This story is in partnership with the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Before The East Scarborough Storefront opened 20 years ago, social services for the disproportionate percentage of community members living below the poverty line were scarce.
“There was very little [philanthropic] money on the table and a huge crisis in the community where people were struggling with marginalization and racialization. Refugees were arriving and there were virtually no services in the neighbourhood,” says Anne Gloger, principal of The Storefront.
The creation of The Storefront came after public health workers and volunteers from the Caring Alliance saw that something needed to change. They contacted various agencies that were mandated to service East Scarborough but hadn’t been able to reach as many community members as they wanted to. After going door to door engaging residents and surveying about what they needed and wanted, it became clear that one organization would not be able to serve the needs of the community.
After two years of discussion, consultation and building partnerships with various agencies, such as Toronto Social Services and YWCA. The Storefront opened inside the former home of Morningside Public Library in 2001.
Today, The Storefront, hosts 35 organizations from across the city to deliver their programs and services free of charge to residents of Kingston Galloway/Orton Park (KGO). Community members can get support on anything from finding employment to newcomer settlement and youth services.
Taking a ‘Connected Community Approach’
But The Storefront’s team didn’t simply snap their fingers and create a thriving social services hub; it took 20 years of intentional experimentation — or social research and development (R&D).
And now, the organization is sharing what it’s learned about designing, testing and improving social programs through the Connected Community Approach (CCA), “a set of principles and practices for community development. CCA posits that by intentionally focusing on and strengthening social connections and networks between and among people and organizations, these networks can be a catalyst to foment community-based social and economic development.”
In the CCA, the belief is that solutions to entrenched social problems within communities are generated through collective design and problem solving, by bringing together people, institutions, funders, and organizations to come up with solutions. While a traditional approach to R&D in the social sector might involve a team of professionals creating a program or product, testing it with community members, then returning to the team to iterate, the CCA approach involves community members — and other stakeholders — in all stages of the design and development process.
In CCA, community backbone organizations (CBO), like The Storefront act as catalyst within a community, “to leverage local assets, skills, aspirations, talents and resources from a wide range of actors so that they can be effectively mobilized to action.”
At The Storefront, this means strengthening social connections for residents by connecting them to employment opportunities, creating a space for knowledge through courses and workshops and facilitating leadership opportunities through volunteer programs.
Gloger says in the connected community approach, R&D is built into every interaction. “We’re not working towards the one answer that will be the design that we’re now going to use. It is a constant process of co-creation, design, prototype iteration, and it’s a cyclical process, always reflecting on learning,” adds Gloger.
The connected community approach also helps them continue using R&D for new approaches to their work. “We work in emergence which we define as where momentum meets opportunity. So where is there enthusiasm for working on a co-created solution? Where’s that opportunity to make that work? The opportunity usually comes in the form of funding or in terms of academic research being done, so that it’s not just an idea that doesn’t stick, it becomes a practical project in the community,” says Gloger.
In 2007, when The Storefront moved to its current location, which used to be a police station, they embarked on a community design initiative where local youth, mentored by architects, planners and designers, worked together to reimagine and redesign the police station into a community hub.
“With the connected community approach, this meant we needed to engage architects, planners and designers in a way that they’re not coming in with the design and asking, ‘what colour do you like?’ but that they’re actually co-creating with the youth,” says Gloger.
What was meant to be one day of discussions turned into an 18-week process of working together to find what was meaningful for the youth in their community space and how to redesign it accordingly. This involved learning about colour theory, project budgets, and the merits of keeping and removing the jail cells.
“People from the outside would often say it’s a cool, quirky feature where we could do film shoots or hold fundraisers, but the youth said that it will remind us every day of trauma. So, it’s a good example of why it’s important to co-create with the community” — or, in other words, engage in social R&D, says Gloger.
Shortly before the pandemic, the organization had created a playbook that gave staff a guide on how to work in emergence and make decisions based on a connected community approach. This came in handy when the pandemic began and they had to pivot from being an organization where in person interaction is critical to online.
“The first thing we did was prioritize human interaction, so when you phoned The Storefront on the first day of the pandemic, you got a real live person, you didn’t get a recording. We heard over and over again from residents we were the only organization they reached out to who actually answered the phone,” says Gloger.
She adds that this aspect of human interaction is an inherent part of their R&D process. “It’s all about relationships. The idea of being able to co-create anything means building a level of trust, and a deep respect for the expertise that everybody brings to the table. And so human interaction is at the core of any community centered innovation. If it’s not, then it’s not going to work,” she says.
Another core tenet of CCA, Gloger says, is that the design of a program, service or product is never final — teams always revisit it often and on an ongoing basis, in partnership with all the stakeholders originally involved.
“If you’re going to create something that is static, and then you’re hit with a pandemic, then you’re likely not going to be able to deliver on your static project. But if you’re working on something that is ever evolving, then it evolves based on the changing context,” Gloger says.
During the pandemic, for example, the team at The Storefront began phoning any community member whose number they had to check in. This led them to begin collecting data by talking to people to learn what they needed to prioritize, like digital literacy. They also gave out library hotspots for internet access and created a laptop lending library and applied for funding to get internet for local grassroots leaders so they could do their work.
When The Storefront learned that people in their community were dealing with food insecurity during the pandemic, they developed a strategy of ‘network weaving’ to address the issue. This involved mapping what other organizations in the community were doing, supporting grassroots leaders to use their facilities to prepare food, and repackaging it to be distributed through the community. Network weaving enabled them to provide over 3,000 meals to people in KGO and 3,600 residents with healthy foods like fresh produce delivered to their homes. Gloger says this process was built upon the previous R&D work they have done over the years in their community in building relationships and networks.
“We knew how to leverage relationships and knew how to design services so that they work better in the community. It was because of all of the R&D work we have done that we were able to quickly and effectively get into food systems work without just duplicating the work other people were doing,” she says.