Women Moving Forward (WMF) is an initiative within the JFCFC. In 2005, the Jane-Finch Community and Family Centre established WMF. The real drive behind this initiative came from some of the previous experiences the community centre had had with a teen-mom (aged 13-20) support group living in the Community. The programme staff observed that once these women reached the age of 21, they could no longer participate in the programme. Meanwhile, the majority of them, having not had the chance to plan for the next step in their lives (i.e. career), ended up living below the poverty line and became recipients of social assistance. The outcomes of that programme thereby demonstrated an obvious lack of adequate supports or career-focused programmes targeting young, sole-support mothers over the age of 20 that would help them successfully move from social assistance to economic self-sufficiency. In order to address this gap, WMF developed its programme design, drawing from extensive research led by JFCFC with support from other organisations such as of the G.H. Wood Foundation, and the Black Creek Community Health Centre (BCCHC), in order to determine the needs of these women. The research included a literature review on poverty among single-parent young moms and a number of focus groups in the community.
The primary goal of WMF is to support and assist young sole-support mothers in the Jane and Finch community in their process of transitioning from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. The target audience of the programme is thereby defined as sole-support young mothers aged 18-30. Building on direct community input, the programme is divided into the two phases, each include following activities to educate and support women in taking the steps necessary towards setting and achieving personal and professional goals (Women Moving Forward, 2013). Phase I: (Self-assessment and Goal Setting; 5 months) focuses on life skills, career planning, citizen participation, counselling and literacy. Phase II (Professional Development and Training; 5 months) is broken down into two components, namely planning and pursuing. The planning part goes on for 6 weeks and includes women choosing a minimum of 2 options – ranging from academic upgrading to a volunteer placement in their field of interest. The rest of phase II focuses upon helping women transition into the next step of their career plan. Upon completion of phase II, the women receive a graduation ceremony. After graduation, WMF continues to offer support and assistance to women.
WMF, as identified by the programme leader, aims to mainly impact the self-improvement and the life-style of its participants by adopting an integrated approach which cuts across different fields such as literacy and education, life skills, employment, and civic participation. The programme strives to increase civic responsibility among the women and in particular provide them with the skills to advocate for themselves and their children. The trainings also help women gain an understanding of the government structures in which they are involved (education, welfare, and childcare) and how to navigate them. This is particularly important for the integration and settlements of those participants who are newcomers or have recent immigration backgrounds.
Our respondent asserted that over the course of 8 years, the programme has helped establish strong ties between staff members and participants, especially given the efforts within the programme to stay in touch with the women after they complete the two phases:
“They call us. Whether they are in school, whether there is a celebration and they are getting married. Whether they got accepted into a new programme. Whether they have a child. So it is building that relationship with the women that is like family. There is a meaningful contact there that is made.”
Thus, by establishing long-term meaningful relationships between women (who come from a diversity of backgrounds but find common grounds to connect on the basis of their individual paths), the programme contributes to enhancing social cohesion by helping the women to contribute to the wider Jane-Finch community. Similarly, positive contributions are made to social mobility since the programme helps women gain the education and skills required to get out of social assistance and move upwards into higher-education and/or employment.
Currently, the programme has three part-time staff members at the JFCFC; namely a team leader, a programme worker, and a life skills coach. Additionally, WMF receives assistance from two other staff members through collaboration with other organisations in the community; an English Language Arts Facilitator provided by Literature for Life; and a Group Talk Facilitator/Programme Counsellor provided by Y-Connect/Griffin Centre. The programme is funded by a number of private and public sources, namely The Geoffrey H. Wood Foundation (Private charitable), United Way Toronto (private), The McEwan family foundation (private), TD Waterhouse (private bank), and the City of Toronto.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Diversity is a defining characteristic of the Jane-Finch area and thereby resonates in WMF. The women who participate in the programme are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, though women from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds tend to shape the largest group. There is an interest in getting a broader diversity in terms of ethnicity, our respondent explained, but the fact that it has not been largely achieved is mainly because the particular characteristics of the pre-defined target audience of WMF (single-parent young mothers) are less visible in certain ethnic-groups as our respondent elaborated on:
“We would love to have more diversity like Vietnamese, Cambodian and so on cause they are here in our community but again is there much teenage pregnancy in those ethno-cultural groups? And if somebody has baby at 22-23 years old that is fine they can still come into the programme but they have to be a single mom. In those communities they are not often single. They are married,”
The programme initiative plans to expand in the future to include young men as well. WMF explicitly addresses diversities in terms of age, ethnicity, culture, gender, socio-economic status, mental health, and settlement. Moreover, the programme pays explicit attention to the barriers faced by these women such as poverty and racial discrimination (especially against the Afro-Caribbean community). Beyond these categories, WMF’s activities also address hyper-diversity as they focus on women’s personal interests and abilities, aiming at fostering women’s individual talents and capacities through helping them create and pursue their career plans based on their own preferences and interests. Thus both positive and negative aspects of the diversity in the Jane and Finch community are addressed by the initiative.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The integrated approach in dealing with all aspects of women’s lives while helping them achieve self-sufficiency is identified as the main internal factor contributing to the success of the programme by the staff. Another internal factor is the bottom-up initialization of the programme, which from the start focused its attention on addressing actual needs in the community. Furthermore, through the years, WMF has been undergoing constant evaluation and reshaping in order to make sure that it sufficiently addresses the particular characteristics and needs of its target audience. Our respondent also asserted that the fact that all staff members are women from the community has been highly influential in building trust and empathy with the participants. Meanwhile, lack of funding and physical space was identified as the most important external factor posing a challenge to the programme. One possible explanation for these limitations, as contended by our respondent, is that since the programme has an integrated approach, there is not one particular Ministry or City department that would take up the responsibility to fully fund the programme as it cuts across different fields. Moreover, given that Jane and Finch is a high-need area, WMF has to compete with other small-scale community programmes over the already limited resources. Thus, WMF has struggled with limited resources resulting in cutting staff hours and moving to a new smaller space.
WMF is a bottom-up initiative, which cuts across various fields in its programme design. The programme is special as it adopts an integrated approach in addressing different characteristics and needs of its participants in helping them achieve self-sufficiency. Although small in size, the initiative has managed to leverage financial, organisational and physical resources via establishing collaborations with a range of other organisations and programmes. WMF contributes to creating encounter between its diverse audience; to recognition of their individual needs with regards to their particular circumstances; and to redistribution of resources by providing them access to education, and helping them apply for grants. In terms of future developments, the programme aims to grow into an independent organisation, which targets a broader audience (men, a broader age group, a larger geographic scale of focus). The feasibility of this plan, however, depends on the extent to which WMF will be successful in securing its sources of funding over the next number of years.