Building resilience, improving health – U of T partners with Toronto community groups, public sector

Nine projects showcased at Dalla Lana School of Public Health
photo of Toronto sign
(photo by Can Pac Swire via flickr)

They do everything from harnessing the “hustle” of unemployed youth to promoting healthy relationships among newcomer and second-generation teens.

Nine community-building projects across Toronto showcased their impact at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health on Feb. 10 – the results of a community-university-public sector partnership  launched in the spring of 2015.

“Globally, people living in urban areas are facing health inequities as a result of poverty, violence, climate change, and many other factors, and they occur regardless of the country’s low, middle or high income standing,” said Professor Howard Hu, Dean of U of T's  Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“There are patterns in challenges cities face, and also in the solutions. I believe these projects will lead to thoughtful urban planning, community design, safety and law that enhance health equity, both locally and globally.” 

With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), Wellesley Institute and Toronto Public Health launched an innovative research platform to address a range of social determinants of health in Toronto. It supported nine projects that developed solutions related to creating resilient cities, the built environment and health, and place-based interventions.

One project examined the factors that influence newcomer and second generation immigrant youths’ perceptions of healthy relationships, including parental, cultural, peer and social media, in order to promote resilient relationships and prevent teen dating violence. 

“Newcomer and second generation youth strive for a balance between parental norms and expectations, which are often developed pre-migration, and social norms witnessed in Canada,” said Ilene Hyman, an adjunct professor at DLSPH who worked on the project with METRAC, a non-profit organization committed to the rights of women and children to live their lives free of violence.

“We found that witnessing abuse was one of the strongest influences on perceptions of healthy relationships, so our team will continue to collaborate with schools, community agencies and the media to promote positive perceptions of gender norms and equitable relationships,” said Hyman.

Another project enhanced the built environment by creating a resource to help school communities and residents improve traffic safety in their neighbourhoods. The Guide to Safer Streets Near Schools: Understanding Your Policy Options in the City of Toronto, is a collaborative project led by Katie Wittmann of Green Communities Canada and Monica Campbell, assistant professor at DLPSH and director of Healthy Public Policy at Toronto Public Health.

“The focus of these strategies is to increase active transportation as a way to prevent youth problems with obesity and chronic disease,” said Campbell.

Tired of the Hustle: Youth Voices on Unemployment, is a place-based intervention that supported youth living along Jane Street to identify solutions to youth unemployment. Project leads Yogendra Shakya and Bill Sinclair (executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House) engaged three youth peer researchers from the community and conducted focus groups for youth who are not in education, employment, or training (NEET) during which participants described their “hustle” or coping strategies to get by while unemployed, such as  getting into ‘gig economy’ using their artistic/musical skills, using temp agencies, taking debt or engaging in informal income generating activities.

“I was surprised to see how these youth were far from idle, and had found fluid and subversive local strategies to work, train and learn in spite systemic barriers to formal education and employment,” said Shakya, who is also an assistant professor in DLSPH’s Social and Behavioural Health Sciences Division. 

“With the support of a youth council at St Stephen’s Community House, we are making employment, training and health/community services more youth-friendly in ways that can reach NEET youth where they are, and support them for success and wellbeing.” 

The event and grants were enabled by the Healthier Cities and Communities Hub, a network of university and community partners that co-create research that generates evidence useful for intervening to improve health. Associate Professor Blake Poland, who co-leads the Hub with Professor Patricia O’Campo, emphasised the need for these projects to go beyond describing inequities to develop real solutions.

“Often crises motivate communities to scale up resilience efforts, but I think this work is most effective if communities embed health-equity enhancing efforts into their culture before crises hit,” said Poland, who is also PhD program director in the DLSPH’s Social and Behavioural Health Sciences Division. 

“Our hope is that these projects can inspire policy and practice change here as well as in other communities across the world.”


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