A big, bold plan: project aims to transform downtrodden Winnipeg neighbourhood
Social justice advocates are thinking big in changing early childhood development
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/03/2014 (3064 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Wendy Hallgrimson has a crystal-clear memory of the moment she decided she wasn’t going to become another sad statistic in Point Douglas.
It was her 25th birthday. Another day, another party.
Like most of her friends, Hallgrimson partied hard through her teens and into her 20s. But five years ago, she decided to stop.
“I haven’t drunk since.”
Hallgrimson, a single child of Icelandic-Canadian and Filipino descent, grew up in poverty in Point Douglas. Her parents, she says, were incredibly strict. She rebelled in grades 11 and 12 — drinking, smoking pot and eventually leaving home. She was on a trajectory that, for too long, has seemed to define many young people growing up on Winnipeg’s north side.
“I struggled in high school,” Hallgrimson says. But she graduated on schedule, and, for all her teenage hijinks, she got a counselling diploma from Red River College and found work — with the Boys & Girls Club, the Manitoba Youth Centre and most recently with the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre.
Then, about a month ago, Hallgrimson and her aboriginal partner, James Zebrasky, welcomed another Point Douglas citizen into the world: a healthy baby boy, Lindal James, born on a Sunday afternoon in mid-January.
Statistically speaking, Lindal, who was seven pounds 11 ounces and 20 inches long at birth, was born into what are arguably the direst circumstances facing a newborn child anywhere in Canada. Point Douglas outperforms the country, for all the wrong reasons, in a number of categories — poverty, poor health outcomes, violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, poor educational outcomes. Every year, nearly nine in 10 children in Point Douglas are born into conditions the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls “toxic stress.”
If Lindal is feeling any toxic stress, it’s sure hard to tell. He is breastfeeding, growing like a weed, and his mom takes him to mothers and babies classes and fusses over him like he’s the most important person in her world, which — no insult to his dad, James — he is.
To hear aboriginal elder Stan McKay tell it, Lindal, just like every newborn child, is a gift of hope, not just to a family, but to a whole community.
“In some poor communities, it is the only hopeful thing,” says McKay, a widely respected member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, the first aboriginal moderator of the United Church and a regular presence in Point Douglas community life. McKay says the care and education of our young children is nothing less than a “sacred trust,” and that’s as true in Point Douglas as it is anywhere in the world.
So how is it in Canada, an almost embarrassingly prosperous country by many measures, we continue to fail our children when they are most vulnerable, at the very outset of their lives? Despite almost five decades of research proving investments in the early years have enormous positive effects, not just for kids and families, but for the economy, Canada’s public spending on early childhood education relative to its prosperity ranks the lowest among First World countries — as much as $4 billion per annum below what it would take to meet the OECD average. How is it that in Canada, in Manitoba, and in Winnipeg in particular, our kids fare so badly?
Hallgrimson was still expecting her baby when she heard about The Winnipeg Boldness Project and, more to the point, when she read the statistics about Point Douglas. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, that’s so sad.’ “
But like a lot of women in the community, young and old, Wendy has reached a point of what the Harvard Center calls a “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo” when it comes to what is happening to their kids and grandkids.
Hallgrimson reached out to the project about 10 days before Lindal was born. For her, being a new mom, bringing her own gift of hope to Point Douglas, is also a chance to be part of a radical disruption of the status quo — for the better. Far from running away from her “troubled” neighbourhood, she’s determined to stay and do her part to ensure not just that Lindal prospers, but all kids in Point Douglas get a better start in life because it’s nothing less than they deserve.
Just like his parents, Lindal will go through life saying he was born and raised in Point Douglas and, just as it is for her, Hallgrimson is determined this will be a point of pride for her son. Point Douglas, she says, “is what I know. The important things in my life are in this area. I’m proud to live here.” And by choosing to stay, she is joining an effort to convert some of the country’s worst outcomes to some of its highest achievements.
Just before Lindal was born, The Winnipeg Boldness Project put down its roots. From the office’s humble surroundings on Selkirk Avenue, it has set out a lofty list of goals to achieve.
- What if Point Douglas, and with it Winnipeg, becomes not just a better place to raise kids than it is now, but the best place in all of Canada to do so?
- What if we could radically transform the lives and well-being of kids in Point Douglas so the community goes from being what outsiders consider to be a basket case, to being a case study in transformation and regeneration?
- What if, in the wake of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has exposed the horrors inflicted on aboriginal communities in residential schools — tearing families apart by separating children from their parents — the true reconciliation we need to embark on as a nation begins with the birth of a new generation of kids whose hallmark isn’t their separation from, but their secure attachment to, their families and their neighbourhood?
- What if babies conceived this year in Point Douglas — maybe 500 to 600 if previous years are anything to go by — not only arrive ready for school in 2020 at age five, but they do so fully secure and steeped in their culture?
- What if, when they look out from a baby stroller or from atop Dad’s shoulders, Point Douglas kids see a neighbourhood full of vitality and the bustle of urban renewal? (Or in the science of epigenetics, their environment shapes their development so they grow up expressing their potential, not their poverty.)
On the corner of Selkirk Avenue and McGregor Street, just a block west of the once-notorious Merchants Hotel, these ideas and others are being seeded in a former bank building. While many of these ideas have been on the minds of community leaders for a long time, now there is a seedbed in which they can begin to flourish.
The Winnipeg Boldness Project is an ambitious, seven-year endeavour to create new conditions to dramatically transform the well-being of young children born in Point Douglas. We’ve been “open for Boldness” since Jan. 13, and we’ve given ourselves a year to co-design with the community a six-year innovation initiative to help bring kids’ well-being and school readiness in Point Douglas from among the nation’s worst, to among its best.
In doing so, we are already rallying Winnipeg’s business leaders, the province, the city, and some of the world’s leading thinkers in early childhood development, social innovation and social finance. We also intend to lean heavily on indigenous wisdom for living, because children need to be raised in their culture, not severed from it. A big challenge is to provide hard data to investors we are making a difference, while helping to figure out how families can raise kids who are just as ready for their indigenous lives as they are for life in school. This work, and a lot more besides, is happening right now at the corner of Selkirk and McGregor in what we call the Boldness Collaboratory.
Why boldness? Why now? Why a collaboratory? And why Winnipeg, and in particular, why Point Douglas?
First up, the premise of The Winnipeg Boldness Project is that despite myriad programs and a generation of heavy and continuing public and philanthropic spending on the city’s children, the situation is getting worse, not better, for far too many kids.
To be very clear, this is not a criticism of existing organizations, nor is it a criticism of the current provincial government or those that preceded it. In fact, in many ways Winnipeg resembles cities and towns all over the world — its inner city has seemingly intractable social problems, and it suffers from a kind of sclerosis of the very systems put in place to address those problems. Those systems are stuck, and just pouring new money into programs — no matter how clever or well-intended they are, or how well they might have worked someplace else — hasn’t worked here in the past, and it won’t in the future.
There are solutions to what ails Point Douglas children and families, many of which exist in the community itself, but typically they aren’t valued, or in some cases are hidden from view by a system that has turned Point Douglas citizens into clients and views them not as assets to be strengthened but as problems to be contained.
Again, this is not to assign blame, but simply to acknowledge if we are serious about change, we have to change the conditions in which change can happen. Achieving these gains requires bold new approaches and brave new collaborations — new mind-sets, new skill-sets and a new culture for place-based innovation.
That’s what we believe is emerging in Winnipeg — a culture for innovation and, just as important, a small but growing “hot core” of leaders who are courageous enough to consider tackling their problems in an entirely new way. The Boldness Collaboratory is purpose-built as a new vehicle to assemble and drive the necessary research and development (R&D), the innovation, that will enable the transformation the community seeks.
Business leaders know intuitively that to generate innovation, you need to invest in R&D. By its very nature, that investment is risky, because you don’t know in advance where it will lead you. But in the private sector, to not invest in R&D is to risk being left behind by the competition, abandoned by your customers — to invite obsolescence or even oblivion.
In the social sector, sadly, there is almost no investment in R&D. Tight program budgets provide little or no room for innovation, and yet the stalling of social policy is one of the largest drains on the public purse everywhere. Still, in an era of global fiscal austerity, what prospect is there of governments investing in innovation?
As it turns out, the Province of Manitoba is one government that appears willing to do so. The province’s Healthy Child Manitoba Act has produced an alignment of government and community intent that, to quote an American observer, makes Manitoba “the most unique place in the Western Hemisphere when it comes to children.” The government’s enthusiasm for boldness is genuine. No one in government needed convincing innovation is desperately needed if we are to move the dial for our kids, and the community has to drive it. We’ve seen plenty of lip service paid to that idea, but never the kind of backbone to pursue it we’ve found here in Manitoba.
Late last year, our advice to the McConnell Foundation was to pledge half a million dollars to an ECD innovation initiative, subject to matching funds from the Manitoba government. With real leadership by Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief and his tenacious senior staff, Manitoba made the match. On Nov. 21, Premier Greg Selinger and the foundation announced the creation of an Early Childhood Development Innovation Fund, whose first investment is in The Winnipeg Boldness Project.
It’s a move that has come none too soon. You would think by now, ECD practice would have caught up with the science, but it hasn’t. As Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard recently wrote, “Advances in the biological and social sciences tell us that the period from conception to school entry is a time of both significant opportunity and considerable risk.” There has now been a half-century of interventions and evaluations that, while they’ve demonstrated positive impacts, fall far short of what the science tells us can and should be achieved. “The time has now come,” Shonkoff writes, “for a different approach to early childhood investment that catalyzes innovation, seeks far greater impacts and views best practices as a baseline, not a solution.”
Or as the Business Council of Manitoba said in its new strategic plan for the next 15 years, “We need to build babies’ brains because it’s the right thing to do and because it will literally build the future of Manitoba… Today, 71 per cent of children provincially, and only 55 per cent of aboriginal children and 49 per cent of newcomer children are ready for school at age five. We can and must close these gaps in a generation or sooner. Early childhood development can be the great equalizer.”
The business council called for a rare degree of collaboration to achieve “a co-ordinated and relentless focus on improving ECD,” and that is exactly what the Boldness Collaboratory is designed to deliver. It is a new “container” in which to carry both scientific and community knowledge, and incubate transformative innovation and action. It is deliberately non-partisan, free of government or funder interference, it favours no existing organization or program, and it is entirely agnostic as to means while being ambitiously and ferociously dedicated to outcomes. It is a very different way of looking at social problems, and it is intended to be disruptive, because as Shonkoff says, even current “best practices” aren’t good enough.
We chose to do this in Winnipeg. The combination of community desire, frontier science, government alignment, business attention, outside interest and, frankly, the urgency of the problem, cause us to believe Winnipeg is on the cusp of a “golden moment” — a time when an extraordinary confluence of interest is occurring around the promise and possibility of community-led ECD.
And hey, Manitobans, for all their friendliness, have a contrarian nature and a historic willingness to stare down injustice and stand up for what’s right. So why not lead the world in doing the right thing for Manitoba’s kids?
The Boldness Project has begun work in what we call our “discovery phase.” To successfully design a new approach, we first need to know what is already being done, by whom, with what results — and to know what’s not getting done and why. We also need to pursue some hunches, based on what we are hearing from the community. And we need to form partnerships, so we neither reinvent research nor repeat mistakes — although there’s still no guarantee we won’t make mistakes of our own. That is the risk of an innovation journey.
Already, in dialogue with strong female leaders, we have found there is a heartfelt desire to design a community-based parenting model. In the words of one leader, “We systemically separate children and families” when precisely the opposite effect is what is needed. “One hundred per cent of mothers live under the threat their children will be taken away.” The community feels under siege. It’s as if, in Canada, the residential schools have been dismantled, but not their effects. (In fact, it is estimated while about 150,000 kids went through residential schools in Canada, three times that number have been apprehended since they closed, with devastating and continuing effects on families and indigenous cultures, not to mention the economy.) How might the collaboratory, then, enable the design of a radically new parenting model based on the wisdom and the skills that already exist in the community?
It is obvious poverty is a fundamental fact of life in Point Douglas, which alone creates enormous obstacles to the success of children and their families. We don’t presume to know how to end poverty, but could we at least help interrupt it? A new U.S.-based project called Poverty Interrupted is considering whether Winnipeg could be a place to test its contention that, with the right type and right amount of investment, “poverty can indeed be interrupted at a cost of success that is far less than the current cost of failure. As a result, poverty (would) no longer be characterized as an unavoidable and necessary evil, but rather as something entirely tractable.”
There is a role for business in this process. In the last week of February, some of the leading lights of Manitoba’s business community convened at 607 Selkirk Ave., along with local business and community leaders. Arthur (Fivie) Gunn, who was born on Selkirk Avenue and whose Gunn’s Bakery has ridden the ups and downs of the neighbourhood for close to 70 years, sees the avenue as once again being a vibrant destination for Winnipeggers — starting with a redeveloped Merchants Corner. The recently shuttered Merchants Hotel — once the epicentre of some of the worst calamities to bedevil the North End — is now the subject of exciting development plans being shepherded by the North End Renewal Corporation. Dave Angus of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is eager to rally his members to bring new entrepreneurship to the strip. And other business leaders are starting to recognize capital can help unlock some of the latent momentum of a community that is, finally, tangibly, on the upswing.
With our Bold goal always top of mind, can we harness the momentum in this community, and ideas from near and far, into a child-centred transformation that might come to be known as “the Winnipeg effect?” Can we catalyze a breakthrough that will change perception and practice and produce outcomes that are celebrated locally and nationally — even internationally — as being among the most important social endeavours of our time? Can we, as a member of our governing stewardship group said, figure out “how to raise a generation of children who don’t have to recover from their childhoods?”
The answer to that question begins at home. It begins with people such as Wendy Hallgrimson, who is now happily reconciled with her parents and is in almost daily contact with other young moms and dads, doing her part to be a role model, helping them to discover more self-worth in a neighbourhood in which, she says, even the best kids feel “a little bit judged.” But mostly, she’s learning to be a good mom.
As for baby Lindal, he’s too young to know it yet, but that mother of his has high expectations for him. He woke up from a nap a couple of weeks back, cute as a button and wearing a tiny blue jumper that read “Future Doctor.” That’s a lot of pressure on his wee shoulders, but he’s off to as good a start as any kid anywhere. That alone would have been exceptional in the Point Douglas of old, but in the Point Douglas of Boldness, that will be nothing out of the ordinary at all.
The Free Press will periodically check in on the Boldness Project as it moves forward.
Updated on Monday, March 31, 2014 3:18 PM CDT: photo fixed