Empowering residents to build stronger communities

4 MIN READ

“If there is anything that drives my passion, it’s when I see someone suffering, and no one is helping them.”

— Audrey, Graduate, Creating the Change We Want​

Audrey has frequently witnessed the inequities that impact the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our region and beyond. Her ambition for social change led her to the Creating the Change We Want (CCWW) program.

An initiative of the Community Development Framework, United Way East Ontario has supported the CCWW program since 2011 in helping residents build skills, confidence, and connections to make positive community change together.

Removing barriers, empowering leaders

Each neighbourhood and community in our region contain unique challenges. But there are also motivated individuals like Audrey who are ready to make a difference.  

The Creating the Change We Want Guidebook, which contains workshops and exercises, helps neighbourhood residents build skills and confidence to work on making positive changes together. The guidebook is used to empower residents like Audrey to collaborate and channel their skills into building a community where everyone belongs and addresses issues that matter to them. 

Additionally, trainees use the guide to build community connections among culturally and racially diverse neighbours which helps alleviate the impact of poverty, racism, mental health challenges and more. These discussions and activities help people find allies, gain resources, amplify voices, and build local solutions to problems.  

CCWW graduates have spearheaded a variety of grassroots initiatives that address the root causes of local issues. Many of these initiatives have been made possible with support from Women United—United Way’s women’s giving initiative—that aims to transform the lives of local women through targeted grants and investments. 

Rising to the occasion

“[CCWW] works with the people that are most affected by the biggest barriers to participation in society. It really helps to remove barriers by empowering people, by giving tools that graduates can take back to their neighbourhoods.”

— Lynda Giffen Clements, Community Developer, Creating the Change We Want 

As the pandemic reached our region in March 2020, 23 CCWW trainees had just graduated, and in-person activities were put on pause.  

It quickly became clear that racialized populations were over-represented in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Ottawa. Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and the Ottawa Local Immigrant Partnership (OLIP) also identified a worrisome trend of ‘neighbourhood clusters’ that would require a targeted response from local leaders and organizations.  

Integrating health care and social support became more critical than ever, and CCWW graduates were a part of the solution.   

Despite the barriers presented by public health restrictionsCCWW graduates continued building community by reaching out to neighbours through online methods like Zoom, WhatsApp groups, and Facebook. They helped keep people connected to each other and to the services they needed. In turn, this reduced social isolation and fostered feelings of belonging. 
 
But many residents were still struggling. For people without reliable internet and technology, the shift to digital-first has left many cut off from social connections and the services they relied on. 

“As soon as the programs and services moved virtually, we identified this huge gap in the communities where people don’t have access to internet or computers to be connected. So, they are left in a situation where they feel very isolated and their mental health is declining.”

— Tong Zhao-Ansari, Community Developer, Centretown Community Health Centre

Building connection through shared experience

To combat this, CCWW and its program graduates like Audrey brainstormed outreach opportunities. They had open and honest discussions about how to address the systemic inequities that had been made worse by COVID-19.  

With support from United Way and CCWW, Audrey now hosts an organized art workshop in Dundonald Park that helps individuals who have experienced trauma find healthy coping mechanisms. Through painting and shared experiences, participants build vital social connections while improving community wellness.  

As a facilitator using the CCWW guide for the art therapy program, Audrey’s CCWW training and lived experiences have inspired participants to follow positive mental health practices and seek additional support where needed.    

“When we discuss those things, we can actually come up with solutions. The solutions are here, with us, and with our community.”

— Audrey, Graduate, Creating the Change We Want 

Between September 2019 and December 31, 2020, CCWW graduates engaged 94 volunteers and hosted 251 activities with 1,953 participants. During COVID-19: 

✔ 81% of trainees reported increased ability to support residents in their community, despite COVID-19, thanks to training and capacity building. 
✔ CCWW graduates increased collaboration between community developers and partner organizations for initiatives like food delivery, door-to-door check-ins, and more. 
✔ 13 CCWW resident trainees found jobs, either full-time or contract, demonstrating the value of having CCWW training on a resume. 
✔ One CCWW graduate, Vivine Mbarushimana, launched and facilitated a Francophone Newcomers group to provide information, training, and connections that reduce isolation and promote mental wellbeing for Black, racialized, Francophone newcomers. 
✔ Eight CCWW graduates worked on COVID-19 outreach teams in priority neighbourhoods identified by Ottawa Public Health. Residents relied on their connection to CCWW graduates for information on vaccines, testing, safe practices and services, and wellbeing supports

Throughout the pandemic, CCWW graduates created diverse, inclusive spaces where everyone felt a sense of belonging—no matter their race, culture, language, or faith. Residents shared that they appreciated being in spaces where they could share their thoughts, feelings, fears, and experiences without judgement.  

Leading change, together

United Way East Ontario and our partners are committed to building resilient communities and addressing the critical mental health challenges facing people in our region, through the pandemic and beyond. We are stronger when services are integrated, when organizations and residents work together, and when that collaboration shows positive results for people in need.  

In partnership with programs like Creating the Change We Want and with the support of our donors, we can ensure people across East Ontario are connected in times of need.  

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Last week, we invested $2 million in 39 local programs that will support the people who are still struggling as the province begins to reopen. Read more about how we’re bolstering Indigenous and Black mental health, and fighting food insecurity, social isolation, learning loss and more.

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