The power to choose hope over fear. The power to envision a fairer economy. The power to decide when to stand up and speak out. The power to elect representatives. The power to exercise rights and responsibilities. And when we’re organized, we have the power to create decent work and make life materially better for everyone — especially those who are persistently excluded from Canada’s prosperity.
The Power Lab is about innovation of a different kind. It’s an innovation lab led by people who are building economic and democratic power within historically excluded and equity-seeking communities. It’s a space for experimenting, stretching, and developing skills to realize a shared vision of an economy that works for everyone.
The Power Lab is located at the virtual intersection of community organizing and local economic development. It is part of a system in which a range of actors have different degrees of influence on the legislative, policy, and project agendas held by elected representatives and public institutions. Right now, the lab is the space where the actors concerned with equity in the public infrastructure development process are working together to make sure local residents are at decision-making tables.
Listen to what Lab Director Alejandra Bravo has to say about this project.
The Power Lab is inspired by community and labour activists around the world, some of whom are elected representatives.
Councillor Matthew Brown, for example, is an influential voice for economic localism and community wealth building in the UK. He leads Preston’s City Council and represents the Tulketh ward. He has been widely credited as the driving force behind the ‘Preston model’, an economic model that re-directs procurement from external suppliers to local producers as a response to central government funding cuts that have ravaged the city’s budgets since 2011. Matthew was recently named a Fellow of the Democracy Collaborative, a US-based research institute dedicated to developing new strategies for a more democratic economy.
Hear what he had to say to a national gathering of community economic development practitioners in Moncton, NB in the fall of 2018.
The Power Lab is where community organizers, as lab partners, can:
Three values anchor the Power Lab and connect lab partners and collaborators.
The Power Lab has a spiral learning model. With the facilitation team, lab partners will develop a curriculum that responds to their realities. They bring their vision, knowledge, experience, and organizing skills into the lab. In return, they access technology, resources, expertise, and a supportive community. Everyone is a learner, teacher, practitioner, and expert.
Lab partners are mobilizing their communities to have a more powerful voice in decisions about who benefits from multi-billion dollar public investments. They want this money to do double duty: to build world-class public infrastructure, and to create more "community benefits" like jobs or apprenticeships. Together, they're writing a playbook for this kind of organizing in Canada.
In 2018, the Power Lab’s startup year, 25 community organizers will partner to create this unique space for “learning while doing”. They are all deeply engaged in community organizing where they live. Along with a worldwide network of collaborators, this number will grow to at least 100 organizers in eight Canadian cities over the next three years.
Mustafa Abdi is a currently a Vocational Instructor with the Labour Education Centre, and a proud member of C.O.R.D (Community Organizing for Responsible Development). He first became a member of CORD back in 2009, when Etobicoke North was first started organizing for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in Rexdale for the casino development coming to the community. The development didn’t go through, but this gave Mustafa a valuable lesson. The power is in the people.
Fast forward to 2017, Mustafa worked as a Community Organizer, working closely with community members and coalitions to successfully get a CBA in for the casino expansion at Woodbine. Mustafa has been working with his community for the past 10 years. He is a community advocate and is passionate about being part of the change that he would like to see in his community.
Since getting involved in the labour movement organizing for a union at his workplace, Rogers Centre a.k.a the Skydome, Kumsa Baker has been an advocate for decent work and equitable employment opportunities for all in Toronto.
In 2015, Kumsa joined the Research Department at his Hospitality and Food Service worker union, UNITE HERE, supporting key campaigns across North America. He has also organized with the Toronto 15 & Fairness Campaign who were successful in organizing for and winning major changes and improvements to the outdated Ontario Employment Standards Act. In 2017, Kumsa was recognized for his advocacy being selected for the 2017 Young Workers Award by the Ontario Federation of Labour.
Kumsa currently works as Campaigns Manager with the Toronto Community Benefits Network, leading and supporting local communities in organizing for community benefits like local hiring and local/social procurement.
Alejandra Bravo is the Director of the Power Lab, a new leadership learning initiative focused on local organizing for a fair economy. She is also the Director of Leadership and Training at the Broadbent Institute, where she builds backbone for progressive organizing in Canada.
Active in the community benefits movement, she supports leaders working to build campaigns and coalitions organizing for economic opportunities for historically disadvantaged and equity-seeking groups. Alejandra contributes to movement building as a facilitator, trainer, mentor and strategist with various social change efforts.
Previously she was Manager of Leadership and Learning at Maytree, where she designed and delivered political and civic training for emerging and diverse leaders. Alejandra has a 25-year history of working for progressive social change with grassroots, immigrant, and labour groups. She has worked as a community organizer, political staff and has been a City Council candidate in Toronto.
Mark Ellerker is the President of the Hamilton Community Benefits Network Board, and the Business Manager and Financial Secretary Treasurer of the Hamilton–Brantford Building & Construction Trades (HBBT) Council since 2015.
The HBBT Council represents 17 Building Trades Affiliates and 10,000 members across Hamilton, Brantford and Halton Region. He previously held the position of Business Manager and Financial Secretary Treasurer for Hamilton United Association Local 67 from 2009 to 2015 where he represented 2200 members.
During his time at UA Local 67 one of his responsibilities was establishing the Brantford Technical Trades Academy (TTA) from 2010 – 2015. The TTA was responsible for training and upgrading UA Local 67 Journeymen and Apprentices in the Piping Industry. Mark was the Co-Chair of the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee which monitored and overseen the tracking and training of 300 apprentices from 2009 to 2015.
The TTA also developed Pipe Dreams, a Pre-apprenticeship Training Model that worked in partnership with NPAAMB, their Indigenous Partner, through the Federal ASEP Funding Program from 2010 to 2012. The ASEP Pipe Dreams program was a recruitment to employment model which had a 85% success rate to employment in the welding and piping industry. The TTA also worked in partnership with the MTCU to develop Indigenous, Women and Newcomer Pre-Apprentice Programs for youth and second careers in the welding and piping industry (2011 to 2016).
Prior to this Mark was a Provincial Organizer for the Ontario Pipe Trades Council where he did bottom-up and top-down union organizing and business development across Southern Ontario. During his period as an organizer from 2004 – 2009, Mark saw first hand the benefit of trade unions helping to improve people’s lives and their families, but also experienced the harsh reality of worker exploitation.
He is a Journeyman Red Seal Steamfitter by trade with Hamilton UA Local 67 where he also served as Recording Secretary, Financial Secretary, Political Action Committee, and Events Committee. He was injured in an industrial accident in 1999 at the age of 28, and later had to be retrained in 2001 – 2003 as a Welding Engineer Technician. Mark joined the UA as a Metal Trade Worker, and then received a Steamfitter Apprenticeship which he successfully completed and became a red seal journeyman in January 1999.
Frazier Fathers is a graduate from the University of Windsor and University of Michigan with Masters’ of Political Science and Public Policy degrees specializing in international relations and local economic development respectively.
Currently, Frazier is working for United Way Windsor-Essex County where he facilitated the launch of the Windsor-Essex Community Benefits Coalition as well as currently leading work on creating prosperity for children and youth in the CMA with the highest child poverty rate in Canada.
Frazier lives in Windsor with his partner, Dr. Mallory Wiper, and their two dogs.
Sarah Jama is a long time community organizer from Hamilton, Ontario. She is co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), and is a current board member with the Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton, and the Hamilton Transit Riders Union. Sarah is also a council member with the Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council (HIPC), organizes with the Hamilton Community Benefits Network, ran Hamilton’s first Anti Racism Action Initiative, has organized a number of rallies, and is working with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to create curriculum around combating anti black racism. She works at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion as a Program Coordinator.
Since joining the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) in 2007, Heather has investigated environmental issues and engaged neighbourhoods across Toronto to bring about local solutions.
In her new role as the Campaigns Director, Heather helps lead TEA’s current and future campaigns to victory. Her previous experience as a TEA Campaigner on a wide range of issues including air quality, water pollution, toxics, energy and waste has prepared her for the complex urban environmental challenges our city faces.
Heather is always eager to experiment with new approaches to community engagement that can build grassroots support and foster local leadership. From local monitoring projects that turn residents into citizen scientists to civic actions to win environmental policies at Toronto City Hall, there are many exciting ways to build a greener city for all.
Heather is a University of Toronto alumni with an M.Ed in Adult Education and Community Development and a B.Sc Honours Degree in Environmental Science. Prior to joining TEA, she worked as a researcher in the health and environment fields with positions at Cancer Care Ontario, Health Canada, Waste-Econ, and the UofT Soil Erosion Lab.
Sarah Morris is the Windsor/Essex Community Benefits Coalition Coordinator. Sarah is active in the Windsor arts and culture community, serving as the President of Arts Council Windsor and Region and as Windsor’s Jane’s Walk Organizer. Her professional background is based in campus-community radio, maker spaces, and workforce development. Sarah is a graduate of the University of Windsor’s English Literature and Creative Writing program.
For Colette Murphy, philanthropy has always been more about the power of people than the power of money to change the world.
A Canadian who was raised in the US, Colette cut her teeth as an activist working alongside refugees who found their way to Toronto in the 90s. Since then, she’s earned a North American reputation as a reliable ally, a tenacious advocate for social and economic justice, and a creative collaborator across traditional lines. Best known as an organizational capacity builder at United Way Toronto and a champion for inclusive local economies at the Metcalf Foundation, she has also worked behind-the-scenes on innovative poverty reduction, anti-racism and leadership development initiatives over the course of her career.
As the Executive Director of the 75-year old Atkinson Foundation, Colette focuses on strengthening movements for decent work, shared prosperity and democratic renewal. These efforts are inspired by the example set by Joseph Atkinson who knew poverty before he knew wealth as the publisher of Canada’s largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star. To this day, the foundation’s public policy agenda and investment strategies reflect Mr. Atkinson’s deep personal concern for the lives and livelihoods of working people, and his pragmatic vision of a just society.
Olivia O’Connor is a community organizer with Hamilton ACORN. Olivia recently made the move to Hamilton from Toronto earlier this year.
Olivia is excited to join the social and environmental justice work happening in the city. In her role with ACORN, Olivia organizes in low to moderate income communities in Hamilton to fight for social and financial reform. Olivia’s work involves building leaders and power in the community to push for change at all levels of government. Previously, Olivia was canvass manager for four years at the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
Olivia holds a Bachelor of Environmental Studies and Science from Trent University.
Adaoma Patterson was born in Winnipeg and, with the exception of six years which her family spent in Jamaica, was raised in that city.
Adaoma is currently the Advisor – Peel Poverty Reduction Strategy for one of the regional governments in the Greater Toronto Area, responsible for leading the implementation of a multi-year community strategy. Her work involves creating awareness among residents and local politicians about poverty in Peel, advocating to various levels of government for investments and working with the community to implement actions related to social inclusion, affordable transit, food & income security and economic opportunities.
Adaoma is also President of the Jamaican Canadian Association, a 56 year-old organization serving the Jamaican, Caribbean and African-Canadian communities in the GTA. In addition, she was the NDP candidate for Brampton-West in the 2015 federal election; a 2010 DiverseCity Fellow and former member of the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance Steering Committee. She is mother of a 16 year old son.
Ana Teresa Portillo works in popular education and grassroots housing justice in the community of Parkdale. She currently holds the position of Community Benefits organizer at Parkdale Peoples’ Economy and Rooming House tenant organizer at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre. Prior to this, she ran a successful small business where she also worked as a professional hair stylist in the Parkdale area.
As a tutorial assistant for over 8 years Ana Teresa has taught various courses in the humanities and social sciences at York University. She received her Master’s in Social and Political Thought at York University with a focus on anti-racist feminism(s) and Indigenous theory and practice. She is a PhD candidate in Social and Political Thought, and currently in the process of completing her dissertation on working poor racialized community organizing in gentrifying neighbourhoods.
Rosemarie Powell is a passionate advocate for social, economic and environmental justice.
Rosemarie has worked for over 20 years from the grassroots up, leading progressively to more senior management positions overseeing a number of community based programs and services, including with the Jamaican Canadian Association, Jane Finch Community and Family Centre and Skills for Change.
Currently, she is the Executive Director of the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), a community-labour coalition with a membership base of over 85 groups and organizations across Toronto. TCBN negotiates jobs and opportunities into major infrastructure and urban development projects for historically disadvantaged communities and equity seeking groups.
A community developer with experience in a wide range of nonprofits and social enterprises, Joshua Smee is the Provincial Expansion Coordinator at Choices for Youth, a charity that serves homeless and at-risk youth in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. In that role, he works to build partnerships and capacity to serve at-risk youth in communities across the province. Heavily engaged as a community volunteer, Josh is involved in a wide range of organizations working on issues of food security, urbanism, community dialogue and women’s rights.
Rick Smith is a Canadian author, environmentalist and non-profit leader. Since 2013 he has been the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.
From 2003 to 2012, Rick served as Executive Director of Environmental Defence Canada and is the co-author of two bestselling books on the health effects of pollution: Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health (2009) and Toxin Toxout (2014). He has led many successful campaigns for important new public policies at the federal and provincial levels related to environmental and consumer protection, urban planning, green jobs creation, democratic reform and progressive taxation.
Rick holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Guelph and is an adviser to Loblaw Companies Limited. He lives in east-end Toronto.
Ashley Reyns started working at Ottawa ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) in May 2014 and is now the office’s Head Organizer.
Originally from a small southern Ontario village, Ashley moved to Ottawa to complete an undergraduate degree in International Development and Globalization with a specialization in Gender Studies. Ashley was actively involved in student politics at the University of Ottawa, taking leadership roles in her student union’s board of administration, her student association and feminist clubs on campus.
Ashley would often joke that when she graduated she just wanted to find a job that would pay her to be an activist. With ACORN she didn’t find that – instead she found a career in community organizing giving people the tools they need to be their own activists and community leaders rather than being at the front herself.
Melana Roberts is Power Lab’s Project Manager. Most recently, she worked for Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc. She supports youth organizing as chair of the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council and is also Chair of the Board of Directors of Food Secure Canada. Melana holds an MA in International Development Studies from York University, with specializations in rural agriculture, community-driven development models and community health systems.
Mercedes Sharpe Zayas is a community planner committed to movement building and economic justice in the urban form.
Mercedes has been cultivating her participatory planning practice as the Workforce Planning Coordinator for the Parkdale People’s Economy, a network of over 30 community-based organizations and hundreds of community members organizing towards decent work, shared wealth, and equitable development in Parkdale. She has also worked as a Policy Research Intern at the City of Toronto’s Economic Development and Culture Division, a Research Assistant for the Metcalf Foundation’s Inclusive Local Economies Program, and a Graduate Research Assistant with The Public Studio.
In her spare time, Mercedes is the Co-Director of Communications for PODER, a grassroots Latinx feminist organization in Toronto. She holds a Master of Science in Urban Planning from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Arts in Honours Anthropology from McGill University.
Dusha Sritharan first began at the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) as a volunteer in 2009. Since then, she has volunteered and worked with a number of non-profit organizations with a focus on the environment.
As a Campaigner at TEA, Dusha works to develop and implement campaigns to effectively engage supporters and the general public on a number of environmental issues. Previously, she worked as the Development Coordinator for TEA and helped strengthen TEA’s fundraising program.
Dusha holds a Masters Degree in Tourism, Environment and Development from the University of London (UK). She is passionate about environmental and social justice issues, particularly at a grassroots level.
Symone Walters identifies first as a mother and then as a community activist and social entrepreneur. Tragically, in the summer of 2013 Symone lost her youngest son, Tahj Loor-Walters, to gun violence. He was 15 years old. Symone has vowed to turn tragedy into inspiration! Symone completed her diploma at George Brown College in Child and Youth Services and reoriented her career to one that is entirely dedicated to serving Black youth.
In her recent role with the Toronto Community Benefits Network and previous role with the Duke Heights BIA and Osgood Hall Law School, Symone has had the opportunity to support Black youth and the local community through initiatives that focus on economic sustainability and capacity building of minority owned businesses. Currently, Symone is collaborating to build on the legacy of her son by creating a hub geared towards youth that embody a safe, holistic approach that would take them “Towards a Higher Journey” – TAHJ.
In March, Partners joined progressive organizers from across Canada and the US at the Progress Summit.
We contributed to this national conversation in two ways. First, we led a dialogue with Patrick Rondeau, from the Conseil régional FTQ Montréal Métropolitain. We shared strategies to put equity, workers, and community at the centre of key economic decisions about long-term transitions to a low-carbon economy. Second, we led an interactive workshop where we shared stories and strategies from Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa producing material benefits for historically excluded communities. These include:
Trade unionists, elected officials, environmentalists, housing and transit advocates, and community activists participated in this workshop. Together, they explored ways to generate power for people and to democratize local economies. These sessions sparked a high degree of engagement and resonated with participants, highlighting a shared language among progressive organizers from across North America.
Chicago-based organizer and author Charlene Carruthers observed: “You can mobilize people and not be organizing. You may have people in the streets and still have changed nothing. Sheer numbers do not equal power.” — a reminder that in our current political climate we need to build deep relationships that foster strength, knowledge, and vision for more equitable, alternative futures within and across movements.
To win – in Canada and the US – we need to build collective power.