Connecting our communities: Insights from Parkdale’s mutual aid and links to climate and building equitable and resilient communities

One of the key partners in the Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Low-Carbon Community Hubs project is the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), a community hub in Parkdale. During the pandemic, while climate-focused activities have still continued, the hub has shifted its priorities significantly to meet community needs.

Drawing from a community-based approach used in Massachusetts, Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) supported the launch of a mutual aid network. In March, Parkdale People’s Economy, a network trusteed by PARC, quickly proposed to the local planning table the idea of building on residents' knowledge and leadership and worked with community members and local agencies to create Mutual Aid Parkdale.

“Mutual Aid is a practice and politics that emphasizes solidarity rather than charity. By that we mean people coming together to meet each other’s needs through material and social support, and recognizing that our survival, health, and wellbeing is dependent on one another. It means building relationships with your neighbors based on trust and common interest and collectively deciding how to share and pool resources with another. Mutual Aid is also an opportunity for political education, where we build the relationships and analysis to understand why we are in the conditions that we’re in and to prepare ourselves for potential future crises.”

(From Parkdale Mutual Aid Network, adapted from the Mutual Aid 101 Toolkit)

Mutual aid in Parkdale. Photo from PARC.  (Above: Parkdale Mutual Aid Network in action! Photo courtesy of PARC (Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre). 

This interview with PARC’s Ana Teresa Portillo showcases some of this meaningful work and helps us to better understand how hubs can contribute to building equitable, resilient, and low-carbon communities in the context of the pandemic. 

In the past year, what needs have you - and your partners - been trying to respond to? 

The need for people-to-people interaction and combating social isolation has been really important. People want to come to and participate in weekly meetings; they look forward to it. 

Food is also a big need - Mutual Aid Parkdale purchases and delivers food to over 200 food-insecure families. Encampment support as well. 

Another need has been to connect the residents with the service providers, local agencies, or those who can aid in connecting them. For local agencies, this means figuring out who is open and what they provide - and sharing this information with residents. We’ve done this via email, a Whatsapp group and phone trees. 

What does mutual aid look like in Parkdale? 

The mutual aid network has over twenty neighbourhood “pods” in buildings, along streets, and within ethno-linguistic communities across Parkdale. Meeting weekly, pod leaders coordinate neighbourhood-wide initiatives to build solidarity and support neighbours to reach out to each other to offer emotional and material support. 

Pods that have formed (i.e. a group of residents in a building, street, or a non-geographic group like ethnic, linguistic, etc.) use Facebook groups and phone trees to connect and share information as well. The most impactful part of the neighbourhood pods has been the collective weekly discussions. For example, these conversations discussed issues like Anti-Black racism and police brutality. We explored what defunding the police would actually mean and grounded these conversations in an analysis of power and equity in a Parkdale context. When society sees the police as so necessary, these meetings can provide a better understanding of ideas like community safety. We heard an emphasis that healthy housing and secure tenure are community safety. The discussion really shifted from the idea of safety from “well-policed” to well-housed. 

What lessons are you drawing from your Hubs’ experience of COVID-19 in terms of the role your Hub - and other Hubs - can and should play in responding to future crises - and in building a more equitable, resilient and sustainable city?

Parkdale People’s Economy’s philosophy has been rooted in movement building and peer-to-peer leadership. We reached out to networks who regularly joined community working group meetings and community wealth building campaigns. Relationships with tenant leaders and personal support workers calling for ousting private interest from health care and housing  have been so critical to the work. 

PARC’s response to COVID-19 was a community-based crisis response. Values like “solidarity over charity” and “we keep each other safe” were already embedded in the organization. This situation just helped to re-articulate these ideas. 

We feel like we need the time and space to reflect before making decisions. In pandemic response, there is so much to do and not enough time. Things move so quickly and working from home can be very isolating. Technology equity is also key. If you don’t have internet access, you can’t participate. We are considering solutions like community wifi sharing. 

To be more collaborative, we need to slow things down. For example, the City wants things to move very rapidly because of firm deadlines. If we don’t slow down, we will miss out on conversations with the community and with each other. We’re also mindful of how we include more people -- we should find time at every point to think about how to be more inclusive. 

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Note: This interview has been edited and revised for clarity. It was initially conducted in Fall 2020 and was edited and updated.