A Perspective on the 2020 St. James Town Service Provider Network Leadership Forum
By Cameron Murray
The 2020 St. James Town Service Provider Network’s Leadership Forum took place on Friday November 20th, 2020. From home offices, living rooms and breakfast nooks, more than 80 participants logged into Zoom for an event successful in both its breadth and depth. With online meetings feeling more burdensome the longer we live inside this pandemic Groundhog Day, the 2020 Leadership Forum represents a significant triumph. Carefully organized presentations, breakout sessions and group chats generated an event that felt both intimate and all-encompassing. This was by design, as this year’s Leadership Forum represented a much needed reset for the SPN. This is especially true in terms of aligning on a collective vision, one that is accountable to organizations of all shapes and sizes. The emerging vision embraces how each organization is motivated by distinct social, political, and economic challenges and opportunities.
The SJTSPN Leadership Forum was appropriately framed around the amplification of multiple crises over the last year. 2020 represented a period of pandemic as well as global reckonings with cultural, political, environmental, and economic injustice. More than anything, this year has forced us to see everything from COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter to climate change and the oppression of Indigenous people as entangled, rather than separate, crises that require sustained collective action. Embracing the messiness of these intertwined crises, the Leadership Forum became a call for SJTSPN agencies to recommit themselves to working together to empower invisible, unheard and underserved members of St. James Town and beyond.
Hosted by The Corner, members from a number of community health, housing and social service organizations, as well as volunteers and residents, were in attendance. This included The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), Toronto Community Housing (TCH), Sherbourne Health, Renascent, Progress Place, and Sick Kids. The event was also attended by representatives from the provincial and federal governments, school boards and Fred Victor, among others. The privileged position of more visible and resource-rich organizations was immediately called out as the morning’s agenda unfolded. An early discussion in the group chat noted that smaller organizations, including those who support Indigenous Canadians living in the neighbourhood, are often included tangentially or as afterthoughts in decision-making. This was an early but telling example of the core theme that shaped the day’s events. Community health and social service organizations often speak the language of cross-organizational collaboration, but something much richer was bubbling to the surface on November 20. What emerged was a theme centered on the need to reappraise what collaboration can and should look like within the SJTSPN.
The day’s activities began with a summary of the SJTSPN’s organizational and service model. This model has evolved over the last two and a half decades. Central to the model is making St. James Town “A Neighbourhood of Choice to Call Home,” through a flexible approach to community organizing, partnership building, resident engagement, and strategic communications. Critical to ensuring these pillars are representative, the model promotes an inclusive governance structure and the development of a “collective identity.” To do this within the messy realities of 21st century urban life, the SJTSPN’s model is not static but a dynamic living entity. Baked into the model is the need for constant change and adaptability. Perfection is viewed as both impossible and an unhelpful motivation for facilitating better collaborations between residents, service providers and community organizations. As the 2020 Leadership Forum unfolded, it became clear that inclusivity and collective identity are necessarily moving targets. These categories shift alongside demographic, political, social, and economic changes that make 21st century urban communities so challenging.
As was the case throughout 2020, timing is a key element of the sense of immediacy and impatience that has lingered in the months following the SJTSPN Leadership Forum. The event was held mere hours before the governments of Toronto and Ontario announced plans for another wave of late autumn COVID-19 lockdowns. This added a layer of weight to the breakout sessions that followed presentations of the SJTSPN’s model and social charter. More than 80 participants (53 of whom stayed for the full three hour forum) were divided into discussion groups, each focused on a principle, domain or action area critical to the SJTSPN’s goal of making an eco-friendly, healthy, safe and responsive community, as well as a skilled and thriving neighbourhood.
Each group found themselves reflecting on how COVID-19 challenged these domain areas during the first wave of lockdowns in March and April. Anticipating the afternoon’s announcements of new lockdown measures, participants grappled with what it means to be both proactive and responsive in moments of collective crisis. COVID-19 provides a powerful test for the SJTSPN’s commitment to better defining collaboration and collective identity. As a blanket crisis, COVID-19 generates conflicting challenges for individuals, groups, organizations, governments, countries, and the world at large. The scale and scope of the physical, cultural, environmental, and economic impact of the pandemic requires community organizations to find better ways of working together.
Participants pushed back on the value of a unified SJTSPN vision and plan. Rather, they wanted the network to more fully embrace core differences that make each organization, regardless of size and access to resources, critical to the physical, economic, and environmental well-being of St. James Town. As a loose and dynamic amalgam, the SJTSPN’s biggest challenge is identifying and strategically utilizing the unique values and expertise of member organizations. Participants noted the ways that individual organizations silo themselves from one another. This leads to unnecessary competition for resources, or initiatives that redundantly and ineffectively target social, healthcare, and environmental challenges. How, the forum ultimately asked, can organizations better tap into one another’s strategic plans, knowledge, and resource gaps, as well as immediate, emerging and long-term needs?
In a word cloud generated towards the end of the forum, the emerging answer seemed to be approaches to collaboration, inclusivity and collective identity based on, not in spite of, core differences. What the forum revealed was the need for a scrappy and always imperfect approach to collaboration based on awareness of the diverse voices–from emerging identity groups and newcomers to long-underserved Indigenous communities–not yet heard.