5 different communities for 5 different people

Last week, I had the chance to attend a workshop as part of a broader convention on public health. During one of the workshops, participants were put in groups and each group member was asked to share a personal story regarding a community they belonged to. We had a very diverse group of people and each person shared a very positive experience. One person shared a story of being part of an online trading community and meeting friends and neighbours through this community. Another woman shared a story of her ballet dance class and another shared a story about the community he found while conducting a research project with senior citizens. It was a wonderful workshop session and rather than a formal, structured interaction it felt like a couple of friends getting together over coffee to chat community. Hats off to the workshop facilitators who created an engaging and fun session!


The way each person defines community and how each person experiences their community is vastly different. However, some characteristics remain embedded within and these are the features that make communities healthy, these include: a sense of belonging, social inclusion, developing connections and positive experiences. Each community that was identified by group members shared these qualities.

When we approach the question of how to build healthy communities, we can use these features as building blocks.“Healthy communities” need to be places of inclusion. An exclusive healthy community is not a true healthy community. Sometimes communities can seem exclusive because of the idea of membership – but healthy communities welcome all members – regardless of age, sex, race, socio-economic status, orientation or any other factor. In Toronto I have witnessed the great diversity of people and communities and I think this is one of the greatest strengths of the city. So if you are feeling like you could use some community in your life – you are only a google search away from finding some incredible things!

Try www.findmyspark.ca  – this is a great website to help give you that push to discover a new community and contribute to your own well-being and the well-being of others.If you need some inspiration, check out this great article on Olive Dodds, who still volunteers at 102.

Happy healthy community building!








The Bartown Festival

The first community I experienced was my hometown community of North Sydney, Nova Scotia. A small industrial town in Cape Breton with a population of 6000, North Sydney is known mainly because it is where you will find the ferry to Newfoundland.

Community was a very big part of my family, my grandfather particularly was always involved in community events. There is one event that stands out in my mind that brought our community together – old people and young people alike. Inter-generational activities and engagement is so important. Interactions between old and young did not need to be facilitated in North Sydney – these were organic and regular occurrences because of close relationships with grandparents and other community elders and also because of generation after generation living on the island.

The event that brought everyone in the community out was called Bartown Festival – a week in July that included events like parades, dancing, fireworks and other activities to celebrate the culture and history of the town. North Sydney is still a busy seaport however much of the industry that kept it moving has since vanished, including coal mines and steel plants. Still, Bartown festival has remained and continues to grow each year as members of the community spend countless hours volunteering to make sure this important event continues to thrive despite changing times.


Are there any events in your community that bring people together? If you can’t think of any, this might be a great time to start your own initiative with members of your community to connect people and create a reason to celebrate!

The expat community

In some of my other blog posts I have developed more structured ideas and laid out plans to deliver on a specific topic. Today I am going to start with a dialogue I took part in this week and see where my mind takes me! Thanks for being along for the ride.

This week I had the chance to attend the Ontario Public Health Convention where I saw some amazing community leaders speak, including Tonya Surman, the founding executive director and current CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation. Tonya talked about the importance of collaboration which is central to community building. Whether you are connected to your community physically or virtually – collaboration is one of the central components in building a network of people that share aspirations, ideas or… anything, really.

Community building is a central part of my work and professional community building is definitely distinct from community building in some of its other forms. What is a professional community and how is it distinct from communities that are more connected to your personal life? I have worked in different countries around the world including in France, Kenya and Vietnam. One thing that I noticed in these experiences was that my personal and professional communities collided into an “expat community”.
Expat communities have a mixed reputation. At their very best they are diverse people connecting, exploring and sharing and at their worst they can be characterized as suffocating pools of people who are stuck in the same place with no common interest or purpose.

My experience with expat communities has been positive for the most part. I therefore wanted to share an experience of community outside of an Ontario or Canada lens and focus on the expat community in Hanoi, Viet Nam. Hanoi is a safe city where expats roam around on motorbikes, take Vietnamese language lessons and are able to integrate to a certain extent with certain groups of Vietnamese people. I have to be careful here in which language I choose because there are still glaring issues within expat communities and within Hanoi. However, it is a city that is growing with tons of culture, progress and students leading to opportunities for interaction between foreigners and locals.

One such site of community is the Cinematheque. A Hanoi feature and highlight, Cinematheque is a unique place where cultural and social events take place – engaging in conversations about ASEAN with colleagues or sharing a drink with a friend are equally likely occurrences.


The cinematheque shows local and international films and provides for evenings where there are actors, directors or other speakers. There is also a lovely outdoor bar serving food and drinks. What more could you ask for? This type of space really is the foundation for a community that has developed within Hanoi and has connected locals and foreigners and facilitated both personal and professional engagement. I have not found anything like it. Cinematheque does not have a website but for more you can check out their facebook page.

The parenting community

As the old saying goes “it takes a village to raise a child” – as a new parent, I can attest that this is true. The importance of community in child rearing allows children to develop their social, emotional and cognitive abilities while parents benefit from guidance and support. I can’t imagine raising my daughter in isolation from our family and friends and the communities that have become an important part of my life since her birth.


One wonderful thing about Ontario is that on a certain level the government has also recognized the importance of community for families. I understand that there is still much work to be done to support vulnerable children and families and I encourage community-based organizations, government and individuals to move forward to make this a priority. At the same time, the resources that were available to me, I found to be extremely helpful in venturing out there into the new, unknown world of parenting. The resources I accessed most were the Ontario Early Years’ Centres (OEYC) and the Toronto Public Library.

As you can see from the video above, the OEYC is a go-to for many new parents. Socializing with other parents and watching your baby interact with peers is a wonderful experience! OEYC is an important community resource for many families across the province and connects individuals who share a common fundamental life experience. They are places of care, diversity and understanding and contribute to healthy child development. If you are a new parent, I would recommend you check one out as soon as possible! And if you are expecting, map out the OEYC closest to you. There are programs for babies of all ages and it is never too soon to begin adventuring out in the world with your new bundle.

In the next post I will talk about the importance of libraries in community and I will feature some of the early literacy programming at the Toronto Public Library – stay tuned!


Mentally healthy communities

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Margaret Trudeau on mental health. I had recently read her book Changing My Mind and was very interested to hear about her life in person. She certainly did not disappoint with a funny and honest account about her struggle with mental health that spanned over 40 years.


It is wonderful to see that mental health is now part of a broader national dialogue on equity, health and livelihoods. We know that constructive conversation about mental health has been ignored and even ostracized over the years. Revealing anything less than complete mental health was met with judgement and mental illness carried a damning stigma. Many community initiatives are now in place to remove that stigma and to communicate and treat people who need assistance with mental health.

Bell Media has developed a very popular initiative to address this issue through social media. #BellLetsTalk aims to eliminate the stigma around mental illness through conversation.

Particular groups are at a higher risk of suffering from poor mental health – these include groups who are economically and socially marginalized. The Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario identified social inclusion, freedom from discrimination and access to economic resources as the three most significant determinants of mental health in Ontario. Communities can play a major role in helping neighbours mitigate the effects of poor mental health to reach higher levels of mental wellness. Providing programs and services that promote social inclusion – such as Santropole Roulant and the YMCA can positively contribute to a persons mental health. Safe spaces and access to fair employment opportunities are other fundamental elements of improving mental wellness for our overall population.

Starting at the community level – what can each of us do in our communities? Maybe it’s as simple as reaching out to an isolated neighbour or correcting someone when using derogatory language related to mental health – there is room for each of us to play an important role.



The first time I went to the YMCA was in Nairobi, Kenya where I was working for the Canadian High Commission. I attended a 50 minute salsa class with real Nairobians. What I discovered through salsa lessons at YMCA Nairobi (other than my limited salsa abilities) was that the Y was somewhere you could meet real people – like the authentic, fun and interesting kind. When I returned to Montréal, I immediately enrolled at the Y. When I attended classes at the Chinatown Y, I met the residents of Chinatown. When I went to the downtown Y, I met a crowd of people employed in the financial core of the city.

In my university years I had been consistently spending time with other students, suddenly imported with little local expertise. Especially in my experiences moving to other countries, I often found myself surrounded by  people just like me – when what I wanted was to befriend the locals… as cliche as that may sound. I didn’t know where to begin, where to find the real Nairobians, the real Montréalers. Until I discovered the Y.

The same goes for the Y in Toronto. Each Y is filled with members of the community, for the most part active and friendly people partaking in a communal project whether consciously or unconsciously. With services that are tailored to meet the needs of the community they serve, you can be sure to find something of interest at your local Y.

With a history that spans over 160 years in Canada the Y has made an impact on the country. James Naismith invented basketball at the YMCA and the Y has since launched a new campaign aimed at promoting active and healthy living.

If you want to get out and in your community now – check out the local Y.

Collective Impact

The term “community building” has always provoked images – at least for me – of a group of diverse people working together to foster a sense of belonging and inclusiveness in a particular neighborhood or within a particular institutional setting. Unfortunately, often times community builders are actually working in silos – focused on specific areas and competing for finite resources.


After working for the United Nations for several years – within different agencies and programmes, I saw that agencies were working toward developing more connected approaches to problem solving rather being satisfied with independent agendas. This is an evolution of sorts as over the past number of decades governments and organizations have become consumed by “specializing”. An approach that was too broad was seen as not having expertise or being too expansive to actually get anything done. People and the organizations that they created, started moving toward specializing in different areas, becoming more focused while arguably losing sight of the bigger picture.

Today we see a trend that is moving us in the opposite direction. Words like mainstreaming and streamlining suggest taking the focus and removing it from it’s silo – bringing it out there into the world. We see a heightened awareness that collaboration and coordination are key in achieving change on a bigger scale. Bringing actions, ideas and people out of their silos and putting them in the same room can do great things for society.

Take for example, the issue of homelessness. Often times people that are homeless need a wide-range of supports – just giving someone a roof will not be enough. Supports in terms of other social services are necessary to ensure that a person’s new living situation will be sustainable. Collective Impact speaks to this issue – and is now coming to the forefront as a better process for achieving sustainable social change. Collective Impact is not just your regular collaborative endeavor. It is defined as:

“a commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”

See more at: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/collective_impact

Canadians are finally catching on and the Ontario Trillium Foundation as launched a series of consultations on Collective Impact across the province. Check them out to see how you or your organization can contribute. http://www.eventbrite.ca/o/ontario-trillium-foundation-467574268