Interview with Shawn James of UrbanPromise

Others, Community Development

Contributed by: UrbanPromise Toronto

Eric (E): Thank you for sharing your time and wisdom with me. It’s great to be with you again. I’d like to start by asking how many years you have been involved in serving Toronto’s community housing neighbourhoods?

Shawn (S): I have been working with UrbanPromise Toronto for 18 years now. The majority of my time has been spent in the Rexdale community, as well as a few years in our Jane and Finch community. I grew up in a similar kind of neighbourhood, as well.


E: What are some of the common misconceptions people have about community housing?

S: A lot of people believe that community housing is full of people who are on welfare. This isn’t true at all– there are many people in community housing who have jobs and pay market-value rent on their accommodations. It’s not accurate to say that people who live in community housing are all on welfare.

Another myth is that Toronto community housing is full of guns, drugs and violence. While there is a high percentage of gun violence in our city, it is not true that a lot of that violence takes place within Toronto’s community housing areas. Gun violence is a real problem, but it is mainly perpetrated by people from outside the communities where we work who come in and cause the violence. A sad example of this is a young man who is a part of our UrbanPromise programming here in the city. By anyone’s standard, he is doing everything “right”: he is going to school, he is getting involved in mentorship in his community, and has big dreams for his neighbourhood. But because of gun violence he is now paralyzed from the neck down after being shot. Toronto community housing isn’t full of guns, drugs, and violence, but the violence that is mainly carried out by outsiders affects those who want to see positive change, and can cause real problems.

It’s also inaccurate when people say that all community housing neighbourhoods are the same, or that they all suffer from the same issues. Each community is different– there are unique issues in every community that need to be addressed specifically. There are also unique assets and strengths in each community that disprove the myth of “sameness” among community housing neighbourhoods. It’s still important to recognize themes and patterns though. For example, there is a real need in a lot of community housing neighbourhoods for updates and upgrades of the actual housing units themselves. We see a lot of physical deterioration of the homes people live in, and there have been news stories from the CBC and other news outlets highlighting this issue, specifically.

Lastly, there is a misconception that community housing is full of lazy, unmotivated people who are there by choice, and have little drive or ambition to see themselves and their community grow. Our communities aren’t full of lazy, bad people, they are full of family members! And they want to see change and growth in their neighbourhoods, just like any other community member does.


E: What do you want Canadians to know about community housing programs?

S: I think it’s important people know that Toronto community housing is the largest social housing providers in Canada, and second only to New York City in North America. Community housing includes 110,000 people across 60,000 households in Toronto alone.

A lot of the time we hear news stories about community housing neighbourhoods and all the bad things that happen there, like the guns, drugs and violence I mentioned before. But what doesn’t get covered enough is how close-knit these communities really are. There is a sense of belonging when you walk in, especially for us working in these neighbourhoods. We are invited into birthday parties, showers, community BBQs — there is a sense of family when you are a part of these neighbourhoods. You know the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”, and within Toronto community housing these kids feel like they are part of a village. Neighbours babysit for each other and help each other out by sharing resources. Our staff is considered family in these neighbourhoods – uncles, brothers, sisters – people don’t see that.

It’s also important that people know there are kids here who have big dreams. They want to make a difference. There are young leaders who want to be mentors and role models for the next generation of kids. Sometimes that is hard to do because they lack the resources necessary to do this. One example of this would be barriers to employment like employers making judgments based on a teenager’s area code, and not hiring them because of where they come from. There’s a label attached to coming from these neighbourhoods. UrbanPromise sees this need and helps leaders involved in our programs by giving them solid references to include on their resumes when applying for work. We are able to validate them when employers call us. And we have seen the difference this makes: leaders working at Swiss Chalet, local hospitals — we have received good feedback from employers saying these young people are exceptional leaders.

The biggest thing I could communicate to Canadians about the truth of community housing is that children growing up in these neighbourhoods want what every kid wants: to be valued, accepted by caring people, and recognized for who they are. They want to dream about their future. They want to become leaders and role models. All of the challenges these kids face can be roadblocks, but if they feel like people are coming alongside them and supporting them, they can help change their community and transform it. They have hope and purpose, and ultimately for our organization, we believe that every child needs to know how Jesus brings hope, and how even if we are living in difficult circumstances the hope that Jesus brings eases everything. I’m amazed by some of the moms we work with too, who may face some really challenging things, but because of their hope in Christ they persevere. A mom whose house is shot up by gang members still feels accepted and loved by Jesus and by their community family.


E: How do you see collaborating with Ending Poverty Together benefiting UrbanPromise Toronto?

S: The first thing is that you guys are able to shine a light on Toronto community housing, and the good that is coming out of this community. And to be able to share that across Canada. To tell a story that many people haven’t heard before about community housing. Doing this gives glory to God and highlights what is happening in our communities. That will give people the opportunity to learn about and get involved with organizations who are helping in these areas.

It’s one thing for us to put up our hands and say, “This is a difficult problem that I don’t know how to solve”, but it’s important people know there are solutions and strategies to these issues that exist and are available in their country and communities. To be able to tell that story is so important, so beautiful.

Ending Poverty Together provides a way to share the transformational work happening in Canada. Kids being transformed through mentorship and having good role models. Your website is full of inspiring stories of examples like this taking place in our country. You have a rare platform to tell these good stories.

There’s an encouraging Scripture that comes to mind to describe the work you guys are doing that I’d like to share with you. It comes from Revelation 12: 10-11 and reads “and they have conquered [the enemy] by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony”. I like the word ‘testimony’ because you guys are testifying to what is happening across Canada, the good that is happening in our neighbourhoods. You are encouraging people by showing them God is at work and we can overcome difficult things by Jesus and the testimony of what is happening across Canada. I thought of you guys when I came across that passage.


Interview conducted by: Eric Strom

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