If you wanted a snapshot of the future leadership of Toronto, you could’ve got a pretty good one at the Rogers Centre on Saturday, April 26.
There, the province’s Youth Challenge Fund hosted a showcase for its community projects, each and every one of them run by young people in 13 at-risk ’hoods.
Remember “the summer of the gun” a few years ago, the designation conjuring a gritty Hollywood flick, and how riveted the media seemed to be by it? Back then, the Miller-McGuinty tag team, along with the United Way, declared 13 priority areas and promised a flow of cash from governments, aid agencies and the private sector.
Of course, the nuts and bolts of rebuilding communities – well, that’s just not 6 o’clock news material. So you can be forgiven if you thought the pols’ pledge of commitment and bucks to finally tackle this social time bomb turned to dust.
But, hey – surprise, surprise. Two years later, there have been some remarkable successes, and the most awesome are projects dreamt up by young folks themselves. The only major catch is the bane of community orgs everywhere: very few of these tuned-in projects receive stable core funding. Instead, groups are forced to divert valuable energies away from serving their base to scratch for cash.
One place this plays out is Lawrence Heights. Front-line workers there, though skeptical at first about the priority area designation, say it has made a big-time difference.
“Before, there was one harm reduction worker. For youth caught up in a spiral of violence, there was nothing on offer,” says Paulos Gebreyesus, program director at the Lawrence Heights Community Health Centre.
“Now we have a youth and outreach network of 14 workers. That is very significant here.”
The designation has attracted private-sector engagement as well. Hundreds of volunteers from the corporate sector helped build a large playground in Lawrence Heights. Perhaps more significantly, corporate managers turned up with about 100 jobs for youth in their briefcases.
“These are significant gestures,” says Gebreyesus. “None of that would have happened without the designation.”
Like many of his colleagues, Gebreyesus is concerned about not having stable funding for all these new initiatives. It’s an oft-told and sad tale: community endlessly pleads to government; government finally funds a program for a specific length of time; program hires committed staff; staff build up trust with skeptical youth; then, d’oh, program’s funding runs out; government priorities shift; staff scramble and, well, the program dies.
“It’s hard enough getting young kids just to come in the door of a program facility,” one worker tells me. “So when you finally have them in and then have to tell them the program is closing, you can see the trust drain from their faces.”So has anything really changed? Yes and no.
Take the Youth Challenge Fund. In 2006, the province ponied up $15 million over three years to fund youth-led projects, with the promise of $15 million more if YCF can find matching funds.
YCF gave grants to 92 new projects – and not one of them has stable core funding.
“YCF can’t be all things to all people,” says fund executive director Pamela Grant. “What we’re trying to do is build the scaffolding for a whole new sustainable structure.”
That impressive scaffolding was on display at the Rogers Centre event where YCF’s fledgling initiatives— from after- school b-ball programs for Tamil boys and start-up music studios to roving resource-grant-writing help for youth wanting to start their own projects — were on display.
“Right now this is the most momentum I have ever seen for systemic change in all my years,” says Grant, a one-time a special adviser on community relations in Bob Rae’s NDP government. She says in the last year of YCF’s funding, the goal is to develop bricks and mortar spaces to increase the capacity of these programs.
For some activists, though, the endless cycle of financial worry is business as usual.
“Non-profits are criticized for spending so much of their budget on administration, but we have to because we are always in fundraising mode,” says Janet Wilson, exec director of Bereaved Families of Ontario.
BFO helped with the start-up of a small summer program called Soul2Soul, to offer grief counselling to youth in the priority ’hoods who have lost loved ones, often through gun violence. It served about a dozen kids, but without YCF funding this year, it’s scrambling.
At least Soul2Soul has partnered with an experienced player like Wilson who can help navigate the fundraising world.
Disclosure here: I’m participating in a fundraising show for this org tonight (Thursday, May 1) at Mitzi’s Sister.
Says Grant, when I ask why a project like this should have to live in constant insecurity, “The youth involved in Soul2Soul really took the idea and ran with it, but now it is up to them and their partners to see where they can take the program.”
Sophia Daley of HAIR (Helping Adolescents Improve their Reflections), which runs workshops for young African-Canadian girls on self-esteem, is new to the game and is in the grant-writing, money-seeking phase right now.
Gashanti Unity, a very kickass new women’s group, perhaps the first in the city for young Somali women, has seed money to get up and running and then will be in funding mode as well.
“You can’t just throw money at programs,” says Grant. “We are teaching these youth the complicated process of negotiating the various silos and dealing with the obstacles so they can move their programs to the next level,” she says.
Sounds good, but I can’t help wondering, as positive as this, whether the lack of core funding for useful projects means governments are still passing the buck. Isn’t it time a project’s long term survival should be based on its success at service rather than its ability to prove it can raise money?