The author pages of the glossy anthology “Things Can Be Misleading” may not look like your average book.
One writer, Sana, notes that she has two parrots, and expects to get one more. Maybe a cat. Another writer, Brooklyn, says her next story will be about Halloween candy. Shantre hopes to inspire others to find their voice and always remember to recycle.
All of the writers are about 10 or 11 years old.
The sleek picture book of stories authored and illustrated by these students is a project called 360 Stories led by two non-profits, The Reading Partnership and Story Planet. The project aimed to allow students who may excel in language arts to discover joy in literature and to be celebrated for their writing.
Students would spend time at Cedar Ridge Creative Centre in Scarborough working with a writing coach on character development, plot and images. The same program is still running now, just virtually.
“It’s really focused on giving kids the 360 experience of bringing a book to life. From writing, to editing, to illustrating to publishing to presenting it,” said Camesha Cox, founder of The Reading Partnership.
For nine years, since founding The Reading Partnership, Cox has run several programs in the Kingston-Galloway area of Scarborough, working with local students to improve literacy and giving parents tools to aid their children’s learning. One program specifically geared toward Black parents and in addition to reading curriculum, offers a space for them to connect about systemic racism they’ve faced in schools.
But come March, Cox — along with many other Black-run non-profits in Canada — is unsure if she will have funding to continue. The Reading Partnership typically receives funding from the Ontario government and the United Way, but with the pandemic’s economic impact, it’s still waiting to see what funding will be renewed. Two of the seven other grants Cox has applied for have been rejected so far.
It’s common for grants to be on a project-by-project basis, making it hard to grow since organizations can’t easily devote money where they see fit or find sustainable funding. And of what is available, Black community organizations haven’t been getting a fair share.
In December, a report called “Unfunded: Black Communities Overlooked by Canadian Philanthropy” found that for every $100 of grant funds dispensed by 15 of the leading foundations in Canada, only 30 cents go to Black community organizations.
Between 2017 to 2018, only six of the 40 leading foundations in Canada funded organizations that were focused on the Black community and only two funded organizations that were Black-led.
And 63 per cent of Black community organizations they spoke to will run out of funding in less than six months or by March 2021.
Even in normal times the funding gap was huge, but with the economic impact of the pandemic, there will likely be less to go around.
That’s why the Foundation for Black Communities, which authored the Unfunded report, is working to change the way community-serving organizations like this are funded.
The steering members of Foundation for Black Communities, Liban Abokor, Rebecca Darwent, Djaka Blais-Amare and Joseph Smith, have all worked in non-profit and philanthropic spaces in Canada and have seen the gaps in funding for Black organizations first-hand.
“The good strategies that are developed to really serve the Black community are developed by the grassroots organizations on the ground who are germane to the community and know what it needs,” said Smith, “but they’re operating off of passion and fumes, and not many dollars.”
“Black communities across this country are woefully underfunded. We have the data now, and are calling to foundations to really engage differently with communities,” Darwent said.
The Foundation for Black Communities’ goal is to act as a granting body with its own endowment and donations, but also work with existing Canadian foundations to strengthen their relationships with the Black community and see a more equitable divide of funding dollars.
“What communities need in Regina may look very different than what they need in St. John’s,” Darwent said. With this in mind, the Foundation plans to be a resource for grassroots organizations that know what is needed and it wants granting priorities to be led by leaders on the ground.
The lack of sustainable funding infrastructure has long been an issue for Black-led community groups, Abokor said.
In addition to working with the foundation, Abokor is executive director of Youth LEAPS and since founding the organization, he has faced challenges with funding.
Youth LEAPS works to help Black youth improve their outcomes in education and the workforce. It works across multiple avenues including helping youth who have dropped out of school get their high school diploma and increasing engagement for students who are enrolled to running research projects, to name a few.
This sort of work will likely grow more important with the impact COVID-19 had on education. In October, the Toronto District School Board reported that 5,500 students who had been enrolled in the spring, did not return to school in the fall and the reasons are still being determined.
“The aftershocks of COVID over the next five to 10 years are what we as a community have to prepare ourselves for. And I worry that our community doesn’t have the resources it needs to withstand those aftershocks,” Abokor said.
Cox agreed, “A number of (the kids in this community) are already struggling, and with the way our education system has been impacted, we know that the gap is going to increase.”
Youth LEAPS is one of more than 20 organizations that was created in 2006 through the Youth Challenge Fund, an initiative by the Ontario government and United Way Toronto born in response to a spike in gun violence the year prior. But now, Abokor can only think of a handful of those organizations that are still around because after the initial seed funding, many weren’t able to get other large institutional funders to provide them with the resources to continue.
CBC host Amanda Parris who headed a youth-focused arts program called Lost Lyrics in the mid-2000s reflected on the challenges she and her peers faced “as funding programs came to an end and the resources began to dry up.”
“I remember consoling a friend ... (the) day, he realized his organization’s lease was up. He couldn’t find another venue within his budget willing to house a program for racialized youth,” she wrote. “Not long after, it was my turn to shed frustrated tears when I realized that I had applied to every funder I could think of and still didn’t have enough money to pay my incredible staff.”
Youth LEAPS has enough funds to operate for another eight months; beyond that, it’s up in the air.
“Oftentimes we get small-scale grants that let us run a program for six months to maybe a year, but never enough to actually get us to address the key problems that were resulting in the low educational attainment of young men and women,” Abokor said, noting the organization would have funds for a mentorship program or a homework club, but not enough for curriculum development or teacher training for a sustainable length of time.
Abokor has said in the past he has felt pressure to downplay the fact Youth LEAPS mainly serves Black youth when it comes time to seek funding. He’s found that granting bodies often seek to give money to organizations with a broader focus, thinking they’ll serve the most people that way.
But he sees dissonance in that logic: If Black people are overrepresented in groups that require assistance, why shy away from specific services?
Yasin Osman, a freelance photographer and youth worker, said he’s seen how some needs can be overlooked in organizations that either lack diverse leadership, or try to cater to everyone.
Osman is from Regent Park, which has a large population of Black Muslim youth. Some things he wonders about is “Do you have a multi-faith space? What is the plan for holidays like Eid?” Without those considerations, the kids won’t come, he said.
When Osman started Shoot for Peace, a program that introduces photography to youth in the Regent Park area, he was able to reach neighbourhood kids in no small part due to the trust he built with their parents.
“He knows my language, I see him at the mosque, he’s gonna understand that these kids need to pray,” Osman said, sharing things parents would say about him. “These factors are really, really important when it comes to youth feeling connected, and allowing themselves to be vulnerable.”
The same has held true for Cox in the Kingston-Galloway area.
“You’ll find me at bus shelters, you’ll find me at laundromats, you’ll find me at grocery stores, talking to parents,” Cox said.
The events of this summer following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police renewed interest in repairing relationships with the Black community and the Foundation for Black Communities wants to make sure it isn’t a passing trend.
“(We want to) create something that would be sustainable and withstands the changing winds of interest in those issues,” said steering member Blais-Amare. “So that Black communities have, you know, self determination and ability to support the work that they want to do moving forward.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star