The Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF) is a community-based non-profit organisation based in Black Creek which provides integrated and holistic community responsive initiatives that enable individuals and families to become valued contributors to their community’s social and economic development (www.lefca.org). LEF has been serving the former city of York in North-West Toronto since 1978 when it was first established by the York Board of Education. Since then the organisation has developed from a youth theatre project into one of the largest community economic development organisations in Toronto. The core focus of LEF has thus changed gradually and organically over the years and always in response to needs that were identified on the ground and in a bottom-up manner as our respondent highlighted:
“Our former first programme was community theatre. And what became very evident, was that the kids were at risk because their parents were not working. And so the second programme would have been a partnership with Levi’s. So we started an industrial sewing programme. And then the community space in the neighbourhood was sort of falling apart. The city did not really have the money to keep the community space up. And so we started a construction training programme and started renovating community space.”
Child-care programmes, cooking trainings, and community kitchens also later followed in the same manner.
The core focus of LEF is community economic development at the former city of York. The primary aims of LEF as outlined on the organisation website include: ‘to work to restore/enhance self-sufficiency and self-determination for clients; support an inclusive community focus; celebrate diversity; value justice and compassion; uphold integrity in programming and accountability to stakeholders; promote creativity and innovation; collaborate, cooperate and share; approach work in a proactive, flexible, multi-faceted and practical manner; respond to community needs; and trust in the commitment, high professionalism and integrity of the staff (www.lefca.org). The target audience of the programme is further defined as ‘residents of the former city of York’. The activities at LEF include the following: settlement services for newcomers, employment services, skills training, language training, child-care, youth services, and entrepreneurship.
While the main focus of LEF is on economic development and enhancing the social mobility of individuals in the community via a range of integrated programmes, the organisation also impacts social cohesion as it provides a platform for community members to come together via its on-site open space titled the ‘Town Square’. The Town Square is a large indoor open space located at the centre of the LEF building which provides ample space for gatherings, which includes a sitting area, a cafeteria, market stands, and a kitchen. The space is used frequently for holding events. Social interactions are also stimulated within LEF’s different on-site classes, workshops, and traineeships which all take place on a daily basis in this space.
LEF collaborates with dozens of other community and city-wide organisations. The organisation has 350 staff members on 2 different locations to serve more than 10,000 people every year. They also hire staff from the community to provide access to employment right away after trainings. LEF has around 90 different funding streams including the federal government, City of Toronto, private foundations, banks and private corporations.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Given the size of LEF as well as the variety of its programming, it is not surprising that the organisation encounters a great deal of diversity in the audience it serves. As mentioned earlier, one of the strong components of LEF is its settlement programming which serves newcomers who constitute an incredibly heterogeneous group. Furthermore, while ‘ethnic diversity’ was identified by our respondent as the primary category of diversity addressed by the organisation, attention is paid to catering other types of diversity, in particular gender, age, sexual orientation, and disabilities (i.e. vision and mobility issues) via creating inclusive workspace, learning space, and curriculum.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The main internal factors contributing to the success of LEF can be outlined as follows: Firstly, the organisation is very well-established and has access to a wealth of resources especially a very large space with many facilities on site. The space contributes a great deal to providing multiple services at the same time and thus addressing multiple needs of diverse groups. Secondly, there is a lot of attention paid within LEF towards maintaining an integrated approach that is trying to respond to different interconnected needs simultaneously by providing multiple integrated programmes. Thirdly, within each programme attention is paid to addressing basic needs on site such as food and childcare, which has helped a great deal with attracting more community members to the programme. Lastly, a large and diverse funding stream has provided the organisation with a great degree of financial resilience. However, the organisation continues to face multiple barriers in keeping its mandate and reaching its goals. One of the biggest internal challenges faced by LEF, as outlined by both our respondents is fragmentation within the organisation due to separated funding streams for specific programmes:
“Increasingly we were seeing people who are feeling accountable to the funder, rather than the organisation. So, if they worked in Settlement and their funding came from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, they were feeling more like their employer was CIC, rather than being LEF. That was a struggle we were starting to see and that meant that people were so focussed on hitting that targets, they were not necessarily able to do other things.”
The organisation has thus undergone a restructuring since 2012 in order to address the fragmentation, which undermines the integrated approach within LEF.
LEF provides important insights into how social service providers can address hyper-diversity by adopting an integrated and holistic approach. Though its integrated approach, LEF contributes to creating encounters among community members via providing gathering space, group trainings, and hosting events, also to redistribution of resources by easing access to education, training, and employment opportunities. Recognition is also addressed through creation of inclusive spaces and attention to individual needs. LEF is different from most other community-based initiatives in the area as it is very well-resourced in terms of finance, staff and space. However, the organisation is still very much active in terms of collaborating with other community-based agencies in the neighbourhood in identifying needs on the ground and serving the community. Future plans of the organisation further revolve around dealing with internal fragmentation and strengthening the integrated programming within LEF to reach its core objectives.