Staff January 10, 2022

Leading Cities in Change, Through Change

In August 2021, we brought together four civic leaders from the Greater Toronto Area to discuss the opportunities and challenges of leading city-building organizations through change during a global pandemic.

How can the public sector and private sector support community-oriented change? How can we build scalable solutions that are sustainable and impactful?

Dr. Lorna Read (Managing Director, LEAP), Adwoa K. Buahene (CEO, Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council), and Leslie Woo (CEO, CivicAction) joined Luminato’s CEO Celia Smith for a discussion on Facebook Live to answer these questions. Each of these women had undertaken the same challenge: becoming the leader of a non-profit organization in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this conversation, they discussed the wins and challenges of leading ambitious, mission-driven organizations through transitions, and got to the root of what community-oriented change can mean.

What is community-oriented change?

“When we say ‘community-oriented change,’ it really is involving community,” says Buahene, “Historically, the powers that be have determined what a solution should be for the community, rather than having the community arrive and tell us what the solution should be.”

Buahene continues on to explain the notion of fulfilling social contracts, “There are benefits to everyone when we live up to our part of the social contract… We ought to do this because it’s the right thing to do. And keep our focus on the communities who would be impacted. We need to ensure that we involve these communities in whatever we are creating.”

I would like to add a dose of ambition to everyone’s attitudes…Collectively, there’s so much creativity, dynamism, and energy in this Greater Region.

– Celia Smith, Luminato Festival Toronto CEO
A photo of a large poster outside on a city building that says "Community is strength."
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

How do we scale up community-oriented change?

Throughout the discussion, collaboration and co-creation were prominent themes as the speakers searched for actionable solutions to big-picture questions of scalable change.

“If we think about scale – scale is more than replication. Scale itself requires the co-creation, context analysis, and this real contextualization….starting with the co-creation of the definition of impact,” says Read, “It’s thinking about impact collectively.”

The speakers highlighted the effects that the pandemic has had on our understanding of Canada and the social inequities that have been brought to the surface, primarily the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children in 2021. Buahene speaks passionately about the importance of transparency and honesty about Canada’s history and our present social barriers to advancement. “A vast majority of the city is racialized and are immigrants, [as immigrants] it is really hard to enter into the Canadian labour market. The pandemic has shone a bright light on something that existed before – that the unemployment rate for immigrants and newcomers is vastly different than for Canadian-born.”

Cities need big systemic change otherwise we’ll just tinker along… when people talk about systemic change it’s not just trimming the hedge, it’s like taking it down to the rafters and rebuilding the whole thing, sometimes from scratch.

– Leslie Woo, CivicAction CEO
A photo of a public transit streetcar in the city of Toronto on a sunny, summer day
Photo by Patricia Jekki from Unsplash

So how can we be leaders in change?

A common theme in the discussion was the significance of involving the collective community in progressive change. Woo suggested practicing empathy and building relationships that reflect the diversity of the GTA, “If I had a magic wand I would wish upon every citizen to feel what others feel, to feel what is it like to be hungry, to feel what it is like to be alone raising kids – if we all had a stronger ability to do that we would be even more caring and our decisions would be slightly different.” Woo also highlights the importance of allowing the young generation to be the leaders of change, “we have amazing young, rising leaders who want and will challenge the status quo and if we don’t give them the opportunity to be at the decision-making tables, we will stunt our ability to raise ourselves up.”

Want to get involved?

According to Buahene, the best way to get involved in active change is to volunteer in your community. According to the panelists, being a leader in change means going against the grain and standing up to the status quo. “Leadership should be courageous” says Smith, “not following the wind but facing the wind, I offer up emotion and communication and persuasion, people get inspired by words and action.”  

Want to learn more about the role of arts and culture in city building? Luminato will be hosting another panel on Facebook Live in February 2022 discussing the preservation of venue spaces as we emerge from the pandemic. Be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletters and follow us on socials so you don’t miss our Facebook Live discussions.