Solidarity has long been a standing principle of social justice advocates, but in the face of the current crisis of inequality and the concentration of power and money, solidarity is an essential ingredient of change. This was the message at a day-long workshop the Power Lab recently convened with a multitude of organizers, from public transit activists based in Scarborough to community benefits advocates based in Jane-Finch, on how to strengthen our collective fight for fair economies.
Alejandra Bravo, Power Lab Director and Broadbent Institute’s Director of Leadership and Training, started the day by asking us why organizing for fair economies was urgent in our respective communities. The common theme in every answer was the affordability crisis: the inner-suburbs – from the west-end to the east-end – are gentrifying, and the cost of living in neighbourhoods in the old City of Toronto continue to become more and more expensive.
The workshop comes at a time when the issue of affordability is top of mind for Canadians. In Toronto, like many other cities, this economic angst is the manifestation of a toxic mix of inequality fueled by stagnant working-class wages and a sky-rocketing cost of living. In the inner-suburbs of Toronto particularly, this inequality has been accelerated and emboldened by decades of underinvestment in vital services, causing intense geographically-concentrated systemic poverty and racism.
Those not rooted in the inner-suburbs may not realize that our neighbourhoods are at a tipping point. As an organizer from York South-Weston, in the city’s northwest end, I see this on a daily basis. Once affordable areas of Toronto, like mine, are now becoming increasingly difficult for longtime residents to continue to afford living in them.
For example, the conception of the Scarborough Subway and the Eglinton and Finch West LRTs have invited a wave of transit-oriented-development to expand to these communities, moving beyond the downtown core. But while much needed rapid-transit is finally coming to these “transit deserts,” rent increases and a sudden interest from developers seem to come with it like a package deal.
In York South-Weston, which surrounds the Eglinton West LRT corridor, our local economy is becoming less and less fair. Both local business owners and tenants are being pushed out by pressures from new development like sudden rent increases, while their work remains precarious and the social safety net gets weaker and weaker with underinvestment.
Our success at organizing for fair economies will determine the future of this city. If we are pushed out of the inner-suburbs, where are we to go?
That is why geographic solidarity when organizing for fair economies is needed now more than ever. Last week’s workshop fostered the beginnings of greater geographic solidarity between neighbourhood struggles – it also shed light on important cross-issue and neighbourhood coalitions already formed and securing community victories. It provided us with an opportunity to share challenges and victories in pushing back against this gentrification of our communities. Here are some key connections made and victories that were shared:
Community-owned land – South Parkdale to Jane-Finch
The Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT) recently acquired a 15-unit at-risk licensed rooming house in the rapidly gentrifying community, saving it from being flipped into a single-family home or sold to a developer and keeping it a source of affordable housing. This is the second parcel of land the trust has acquired. A similar victory was also won in the Jane-Finch community – about two hours north of Parkdale by public transit – where local residents secured a plot of land for a community hub along the Finch West LRT corridor.
Having similar needs as the South-Parkdale and Jane-Finch communities, these two victories point to opportunities for neighbourhoods surrounding the Eglinton West LRT and Scarborough Subway corridors to organize and secure their own plots of land to determine how that land can be best used to serve their communities. The PNLT even has a toolkit available on developing community land trusts.
Community benefits in Rexdale
The Toronto Community Benefits Network is an example of effective geographic solidarity with victories that reach Toronto-wide. An inspiring example of this is their ‘Rexdale Rising’ campaign led by local residents and organizations with allies from across the city. After over ten years of advocacy, Rexdale Rising won an unprecedented Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) from the expansion of the Woodbine Casino. The CBA included, among other things, the investment of $5 million into the development of a new child care centre and that 40% of new hires on the project come from the local community.
This victory was shared by many partners from across the GTA including the local community, labour, foundations and social justice organizations. As development and infrastructure investment creep into other inner-suburban neighbourhoods across the city, the Rexdale Rising campaign will serve as an inspiring example of cross-issue coalition building when organizing for community benefits.
Weston-Mount Dennis coalition for environmental sustainability
In Mount Dennis, a neighbourhood of York South-Weston, we organized for a historic win to stop the construction of a gas-fired power plant intended to run as backup power for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Instead, the line will now be powered by an innovative and environmentally sustainable battery-powered storage system. This win was thanks to coalition grassroots organizing done together by youth, community organizations, labour and environmental groups.
This campaign was also where I cut my teeth in community organizing – I saw my first tangible win for our community and my eyes were opened to the power of coalition-building and geographic solidarity, with support being sent to us from across the city.
Geographic solidarity and fair economies are needed now more than ever
In York South-Weston as we continue our fight for fair economies and stand up to gentrification, we often draw inspiration from other communities already doing so successfully. Whether it be lessons in building tenant power or securing community benefits with new development, inspiration can be drawn from every corner of the city.
Being connected to these organizations and place-based organizers to strategize and strengthen our efforts is powerful.
The Power Lab’s workshop shed light on many examples of geographic solidarity already happening in Toronto. It was inspiring and exciting to see many grassroots organizers be plugged into these coalitions and organizations already undertaking this work. The key going forward will be to continue the facilitation of these relationships while linking other non-connected inner-suburban organizers to these coalitions and neighbourhoods already successfully organizing for fair local economies.
Riley Peterson is the Communications Assistant at the Broadbent Institute and is also a community organizer based in the inner-suburban community of York South-Weston, Toronto.
*The blog photo is of Weston Road tenants celebrating a reduction to their above-guideline rent increase after organizing a tenant association.