“I felt the power, I felt the fire”: Empowering newcomers to the Peel Region through participatory grantmaking

How newcomers from the Peel Region are tackling the systemic challenges they face by engaging in an open dialogue with each other

Why It Matters

Many funders are interested in moving away from the traditional grantmaking models — which have been criticized as rigid, opaque and disconnected from lived experience. Community organizations say there’s value in building a flexible system — one that can change and transform based on what a community needs at any given moment.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

This story is in partnership with World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund. 

Shortly after immigrating to Canada from India, Puneet Kaur Johal was in search of a part-time job. To her misfortune, she was only able to find work at a pizza joint where the employer was paying $7/hour — which was half the minimum wage in 2018. 

There were other students also working in the pizza joint for the same wage. And though Johal recalls that it wasn’t a bad environment, it wasn’t great. The amount of work expected for the compensation was almost absurd. She stayed for two days before quitting. 

But without finding other work immediately after, Johal was unemployed for four months. And living in Brampton, one of the top ten most expensive places to live in the country, international students need a part-time job. Luckily, Johal got a job as a tutor at Sheridan College, where she was studying. 

Johal says things worked out for her, more or less, but most other international students end up settling for underpaid work because it’s better than nothing. “I know this is a story for [many, if not all] students,” she says. “They’re vulnerable, they’re very young, and they’ve just immigrated, so they don’t know a lot about their rights and how things work, which results in a lot of students working under wage. They are the class of immigrants that are very easy to take advantage of — and employers know that.”


Creating a transparent process built on lived experience

As a member of the people’s panel for the participatory grantmaking pilot project, facilitated by the Tamarack Institute and funded by the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund, Johal was keen to speak about these barriers that exist for international students in the Peel Region. 

From 2014 to 2018, Canada saw a 68 percent increase of international students who enrolled in post secondary institutions. In the 2019/2020 academic year there were 2.2 million international students. Yet, in a 2018 survey by the Canadian Bureau of International Education, only 43 percent of international students said they were employed, and of those who were unemployed, 56 percent stated having difficulties finding a job. 

If we take a look at the wider newcomer population in Peel, the unemployment rate for newcomers aged 25-54 with a university degree, certificate, or diploma is 10 percent, compared to a 3 percent unemployment rate of the total population, according to the Peel Newcomers Strategy Group’s data from 2016. On top of that, international students are often fighting a multifront battle balancing work, school and trying to find safe, affordable housing. 

The project, launched last year, aimed to design and launch a funding opportunity through conversations and insights from community members with lived experience in Peel. The people’s panel brought together 12 people from the community who discussed in weekly sessions what the most pressing issues are within the Peel newcomer community and designed a grant opportunity accordingly.

Participatory grantmaking is a grantmaking model that aims to shift the decision-making power from a foundation to the community which is impacted by these decisions. The process values transparency into how a grant is made, and flexibility to change what’s needed based on lived experiences — whether that’s the focus of the grant, amount given, or eligible applicants. Ultimately, this grantmaking model puts trust in the community members that they know what’s best for them. 

“The main priority was to create a process that was responsive,” says Karenveer Pannu, a community animator at the Tamarack Institute — and a Peel resident — who is part of the team facilitating the people’s panel’s work. “A lot of times in these types of working groups, the outcomes are already preordained and decided … but this was a process that was really open to ongoing iteration and change.”

One of the first topics that the people’s panel tackled was surprisingly specific. They not only talked about issues like unemployment or housing insecurity but also about the language they used to talk about these issues. 

Pannu says the participants wanted to question the language they used when talking about immigrant and refugee issues within Peel, starting with the word immigrant itself. 

“People were really interrogating what it meant to be an immigrant; they were not using that word like a placeholder in their sentences, they were really thinking about the newcomers’ experience, the diversity in that term itself, and how being an immigrant and a newcomer looks different for many groups of people,” says Pannu. 

For Natalia Durango, another member of the people’s panel, making sure that undocumented immigrants were included in their shared understanding of the word immigrant was crucial. In her own career in community health services, Durango works with the Latin American community in Peel, some of whom don’t have an official immigrant status or visas.

“There is quite a lot of stigma around people who are immigrating to Canada without status, but it’s also a lack of knowledge around this population, which actually creates the stigma,” says Durango, adding that non-status immigrants are part of the Peel community in a huge way, contributing significantly to the labour force. 

Without the recognition that this population are in fact immigrants as well, despite not having status, they can be excluded from immigrant settlement services Pannu explains that the diversity within the panel itself was key in broadening the participants’ perspective of immigrant and refugee issues and understanding what issues need to be addressed the most. 

Learning from Johal’s experience as an international student was a big takeaway for Durango. “I think I didn’t have a lot of information about the challenges faced by international students. And I think this was also an opportunity for me as a professional to understand much better the exploitation that sometimes they face,” says Durango.


Challenging beliefs through a diverse panel 

Though the participants had a range of different experiences and perspectives to share, Pannu explains that discussions were always grounded in the desire to incorporate the Panel’s lived and living experiences into the priorities and objectives of this funding opportunity. 

The Panel was designed in a way that allowed members to use “dynamic dialogue,” Pannu says. This was critical in creating a space where participants could share and reflect on their diverse experiences and perspectives.

“Sometimes there’s one-directional sharing, like me saying something to you, but this wasn’t just sharing, this wasn’t just talking at each other — this was dialogue, we were engaged in dialogue, we were engaged in co-learning and co-creation…and I think that’s what people valued a lot,” says Pannu.

For some of the participants, Pannu says, working with such a diverse group made them expand their outlook and come to new understandings. “It really sharpened their own perspectives and made them feel more precise in identifying the priorities and objectives of the funding opportunity,” she says. 

For Johal, the experience of being in the panel was “visionary” as it showed her that people with lived experience can have the platform to speak, and more importantly, the agency to make change in their communities. 

“In every session, I felt the power, I felt the fire,” says Johal. “I think that having the people who have gone through lived experiences themselves [on the panel], giving them the power to make decisions about this, that’s phenomenal and that is really how it should be.” 


Shaping the final grant opportunity with participants’ input

As the group shared more about the range of immigrant and refugee experiences, the design of the grant opportunity changed along with their perspectives. 

“This process wasn’t preordained. Everything was responsive, everything was decided based on how the group was interacting with each other,” says Pannu. 

With the range of perspectives from the participants, the panel identified the need for a variety of employment supports for marginalized immigrant and refugee communities in Peel — including international students and immigrants without status. 

The panel decided to create a grant opportunity with more than one single funding stream to allow for different types of groups to apply. The total amount of funding available is $600,000 but is separated to stream one for grants of $50,000 to $75,000 and stream two for grants of $75,000 to $150,000. The distinction is to allow for both single-organization small scale projects and multi-organizations collaborative and larger scale projects. 

The final grant opportunity has a focus on supporting employment-focused efforts in Peel which prioritize holistic, responsive and collaborative solutions for marginalized immigrants. Any Peel-based or Peel-serving non-profit, community agencies or groups and collaboratives with work focusing on workforce development and immigrant and refugee settlement can apply

Through sharing knowledge, both within the people’s panel and about the grant process itself, Pannu hopes to show the power in working with a more transparent funding model that’s grounded in lived experience. 

“I think typically it’s a very hush-hush, closed door situation where people don’t really know what’s going on inside. I think transparency is important, especially when we’re working within a certain community — it’s been really great to have people from Peel involved in this process and then to be able to share these stories as well,” says Pannu.