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‘Think like a farmer:’ How to make an impact in rural communities


In 2017, the four United Ways of Prescott-Russell, Ottawa, Lanark County and Renfrew County came together in the spirit of trust and to maximize the power of our collective voice and shared expertise. In 2019, we announced our new name: United Way East Ontario. 

The amalgamation of our United Ways presented an opportunity to serve both rural and urban communities, take stock of the resources that we can use and share across our region, and celebrate the duality of rural and urban by ensuring we achieve maximum impact across all the communities we serve. 

Over the five years that we’ve been on this journey, we’ve built relationships with hundreds of partners who have helped us live up to our mission of bringing people and resources together to build strong, healthy, safe communities for all. 

We’ve worked together to release a region-wide strategy to address the needs of informal caregivers, we’ve expanded virtual mental health counselling, seniors supports, and helplines for women fleeing violent homes so residents in rural areas have equitable access to vital social services.

By Agata Michalska 
Director, Regional Affairs, United Way East Ontario 

As we continue this journey of strengthening our region, we’ll be using what we’ve learned to develop a strategy that allows us to better understand and communicate the role that United Way East Ontario must play in rural and remote communities. 

Together with experts and those with lived experiences, we’re building the foundation for this strategy by exploring these key questions:

What does it mean to be rural?  

Statistics Canada classifies ‘population centres’ in three levels, ranging from areas with 1,000 people to areas with more than 100,000. But for United Way, basing a definition on census figures makes defining rural areas more challenging, because we know rurality is based on rural interests.  

According to the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA), ‘rural interests’ means looking at the unique conditions that define the rural context—such as access to socio-economic elements like income, education, and occupation—as being the most important driver of an area’s rurality.  

This means we must change more than language. We must re-imagine a way of working that puts rural communities first, with their own networks and needs.  

Mayor Robin Jones at United Way East Ontario's February 2022 Community Impact Cabinet Meeting

“It’s easier to look at an urban centre and form assumptions about the relationship that rural communities have in relation to that urban centre. The relevance of the rural communities is in direct proportion to that assumption. And we have to break that down.”

United Way uses data supported by the Eastern Ontario Regional Data Project, the Senior Vulnerability Index, the  Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, and the Neighborhood Equity Index to paint a picture of how the communities we serve are distinct from one another. Along with conversations with community groups and additional resources from partners, this analysis informs the collaborative approaches we take, the research we pursue, the programs we fund, and the advocacy we do on a municipal, provincial and federal level.  

At the core of it all are the rural residents that depend on us: Indigenous peoples, women and girls, the 2SLGBTQ+ community, francophones, seniors, people with disabilities, and others who are more prone to vulnerability because of historical and systemic inequities. 

What issues should we focus on?  

United Way’s work is about equity. We want to ensure all people have equal access to opportunities, regardless of their race, gender, ability, education, work experience—or in this case—location. Where you live should not determine your outcomes in life. 

There are many unique challenges facing people in our rural communities that can affect their vulnerability. Think: long-distance and infrequent transportation options to and from day-programs for seniors; unreliable internet access for kids who are learning virtually; and a lack of emergency shelter and affordable housing for youth experiencing homelessness. 

The key word here is access. We’ve identified some areas that we want to focus on, not because they are issues, but because there may be a lack of access: 

  • Rural residents struggle with food security due to a lack of access to grocery stores or mobility issues. 
  • It’s estimated that 1 in 8 Canadians are food insecure, which means people have inadequate access to food primarily due to financial constraints. Food insecurity can look different for everyone: skipping meals so children can eat, buying the cheapest, most unhealthy food just to have food on the table, or going days without eating to cover other bills. 
  • Access to after school programming or learning activities in rural areas is impacted by transportation, digital connectivity, and available resources, preventing children in rural communities from having the same access to resources as kids in urban areas.
  • In the rural communities we serve, proportionally fewer residents between the ages of 25 and 29 have graduated high school compared to those in Ontario’s urban centres. 
  • Rural communities consistently have lower employment rates than urban areas. 
  • Employment looks different in our rural communities—the types of jobs and income opportunities is different from urban centres. Rural residents have also reported higher levels of work-related stress.  

  • Rural residents in the lower-medium income bracket spend far more of their before-tax income on shelter and food security than those in urban areas. 
  • While healthcare is not something United Way works on to a great extent, we are concerned with the social determinants of health, which work upstream to prevent health concerns in the future.  

  • According to the Profile of Wellbeing in Rural Ontario, fewer rural residents rated their overall health as very good or excellent compared to residents of urban centres, and a higher percentage are living with health-related conditions that can limit their participation in activities, and hinder their social wellbeing. 
  • There is a lack of access to specialized resources and services, with people often having to travel to urban areas to meet with professionals. 

  • The beauty of living in rural areas is the human connection and tightness of the communities. But the downfall of living in small, rural communities is that many people know who you are. When there are resources available, people may feel the need to travel further to access support if they want to ensure confidentiality.  
Barriers to consider when thinking about access to rural services: 
  1. Transportation: A reliable vehicle is necessary for rural residents to access essential services and social interactions. Without affordable, flexible transportation options, many residents are faced with isolation or poor health outcomes.

  2. Digital equity: Many residents in our rural and remote communities do not have access to a strong, fast, and reliable internet connection; may not understand how to safely and effectively use technology and information tools, and don’t have access to digital devices. This means many are limited from participating in fundamental services and activities online, like healthcare, education, and employment.
  3. Systems navigation: The distance that’s inherent with rurality impacts how information is shared and how residents become aware of available resources. Informal information sharing has been severely impacted during the pandemic as meeting places were no longer available for in-person attendance—leading more people to depend on technology, the internet, or direct outreach from social service agencies. 

How can we better serve people in need? It’s not one-size fits all. 

How to make a meaningful, measurable impact in rural and remote communities begins with one basic understanding: rural communities are unique, and differ fundamentally from large urban centres. Approaches that are successful in central Ottawa won’t necessarily work in Alfred and Plantagenet, Killaloe, or Carleton Place. 

To start, we’re all governed differently. There are 35 municipalities in United Way East Ontario’s catchment. 34 are classified as ‘lower-tier’ municipalities—governed both on the County level, and as towns, villages and townships within Prescott-Russell, Lanark, and Renfrew counties. Ottawa is the outlier—it’s considered a single-tiered municipality since it’s governed by one municipal administration.  

This feeds into a second truth, which is that change happens differently in rural areas.  

Eva Oloumi at United Way East Ontario's February 2022 Community Impact Cabinet Meeting

Eva Oloumi, Founder of Paradiegma—a consulting service which helps mission-driven organizations tackle seemingly unsolvable problems—helps us break this down. 

“Making change in remote and rural areas is difficult using traditional hierarchical communication models. It's more beneficial to think of the community as an organic network.”

People are less reliant on centralized coordination or communication for day-to-day activities, and may be more likely to be entrepreneurs, says Eva. So, we have to use collaborative approaches to engage rural stakeholders themselves. 

Eva, who has been working with United Way to lead conversations in Prescott-Russell about building resiliency in the local food ecosystem, has seen first-hand how mindset shifts are important when trying to address the root causes of complex social problems in rural communities. 

“Trying to make change in rural contexts is very personal. It’s not a subset of people making decisions for an entire city where the people who are going to receive the end impacts are distanced from you. Often, you’re talking about people’s own family, friends, or neighbours,” says Eva.

Eva’s tip: Think like a farmer 

“Instead of trying to control outcomes, you’re trying to create the right context for change to happen,” she says. 

Traditionally, people have been taught to solve problems by thinking of them as ‘hubs and spokes,’ or linear, cause and effect relationships.  

“Farmers and people close to the land know everything is interconnected. Everything relies on something else for survival. Change emerges not in their arrangement, but in the flow of communication and information.”

So, if you need to create context for the change you want to make, think of it like a homemade loaf of sourdough bread: you have to put the right ingredients together—making sure the water is at the right temperature, giving the starter time to form yeast, and then you let these independent agents do their own thing.

The hub-and-spoke concept of economic development argues that a large urban area should serve as the main engine of economic growth, which then trickles down to smaller, peripheral communities. The assumption is that the gains from investments in larger urban areas will spill over to the surrounding rural areas.

Looking ahead: Breaking out of the hub and spoke 

One key thread that stands out in all of our conversations with rural experts, is that relationship building is a crucial part of working in rural communities. 

“Educate and engage with all segments of the community. Allow participants to drive the agenda and listen to their stories. Learn and adapt to changing community needs and desires.”

Our partners see United Way’s role as one that continues to build capacity—creating the spaces for change to happen, being a facilitator, dedicating resources, making connections, and prioritizing the time for collaborative conversations that strengthen rural communities. When exploring rural needs and solutions, we must always put rural communities first and abandon the hub and spoke model.  

“Rural Ontario contributes over 300 billion dollars a year to our GDP, so we need to move together as rural inhabitants, employees, residents, to help the government understand that we cannot be boxed into the hub and spoke. Being successful in rural Ontario means breaking this down and understanding that we deliver the services.” – Mayor Robin Jones, ROMA Chair. 

Mayor Robin Jones also reminds us that, with strong mayor and councillor representation from our catchment on the ROMA board, we have leverage when it comes advocating against systemic challenges like provincial regulations that get in the way of creative, rural initiatives. “We cannot miss these opportunities,” she says.  

As a United Way employee and Prescott-Russell resident, it’s thrilling to have a hand in making an impact in communities and neighbourhoods that mean so much to me. Thank you to our expert partners across Prescott-Russell, Lanark County, Renfrew County, and rural Ottawa, for always being ready to share your knowledge and experiences. We look forward to continued conversations as we move ahead in this important work.




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