Saint John, New Brunswick is one of Vibrant Communities’ 13 original trail builder communities. They were among the first members to undertake the Vibrant Communities framework, establish a multi-sectoral collaboration, and work towards a set goal of poverty reduction.
Jump ahead 14 years to Saint John’s (then) Mayor Mel Norton acting as one of Saint John’s key representatives at the Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead summit, sharing their story of success with 330 others working towards a similar goal. Saint John’s initiative has continued on a path to reduce poverty, making changes and growing with the community along the way. The recently revamped poverty reduction strategy, Living SJ is a city-wide collective impact initiative that is engaging residents and sector leaders to truly push the needle on poverty. It isn’t surprising they are one of our Top 10 inspiring cities reducing poverty.
Cathy Wright, Executive Director of Living SJ, describes in this interview how they built upon prior successes, how they are collaborating across sectors to make real change, how they are helping everyone find a role in poverty reduction, and the space they have created to establish shared measures.
Q. Can you speak to the development of the Living SJ Social Renewal Strategy, and how the different sectors united around poverty reduction?
Living SJ builds on the work of Vibrant Communities Saint John’s poverty reduction strategy. The initial idea for Living SJ began in 2011 when a number of community partners - Vibrant Communities Saint John, the Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI), United Way, Community Foundation and the Human Development Council, came together to explore what we could do differently to position poverty reduction as both a social and economic priority. How could we increase our impact on generational poverty and have it adopted as a high-priority for the whole community? This “Planning Team” expanded to include both municipal and provincial levels of government, and together went through the development process.
In the fall of 2013, senior leaders representing the business community, non-profit and philanthropic organizations, educational institutions municipal and provincial levels of government, were brought together and agreed that we needed to rethink our poverty reduction strategy in consultation with the community. They supported taking a collective impact approach to our work, and they committed to serving as a Leadership Team to guide it.
As part of developing a common agenda we conducted focus groups on twelve different issue areas, using research papers as a backdrop for discussion. A list of priorities and targets grew out of the focus groups and were condensed through a series of reporting meetings, stakeholder meetings and then formally accepted by the Leadership Team. Our intention throughout this process was to build broad ownership for the priorities.
Q. The four priorities of Living SJ are depicted as: neighbourhoods, education, health, and employment. How do the wide variety of sectors fit in to the equation? Where have you seen instances of successful cross-collaboration or particularly effective use of a sector’s strengths?
Eighteen months ago, the Living SJ strategy to end generational poverty was released. We have started to see our leaders and organizations re-organizing to accelerate the pace of reducing poverty. Together we are collectively reinvesting our human and financial resources in better ways so that every child and family is equipped with what it takes to be well, be educated and be employed.
We have a growing network of +100 representatives from our multi-sectoral organizations, serving on our four Collective Impact Teams and sub-committees. The teams themselves are co-chaired by sector leaders from our Leadership Team. Living SJ is well positioned with a working network of people!
The strengthened collaboration among business, community, and schools focuses on ways to increase the success of every child in school. With a target of 90% of all Grade 2 students reading at provincial literacy standards, their collaborative work has resulted in the school district reallocating literacy resources to the neighbourhood schools with the most need. The results are encouraging; Grade 2 literacy scores for children who live in priority neighbourhoods are improving and now match school district and provincial averages.
A proven approach - ‘wrap-around’ health and human services that serve a neighbourhood – is being piloted in the North End of the City, serving three low-income neighbourhoods. The governmentreallocated resources to support this wellness centre. Neighbourhoods are engaged. The United Way and the provincial government partnered to fund a new position to connect residents with services and supports to follow through on their personal goals. A broad based multi-sector group is exploring the feasibility of an empty school to become a sustainable community asset which would house an expanded wellness centre, other programs and services, and possibly businesses.
More and more residents in our priority neighbourhoods are stepping up to teach our community the right ways to help, and the Living SJ partners are rallying in new ways. Neighbourhoods influenced the redesign of our infographic, positioning neighbourhoods in the centre. This better reflects the work of the other three priorities (education, health and employment), focusing on creating better outcomes for individuals and families living in our low income neighbourhoods.
Q. Living SJ carved out the time and space to focus on the development process of the strategy. How did you create an evaluation for a dynamic initiative like this, and what does the evaluation look like now?
Our consultation process included the development of targets. Similar to our priorities, the targets went through a process of fine tuning and consensus-building by stakeholders including our Leadership Team. Evaluation is a critical component of collective impact, being able to track our progress and the impact. This is integral to the success of Living SJ.
One of our Leadership Team members describes Living SJ as having two “coxs” to ensure we are rowing together and in the same direction. The second cox is Melanie Hientz, our evaluation and communications manager. A significant portion of her time is dedicated to having the right measures and that the information is accessible to track progress on our targets. This involves coordinating our data collection needs with government, university, and community partners.
Some priorities have clearer targets and data sources than others so we are identifying the gaps in sources of data, whether because it is confidential, not available or not available at a community level.
Q. You recently attended the Cities Reducing Poverty Summit with hundreds of other people representing collaborative initiatives from across the country. What were some of the main takeaway points of the gathering for the Living SJ Strategy?
The presence of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, mayors, and senior municipal staff sent a strong message that poverty reduction is a priority for our cities. This was very inspiring to continuing the hard work in ending generational poverty. We were very pleased to have our Mayor represent Saint John. He welcomed the opportunity to learn from other municipalities, saw the applicability of efforts to our own community, and left more informed and committed.
I shared a short summary with the Living SJ leadership team, describing the opportunity to see municipal leadership in action and learn more about specific issues including True Reconciliation, Basic Annual Income and the Canada Learning Bond.
It was an honour to be included as one of the TEN inspiring stories.
Q. What are some of the next steps or upcoming activities you are most looking forward to?
Living SJ is building a movement of stakeholders, broadening the +100 representatives of multi-sector organizations currently involved. We want people to see that Living SJ is all of us. We recently gathered with 145 people to introduce others to Living SJ and provide an opportunity to build connections that will increase our efforts to end generational poverty.
A recent evaluation conducted by Jamie Gamble (a familiar face with Vibrant Communities), concluded that Living SJ is highly adaptive and on the right track. He also stimulated discussion on areas requiring more attention. Already we have seen progress by following recommendations to increase communication across priority teams, ensure that measurement is practical, and take advantage of the unique role of our neighbourhood organizations.
Living SJ is the sum of our combined efforts, and referring back to our rowing analogy, as we move together in the same direction we will continue to place a strong emphasis on building our capacity by increasing the number of rowers who will help reach success, as “we all have a role to play in ending generational poverty”!
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