Interview with Stephanie Procyk and Ruth Crammond from United Way Greater Toronto

Par Andrea Kovas Sykes , Ontario Hub Coordinator
03 March 2021

Interview United Way Greater Toronto - Stephanie ProcykStephanie Procyk is the Senior Manager of Research, Public Affairs, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Greater Toronto.  She is an experienced researcher who works on developing implementable evidence-based cross-sector solutions to pressing issues. At United Way, she has led United Way’s work on precarious employment in collaboration with McMaster University and the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario Research Group (PEPSO). Her work includes several high-profile reports including Building Better Business Outcomes Through Workforce Security (2017), The Opportunity Equation (2019; 2017; 2015), Getting Left Behind (2018), The Precarity Penalty (2015) and It’s More than Poverty (2013). Stephanie previously worked in consulting with Open Policy Ontario and in mental health services and labour organizing in Chicago. She completed her BA at McGill University and her Master of Public Policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy.

Interview United Way Greater Toronto - Ruth Crammond

Ruth Crammond is the Vice President of Community Investment & Development with responsibility for a broad range of United Way investments and agency partnerships in Community Services, as well as the place-based work in our Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy. She joined United Way in 2014 as the Director of Community Services and Capacity Building. In that role, she oversaw the transformation to a new investment model for United Way for the largest portion of United Way investments in the community.

Ruth has many years of experience working in the community services sector in Toronto. She began her career with United Way-funded agencies, working as a summer camp counsellor at Central Neighbourhood House, and a drop-in worker in a program for homeless people at St. Christopher House. She has held several senior management roles in United Way-funded agencies, including Executive Director at Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood Centre and Director of Housing and Shelters at YWCA Toronto. Ruth holds a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s University and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Toronto.

Interview with Stephanie Procyk and Ruth Crammond from United Way Greater Toronto

Interviewer: Andrea Kovacs Sykes

Andrea Kovacs Sykes (AKS): Can you discuss your respective roles at United Way Greater Toronto and how you first got involved with them?  

Stephanie Procyk (SP): I’m currently the Senior Manager of research, public affairs, public policy, and evaluation and have been working in this role with United Way Greater Toronto for the past nine years. My position has enabled me to work at the crossroads of research, public policy, communications and strategy to help United Way deliver on its mission. My work has included leading the SSHRC research initiative we had with McMaster University, called Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario ( PEPSO), working on the Opportunity Equation series, and leading the research and policy work during the pandemic in the past year. In terms of how I first got involved with United Way, I started working for them a year after I moved to Canada. I knew the organization by reputation, not only for their research, but for how they connect the needs of the community with policy-makers, and policy decisions that will have an impact on the ground. I have been really honoured to work at United Way for the past decade. 

Ruth Crammond (RC): I’m the Vice President of Investment and Development at United Way Greater Toronto. My role is to work with our many partners, but with a primary focus on the network of agencies that receive funding from United Way to oversee the funding and allocations. Similar to Stephanie, I work with our other partners, including the government, corporate partners, donors, our research team and our public policy team. With them, we identify where we should be investing and how to leverage our community sector partnerships to influence public policy towards looking at more systemic issues that we believe need to be addressed to get at the underlying causes of poverty. In terms of how I first became involved with United Way, I have worked for community organizations for a few decades, mostly with United Way-funded agencies. My involvement ranged from frontline services as a social worker to managing and leading organizations they funded. This allowed me to experience United Way from a grantee perspective before joining them directly seven years ago.  

Rebalancing the opportunity equationAKS: In the Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation research project, income inequality has been recognized as a critical issue in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Has COVID-19 brought forth any additional issues or only exacerbated existing income inequality? 

SP: This is a great question, one that we have been thinking about a lot over the past year and one I anticipate we will continue to think about. When we did this research on the Opportunity Equation series, we were thinking a lot about how it’s a point of civic pride for the GTA that it is such a diverse region, that we are such a great place for young people and for immigrants to have a good start. However, one of the things the research revealed is that there are certain groups who are really feeling the burden of inequitable access to opportunities, which is connected to growing income inequality. These are young people, racialized groups, immigrants, women and people living in neighbourhoods of increasingly concentrated poverty. Opportunities have become more inequitable through time, which was demonstrated in research before COVID-19. One of the things that COVID-19 has revealed is that inequity is only getting worse. People are anticipating this K-shaped recovery and it is clear that it is taking hold. A K-shaped recovery is seen when discussing an economic recovery where a segment of the economy is able to climb back up while another segment continues to suffer [1]. When we look at the data from Toronto Public Health and look at who is being more impacted by COVID-19, on both health and economic fronts, we see that if you are low income, earning less than $30,000 to $50,000 a year, you are significantly more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. When we look at the different aspects of what opportunity means: having secure housing, a stable job or enough income, COVID-19 is now becoming yet another barrier to getting access to opportunity. Has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these trends? Yes, definitely. In the coming years, I believe research will be able to demonstrate this more clearly and demonstrate how the pandemic has impacted people and places. 

AKS: There were 12 recommendations in the Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation, with three overarching goals: ensuring everyone can participate in society, enabling people to get ahead, and making life more affordable. As a result of COVID-19, would you make any adjustments or include any additional recommendations?   

SP: In some ways, these 12 recommendations actually fit very well within the context of the COVID-19 crisis. As the report title indicates, they are designed to rebalance the opportunity equation, to close these opportunity gaps in a wide variety of ways. The recommendations included addressing child care, and addressing equity gaps for racialized populations along with racism and discrimination, which are issues that have increased in significance. When we think about how these recommendations need to be changed going forward, it’s about being intentional, thoughtful and planning well in terms of the decisions we will make in the future to address the K-shaped recovery issue. Looking at this list of recommendations, one of the areas we talk about a lot is community benefits agreements. United Way has worked on employment-based community benefits agreements, which are a win-win-win situation. They are cross-sectoral agreements made between unions, the private sector, government and the community sector, to provide support for low-income and multi-barriered people to connect with employment, training and post-secondary education opportunities. Employers benefit because they get a stronger workforce, and as Canadian governments look to invest in the expanding of infrastructure [2] they are able to take advantage of these infrastructure opportunities. It is a great way to engage local communities. We know infrastructure will probably be on the table as a way to stimulate the economy going forward, so how can we leverage community benefits from these infrastructure opportunities, whether it be employment or housing? I think the Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation recommendations are a very solid foundation for us to address these gaps. 

RC: Another point I feel has been highlighted by COVID-19 is one Stephanie mentioned earlier: the intersectionality between populations, poverty, place, and underlying issues.  I think we have learned from the pandemic that from a philanthropic point of view, investing in local solutions that link up to public policy and broader systems initiatives is a sustainable way of approaching solutions. This will allow us to make progress on addressing poverty with an effective strategy. For example, one neighbourhood in Central North Toronto, Lawrence Park has 145 COVID-19 cases per 100 thousand population, while another neighbourhood, in North Etobicoke, Humber Summit, has 1316 cases per 100 thousand population. This is a perfect demonstration of the stark differences in terms of how the pandemic is affecting people. We know this is partly because people are more precariously employed in certain neighbourhoods, often racialized people or people who face other barriers to being able to stay safe. In terms of solutions, Public Health was providing general public health messages regarding staying home and not using public transit that didn’t work in certain communities. What we saw is that we needed community-based and localized agencies and leadership that came out of the North Etobicoke area. United Way was able to convene and coordinate those services with the local government. We realized that these individual agencies had the ability to go deep into communities but weren’t always linked to public policy decisions related to adequately handling COVID-19; such as where was the testing, who controlled the testing, was it being done the right way. United Way played a connection role and set up some local solutions, such as mobile testing, with small organizations like Somali Women and Children’s Support Network Organization and other local agencies that have been able to help people get to and from testing facilities. It’s a strong strategic approach that is based on the data and the research.  

AKS: So, looking to the community for solutions is important because what might work in one area might not work in Toronto as a whole? 

RC: Exactly. In philanthropy, we need to work very locally as the community understands the issues at a much deeper level. The community in North Etobicoke raised the issue with us back in May and therefore we were able to start working on solutions. The data showed what they already knew. The research helps in supporting the issues, identifying the patterns and then pushing for the more systemic policy changes that are needed.  

SP: United Way plays an important role as they bridge the gap between community and government, connecting those two pieces.   

AKS: How has civic likeness and social cohesion been impacted as a result of COVID-19? 

SP: I think one big message that circulated at the beginning of the pandemic, was that we are all in this together: we must flatten the curve. However, It has become clear that we are not all in this together, we are all experiencing it differently. As Ruth mentioned, the Public Health messages stuck with certain populations, those who were able to stay home. Other populations, for instance, those living in overcrowded housing or essential workers who have to get out every day,  find themselves living a very different experience than those able to work from home. Data that came out of other Think Tanks covering who had actually lost jobs showed that gains in employment for women had been turned back by thirty years during the pandemic. This especially has a significant impact on low-income women and low-income populations. Civic likeness is referred to in the report as the glue that holds us together. Civic likeness enables social cohesion, which is about us working together. This connects to the concept of social capital and trust in institutions and each other. When we are having different experiences, the lack of social cohesion will lead to a wider divide and negative impacts on both social life and the economy going forward.  

AKS: I had always felt that in times of crisis, like this pandemic, you could see people coming together more.  

RC: I think everything Stephanie has said is true regarding the overall patterns at the systemic level. However, at the local level, we are seeing people coming together. We have been amazed at the success of our United Way campaign this year in spite of how many people feel precarious in their employment. We had an outpouring of support. We are witnessing widespread generosity and people working together better. Different levels of government have been working with the community and health sectors. In terms of service solutions, we are seeing volunteers come forward and grass-root initiatives emerge to help their communities. I think that gives us a foundation to build on but I keep Stephanie’s point in mind about the broader policy issues, especially as we go into the recovery period. People have come together during the pandemic, but the question is what will the recovery look like and will everyone be included in that recovery process, otherwise, there could be further division.  

AKS: Have you seen an alignment between the factors identified as barriers to success (age, immigration, status, gender, belonging to a racialized group, and postal code) and how United Way Greater Toronto delivers funds from the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund 

RC: I think the Federal Government recognizes United Way as a partner with the ability to reach out to the community service network and make sure those funds are going to get to the right places and populations. They partnered with us because we have a national network. Each context is different and each local United Way understands their local community. Our grant-making selection process for this emergency funding was based on first identifying, based on our research, where the needs were based on location, population needs and who were the most affected and most vulnerable. We intentionally targeted our investments towards initiatives designed to meet the needs of neighbourhoods where these vulnerable populations live, and with culturally appropriate services. Of the project funded, racialized communities received 65%; newcomers received almost 65%, and seniors received 60%. In the second round of applications, we asked for more information about project leadership: 17% of funded projects were focused on and led by Black communities because we identified them as a significant group impacted by the pandemic.  

Another point I would like to add would be that we distributed New Horizons for Seniors funding, a Government of Canada grant to provide essential services to seniors, across the country. In Toronto, these new programs targeted different cultural groups, because we know that in implementation, many seniors don’t want to eat the standard food baskets. Being able to get a meal or food basket that contained familiar foods that they would know how to eat was critical. The research allowed us to know the populations and understand service needs. 

AKS: What were some of the projects that were supported through the Local Love Fund that was launched by United Way Greater Toronto in March of 2020? 

RC: Overall, as it was very early on the pandemic, we had to trust what agencies on the ground were telling us were the critical needs. We tried to make sure we were reaching the right populations and places based on our data. We saw the need for technology both for agencies to shift to working remotely but also for clients who might not have cell phones or cell phone plans.  The question of access to food came up rapidly because there were a number of seniors and homeless people who might have been going to in-person congregate food programs. United Way was able to work with our donors to get money on the ground quickly.  

Other examples are systemic in nature. We scaled up a financial empowerment program across the GTA. It was a successful model that had been piloted in downtown Toronto. We worked with Prosper Canada to make sure people could access the incomsupports they were entitled to during the pandemic. As we know, access to income supports was critical to ensure a secure income during the pandemic especially for those dealing with precarious employment.   

AKS: How has COVID-19 impacted United Way Greater Toronto’s relationships with its different partners, in the private, public, and community sectors? 

RC: I think what has really been promising during the pandemic is that people understand the importance of working together. As Stephanie mentioned earlier, United Way can be a bridge across these different partners, which is crucial to have in an emergency and be able to address issues of poverty and inequality. We also worked closely with our local government early in the pandemic: organizing community tables and calling clusters to get information to and from emergency response centers from each region to the ground. We also worked with the city of Toronto on the Final Report COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy: Advice from the Homelessness Service working toward long-term housing solutions for people experiencing homelessness, which was grounded in research and public policy work. We were able to work with the community sector and both local and federal governments in moving people into hotels and more permanent housing. This shows how when everyone is working together at the policy level, we can make a positive change for the most vulnerable among us.  

AKS: Has the United Way Greater Toronto been able to utilize data from its 211 service to better assist the community during COVID-19?  

RC: We have been partnering with 211 since the beginning of the pandemic. One reason was for the data. We learned that the early calls were about food access and health information. The next wave of calls increasingly became about financial security. Now, we have many calls around mental health issues and domestic violence. We also partnered with 211 for system navigation. We have pushed for all our funded agencies, federally funded and United Way funded, to put all their changing data into the 211 database. This allows people to be directed to up-to-date information on services. For example, the federal government has invested in a great initiative to provide hotel rooms for people to isolate themselves. As more information becomes available, 211 will publish it.  

Toronto Fallout ReportAKS: The Vital Signs report conducted by the Toronto Foundation stated that in the midst of the pandemic, the greatest challenge will be working towards a just and inclusive community. How do you see the United Way Greater Toronto working towards achieving this goal? 

RC: This is what United Way has been working on for the last fifteen years, there is no just society without addressing inequality and poverty. At United Way, we have an in-house research team that works on revealing the issues. The next step is figuring out the systemic solutions. This requires people working together over the longer term to make a difference. Other than emergency funding or testing and piloting a new initiative, our investment approach is to give longer grants, over three to five years.  We fund general operating support for a large number of agencies, as we understand they need to be able to shift in response to the changing needs on the ground and we have to work in partnership with them in doing so. Recently, we have identified the need to do more and better work with organizations that are Black-led, Indigenous-led, and led by other communities experiencing poverty to strengthen those organizations and expand our partnerships.  

SP: When I think about how our research was used during the COVID-19 pandemic, it enabled governments to move more quickly and to address existing needs on the ground. For example, we spent several years doing work on precarious employment and looking at how it was impacting individuals, families and communities. A great success of this work was including the term ‘precarious employment’ into common parlance. People who were already experiencing it finally had a frame to identify with, and it got added to both the public and political agenda. Later, when COVID-19 came around, this issue was already on the political agenda which sped up the process of creating solutions to meet the needs of this group. When the emergency response benefit arrived, it was recognized that people in precarious employment weren’t getting the same level of benefits, and we needed to close the gap. Thanks to our previous work, the government was able to understand what was meant and address the gap quickly. I think research and public policy action is critical in identifying and addressing inequality and creating more justice.    

AKS: How effective is philanthropy in enhancing equality? 

SP: Philanthropy is one tool within the advocacy ecosystem to address inequalities in society. Philanthropy is thought of as the grant-making aspect, with investment being an important component of what we do at United Way as with other organizations. However, foundations and United Ways serve another purpose which is to engage new stakeholders. Because of our relationships with corporate partners, grassroots and advocacy organizations, United Ways are able to play a non-partisan role and bring together all of these stakeholders to work together in addressing the gaps. For example, with our inclusive local economic opportunities work, we are working in a specific neighbourhood called the Greater Golden Mile in Toronto, which is projected to be gentrified because of transit. We have been able to get BMO, key city leaders, and community sector leaders to work together in order to ensure that when this process happens, the people living there will be able to stay and take advantage of this economic development. There have been a lot of interesting pilot programs that have emerged like a small business catalyzer, and community-owned construction company This is an example of how philanthropy can actually advocate and generate inclusive local economic opportunities. We are only one of the tools. It will take all levels of government, the private and community sector to address these issues.  

RC: I think philanthropy has a couple of interesting roles. In my opinion, there are two reasons why philanthropy is so important. One is that it’s part of the social cohesion, it engages everyone in solving problems of poverty, as opposed to leaving it up to the government. I think if it’s done right it is in our collective interest to address these issues as a society, and philanthropy is an important part of that. Furthermore, it can raise issues and awareness at the same time as pilot new ways of doing things faster than some of the other players that have the capacity to do. I think innovation comes at the intersections between all the players as more discussion can occur to create better solutions as in the example Stephanie brought up with the Greater Golden Mile in Toronto. While working towards establishing effective solutions through philanthropy is important, I don’t think philanthropy should drive systemic solutions but rather contribute to them 

AKS: Is philanthropy likely to reduce the effectiveness of income-equalizing interventions? 

RC: I think philanthropy can hide or make us feel like we have addressed a problem when we really haven’t dug deep enough. It can allow us to stay comfortable, thinking we have done all we can, instead of challenging ourselves around issues of inequality. I also think we can do philanthropy in a way that pushes and challenges us to think of the many different forms of inequality and injustice and what our part is in creating systemic and structural changes to actually make life better for people. It would be easy to take a charitable approach and to window dress, the idea of helping others as opposed to enabling community voice by listening and promoting community solutions. For instance, unrestricted giving in philanthropy enables communities to come up with their own solutions whereas highly restricted giving means the philanthropists are telling people what to do. I think unrestricted giving is a great way to enable people to do things for themselves and find community-driven solutions.  

SP: Perhaps thirty years ago, United Ways’ approach to funding community services aligned more with a charitable model, without a community impact approach. Today, the work is about having a community impact, looking at long-term solutions and the root cause of why people need community services. We seek answers to how we can be addressing these challenges through policy changes and system solutions, not just for the people who are receiving the services but all low-income people. Additionally, with all the movements that have happened in the last year with Black Lives Matter and other equity movements, United Way has not been looking just at what we fund, but at how we are changing to address equity internally as an institution. I believe this is an important step in addressing equality gaps. It’s not just looking externally but also internally.  

AKS: Would either of you like to add anything before we finish?  

SP: United Way is really grateful to have the opportunities to not just talk about our work but also to work in partnership with PhiLab on research that is being done on the sector, which is critical right now. We need more data. The sector is called the invisible sector for a reason and having this in-depth research and analysis is vital to us in being able to do our work.  

RC: It is important in philanthropy to challenge ourselves to figure out the best way to address these important issues. I have said before, it is hard to do good well. While intentions are significant, examining the ways in which philanthropy is contributing and asking ourselves whether we are contributing in the right ways is critical for all of us.  

AKS: Thank you both for your time.  

Notes de bas de page

[1] Aldrich, Elizabeth. “What a recovery means, and how it highlights a nation’s economic inequalities”. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/k-shaped-recovery-definition   

[2] United Way Centraide Canada (2017) Community Benefits Agreements: Empowering Communities to Maximize Returns on Public Infrastructure Investments.