I had the good fortune of meeting Sara Casselman, the Executive Director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, or SASC for short, a few years ago. She was receiving the Mayor’s City Builder Award for the work she has done in support of sexual assault survivors in our community – a well-deserved honour indeed. Although I had heard a bit about the work SASC was involved in, I started following it much more closely after meeting Sara. I learned about the variety of services and supports they offer such as counselling, a 24-hour support line, and anti-trafficking work. They also provide educational workshops and resources, including the Male Allies program which supports boys and men in ending systemic and everyday forms of gender-based violence. This programming provides alternative narratives of masculinity, opportunity for self-reflection and dialogue, and challenges harmful language and behaviour. "It offers: a chance to talk about what it means to be a man today and address stereotypes, an opportunity to explore how to have a healthy relationship with family, friends and dating partners, and a forum to learn about creating safer schools, workplaces and communities."
As I have become more interested in the important work SASC is doing, I am learning some sobering facts about sexual assault, such as 1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. And there’s many challenges that survivors face, including long wait lists for services. SASC’s current waitlist is over 140 individuals. We also know that challenging times, such as this pandemic, only leads to an increase in domestic violence. In fact, a recent StatsCan survey stated that 10% of women were ‘very concerned’ about violence in the home during the pandemic.
I have also noticed the challenges with much of the funding for organizations like the Sexual Assault Support Centre. Government funding is often precarious at best, as any changes in government leadership, economic challenges, and so on can mean that funding support could change at a moment’s notice. We saw that earlier this year as the provincial government announced that certain funding for support centres such as SASC would no longer continue. Clearly, it is definitely a challenge to plan for the long-term health and support of clients when funding sources can change so easily.
The Sexual Assault Support Centre is fortunate that it has many people right in our community that understand the value of their work, and support them financially through one-time donations, monthly donations, and by volunteering. SASC relies on financial support from its fundraising events, such as the annual Rosie the Riveter bowl-a-thon. However, like so many events right now, due to the pandemic, it has been moved to a virtual fundraiser. So, this year, we are being asked to #RallyWithRosie. Put on your best Rosie the Riveter outfit and post your photo to social media with the hashtag #RallyWithRosie. SASC will provide you with tools to educate and engage with your networks to help raise funds to support their work in our community. Visit their website to find out all of the details.
I have only known Sara for a couple of years now, but she continues to amaze me with her passion and support for survivors in our community. She gives so much to this work, including running a half-marathon on April 25th in support of SASC. You can learn more about that here. She knows how important the backing of donors and volunteers is to supporting survivors locally. You too can be a part of that important work this month by Rallying with Rosie.
Like many of us, I have been thinking about the impacts of the coronavirus, both in the short and long term. I’ve also been reflecting on how different people handle what is clearly a stressful and challenging situation.
I was reading an article in the Record recently with this headline: Connection Between Farmers and Customers Stays Strong. The article goes on to outline various ways farmers are adapting to the pandemic by offering online purchases, curbside pick-up, and deliveries. The article also reflects on the importance of the relationship between farmers and customers, stating “Market vendors are more than just a means to get food. There is an actual relationship there between vendors, customers and farmers." Now, I suspect that anyone who is a regular attendee of our region’s farmer’s markets, is well aware of this. I know I definitely have my regular vendors that I look forward to seeing each week and that is in fact, one of the many great reasons to shop at a local farmer’s market.
This article got me thinking though about how people attending the market regularly, and developing these relationships, has been important in maintaining these services in this time of crisis.
For me, there is a strong parallel to the work many neighbours have been doing over the years through things such as the #lovemyhood neighbourhood strategy. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with a variety of neighbourhood initiatives, associations, and committees that strive to encourage and strengthen connections between neighbours. Often those initiatives involve fun activities like plant swaps, easter egg hunts, or street parties. These events often result a great time had by all and perhaps some lovely memories as well.
I know some of my favourite neighbourhood memories include a neighbourhood event that partnered with Reception House where we welcomed over 70 newcomer children for a fun afternoon of tobogganing and hot chocolate. I also love the little Easter egg hunt our neighbourhood participates in each year. And I always look forward to the annual Pumpkinpalooza event in Victoria Park where neighbours put their jack o’lanterns on display for everyone to see.
I have been thinking about these events in light of the pandemic. As many of us spend far more time at home right now, the only people you may see are your neighbours. And I have been truly moved to see the creative ways neighbours are trying to stay connected during this time. I’ve seen themed neighbourhood art walks, chalking the walk, and evenings filled with pot banging in support of health care and essential workers. I’ve also seen people rely on neighbourhood email lists or Facebook groups to reach out to neighbours to offer a grocery run or just a friendly hello and check-in.
Although neighbourhood events can be a fun way to spend an afternoon with others (in non-pandemic times!), I suspect those events have actually been laying important foundations to stay connected. And thanks to the work of many neighbours, associations, and community groups, we see neighbours connecting in unique and important ways right now. What may have simply felt like a fun neighbourhood event only a few months ago, may prove to be an essential lifeline during this pandemic.
The list of challenges and negatives of dealing with this pandemic is long, and those impacts will be felt by many for a long time. However, if I may, I’d like to suggest one potential upside in all of this – the opportunity for having a larger conversation about what our cities are – and what they could be.
As governments, community organizations, and essential workers, both locally and globally, work tirelessly to support residents through these challenging days, we see important measures being put into place, such as increasing access to affordable housing (even if much of it is currently temporary/emergency shelter), increased funding to essential support services like health care and employment insurance, and even an increase in wages (again, much of it temporary) for minimum-wage workers. We are now surrounded by wide roads emptied of traffic as many of us strive to #StayHomeSaveLives. And there are many examples of neighbours supporting each other through all of this with creative ways to connect.
Although there are some unfortunate stories of people not distancing themselves or otherwise not participating in attempts to flatten the curve, I am seeing far more examples of people supporting each other and advocating for improved resources for our most vulnerable citizens. I am seeing people who have never contacted their elected officials before, doing exactly that to encourage more funding for affordable housing, or sharing petitions that advocate for subsidized rents or call for an end to evictions.
I am also seeing calls for re-prioritizing our street spaces to focus moving people safely (as we practice physical distancing), instead of moving cars. As cities are shifting towards stricter measures of ensuring we don’t see a rise in covid cases, we see many outdoor spaces being temporarily shut down, with some cities even closing trails all together. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just this week, London, ON decided to close a few streets to vehicles, to ensure pedestrians and cyclists can access those spaces while practising physical distancing. Calgary is changing their beg buttons (those frustrating buttons pedestrians must push to activate the cross signal) so pushing the button is no longer required, in light of concerns around community spread of covid.
These are only a few small illustrations of how things are changing as we deal with this crisis. However, these changes don’t need to be temporary and they don’t need to be small. These small examples simply show us a glimmer of what is possible and remind us that this may be an opportunity to upend the status quo of how cities operate. We are seeing the first signs of things changing that many have said were previously impossible (I mean, how many of us expected to see the Provincial Conservatives working well with the Federal Liberals?). We are housing people who previously had no shelter; we are offering financial support to those with precarious, limited, or no income; and we’re seeing shifts in how people are moving around the city.
For me, this feels like encouragement that we can make permanent changes that allow our communities to offer affordable housing for all, a basic income program, and more active transportation options that focus on moving people, not cars. So, with all these challenges around covid, I do still find glimmers of hope. In this crisis we are seeing some examples of a new vision for cities, one that is more compassionate, sustainable, caring, and equitable.
There are several ways that the city of Kitchener engages with residents on a variety of issues. Both the city and individual councillors use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share information and update citizens on important information. There are also public consultations, open houses, citizen advisory committees, and of course, all Committee and Council meetings are open to the public and streamed online. There is also Engage Kitchener, an online tool for gathering input and feedback from residents.
I have filled out a number of surveys on the Engage Kitchener site and I check it somewhat regularly as it’s a good way to stay up to date on what projects the city is currently working on and also an easy way for me to provide feedback on those projects. In fact, I just completed a survey on there this week on a topic that is extremely important to me - Affordable Housing. When you visit the site, you’ll see a number of surveys up there, including one on the bike lane pilot, inclusionary zoning, and Kitchener’s website transformation.
If you click on the Affordable Housing Strategy link, you’ll see details about the main steps in the process and where the project currently sits. There’s also a bit of background information and goals of the project. The site states that "The City of Kitchener recognizes the importance of strong and diverse neighbourhoods where residents can grow and thrive. As a vibrant and caring community, we’re taking steps to make housing more affordable in our city so Kitchener can be an even better place for everyone to call home. A key action from our Corporate Strategic Plan is to create a caring community through the development of an Affordable Housing Strategy.
In collaboration with the Region of Waterloo, community groups and the development industry, the city is currently in the beginning stages of developing an Affordable Housing Strategy aimed at addressing challenges to housing affordability in Kitchener across the housing continuum. As demand for housing in our city increases, we’re working to find solutions that will encourage a broader range of housing options and increase the supply of affordable housing opportunities available."
After reading that information you can fill out the survey which asks for your thoughts on challenges to affordable housing, what actions should the city prioritize in this strategy, and what areas of the housing continuum should we most focus our efforts on. You can then provide specific ideas and feedback on how different stakeholders, such as upper levels of government, developers, and community organizations could best be utilized in creating and maintaining more affordable housing in our community.
Surveys take varying amounts of times, and this one was estimated to take about 10 minutes. It took me a bit longer as I had a lot to say on this particular topic. All comments are collected, reviewed by staff, and included in the report that eventually goes to council for approval. You can fill out surveys as a guest, or you can register with Engage Kitchener. One benefit to registering is that once you have completed the survey, you are emailed all of your responses, so you have a record of it. You also receive occasional updates of new surveys available to complete.
No single approach to seek feedback from residents will work for everyone, so I appreciate that there are a variety of engagement tools that the city uses (although I have some thoughts about other engagement tools they could include, but I’ll save that for another day…) For me, I appreciate being able to provide feedback online as I can do it from my home when my schedule allows. If that appeals to you, and you have not yet visited the Engage Kitchener site, I encourage you to take a look at it soon. And because I think it’s such an important issue, I’d encourage you to fill out the Affordable Housing Strategy survey while you’re there.