Archive for March, 2009

March 30, 2009

What is Middle Class?

The coupon clippers at Red Flag Deals had a year long debate, worthy of a sociology class, on the definition of middle class. In an extended thread, they hashed out appropriate income ranges, lifestyles and purchasing power.

It’s one of the harder questions to answer in a country like Canada where most of us see ourselves as middle class.

The “middle class” are receiving a lot of focus these days as the economy worsens. So who are we?

Earlier this week, on TVO’s The Agenda, economist Armine Yalnizyan laid out what a middle class family in Canada looks like. It lined up fairly closely to the Red:

  • You own a home, rather than rent it – this has a significant effect on your ability to accumulate wealth.
  • You can save enough to send children to after-school activities and/or post-secondary education.
  • You can save enough for retirement.
  • You can take vacations occasionally.

In advance of the Good Jobs Summit last November, Jim Stanford and Hugh MacKenzie looked at what a middle class income, or living wage, would be in Toronto. Their report for the CCPA estimates that, in a two parent family with two children, each adult, working full-time, year-round, would have to earn $16.60 an hour each for a net family income of $57,400. A single parent of one child would require a similar hourly wage ($16.15). (All this casting a different light on Premier McGuinty’s recent speculation about delaying a hike in the minimum wage.)

To find out how your family income compares to most other Canadian families, take a look at the Growing Gap’s income calculator. Adjusting for family size, it allows you to see where you sit within the range of incomes in Canada.

A final note, The Economist recently reported on a study which showed that more people in the developing world are middle-class than ever before, although, it reports, researchers  wrestled with the definition of middle class as well.

March 23, 2009

The little hockey team that could

I played hooky to watch my daughter’s high school hockey team in the City playoffs last year. I went on a whim. Work was relaxed, and she needed a ride. I drove her and equipment bags out to the suburban arena, layered up, ready to watch, reading material at hand.

By the end of the first period, the team had called me out of the viewing stands to help – me who had only ever watched one full game of hockey, help! I was assigned to door-opening duties in the box so the players could make their on/off-ice shifts more quickly.

By the end of the second period, I was shouting encouragement to the players, by name, and by the third, I was an avid fan.

As the lowest-ranked, the team was seeded to face the top team in the playoffs. But that wasn’t the only reason they were the underdog in this game.

This was a new team, put together by three Grade 11 students who had played competitive hockey. The best player on the team, a skating fiend, fitted her helmet over corn rows. The other great talent on the team was shorter than all the others by a head.

But as an inner city, high-need school, they didn’t have a large pool of talent to draw on, especially not among girls. My daughter had been tapped because she played a good game of field hockey and is pretty athletic. Others were corralled in as well.

Not the usual recruitment pool, this team.

Equipment was gathered from an assortment of family members and second-hand shops. (One of the best players was able to outfit three of her teammates from family cast-offs.) The school principal made sure they all had hockey sweaters.

The team we faced was better-equipped.

Our hockey bags had been mainly hauled on the TTC. Theirs were couriered by minivan and SUV. Our team shared four water bottles. No tray of individual bottles for them – all was shared.

At the warm-up, the other coach had dumped a bag of pucks onto the ice for her girls; we borrowed a puck from a guy hanging around the arena; he had run out to his truck to get one he thought he had. (The other team then loaned us a second one.)

My daughter’s team was also outnumbered, almost three to one, by the other team’s players. We had eight girls – so that meant everyone was vital. Our goalie had her arm in a sling before the game, but had soldiered out to her net, holding it gingerly. I shuddered every time the other team rushed her net.

Still, the story grew more Disney-esque.

Two of the eight players, there today in the City playoffs, had never skated before they joined. They learned, when they joined the team four months earlier, and there they wobbled on the ice, arms outspread like gangling windmills, forcing the other team to skate around them, these large living pylons a part of the defensive strategy. Once or twice they even connected with the puck.

With so few players, only three of the team could rest at a time and only for a minute or two. It was hard to catch your breath when you were shouting encouragement to the others on the ice, but the girls bellowed to their teammates as they grabbed a drink.

When the game was over, and the ref had to be paid, the girls hunted through their wallets. (Turns out play-offs are more expensive than regular games.) Loonies were pooled.

And still, after it was all over, the team hooted in glee. The team had managed to score a goal this time, and they reminded me gloatingly, they had been beaten way worse by others.

This team effort was sports – at its best.

Postscript: The team’s  second season has just wound up.

March 22, 2009

Advocacy in a time of change

To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Discrimination, 130 community activists gathered at the  School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. The auditorium was filled with familiar faces, with familiar messages in this old, familiar place (the old Toronto School Board office). However, this time, there was change in the air.

“We can’t sit around and watch our children die anymore,” said one presenter. “The Ontario government will use the economic downturn as a reason not to act on its commitments to poverty reduction and to the Roots of Violence recommendations,if we don’t act.”

Akua Benjamin, Ryerson Social Work professor, underlined the point, that young Black men are the ones who are dying most often, and that we need to address this specifically. Too often the broader terms of racism or people of colour occlude the particular issue of anti-Black racism.

The keynote speaker was the honourable Alvin Curling, co-chair of the recent Roots of Violence report. He has been making the rounds to numerous community meetings since its release because “writing that report was just one part” of what needs to be done.

If the recommendations are to be implemented, he explained, citizens need to push the government to carry out its commitment and to develop an implementation plan with hard goals and timelines.

Curling sounded pessimistic as some of the deadlines from the fall report loom.  However, he had people laughing out loud as he described the structural problems which lay in the way of successful implementation of the Roots of Violence report.

Siloed government ministries are like the kids in a family who each have to have their own iPod. Now, he explained, they can’t use their iPod 24 hours a day, but they also cannot share, so they each go out and get one. In fact, he explained, they won’t even tell each other what they have on their playlists.

The problem is so deep, he said, that there is no way we should throw money at it “unless the government gets its act together.”

In response to a question, Curling highlighted the recommendation on mental health supports, though, noting that this was the one recommendation which had money attached to it because of the seriousness of the issue.

Curling also touched on the topic of race-based collection of statistics, recounting a story from the consultations.

“We can’t do that,” the review was told by law enforcement officials. “The Blacks [sic] don’t like us to collect that.”

“Oh no,” snapped back one of the staff. “We just don’t like what you do with them.”

Other presenters at the day:

The City of Toronto public health report,  The Unequal City (2008), which demonstrates how different health outcomes are tied to income.

Sarah Blackstock, from the Income Security Advocacy Centre, exemplified how the 25 in 5 Network has ably kept poverty reduction on the agenda. [Conflict of interest, 1st alert, I sat onthe Steering Committee for a number of months.] The Network has had to balance maintaining an authentic link to community and labour while balancing Blackberries and meetings with the Premiers’ Office and the cabinet-level Results table, now charged with implementing the poverty reduction strategy. It’s a long way from the barricaded doors of old.

Lance McCready, from OISE/UT described his work in inner city and high need schools and his participation with the People for education report on Urban and Suburban schools. [Conflict of interest, 2nd alert, I was involved in this report and P4E before that.]

Margaret Parson of the African Canadian Legal Clinic described the upcoming World Conference on Racism and her participation, with many others in the room that day, at the conference ten years ago. Parsons urged Canadian NGOs and activists to participate even if the Canadian government was choosing not to participate in anticipation of a descent into”regrettable anti-Semitism.” She concluded by reading the final version of the controversial paragraph which had sparked the furor at the 2001 World Conference, and urged participants not to allow the broader issues of racism to be so easily set aside by a government seemingly unwilling to act.

Colin Hughes gave participants the long view, describing how the unanimous (and now notorious) 1989 parliamentary motion to abolish child poverty is  nine years overdue. Yet the momentum to keep the promise has not waned through the efforts of groups like Campaign 2000. Far from defeated, Hughes kept his sense of humour, laughing about his “useless Powerpoint slides” which had lost all his labels on the graphs.

Uzma Shakir, filled out the panel, and finished with a candid and rousing summary:

  • Racism might not be healthy for us,but anti-racism is.
  • It’s not good enough to hope that by ameliorating poverty, you are ameliorating the effectsof race. Because if good jobs are created, they run the risk of becoming generic jobs, ones that reenfoce the same old power structures. And then people of colour will be right back where we started.
  • Race and marginalization are not a newcomer phenomenon. There is a long history to racism in Canada. Immigrationis being blurred with it because most newcomers are people of colour.
  • The issue of race has to be disaggregated. If you use averages, then you could put my head in the freezer and feet in the oven, and say my body temperature was average. But that wouldn’t mean that I was healthy.

The Colour of Poverty campaign convened the one day forum with anti-racist and poverty activists, entitled Social Determinants, Growing Colour-coded Inequality in Ontario , and Racial Justice – the Pathway Forward.

A few short hours the provincial government announced it was increasing the Ontario Child Tax benefit and funding for housing. “A classic case of Liberals under-promising and over-delivering,” said one participant as his Blackberry buzzed with the leak of the announcement. “They undercut us again.”

Not that many minded. (But we’ll see what the provincial budget holds.)

March 16, 2009

A New Community Crisis Response Model: Changing the impulse for fight-or-flight towards tend-n-befriend

Everyone knows about the impulse, when cornered, to fight or flight. However a UCLA psychoneuroimmunological research team has developed a theory which says that some of us, mainly women, react to stress with a response they call “tend and befriend.” That is our first impulse is to protect the vulnerable and then to gather with others in protective and supportive clusters until the danger has passed. The research team, headed by Dr. Shelley Taylor, has tied this to levels of oxytocin and other hormones which effect our response.

When we feel threatened, rather than retreating into our homes, and locking the doors (or moving straight out of the neighbourhood), instead, we can gather together and build community amongst ourselves.  These more pro-social actions, linking ourselves to each other, are a positive and, according to Taylor and her colleagues, natural response to threat.

The power of this idea lies in how it can be applied to community development and the provision of an alternate model for community organizers in their response to crime, fear and disorder in a neighbourhood. Their work should turn to strengthening of the social ties between neighbourhood residents.

Taylor’s theory underscores Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earl’s ideas on collective efficacy: the ability and belief  of a community to bring about positive change. But more about their ideas another day.

March 10, 2009

Why Africentric Schools are a good idea

A number of years ago, a Black candidate for City council was denounced in the riding where he was running  for describing the chasm that existed between the Police and the (mainly) Black residents. Residents, he said, view the police as an “occupying army.”

The reaction in Toronto to his comment was a little like the divide that happened with the O.J. trial. Whether you nodded in recognition or shook your head in disbelief probably lined up with your racial background and your understanding of racism. It was one of the singular times that a bare racial divide in Toronto showed.

At a recent community consultation, parents at a school in the Beach, a  “white ethnic enclave,”  worried about the lack of diversity in their schools. They knew their children were not building skills for cultural competancy. And, the answer is larger than putting on a potluck and dressing up in national costumes, “saris and samosas,” as one author put it.

Race & racism is back on the public agenda with the establishment of an Africentric, or Black-focused, schools. However, this recent debate has not been so sharply divided along racial lines. Indeed, the “chattering classes” are torn around this issue.

Instead, we saw the school board’s white Chair, Director and half its school trustees  champion the initiative as a (partial) solution to address high drop-outs rates for Black students.

Opposition to the establishment of the schools centred around two arguments: abhorrence of anything that might move us back to the pain-filled days of segregation, and, secondly,  a worry that the establishment of the schools will absolve the Board of its obligation to teach all students equitably. These were well-argued positions put forward by progressive peoples.

Absent, also, from the call for Africentric schools were students. In fact the two student trustees stated that they would have voted against the motion if they had a vote. This worried me at first, but I think they are following the arc that many of us do – who wants to believe that the world is shaped by issues of race, especially as one begins to move into it?

Others who argued against the schools are those who have been successful, by mainstream standards. People like Lincoln Alexander. Holding onto a more monolithic view multiculturalism works for those who can afford it – most of the time.

These are valid points, made by many of my progressive friends, that establishing these schools moves towards segregation and separation, a trend which Canadians have fought, and that it relieves the system of a wider responsibility.

So let’s examine the objections to an Africentric school:

I do believe that the backlash to Africentric schools has come because of the fear of the painful historical realities of segregation. The backlash has come when, perhaps all so Canadian, when a model has been proposed that reverberates with a painful American history. This proposal reminds us of that shameful history and makes people nervous, and there is no doubt that segregation is a mistake.

However segregation is enforced separation. Africentric schools are not forced on unwilling people, and they are not exclusive. Anyone, by their choosing, may attend.

And, more fundamentally, in this free and democratic society, that withdrawal is a right, while perhaps troubling to some because of what it bespeaks – a failure of our civic institutions-, but it is a right.

Much as Canadians don’t like to admit it, separation – by choice – is defensible.

Ah, but the critics call, not on the public dime. Well, we crossed that river long ago. Native youth in Toronto are able to attend culturally appropriate schools. Catholics have their own culturally appropriate (publicly-funded) education system as part of the foundation of this nation.

To underline the parallel, even though Canadians ran separate residential schools for native children, there was, to my knowledge, no outcry when the First Nations schools were established in Toronto 30 years ago. We understood the withdrawals from the mainstream as divergent historical processes.

So, if the reasons against a Black-focused schools are shaky, what are the reasons for them?

The reasons are very practical.

1. Schools are already de facto segregated, in that there are monocultures already in existence. David Hulchanski’s work, most recently, highlighted the economical and racial divides within this city which play out geographically.

2. There is blood on the floor. Over 600 young Black men have died violently since the mid-1980’s. Tens of thousands have stopped their education and thousands have been incarcerated. Toronto police indicate that the city is safer than ever -unless you are a young Black men living in a high-need neighbourhood. The people in crisis, leaving schools behind, the places where they should most belong, are young Black men. At double jeopardy, through their race and class, we have abandoned them.

3. Parents of Black children have fought for years for an inclusive education – parents of white children were largely absent. And the system has not responded. In fact the school board’s equity department was gutted after amalgamation and has never recovered. The resources and library materials were shelved. Professional development withered. The Equity Foundation statement was never implemented (see  the Falconer report, for more).

Until the underpinnings of existing inequality is changed, until people who work full-time make a living wage, until affordable mixed housing is built in all parts of the city, until a school fundraiser doesn’t rise or fall depending on the wealth of its commuity, the “system” will continue to push those on the edge further out.

The bid for Afrocentric schools is a bid to break the power at the centre, to create another power base, from which, people who have chosen to walk away from the current system, can rebuild their strength, rally, and enter into discourse with the mainstream, from their own solid foundation. In the end, I guess I am a separatist at heart. But I also know from my fervid days in student politics that after we have established our own strength, we need to re-enter the fray.

These schools will give the strength to young people to do that, and in turn to make the system a more encompassing and inclusive one.

read more »

March 10, 2009

Five reasons why mixed neighbourhoods are important

Mixed neighbourhoods matter. Without them:

  1. Neighbourhoods become increasingly segregated in multiple ways: income, education, race.
  2. Some neighbourhoods and residents then live in concentrated disadvantage.
  3. Neighbourhoods with less resources have lower levels of resiliency and are less able to weather negative changes.
  4. Negative effects are felt more strongly by less mobile residents, those that are more vulnerable: seniors, children / parents, low-income, and  recent immigrants.
  5. Social problems which cluster together multiply, creating “hot spots” of social disorder, which then, in turn, spill into other neighbourhoods.

read more »

March 7, 2009

Jane's Walk, May 2 & 3, 2009

The first time I went on a Jane’s Walk I learned that there was a graveyard , filled in the 1800s with dozens of people, under the houses a few streets from my home. The homes were built right over it. On another walk, in Parkdale, I learned the architectural technique of spotting a building erected in the 1840s through its double chimneys. (“Of course!” said a historian who lives near me.)

The next year I went on a Jane’s Walk, I was trying to learn more about my new workplace, a local community agency, and issues in the area. I wasn’t disappointed; the woman who led the walk raved about the agency and highlighted key local issues. So I introduced myself and began a friendship.

Another neighbour and I have also lead walks through the “Gerrard Street Bazaar,” where I have lived for 17 years. A local restaurant, the Mahar, always supplies samosas and hot tea, a welcome treat to the thirty of us drenched by heavy rains last year.

Jane’s Walk, in honour of urban theorist Jane Jacobs, is scheduled again this year, led by the Centre for City Ecology with support from the Metcalf Foundation, the Toronto Community Foundation, Avana, and other progressive funders.

Sign up to host a walk, become a supporter, or join others for a neighbourhood stroll through the city, on the first week-end of May this year. See you on the streets!

March 5, 2009

Are hospital visitors targeted for parking violations, or are we just negligent roadhogs?

My parents go to the hospital so frequently that the last time I escorted them, they carefully coached me in how to avoid getting a parking ticket. It’s energy well-spent, given the frequency with which parking tickets are handed out around hospitals from York region, to Ottawa, from Newfoundland to Australia.

Whether you are visiting, attending a doctor’s appointment, or rushing there for an emergency, parking tickets are a common part of the hospital experience, along with high parking fees, shortages of spots, and meters which expire in short intervals.

A recent piece in the Toronto Star highlighted how frequently hospitals visitors are stung by the green hornets here in Toronto. The streets around hospital made up half of the top ten sites for parking tickets in 2007. The Ottawa Citizen found similar patterns in their examination of the issue in 2007. The Vancouver Sun also found the same, to a lesser degree.

It’s the sort of thing that drives people crazy, filling Bulletin Boards and other blogs (see here for a hilarious list of the ten worst parking tickets ever issued).

Some places in the world are trying to find a solution. Scotland now offers free parking at most of its hospitals, and Wales is considering the same, while recognizing the complexity of such an endeavor, and wondering how to discourage “freeloaders” without setting up another expensive bureaucratic layer.

Some argue, perhaps fairly, that if you own a car, you need to take responsibility for it. Residents who live near hospitals have to put up with slackers on a daily basis. It must grow tiresome.

However, hospitals are one of the likeliest places in the city where some administrative discretion should be used. People attending hospitals are often ill, or escorting those who are, and they have little control over the sorts of delays they may face once inside.

I have my bias in answer to the question: I remember a sweet and random act of parking kindness  I received at my local hospital once, when I raced, daughter in my arms, son at my side, into the emergency room. When we left, all safe a few hours later, I realized that I had parked by the entrance and not even noticed the meter by my car. But there sat my car ticket-less.

Someone had put some money into the meter.

read more »

March 2, 2009

School board releases new Learning Opportunity Index

UPDATE: The 2011 LOI has now been released. 

The voting is done. After delayed consideration and hold-out votes from a few trustees, the Toronto District School Board’s new Learning Opportunity Index (LOI) was adopted a few weeks ago. TDSB staff set to number crunching with the new variables, and today released the 2009 elementary and secondary school LOI index.

This measure of student need across the system drives some resource allocation to those highest on the Index, and so was the subject of some discomfort amongst trustees who worried “their” school would be losing resources with the re-calculation. But, as explained in another post, this index is stronger, much stronger.

The school board’s own student census of high school students and parent census of elementary students demonstrated growing income inequality. So a tool like the LOI is a remedial effort to even the odds for students. Poor students who attend poor schools do poorly because they have less. Even when the local community pulls together, bake sales and other fundraisers raise less money than one in a school with richer families. The LOI is a necessary system response to this inequality.

The strongest variable in the new LOI is the one which measures the numbers of families on social assistance. Why this is so is just speculation, at this point, but early suggestions include the variable acting as a proxy for long-term and generational poverty or for deep poverty (those on Social Assistance are well below the Low Income Measure).

The neediest school in the city lies in the junction between the 401 and Black Creek Drive, surrounded by industrial lands. Students walk through the neighbourhood bungalows from the nearby residential towers. The other most needy schools are found where we expected them, around traditional low-income areas such as Regent Park and the Jane-Finch/Black Creek neighbourhoods. Others are in or near some of the City’s Priority Neighbourhood Areas, in Scarborough, along Kingston Road or near the Lawrence Heights community. And schools which are near large Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) projects or areas with poorer housing are also popping up in the new LOI. The elementary schools with the least challenge sit, north of Rosedale, in Moore Park and Lawrence Park.

The neediest high schools are located near Jane-Finch and in Weston-Mt. Dennis, others are schools with specialized support programs or located along subway lines for easy access. The richest are near situated in or near the Lawrence Park and Leaside neighbourhoods.

Frequently Asked Questions have been attached to the new Index, further explaining its structure and use.

Staff are now turning to the harder question left to them by trustees: How do students race and ethnocultural identities affect their educational opportunities?

read more »

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