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Rethinking approaches to program design and delivery


West Neighbourhood House’s Meeting Place is a drop-in at the corner of Queen and Bathurst. On any given day dozens of its members gather for food, company, warmth, and interaction. Many members experience mental health challenges, addictions, and are living with abuse and trauma. This is particularly true among the urban Aboriginal people who make-up nearly half of the membership. Members are homeless or underhoused, facing deep poverty and social exclusion.

Prompted by a significant rise in the number of premature and preventable deaths of its members (in 2013, Meeting Place lost 23 members, and 4 local agencies counted the deaths of 55 street-involved adults in downtown west Toronto despite most being under 50, housed, and connected to family doctors) West Neighbourhood House started asking some tough questions. What was standing in the way of members’ survival? What would enable members to not only survive, but to flourish? Where were the system disconnects?

To answer these tough questions, in April 2014, West Neighbourhood House partnered with InWithForward and embarked on a 12-day Starter Project. The goal was to try out a different methodology — one that brings together user-centered design, immersive ethnography, and behaviour change theory. From spending time with 16 members, the team observed tension between three competing priorities: enabling survival, inculcating a sense of belonging, and prompting change. A range of ideas emerged: What if we could segment members according to their desire for change and provide matched supports? What if, rather than collecting data for case management systems, data was a behaviour change tool? What if we could catalyze local businesses, freelancers, and latent community resources to offer alternative learning and work for members?

West Neighbourhood House and InWithForward are now working to to take the ‘what if’ questions from paper into practice. Over six months, beginning in November 2015, they will build a team of staff, members, designers, social scientists, and film-makers to prototype new interactions inside and outside the Meeting Place. Rather than identify one ‘magic bullet’ solution they will seed a range of new practices. A Learning Circle of organizational leaders, local champions, and civil servants will work to ensure ‘innovation’ isn’t a one-time project but an ongoing and intentional process. Ideas, experiences, and what is learned will be shared at www.inouttoronto.wordpress.com.

This six-month project and the Learning Circle is made possible through a Metcalf grant to West Neighbourhood House as well as a Metcalf Innovation Fellowship to Dr. Sarah Schulman. The Foundation believes this project will complement current learning about resilient neighbourhood economies and help build the capacity of Toronto’s social service sector to rethink how it approaches program design and delivery.

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