Creating Vibrant Communities

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Equal parts inspiration, perspiration, and information -- a book that is sure to take the Vibrant Communities story to new heights as it begins its next exciting phase.In Canada, "poverty reduction" is no longer a "wouldn't it be nice" dream discussed after yet another failure to make a dent in an age-old problem. It's a living, breathing, exhilarating reality.


Because all across the country people are approaching poverty in a positive, creative, and energetic way. They are doing so courtesy of a new social phenomenon called Vibrant Communities: a network of people who are getting people together -- citizens (no matter what their income), community developers, business people, and representatives from all levels of government -- to determine needs, community assets, and strategies. They're putting plans into action with astonishing results.

This book tells their story. And perhaps yours, too.



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Published 24 September 2010
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C r e a t i n g
V i b r a n t
C o m m u n i t i e sC r e a t i n g
V i b r a n t
C o m m u n i t i e sCopyright © 2008 by Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by
any measure, electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without
the prior written permission of the publisher, is an infringement of the copyright law.
Published in 2008 by
BPS Books
Toronto, Canada
A division of Bastian Publishing Services Ltd.
In association with
Tamarack — An Institute
for Community Engagement
ISBN 978-0-9809231-6-2 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-926645-32-2 (ePDF)
ISBN 978-1-926645-33-9 (epub)
Cataloguing in Publication Data available from Library and Archives Canada.
Images used on the cover of this book
Vote Living Wage, background image from (photographer Jorge Salcedo),
composition by Laura Zikovic; Pierre Durocher speaking at the 3rd Rendez-Vous des Grands
partenaires, courtesy of Vivre Saint-Michel en santé (photographer Josée Turgeon); Bill Gale at Teen
Resource Center, courtesy of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (photographer Cindy Wilson):
Make Tax Time Pay, courtesy of Vibrant Communities Edmonton; Fair Fares, courtesy of Vibrant
Communities Calgary; Sunflower, string, and Polaroid images from (photographers:
emily2k, Roel Smart, Matjaz Boncina, and Christoph Weihs).
Lightning Source paper, as used in this book, does not come from endangered old growth forests
or forests of exceptional conservation value. It is acid-free, lignin free, and meets al ANSI
standards for archival-quality paper. The print-on-demand process used to produce this book
protects the environment by printing only the number of copies that are purchased.In memory of Katharine Pearson (1955–2008),
co-founder of Vibrant Communities CanadaCONTENTS
Introduction to Part I
Bringing Vibrant Communities to Life: The Founding Years
Eric Leviten-Reid
Implementing and Evaluating Vibrant Communities
Mark Cabaj, Susan Eckerle Curwood, and Eric Leviten-Reid

Introduction to Part II
A. Communities That Built the Trail
The Group of Six
Sherri Torjman
British Columbia’s Capital Region
Anne Makhoul and Eric Leviten-Reid
Quality of Life Challenge: Fostering Engagement, Collaboration, and Inclusion — Theory
of Change
The Employer Challenge
The Mentorship Challenge
Victoria’s Regional Housing Trust Fund
Inviting Low-income Canadians to Speak for Themselves
Niagara Region, Ontario
Anne Makhoul and Eric Leviten-Reid
Opportunities Niagara: Untying the Knots, Connecting the Dots — Theory of Change
Pursuing a Living Wage in the Niagara Region
Niagara’s Inter-municipal Transportation Strategy
CAW 199 and Community Partners Build Affordable Homes and Community Spirit
Saint John, New Brunswick
Anne Makhoul, Eric Leviten-Reid, and Mike Bulthuis
Vibrant Communities Saint John: Dismantling the Poverty Traps — Theory of Change
Saint John Tackles Energy PovertyNeighbourhood Development Initiatives
Housing Appointment Creates New Opportunities
Making a Difference in the Lives of Young People
Government Engagement in Saint John
Edmonton, Alberta
Anne Makhoul and Eric Leviten-Reid
Vibrant Communities Edmonton: Building Family Economic Success — Theory of Change
Community Investment in Edmonton
Financial Literacy Work in Edmonton
Edmonton’s Job Bus Preparations
The Make Tax Time Pay Campaign
Trail Builder Update: Make Tax Time Pay 2007
Saint-Michel, Quebec
Anne Makhoul, Eric Leviten-Reid, and Dal Brodhead
Le Chantier in Saint-Michel: Tackling Poverty and Social Inclusion — Theory of Change
Affordable Housing through Cooperative Development in Saint-Michel
Community Engagement Through Culture
Training for Employment
Calgary, Alberta
Anne Makhoul and Eric Leviten-Reid
Vibrant Communities Calgary: Awareness, Engagement, and Policy Change — Theory of
Defining and Increasing Civic Engagement
Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped Public Policy Initiative
Fair Fares Calgary Celebrates Reduced-fare Transit Passes
Update on the Living-Wage Campaign
Fair Fares 2008: Roadblocks and Opportunities
B. Emerging Trail Builders
Hamilton, Ontario
Anne Makhoul and Mike Bulthuis
The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty ReductionHamilton’s Best Start Network
The Hamilton Spectator’s Focus on Poverty
Mohawk College Builds Its Community Partnerships
Shared Leadership and Collaborative Governance in Poverty Reduction
Surrey, British Columbia
Anne Makhoul
Vibrant Surrey: Bridging the Gaps and Consolidating Strengths — Theory of Change
Project Comeback: A Lifeline for Surrey’s Homeless Day Labourers
Waterloo Region, Ontario
Anne Makhoul
Waterloo Region’s Guaranteed Income Supplement Campaign
Opportunities 2000’s Year of Change
St. John’s, Newfoundland
Anne Makhoul, Eric Leviten-Reid, and Peggy Matchim
Vibrant Communities St. John’s: Engaging Citizens and Changing Systems

Conclusion: Toward 2011
Further Resources
Creating Vibrant Communities attempts to capture the process and outcomes of a group of Canadian
communities that have held many important community-building conversations, specifically about
poverty reduction. People living in poverty and representatives from all sectors of these communities
have come together for these conversations. The result has been inspiring work and community
transformations right across the country. This work and body of practice are known as Vibrant
Communities Canada.
Creating Vibrant Communities celebrates and documents this phenomenon. It is composed of (I)
two papers on the Vibrant Communities way and (II) stories of the six communities that built the trail
and four communities that followed.
I believe that this book will inspire and help three audiences. The first are those who have been
following our work and who are interested in Vibrant Communities Canada. They will find in it a
good overview of the history and developments of the formative years, known as phase one. The
second are those interested in community-development methodologies. They can read this book as a
case study in a method known as Comprehensive Community Initiatives. The book details and
documents a particularly good example of a new approach to collaborative action. The third audience
are those who are interested in poverty reduction. These readers will find descriptions here of many
innovative approaches to poverty reduction adopted by the Vibrant Communities Network; and they
will see how and why these methods have worked.
Vibrant Communities Canada as a whole is a relatively young national initiative. Launched in 2002,
its learning during its formative years (2002–2006) was extensive. This book attempts to capture and
share the knowledge generated during that time, in the hope that you will join in our conversation
about community change and poverty reduction. Our desire is that it will inspire you to join in our
work of creating vibrant communities in Canada.
In the Introduction, I share the story of the founding of Vibrant Communities and describe how
Sherri Torjman’s monograph, Reclaiming Our Humanity, inspired and informed it.
Part I of the book focuses on the formative years. If you are looking for a quick overview of our
work, the best place to start is with the first paper, Eric Leviten-Reid’s summary of the Vibrant
Communities experience from 2002 to 2006. The other paper in this part of the book, by Mark Cabaj,
Susan Eckerle Curwood, and Eric Leviten-Reid, analyses communities that have established
community campaigns. We call these communities Trail Builders. This paper provides an overview
of the results to December 2006 and a description of how we captured the outcomes described.
Part II is a collection of stories describing the various initiatives undertaken by individual
Vibrant Communities in their attempts to eliminate poverty. It is divided into two sections;
Communities That Built the Trail and Emerging Trail Builders.
The first section is devoted to the initial group of six communities that launched community-wide
campaigns. These stories are organized chronologically according to when each community joined
Vibrant Communities. They include an overview of each community’s work, a description of the local
environment, and their theory of change, which describes their unique approach to poverty reduction.
We have also included stories of their work and progress. Some of these stories go beyond the
formative years with information as recent as 2008. They have been included primarily to give
concrete examples of work being done at the community level.
The second section is devoted to emerging Trail Builders and their stories, some of which
describe the various challenges faced in implementing multi-sector comprehensive community
initiatives. AH have launched community-wide campaigns.
At the end of the book, you will find further resources related to this work. All of this material
can also be found on the Vibrant Communities website.
Vibrant Communities Canada, as a national project to reduce poverty in Canada, involves the wisdom
and efforts of many people. A wonderful team surrounds this work, most of whom have been active inthe writing and editing of this book. They deserve acknowledgment.
First, I want to thank Louise Kearney for her fine eye to detail. She brought both her editing skills
and a deep understanding of the history of Vibrant Communities to this project. As a historian, she has
been a tremendous help to me. Rachel Veira Gainer provided stellar copy-editing support, and Laura
Zikovic contributed her talent to the text and cover designs.
Clara Bird spent several months with me gathering documents, building consistent files and
formats, and painstakingly deleting the redundancies of papers that were originally written to be read
independently. Her patience, good nature, and skill contributed greatly to the initial concept of this
The authors of the papers in this book have been active in Vibrant Communities almost from the
beginning and have written extensively about it. Mark Cabaj has co-led this work in our communities
with me since the days of Opportunities 2000 (1996). He has been, and continues to be, the driving
force and “brains” behind all we do. Eric Leviten-Reid, our key researcher, has led the Vibrant
Communities evaluation process through the Caledon Institute of Social Policy almost from the
beginning. His sharp mind and exceptional writing ability have shaped the documentation of our work.
Anne Makhoul has written most of the community stories in this book. She has a wonderful way
of engaging the people she is writing about and then synthesizing their story into an information-rich
and yet enjoyable read. She is a truly gifted writer and we are grateful for her commitment to our
work. She is joined by Mike Bulthuis, who led a government learning circle and has contributed some
exceptional stories.
Donald Bastian of BPS Books has once again helped us to understand our research and writings
as a book. His skill as an editor and publisher is unprecedented.
So much is said in this book about the “doers,” those who work tirelessly at the community level
to bring about change. But we must not overlook the funders, the investors in the Vibrant Communities
experiment. Though they would not like to be called venture philanthropists, they were willing to
invest great sums of money and energy into a new, untested method of reducing poverty in Canada.
We are forever indebted to our founding hinders. Alan Broadbent and Ratna Omidvar of the
Maytree Foundation were there from the outset. They invested in building and funding both Tamarack
and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy to support this work. Tim Brodhead and Katharine Pearson,
on behalf of the J.W. McDonnell Family Foundation Board, were the lead investors in Vibrant
Communities. From day one, they gave more than money, contributing their deep expertise and trust to
this project. Without these two wonderful organizations, and the people behind them, nothing would
have happened. This type of vision, combined with patience, is what makes good things great!
Stephen Voisin and his team at RBC Financial, Canada’s leading bank, have supported our
efforts to create vibrant communities since 1997 when they came on as a sponsor of Opportunities
2000. We are very grateful to them — we could not have asked for a better, more patient
privatesector partner. Bill Young, his family, and the Hamilton Community Foundation support us as if we
are “one of the family,” believing in us to the point of now engaging the entire city of Hamilton in this
way of working.
We have been blessed with the best partners in government. Human Resources and Social
Development Canada (Susan Scotti, Allen Zeesman, Liz Huff, Donna Troop, and Jean Viel) invested
in the learning community behind Vibrant Communities. Their support has made this book possible.
The Caledon Institute of Social Policy, led by Ken Battle and Sherri Torjman, has been a partner
in both Opportunities 2000 and Vibrant Communities. Our organizations complement each other
deeply, and our decade-long relationship has been forged into what can be best described as a
“sisterhood.” Caledon is simply the best and most effective policy organization working on poverty
and related social issues in Canada. We are humbled by Ken and Sherri’s commitment to, and
relentless support of, the Vibrant Communities way, and for advancing these ideas far beyond our
Finally, and most importantly, may we offer our thanks to those community leaders who have
joined the Vibrant Communities Network, now comprising nearly fifteen hundred organizations in
Canada. It started with a conversation in Guelph, Ontario, in 2002, where approximately fifty leaders
from fifteen cities met to talk about the possibility of working together in a new way. Many if not most
are still active six years later, and they have created the overall story told in this book. On behalf of
the Tamarack and Vibrant Communities team, I thank you for your innovation, commitment to making
great communities, and deep empathy for those who live in poverty.

Good things start with a conversation. So do good communities.
Communities that work are places where people from different walks of life come together to
discuss ideas that matter to them. Over time (sometimes long periods of time), trust and understanding
emerge and individuals agree to work together. They discuss ideas and eventually develop plans to
act. Once the foundation for action is set, people engage deeply and work together relentlessly to
realize the dreams they share.
In what we call Vibrant Communities, these types of conversations happen frequently.
I am often cited as the founder of the Vibrant Communities movement, but in truth the movement found
me. It is an idea that has radically changed me.
The idea emerged in 2001, when a founding group met over a period of six months to reflect on
the experience of Opportunities 2000, a Millennium campaign that I initiated with Mark Cabaj and a
team of volunteers and staff in Waterloo, Ontario, to reduce poverty in the Region of Waterloo to the
lowest level in Canada. For more than a decade prior to that, I had worked with an amazing team to
build a local economic development organization called the Community Opportunities Development
Association. We helped over five thousand low-income people find work and twelve hundred more
start small businesses.
Even though we were one of the most successful organizations of our type in the country, poverty
continued to rise in our community. Opportunities 2000 was designed to correct this.
Rather than developing more programs, we decided to run a four-year Millennium campaign to
mobilize the entire community to focus on poverty reduction. The goal was to initiate a collaborative
process that would ask business, the voluntary sector, government, and people who had experienced
poverty first-hand to form a partnership and a representative leadership round table, develop a
community plan for poverty reduction, and then work together to implement the plan.
The result was remarkable. Not only did we impact seventeen hundred families in our
community, we also created a new way of working together to effect community change. Opportunities
2000 was recognized with national and international awards.
The members of the Vibrant Communities founding group who reflected on the Opportunities
2000 experience never actually met face to face, though we all knew each other very well. I call it a
group simply because that was what I considered them as I shuttled between them over a six-month
period, going from one visit to the next and passing on the ideas of one to the other. It was a brilliant
“meeting” that continued, at least for me, seemingly without pause. A conversation with one person
would lead to a conversation with another, and it all flowed along as if we were together.
In this group was Alan Broadbent, of the Avana Capital Corporation and the Maytree
Foundation, who had inspired me to co-found with him, in 2001, the Tamarack Institute for
Community Engagement. Alan has a brilliant mind and is intensely passionate about cities. As a
whole-systems thinker, he has an uncanny way of seeing everything in 3-D. His probing questions
deepened my understanding of the value of our work in Waterloo and teased out potential applications
for this work in a broader context.
Alan was particularly interested in our multi-sector work that brought together people from the
private sector, government, the voluntary sector, and those affected by poverty to create a jointly
owned community campaign. He believed that the power of government to effect change in cities was
diminishing. He saw the importance, therefore, of an increase in citizen action and collaborative
approaches, and compelled me to consider how we might help communities to harness this new
Alan co-founded and chairs Tamarack and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. The Maytree
Foundation, which he founded with Judy Broadbent, invests significant financial resources to fund the
capacity of Tamarack and Caledon to provide leadership in Vibrant Communities.
Two other members of the founding group were Tim Brodhead, President and CEO of the J.W.
McConnell Family Foundation, and Katharine Pearson, who led many innovative learning approaches
for McConnell. Tim brings a profound wisdom and insight to his work. His boyish optimism is
tempered by the realism of one who has fought and “almost won” far too many battles for good.Katharine contributed to the team her unique ability to bring diverse people and ideas into unison,
along with ever-encouraging words, absolute patience, and a warm smile.
Together, Tim, Katharine, and the team at McConnell had been working on an idea that they
called “applied dissemination,” which focused on helping projects and organizations that were
successful in one city to grow into national initiatives. The team sought to understand how such
growth might occur and was willing to fund a couple of experiments. The McConnell Family
Foundation was a key Opportunities 2000 donor, and Tim and Katharine felt that the campaign could
be tested in other cities. The foundation’s board provided more than $2 million to launch Vibrant
Communities and Tim and Katharine have been active in the work ever since. (We were deeply
saddened when Katharine died, in May 2008. She will be sorely missed, both personally and
professionally.) Without the support of the McConnell Foundation, our work would not have been
possible. Inaddition to giving us funds to help us launch Vibrant Communities, the foundation’s board
contributed $5 million to help us grow.
Frances Westley was also a member of the Vibrant Communities founding group. At the time, she
was based at McGill University, where she led the McGill-McConnell program to advance the
leadership capacity of national voluntary-sector organizations. Frances has a remarkable gift of
turning confusion into action and sorting out understandable and actionable patterns from the ideas,
feelings, and intents of individuals and groups. She had endless time for me as I met with the founding
groups. She helped me identify not only the ideas that would shape Vibrant Communities, but also the
feelings of inadequacy and fear that I was experiencing.
The final person in the founding group, and the one who would prove the most influential in
shaping the ideas behind Vibrant Communities, was Sherri Torjman of the Caledon Institute of Social
Policy. Sherri has been on the front lines of policy development in Canada for many years. She is one
of the kindest, most generous people you could ever hope to meet. She cares deeply about the
disadvantaged in our society and the issues that face them. She uses her sharp mind and remarkable
writing skills to express with great clarity what needs to be done to create a caring and sustainable
future in this country.
Sherri wrote a number of policy and reflection papers for Opportunities 2000. She lent
credibility to the campaign, not only through her knowledge and persuasive writing, but also through
her national reputation as one of Canada’s leading social policy thinkers. It was her contribution that,
in no small part, made Opportunities 2000 an initiative of national interest from its very inception.
When I first spoke to Sherri about the possibility of forming Vibrant Communities Canada, she
was working on a formative monograph with partners from the Coalition of National Voluntary
Organizations, the Canadian Council on Social Development, and the United Way of Canada–
Centraide Canada to establish key policy priorities that each organization could promote. Published
as Reclaiming Our Humanity, it shaped the ideas that would become Vibrant Communities, grounding
the ideas in a social policy context and making them the essential building blocks of our work.
There were, of course, other conversations during this time. In fact, there are many other people
who may be considered co-founders of Vibrant Communities, including Mark Cabaj, Louise Kearney,
and Eric Leviten-Reid. As the leading staff of the project, their sharp thinking and ability to test and
explore ideas in building the Vibrant Communities Network have been critical to our success.
Anne Kubisch provided immeasurable understanding and a language for our work at the Aspen
Roundtable on Community Change. Senator Landon Pearson, our honorary chair, inspired us with her
campaign to save the children of this world. These two contributed to our development in those early
days and, in turn, helped us to create and found Vibrant Communities.
But it was in Sherri’s work that we found the inspiration for our national initiative. It was when
about fifty people from fourteen cities met in April 2002 agreeing to work together to reduce poverty
across Canada, that we decided to name ourselves Vibrant Communities, a concept inspired by
Though the words and ideas expressed in Reclaiming Our Humanity are Sherri’s, the monograph also
reflects many of the themes of the conversations within the founding group. There was a synergy of
ideas in the public ethos of that time, which Sherri captures beautifully. Rather than restate the ideas
expressed in the founding group conversations, I will share a few key quotes from her monograph and
describe how the ideas behind them influenced our work.Vibrant Communities Can Do a Lot
Vibrant communities ensure that basic needs are met. There is no family without a
roof over its head. No child goes to school hungry. No person suffers from abuse or
violence without having a safe place to go. No family lives as an island without help
and support when needed. Everyone has access to clean air and water.
Vibrant communities recognize the wide range of ingredients necessary for social
development. They take steps to harness these resources in new and creative ways.
They bring together the players who can effect change.
Early in the work of the VC Network, we recognized that if communities were to significantly reduce
poverty, they would need to go beyond starting more employment programs, food banks, and social
security schemes. To truly reduce poverty, we would need to engage leaders and citizens in a larger
discussion about the kind of community they wanted. The concept of vibrant communities, as Sherri
described it, was exactly what we needed to inspire these types of discussion.
Sherri’s monograph also provided a clear picture of the conditions to address in creating the
kind of communities that we envisioned. Though some might see her vision as bordering on the
Utopian, those of us who had spent decades on the front lines of social change saw it as an expression
of what was necessary if we were ever going to make progress. We were tired of incremental changes
that focused on specific solutions. We recognized in Sherri’s description of vibrant communities a
call to look beyond single-issue solutions to embrace community or system change. Housing, food
security, safety, belonging, and a clean environment were best seen as a package, with each element
as important as the other.
Sherri also called for communities to think and work differently. They would harness local
resources (assets) in new and innovative ways to improve the conditions of their communities. For
years, community developers were encouraged to take a deficit view of communities; to identify those
things that were not working and fix them. An asset-based approach takes a positive view of
communities, asking practitioners to harness the community’s talent and resources to facilitate change.
In her description of vibrant communities, Sherri also captured the methodology for
implementing the vision. She writes, “Bring together the players who can effect change.” This
multisector approach is at the heart of Vibrant Communities Canada.
Reducing Poverty Is the Crucial First Step
A vision of social development must begin with meeting the needs of the most
vulnerable citizens. Being poor means poor food, poor housing and poor health. Its
effects are devastating not only for individuals. Nations are at risk when such a large
slice of their population is excluded from participating and contributing to the fullest
of its ability.
There was never any doubt that the VC Network would focus our work on poverty reduction.
However, wanting to go beyond seeing things through an anti-poverty lens, we also used a
community-development lens, acknowledging the devastating effect of poverty on individuals and
communities. For the founders of Vibrant Communities, reducing poverty was about raising the
overall quality of life in a community.
In fact, an oft-repeated phrase in the VC Network is, “We want less poor, not better poor.” The
statement challenges much of the anti-poverty work in our communities, work that results in
humanservices supports that make living more tolerable. We give people food, housing, income support, and
employment training. All of these supports are critical, but no one of them alone is adequate.
The VC approach was developed to consider the conditions that would create a community in
which poverty could not exist. Sherri helped us to define the approach when she linked poverty to
issues of security and contribution.
Reclaiming Our Humanity recognizes the importance of every citizen living in a community to
the community’s overall quality of life. Sherri’s vision is of all people “participating and contributing
to the fullest of (their) ability.” The VC Network has embraced this vision and sees it as inherent inall of our work, especially in bringing people who are living in poverty into full participation in the
life of their community.
Vibrant Communities insure Support, Inclusion, and Learning
This is a vision of vibrant communities. They provide support to all members. They
include all members. And they promote opportunities for learning at all ages and
Vibrant communities provide support that meets bask needs. Vibrant communities
promote inclusion to enable all members to participate actively in social, economic,
cultural and political life. And vibrant communities afford opportunities for the
lifelong acquisition of knowledge and skills. In the real world, these dimensions are
intrinsically linked. Social development is both rich and multifaceted; any framework
or vision must embody this complexity.
Fractured responses result in fractured solutions. The VC Network has embraced the use of a
comprehensive lens for developing poverty-reduction initiatives. We recognize that no one solution
offered in isolation will suffice: A full range of supports is what is required.
In order to achieve these linked up solutions, VC members work across sectors and take a
whole-systems approach to their planning and work. This is best exemplified in their community
plans. Communities try to understand what is happening within their bounds and to work across
sectors to network the organizations working on the issues that matter — organizations that will make
the biggest difference.
Social Capital Embodies Networks That Enable Collective Action
Social capital is not an end in itself; it is the means to an end. It provides the
foundation for human capital development. And it is an essential ingredient in
enabling communities to make things happen collectively. It is through the process of
bringing people together and forming relations and networks that social, economic
and environmental challenges can be most effectively tackled.
Building relationships is at the heart of the Vibrant Communities approach. Connecting people,
developing new ideas for community improvement, and then working together to realize these ideas is
at the core of the work. The network’s multi-sector approach has helped us to realize that the process
of identifying solutions is as important as implementing them. The goal is always to include those who
have the power to make change happen.
In building social capital by forming social networks and advancing collective action, Vibrant
Communities partners have been able to both implement innovative approaches to poverty reduction
and effect local policy decisions. These policy decisions may result in changes to transportation costs
and/or access, and to employment policies or planning approaches leading to more refined and
specific local approaches. By connecting people, opening new conversations, and building trust and a
deeper sense of community, Vibrant Communities partners are reducing poverty in significant and
sustainable ways.
An Environment for Change
This vision for reclaiming our humanity seeks three ends: First, we seek to ensure that
the environment and social well-being are on the table as issues equally important
and intrinsic to economic growth. Second, we want to be at the table. We want to be a
full partner in discussions and in work undertaken to pursue a social development
agenda. Third, we wish to turn the tables to ensure that communities can lead from a
position of strength. They must be at the forefront of ensuring support, inclusion andlearning.
Vibrant communities stress the importance of influencing government policy and wider
community-systems change. Though members of the VC Network are interested in federal and
provincial policies to reduce poverty, they recognize that their voice is best heard through changes
undertaken at the local level. The network has no specific policy statement for poverty reduction.
Instead, it has an approach. The approach begins with the premise that communities must speak from a
place of strength on the issues that are facing them. This strength comes from forming a consensus
across sectors on what needs to change. Communities can accomplish a lot, even without provincial
or federal support. Communities do not need to wait for permission to change policies to help the
Thank you for joining the Vibrant Communities conversation. In sharing our story with you and a
broader constituency interested in place-based solutions, as well as with policy makers in Canada
and around the world, we hope to deepen the understanding of the importance of this work and to
open the door to a mutual conversation about what works. We know, when we employ national or
provincial policies to affect poverty, that significant room must be given for place-based approaches
to implementing these policy changes. We believe that poverty must be eradicated one community at a
When we bring our communities into a new conversation, much can happen. Vibrant
Communities is evidence of this.
Torjman, S. (2001) Reclaiming Our Humanity. Ottawa: Caledon Institute of Social Policy. Dec.INTRODUCTION TO PART I
The purpose of this part of the book is to familiarize you with the work of Vibrant Communities in its
early development. The first paper, by Eric Leviten-Reid, is an excellent overview of the philosophy,
structures, goals, and work of Vibrant Communities, 2002–2006. The second paper, by Mark Cabaj,
Susan Curwood Eckerle, and Eric Leviten-Reid, is a more in-depth analysis of the experience of the
Trail Builders. It also gives a compelling description of the evaluation methodology used by Vibrant
Communities and the results of this first phase.
Together, these two papers provide the context and thinking behind Vibrant Communities and
complement the more specific descriptions of the work found in part II of this book.BRINGING VIBRANT COMMUNITIES TO LIFE; THE FOUNDING
Eric Leviten-Reid, January 2007
Vibrant Communities was launched in the spring of 2002. It was formulated around a core set of ideas
— abstract concepts that have gradually come to life through the efforts of hundreds of people from
diverse backgrounds who are working together to reduce poverty in their communities. In the words
of one participant: “In the past, ‘multi-sector’ was just a word; now it is people in the same room.”
What is Vibrant Communities? How did it come to be? And what difference is it making? The
purpose of this paper is to reflect on the Vibrant Communities experience to date: where we’ve been,
where we are, and where we may go from here.
The first part of this paper reviews the origins and actions of the initiative, including its goals
and design and major facets of the work undertaken from 2002 to 2006. The second part offers broad
reflections on the experience of Trail Builder communities and the initiative overall. The third part
casts an eye ahead to the future development of Vibrant Communities.
Vibrant Communities is a pan-Canadian action–learning initiative that explores promising local
solutions for poverty reduction. It was established through a partnership involving three national
sponsors (the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy,
and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation) and fourteen local communities across the country. It has
already grown to enjoy the participation of several additional communities as well as other funding
partners, including the Maytree Foundation, Young Foundation, and RBC Financial Group. In
addition, Human Resources and Social Development Canada is providing both financial and staff
support for the initiative.
The Context; A Need for Change
The impetus behind Vibrant Communities was a general recognition that, despite the undeniable
prosperity enjoyed by so many in this country, efforts to reduce poverty in Canada had stalled.
Between 1961 and 1977, the percentage of Canadians living on low incomes fell from 29
percent to 13 percent. Since then, the poverty rate has not moved below this level, remaining between
14 and 19 percent throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and into the current decade. While the rate of poverty
has gone up and down with the economy, there has been no substantial decrease in poverty for nearly
thirty years. What is evident in the national statistics has been all the more evident on the ground in
communities. Food banks, once considered an emergency response to a passing problem, have
become a permanent part of the social landscape. Homeless shelters, once used almost exclusively by
single adults, are now frequently needed by families with children. Workers who formerly would
have been free of poverty by virtue of employment now all too often fall within the ranks of the
working poor. Not only is poverty entrenched, but it is also now touching a wider array of Canadians.
By the late 1990s, it was clear that broad shifts had occurred in the structure of opportunities and
supports available to Canadians. A precarious labour market offered few good jobs (paying high
wages but requiring high skills) and many bad ones (low-wage, part-time employment offering few, if
any, benefits); public spending on social programs had been reduced; and responsibilities, though not
resources, were being downloaded from one level of government to another, and from government in
general to individuals and communities.
For human-services and community agencies of various kinds, the result was an impossible
combination: an increase in demand for assistance coupled with fewer resources to do the job. Manyfound that they were running faster just to stay in place, and often falling behind. Clearly something
needed to change. In various ways, in different settings, community groups began searching for new
Seeds of Hope
One such effort was Opportunities 2000 in Waterloo Region, Ontario. Recognizing that it had reached
a plateau in its ability to assist the unemployed, a local community organization set out to expand the
scale and impact of its work. Running from 1996 to 2000, Opportunities 2000 engaged a diverse
group of community leaders, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and local businesses in the
vision of reducing the region’s poverty rate to the lowest in Canada. Ultimately, it mobilized
eightysix organizations in support of forty-seven diverse poverty-reduction initiatives, ranging from the
creation of community enterprises and workforce development initiatives to employer-driven changes
in workplace practices.
While the initiative did not achieve its target to help two thousand families exit poverty by the
year 2000, it did help sixteen hundred households take significant steps in their journey out of poverty,
make poverty reduction a public priority, and create a network of leaders and organizations
committed to renewing and sustaining their collaborative work, under the new name of Opportunities
Waterloo Region.
In late 2001, representatives from three organizations that played major roles in Opportunities
2000 — the J.W McConnell Family Foundation, the Caledon Institute, and Opportunities 2000
(several members of which had since formed the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement) —
came together to reflect on the lessons learned. They concluded that although Opportunities 2000’s
results were promising, it was not possible to declare that the approach it had taken would work in
other contexts. Further experimentation with other local initiatives was required in order to determine
the overall viability of the approach, how it might be pursued in different settings, and the extent of the
outcomes it might achieve.
Fortunately, Waterloo Region was just one of many communities across the country beginning to
explore new ways to address poverty. In the spring of 2002, representatives from thirteen such
communities met with the three national sponsors to explore the possibilities of a pan-Canadian
initiative. Following three days of deliberation, Vibrant Communities was officially launched.
The Vibrant Communities Framework
The mission of Vibrant Communities reflects the aspiration of communities to develop substantial
new strategies for reducing poverty and improving quality of life: “To create and grow a movement of
diverse leaders and communities committed to exploring, challenging and testing ways to unleash the
potential of communities to substantially reduce poverty and ensure a good quality of life for all
At the core of the initiative is a set of promising approaches for addressing poverty. In its
evaluation of Opportunities 2000, the Caledon Institute described it as one of a growing number of
local initiatives that tackle complex issues through comprehensive, multi-sector efforts (Leviten-Reid,
2001). Such initiatives hold that the causes underlying complex problems, such as poverty, are
interlocked and that communities can hope to make progress on them only by collaborating across
organizations and sectors.
Vibrant Communities developed this perspective further by specifying five key themes to be
explored as an integrated set of approaches for countering poverty.
These themes were:
Poverty reduction: to reduce poverty rather than simply alleviate its hardships.
Comprehensive thinking and action: to address the interrelated root causes of poverty rather
than its various symptoms.
Multi-sector collaboration: to engage a broad spectrum of sectors and organizations in a
collaborative effort rather than have each work in isolation.
Community asset building: to emphasize the presence of community assets on which to build,
rather than deficits to be overcome.
Community learning and change: to embrace a process of continual community learning and
change, rather than respond with relatively narrow, short-term interventions.These themes represented an initial set of puzzle pieces to be considered in breathing new life
into Canada’s poverty-reduction efforts.
To pursue its work, the initiative established two related components. Communities, as well as
the policy-makers and hinders who support them, participate in a Pan-Canadian Learning Community
that provides opportunities to share insights and experiences related to community-based poverty
reduction and to offer mutual support and guidance. At the same time, a smaller number of Trail
Builder communities put ideas into practice through, multi-faceted, multi-year poverty-reduction
initiatives in their local settings. In return for receiving extra financial and technical support from the
national initiative, they agree to closely track their lessons and outcomes, and share them with PCLC
members and national sponsors. The overall process is one of action–learning, in which discussions
within the Pan-Canadian Learning Community support Trail Builders in developing their initiatives,
and the practical experiences of Trail Builders fuel the wider network’s learning.
A set of tangible, mid-range objectives brought focus to the initiative’s work. These included to:
Reduce poverty for at least five thousand households in Canada.
Expand the number of Canadian communities actively using a set of promising approaches for
poverty reduction.
Link fifteen communities in a process of collaborative learning, and support up to five
communities to more deliberately learn and apply these approaches to poverty reduction.
Engage two hundred fifty nonprofit organizations and government agencies, one hundred
lowincome leaders, and one hundred businesses in those communities to join in implementing
poverty-reduction plans.
Distill and document lessons learned from these initiatives so they can be shared and can help
shape policies across sectors and at all levels of government.
The Work to Date: An Overview
A tremendous amount has been undertaken and achieved in the space of four years. The work of
Vibrant Communities can be summarized as three major streams: the Pan-Canadian Learning
Community, the Trail Builders, and ongoing efforts to foster an enabling environment.
The Pan-Canadian Learning Community
Between thirteen and sixteen communities have been active participants in the Pan-Canadian Learning
Community at various points over the past four years.
A wide range of activities and resources has been used to support community efforts to learn
about comprehensive, multi-sector approaches to poverty reduction, including: convenor conference
calls; tele-learning sessions; face-to-face forums; coaching, tools, research papers, and an
enewsletter; and a national website. (See Exhibit I.)
Topics explored through major learning initiatives have included:
Business Engagement in Poverty Reduction.
Strategies for Sustainable Incomes.
Fundraising for Social Change Initiatives.
Living Wage Campaigns.
Gender and Poverty.
Grantmaking for Comprehensive Impact.
Community Involvement in Policy Change.
Government Support for the Communities Agenda.
Learning and Evaluation.
In the end, hundreds of community members from across the country have been engaged in a
wide-ranging learning process; sharing local experiences, tapping into outside expertise, accessing
reports and papers on numerous topics, and meeting by conference call or face-to-face to explore
together the what and how of comprehensive, multi-sector approaches to poverty reduction.The Trail Builders
Not surprisingly, many of the communities that became involved in Vibrant Communities were vitally
interested in developing multi-faceted, multi-year poverty-reduction strategies in their local settings.
Some participating communities were, in fact, already actively pursuing such initiatives when Vibrant
Communities was established. Others moved quickly to do so as well. Still others identified
fullfledged local initiatives as their long-term goal and began to gradually put the necessary foundations
in place.
National sponsors originally targeted five Trail Builders for the initial phase of the Vibrant
Communities operation, but in the end six were supported. The expanded number reflects the strong
interest of communities to develop local initiatives and the desire of all partners for the additional
learning that a sixth Trail Builder could provide.
Significant time, energy, and resources are required for developing comprehensive, multi-sector
initiatives for poverty reduction. In Vibrant Communities, the development process has entailed three
distinct stages. In each stage, communities seek to realize certain outcomes and receive specified
supports from the national initiative as they do. (Please see Exhibit II and related discussion.)
Exhibit I — Supporting Pan-Canadian Learning, 2002–2006
Convenor Conference Calls — PCLC members have participated in bimonthly conference calls.
The purpose of the calls is to update participants on local developments, share lessons and
insights based on local experiences, and collectively shape the pan-Canadian initiative.
Tele-learning Events — Approximately ten tele-learning series have been conducted on topics
such as engaging business in poverty reduction, community involvement in policy development,
fundraising for social change, and conducting living-wage campaigns. These sessions enable
participants to engage in peer learning or access the expertise of guest resource persons.
Face-to-Face Forums — Approximately every two years, Vibrant Communities has held a major
face-to-face event in which local and national partners are able to engage in a more extended
sharing of their experiences and insights. These events feature a series of learning sessions and
workshops. The face-to-face sessions help build relationships that enable peer learning at a
distance. They also help orient and inspire newcomers to the Vibrant Communities effort.
Coaching — Tamarack provides coaching support on a limited basis to PCLC members and on a
more extensive basis to Trail Builder communities. Coaching for PCLC members largely
addresses ways that participants can foster community learning. It also pertains to ways that
communities can begin building full-fledged local poverty-reduction initiatives.
Tools — Tamarack has developed eight tools to help communities address a variety of practical
challenges related to planning and implementing comprehensive, multi-sector poverty-reduction
strategies. Among the topics addressed are: the role of local convenors, understanding poverty in
one’s local context, and selecting strategies for poverty reduction.
Research Papers — In an effort to clarify the thinking behind this work and raise awareness about
the overall approach, the Caledon Institute has written a series of research papers exploring the
ideas and practices associated with comprehensive, multi-sector approaches to poverty reduction.
More than a dozen papers have been completed to date on topics such as core concepts related to
comprehensive community Initiatives, the roles played by various partners in these efforts, and
ways that governments can support community-based strategies for poverty reduction.
Engage! — This monthly e-magazine provides updates on major developments within Vibrant
Communities. It also highlights resources such as research papers and tools that may be of interest
to participants, Engage! is written both for Vibrant Communities participants and others interestedin this work. It currently has more than seventy-five hundred subscribers.
National Website ( — A national website plays an integral role in
supporting the initiative’s learning process. It features web pages for participating local
communities, resources pertaining to the various learning themes being explored, and research
papers, tools, and reports emerging from Vibrant Communities. In the first six months of 2006,
more than 22,800 users engaged in over 40,600 sessions on the website and downloaded more
than 18,500 files.
PCLC Evaluation — To date, two evaluations have been undertaken of the Pan-Canadian
Learning Community. Conducted by C.A.C. International, a Montreal-based firm specializing in
evaluation research, the purpose of the evaluations is to support continuous improvement in the
design and implementation of the PCLC.
Supports — Matching funds of up to $100,000 per year for a maximum of three years, ongoing
coaching from Tamarack staff, and up to $3,000 per community for accessing additional
Tamarack, local, or peer coaches; assistance in developing f he local capacity to track
povertyreduction outcomes; and lessons learned through the local initiative.
One of the primary purposes of Vibrant Communities is to understand the different ways that
comprehensive, multi-sector initiatives may unfold. As discussed more fully below, despite
underlying similarities, each of the Trail Builder initiatives is distinct in its overall approach to
poverty reduction and the specific interventions it is pursuing. A substantial Trail Builder learning
and evaluation process has been developed to follow the work of each initiative as it evolves, track
the outcomes achieved, and identify the lessons learned.
This learning and evaluation process consists of three main stages.
In the first stage, each Trail Builder develops a “theory of change,” articulating the key ideas
guiding the initiative in its work: its understanding of poverty and poverty reduction; the goals it is
seeking with respect to building community capacity; household outcomes and systemic changes; the
specific strategies to be pursued; and the role that the collaboration will play in the poverty-reduction
process. This theory of change constitutes a conceptual baseline that allows local and national
partners to refine the thinking behind these initiatives.
Working with the Caledon Institute, each Trail Builder prepared a theory-of-change story. On an
annual basis, Tamarack, Caledon, and the Trail Builder conduct a local reflection session to consider
the progress the initiative has made in achieving its goals and to determine the extent to which its
theory of change is being borne out in practice. On the basis of this reflection session, lessons are
identified, the theory of change is revised, and adjustments are made in the initiative’s plans for the
period ahead.
The second stage in the learning and evaluation process focuses on capturing the results of the
poverty-reduction strategies undertaken by Trail Builders. Working with national sponsors, Trail
Builders have developed two-page descriptions of the specific strategies that they are pursuing. These
descriptions briefly indicate the challenge being addressed, the strategy being employed, and the
results anticipated or achieved. To date, twenty-one such stories have been documented. These
narrative descriptions are also intended to help Trail Builders develop evaluation plans for tracking
the results achieved by each initiative, including logic models and research strategies.
Exhibit II — Stages in the Trail Builder Stream 2002–2006
Stage I — Exploring Local Interest
Purpose: To ensure that prospective local initiatives are strongly rooted in their communities.
Activities: One-on-one conversations, focus groups, and community meetings to consider the local
poverty challenge and possible participation in the learning community or Trail Builder
component of Vibrant Communities.