At age 39, Denise Campbell is a shining star in the community who is lifting others as she moves up the corporate ladder.
Last month, the activist and feminist leader was appointed the City of Toronto’s director of social policy, analysis & research.
As the third high-ranking Black city official behind employment & social services general manager Pat Walcott and chief information officer Rob Meikle, Campbell oversees the city’s social policy and research along with the community safety secretariat.
She spent five years as director of community resources prior to her new appointment.
“We are an applied research shop, so whatever we do in terms of research or policy has to make sense in an operational context,” she said. “In this new role, there are lots of implementation and interface with community development and funding of agencies which is sort of my strength. In considering taking on this new position, I was reminded by my predecessor that in my earlier days I was doing a lot of policy advocacy, particularly at the federal and United Nations level. The beautiful thing about this job is that I have the opportunity to take my operations knowledge, bring it to an applied policy and research shop and make sure that what we develop is grounded and relevant on the ground.”
Prior to joining the City of Toronto a decade ago, Campbell had established an impressive portfolio.
The 1994 Harry Gairey Memorial Scholarship winner worked internationally on race and gender policies in United Nations and African Union fora, advised the J.W. McConnell Foundation on strategy development, served as program director with the Students Commission of Canada and was vice-president for two years of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NACSW), a national feminist active organization established in 1971 to lobby for the implementation of the 167 recommendations made in the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada’s 1970 report on issues pertaining to birth control and maternity leave.
At age 26, she was elected the organization’s youngest president, replacing Terri Brown – an aboriginal from northern British Columbia.
However, Campbell’s role as president was short-lived as she resigned after three months.
“I left because of a series of conflicts I was having with some members of the board when I realised I had to make some tough decisions we needed to make as an organization to actually move forward and deliver on the things we had promised,” she said. “The organization was not ready to make those fundamental changes. I was there to work and not cheerlead and if the organization was not ready to advance, something needed to change and that meant me walking away which was a very hard thing to do. Looking back, I didn’t grasp the difference between cheerleading and organizational readiness at the time.”
In search of her first full-time job, Campbell facilitated a few public meetings for the city/community partner around youth engagement before joining the City of Toronto’s social development, finance and administration division in 2004 as the Toronto Youth Cabinet co-ordinator.
“I had to pay my bills and it was great to be part of a government,” she said. “When I got here, I was fascinated by the social development division because it felt similar to community-based organizations in terms of its emphasis on equity, its interest in social inclusion and trying to change things systemically for the most vulnerable.”
Campbell spent a year as a community development officer in the same division before becoming the first community development manager in 2006 where she facilitated human service system planning and delivery in the 13 designated priority neighbourhoods.
In 2009, she was promoted to community resources director with responsibility for community development in the challenged neighbourhoods and community funding programs for the city’s community-based sector.
Coming here from Jamaica at age five, Campbell grew up with her father in south Oshawa and graduated from the University of Ottawa with honours in political science & women studies and McGill University with a Master’s in Voluntary Sector Management. She also completed the city’s executive development program.
Understanding the value of counselling having been exposed to several mentors along the way, Campbell uses her position of influence to coach and hire racialized young leaders, some of whom hold supervisory positions with the City of Toronto.
“When I was doing my Master’s with sector leaders from the community and national organizations, we did a 360 evaluation of our strengths and development areas,” she said. “In the very first class, they walked us through the results one of which indicated I was a pacesetter and leader, but I didn’t pay attention to how others got where they needed to go. I was a bit devastated by that and so I made a decision at that time that I would aspire to be an enabling leader in everything that I did. That changed how I started to work, so in every job I have had, including those with the city, I have paid far more attention to what could I do to mentor young people in the organization and help them advance their careers and be excellent.”
“In the last number of years, I have spent a lot of time meeting with young community leaders – many of them Black and racialized – who I recognize see me as one of few at a more senior level that is accessible to them. I do career coaching, help them with issues they have in the workplace and try to connect them to each other and with other people I know within systems that could open doors for them. I believe really strongly that you do the job you want, not just the job you have. So when I see people who are talented and have something, I bring them in and I have that conversation with them. Because I have moved so quickly and I am still relatively young, it’s easier for them to hear me.”
Among the young people Campbell mentored and helped secure employment with the city is youth outreach worker, Jabari Lindsay.
“Denise facilitated my entry and has been a key support in me becoming part of the bureaucracy at city hall,” said Lindsay, who is a youth development manager. “She has always pushed me to be more than I am even when I didn’t firmly believe in myself. And on a human level, she was a consistent cheerleader helping me stay committed to my role as a husband and father. Overall, she is the embodiment of ‘Black success’. I am humbled to have her as a friend and mentor.”
The recipient of the YWCA Young Woman of Distinction, Lincoln Alexander Anti-Racism, YTV Achievement for Public Service and Harry Jerome awards, Campbell dabbles in photography and is the author of I am Jack Layton: A People’s Tribute to Love, Hope & Optimism that was released in August 2012.
The 196-page book is filled with beautiful pictures and inspiring stories of Canadians moved by Layton’s life and call to action.
The New Democratic Party leader succumbed to cancer in August 2011.