There are 5.5 million people living in the Greater Toronto Area, and like in other large North American cities, many of us are disconnected from their communities. An individual’s social networks (or lack thereof) can have a pervasive effect on their health . Belonging to a group with shared experiences, a common culture or shared purpose can promote well-being by providing individuals with a sense of belonging and accomplishment. Healthy relationships and group membership help people regulate stress, and can also connect individuals with valuable health promoting resources such as enhanced education, information and social supports and employment. Social isolation and exclusion, on the other hand, will not only cause stress but can also cut off any potential social pathways that may facilitate good health.
Marginalized groups such as the elderly, youth, the unemployed, racialized groups and stigmatized groups are at particular risk of social exclusion and isolation. Connecting our communities and engaging community residents can be an effective way of addressing the health inequities associated with being socially disconnected.
In Toronto, there are innovative examples of projects focused on connecting people with one another. For instance, the East Scarborough Storefront acts as a backbone organization in the community of Kingston-Galloway /Orton Park, enabling interconnectivity between different organizations who work together to support community engagement for local residents. Another example, Success Beyond Limits is a youth-led organization that fosters collaboration and catalyses youth engagement to support educational achievement and success in the lives of Toronto youth in the Jane- Finch community. There are many noteworthy projects and programs across the city working to promote social connections and a sense of community.
Wellesley Institute recognizes the restorative effect that initiatives like this can have on health and health equity in our city.
Connected Communities UK
Recently Wellesley Institute hosted Professor David Morris from the University of Central Lancashire.
Professor Morris shared with us the findings from a five year study conducted in partnership with LSE, the RSA, and UCLAN. The strength of this work has been to draw on deliberative community engagement strategies for research and program design. With roots in mental health, this work challenges us to insert community back into health planning.
Identifying the social networks that exist – or don’t exist — in a community was the backdrop to understanding how people were connected. This community based intelligence gathering serves to understand how people are connected and who is missing, those who are marginalized and who are at risk, as well as tracing what assets exist in terms of social networks throughout a community. This was the starting point for Connected Communities to plan and develop community-informed ideas to promote well-being.
Using an action research framework, community members collaborate with researchers and local service providers to co-produce an intervention from the ground up. The benefit in is that small, locally shaped initiatives, can have a big impact, contributing to multiple effects from well-being to economic dividends, and an engaged community whose capacity for action and change is facilitated by the research process itself.
The ideas raised in Professor Morris’s work are exciting and familiar. In Toronto we have a rich history of community engaged research and action research. At the same time the Connected Communities approach used in the UK stands out. Across the seven sites in the UK, Connected Communities argues for a shared vision and approach, allowing the specific forms to take their own shape in different communities. Shared measurement at a large scale enables the conversation to move beyond isolated cases contributing to a literacy of community. This offers exciting steps forward for similar initiatives in Toronto.
At Wellesley Institute, we have started to ask ourselves, what would a connected community’s project look like in Toronto? We believe that increasing social connectedness has the potential to improve health and health equity in our city.
Missed David Morris’s talk? You can see the slides from that event here.