Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty launched the Youth Challenge Fund (YCF) in February 2006 to help young people in Toronto’s 13 designated priority neighbourhoods make the right choices, create opportunities and support community ideas.
The provincial government invested $15 million and promised to match private contributions up to an additional $15 million. The United Way of Greater Toronto leveraged the additional provincial matching funds by raising $15.8 million through generous donations from 30 philanthropists.
Of the $46.6 million committed to the fund, $42.5 million has been invested in 111 unique youth-led initiatives in the city’s disadvantaged communities. The remaining $4.1 million is being used to support the YCF’s 10-member staff and cover other administrative costs.
The YCF, in the past four years, has helped to create 17 youth-designated spaces across the priority neighbourhoods, enabled nearly 1,000 young people to play direct leadership roles in developing and implementing initiatives and ensured that an additional 5,000 youths secure access to new skills and engage their communities through new programs, services and mentorship.
“Our objective is that by March 2013, all of the funds will be allocated in a way that supports development and relationship building,” YCF executive director Pamela Grant told Share. “We are working with the institutions, building capacity on both sides. The money is allocated over time and the dollars that an organization receives is based on program plans, budget and their developmental process. It’s a process grounded on four pillars – youth-led, community-based, collaborative partnerships and systemic change — that’s being funded.”
Nation Cheong, the director of community engagement and grants, explained how the YCF is engaging young people who have been the hardest to reach in the past through traditional youth programs.
“The YCF has positioned itself not just as a funder that releases money and says go out and do it, but we see ourselves as part of the community and sit on the governing body that oversees a process that is mitigated by real practical and systematic points of accountability,” the former Dixon Hall children and youth programs manager said. “Part of that is engaging young people who have not been exposed to this type of personal development before, exposing them to those opportunities and bringing them along the way, allowing them to have a voice at the table that’s equal to the experts that have been sitting there for many years.
“It’s not about the building and the programs anymore. What we need in our community is a greater body of young people who have lived experiences of surviving under poverty, making tough choices and creating a path of success out of it. It’s about young people saying that is how I want to build my community and you owe me the time to give me the skills to do what I have to do because I know what it’s like to grow up with a single mother and to see three of my friends dead before I reach the age of 13.
“These are not things you can study at a university and then come and tell me how to run my community.
“We are looking at the young people who get left out all the time and they take more time because they have more things to deal with. We have to be able to accept that and prepare ourselves mentally and systematically to begin to embrace them and walk them through because that is where change will happen.
“What we are doing is constantly recycling the ones who are doing OK and we have not been making any impact in the communities that have the greatest need where youths are facing multiple barriers, and building on the assets and strengths of those young people.
“They are not lacking intelligence or a desire for change. They just need the opportunity and people to say here is how it’s done and I am walking beside you. Telling them to run and do it is not acceptable. That’s where the accountability is and that’s where the impact is.”
Of the total funds allocated to the 13 priority neighbourhoods, Jane-Finch leads the way with 13 per cent ($5,643,528) followed by Steeles-L’Amoreaux with 12 per cent ($4,802,650) and Weston-Mount Dennis and Malvern with 10 per cent.
“The reason those areas got considerably more funding is because there are less social infrastructure, high youth populations and insufficient programs in those communities,” Grant said. “Jane-Finch has been a priority neighbourhood for a long time and it does have significant social services there, but there are still gaps in terms of how complementary they are in terms of working together to bring about the kind of results we want.”
Close to $27 million of the $42.5 million has been allocated to 17 legacy initiatives.
“These are larger allocations to develop youth-dedicated space to be governed by community-based collaborative governance models that have a strong youth-led and youth-driven component,” said Grant. “These are centres of excellence in social enterprise, arts and culture and educational and justice-based attainment.”
YCF board member, Deputy Toronto Police Chief, Keith Forde, said the fund has provided voice to those who thought nobody was listening to them.
“It has also provided hope to those who didn’t think that anyone cared and empowerment to those who believed they couldn’t make a difference.”
Former Ontario cabinet Minister Zanana Akande, Toronto Argonauts vice-chair Michael “Pinball” Clemons, lawyer Verlyn Francis and university professor Dr. Carl James also sit on the board.
Toronto Mayor David Miller joined generous donors and other partners last Friday to celebrate the opening of a new youth-designated community space in the Weston-Mount Dennis community. The space includes a computer room, lounge, dance facility, kitchen, boardroom and offices.
“The youth of Weston-Mount Dennis now have a space that’s truly theirs,” said Grant. “They have shown tremendous leadership, passion and perseverance, playing a crucial role in shifting the way institutions across the city interact with young people.”
The community space is located at 1652 Keele Street.