charged with implementing the poverty reduction strategy. It’s a long way from the barricaded doors of old.

Lance McCready, from OISE/UT described his work in inner city and high need schools and his participation with the People for education report on Urban and Suburban schools. [Conflict of interest, 2nd alert, I was involved in this report and P4E before that.]

Margaret Parson of the African Canadian Legal Clinic described the upcoming World Conference on Racism and her participation, with many others in the room that day, at the conference ten years ago. Parsons urged Canadian NGOs and activists to participate even if the Canadian government was choosing not to participate in anticipation of a descent into”regrettable anti-Semitism.” She concluded by reading the final version of the controversial paragraph which had sparked the furor at the 2001 World Conference, and urged participants not to allow the broader issues of racism to be so easily set aside by a government seemingly unwilling to act.

Colin Hughes gave participants the long view, describing how the unanimous (and now notorious) 1989 parliamentary motion to abolish child poverty is  nine years overdue. Yet the momentum to keep the promise has not waned through the efforts of groups like Campaign 2000. Far from defeated, Hughes kept his sense of humour, laughing about his “useless Powerpoint slides” which had lost all his labels on the graphs.

Uzma Shakir, filled out the panel, and finished with a candid and rousing summary:

  • Racism might not be healthy for us,but anti-racism is.
  • It’s not good enough to hope that by ameliorating poverty, you are ameliorating the effectsof race. Because if good jobs are created, they run the risk of becoming generic jobs, ones that reenfoce the same old power structures. And then people of colour will be right back where we started.
  • Race and marginalization are not a newcomer phenomenon. There is a long history to racism in Canada. Immigrationis being blurred with it because most newcomers are people of colour.
  • The issue of race has to be disaggregated. If you use averages, then you could put my head in the freezer and feet in the oven, and say my body temperature was average. But that wouldn’t mean that I was healthy.

The Colour of Poverty campaign convened the one day forum with anti-racist and poverty activists, entitled Social Determinants, Growing Colour-coded Inequality in Ontario , and Racial Justice – the Pathway Forward.

A few short hours the provincial government announced it was increasing the Ontario Child Tax benefit and funding for housing. “A classic case of Liberals under-promising and over-delivering,” said one participant as his Blackberry buzzed with the leak of the announcement. “They undercut us again.”

Not that many minded. (But we’ll see what the provincial budget holds.)

December 16, 2008

The Underestimated Role of Community Based Agencies

Community-based agencies have gotten short shrift in recent Ontario government reports. Community agencies are almost invisible in  the Roots of Violence and Poverty Reduction Strategy reports.  Yet, they should be central to any policy solution.

Provincial (and national) governments need to make the same adjustment that has been made on international stage over the past decades. Development aid used to be flowed between governments; but from the 1970s onwards, non-government organizations were recognized as being a more capable, effective and responsive means to respond to human need. When given the resources, NGOs are more nimble and able to provide what is needed on the ground. This truism has not been recognized at the local level.

If, as one academic defined it, social disorganization is “the inability of a neighborhood to solve its problems together,” community agencies act as a counterforce to social disorder. In sum, community-based agencies sit at the centre of what creates “good” neighbourhoods and therefore healthier populations. That is they provide

o Common physical space (third place),

o Community services, to meet need, and

o Social networking, and therefore civic engagement, opportunities.

The first element is about the value of community-based organizations in the provision of community space, the evolution of the idea of “third place,” spaces outside private homes and workplaces, where community connections can develop. Community agencies provide this – with no or little fees.  All the Social Determinants of Health debates discuss the importance of social belonging and community connections, fostered through interactions with those around us.

Community agencies are defined, most commonly, through the second element, that is community programs. It also is the source of almost all funding.

However, I want to flag another research vein which has emerged around the third element they contribute.

Some recent research from Harvard Professor Robert Sampson (who co-developed the idea of collective efficacy) is finding:

“that dense social ties, group memberships, and neighborly exchange do not predict a greater propensity for collective action at the community level in the city of Chicago. The density of community nonprofit organizations matters instead [emphasis added], suggesting that declines in many forms of traditional social capital may not be as consequential for civic capacity as commonly thought.”

Community-based organizations are qualitatively different, he argues, in part, because they are tied to the public good more than to private interests (such as those found in resident associations, faith groups or bowling leagues).

See Sampson’s groundbreaking study for more details. Because of the breadth of the analysis and the innovative theory development, this is, if I can be “un-academic” for a minute, such a good study

In 2005, the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce grappled with the idea of a “neighbourhood effect” when it identified priority neighbourhoods which had low levels of community infrastructures. This gap analysis made sense at that point, as a counterbalance, because so much of the focus had been on social need. However, Sampson’s research underscores a different understanding of how neighbourhoods work: neighbourhoods with low levels of community infrastructure are the poorer precisely because they lack social service structures. If a lack of community structures results in more isolation and deprivation, any remedy has to involve creating and supporting these same structures.

Support for community-based agencies must be explicit in any policy solution. So, why isn’t it explicit?

Community agencies are being left out because they are seen as a means rather than an end.

That’s a serious underestimation.

November 15, 2008

Roots of Violence report

Reports come and reports go. (Recently, some housing activists, bemoaning this truism, thought an effective protest might be to build a home out of all the housing reports which have been released on the topic.)

Into this environment, the long-awaited Roots of Violence report was released at Queen’s Park Friday (the last day of a week being a (non-)noteworthy day itself in the news cycle). And, this new report cited the decades-long list of reports which have covered the topics of youth violence, racism and poverty. The Literature Review for the report is 570 pages alone. A separate volume of commissioned research papers is almost as long, and an additional volume on “community perspectives” was included in the release.

One goes into these things, hoping again this isn’t the perennial re-arranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic. What we are looking for are lifeboats.

The Roots of Violence report sets out thirty recommendations, three for “priority implementation.”

The first, to provide universal mental health for youth, costed at $200 million. The report authors write that they believe this cost estimate is “manageable” within the current government’s term of office.

Second, the report recommends some anti-racism initiatives – calling for the establishment of a Cabinet Committee and Premier’s Advisory Committee on Social Inclusion and Anti-Racism; the training of front-line police officers; and teacher and school principals to “better reflect the neighbourhoods they serve”. (Nothing new here, and no specifics to get us there.)

The third priority recommendation is a call for “steps [emphasis added] towards community hubs….Another winter and spring should not go by in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods with there being no safe place for youth to gather and play.” No costing is attached to the recommendation, so it’s also not likely to get far.

In their comments at the press conference, the authors largely focused the psychological and social effects of the criminalization of youth. McMurtry expounded how, with his fifty years in the justice system, both he and Police Chief Bill Blair knew that jailing kids was “a simplistic solution.” True enough, but aside from offering there are no “quick solutions,” little to move the agenda forward.

The report does suggest two other interesting bits:

  • A Youth Policy framework, a re-work of a low-key report released earlier this year at United Way Toronto. Another call to break down silos and improve service coordination. Perhaps it will work this time.
  • The development of an Index of Relative Deprivation to help target interventions at the neighbourhood level (Census Dissemination Area). Using census data, the Index gives an early hint at what the province might use in its soon to be announced Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Still, considering the vagueness of the report’s recommendations, I’m keeping my life jacket on. The ship is still sinking.

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