Google Search
New City Studies initiative at UTSC reaches out to Scarborough neighborhood

LEARNING IN COMMUNITY SERVICE: Pictured from left to right are: U of T Scarborough student Andrea Choi, Professor Susannah Bunce and Principal Franco Vaccarino at the opening of a new community engagement site in East Scarborough. Students will take the course at this off-campus location and do volunteer work in the Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park community. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

The University of Toronto Scarborough celebrated a new initiative in its City Studies program of the Department of Social Sciences and a new partnership with community organizations.

On March 23, the City Studies program launched Learning in Community Service, the first-ever service learning course in Social Sciences at UTSC. The course, to be offered in the summer semester, will be centered around the new engagement office of Action for Neighbourhood Change, an initiative for creating a strong neighbourhood in the Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park area of Scarborough. UTSC was among the community partners to celebrate the official opening of the new site in East Scarborough. The office, now known as “the Point” (in reference to the building’s unique architectural shape), is a collaboration between the United Way, UTSC, East Scarborough Storefront, and Residents Rising, a community association that collaborates with local agencies.

Located only a few kilometres from campus, the Point will provide UTSC students with access to a classroom, library resources and office and meeting spaces, and, more important, a base from which they can connect directly with community and social service organizations and the residents that they serve.

The Point is located at 4117 Lawrence Avenue East, in the Kingston-Galloway-Orton neighbourhood – a community designated by the City of Toronto and the United Way as one of Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods in need of renewal. According to geography professor Susannah Bunce, the neighborhood is also an ideal location to conduct social science research and to lend expert advice.

Bunce is the force behind the creation of the Learning in Community Service course for the City Studies program. She has worked over a number of years to forge the partnerships that make this initiative possible. Having grown up in the Scarborough region, Bunce understands firsthand the challenges faced by postwar, suburban neighbourhoods such as the Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park neighbourhood.

“Since the 1980s this neighborhood has grown through an expanding population of new Canadians,” notes Bunce. “It’s very car-centered and residential. There is a high level of public housing and block projects, with poor access to social services. With lower levels of private automobile ownership and minimal employment opportunities in the vicinity, the residents are dependent on public transit, for which they continue to be underserved. This makes the neighbourhood somewhat isolated and inaccessible and leads to a cycle of all kinds of challenges.”

According to Bunce, City Studies students are interested in how neighborhoods work: how well residents are served by support systems, such as public transit, government agencies, or not-for-profit organizations. “They investigate such issues as who has decision-making power or sets agendas, the effectiveness of community consultations and collaborations, or the quality and conditions of housing settlements – all the issues that are also relevant to those who develop policy or provide community services,” says Bunce.

Learning in Community Service gives students a deeper context than a pure academically focused approach. As a service learning course, each week students will spend four to six volunteer hours working at a charitable agency or social service organization of their choice, and then bring that experience back for classroom discussions to contextualize their experience in relation to a broader process. Some students might do policy research for an organization, or employment skills training with newcomers, or administrative work that looks at how social service organizations work. Students broaden their knowledge base and learn hands-on skills. “In turn, the community benefits from more volunteer assistance and any student research that comes out of their studies,” adds Bunce.

“Service learning is about providing opportunities for students to get engaged in local communities,” notes Professor Ted Relph, Chair, Department of Social Sciences. “Students, particularly in this area of City Studies, benefit from learning firsthand the challenges and realities of urban life in priority neighbourhoods. It gives them a chance to apply what they have learnt about cities in the classroom, but, equally important, it also gives them a chance to learn from community groups and citizens about innovative ways to cope with the myriad challenges of urban life.”

The special launch event to celebrate the opening of the community engagement site was held on March 23. Officials on hand included City Councillor Paul Ainslie, Anne Gloger, Director of the East Scarborough Storefront, Lori Metcalfe, Community Development Coordinator at Westhill Community Services, Community resident Babli Nessa, U of T Scarborough Principal Franco Vaccarino, Iain Duncan and Madhavi Reddy from Action for Neighbourhood Change, and Susan MacDonnell from the United Way. The event will celebrate the partnership between UTSC, the United Way, and the local group Residents Rising, a community residents’ engagement group, in the shared plaza space.

"U of T Scarborough's connection with the community engagement office for Action for Neighbourhood Change speaks to the power of partnership and collaboration,” said U of T Scarborough Principal Franco Vaccarino. “Our students will benefit academically and there will be many opportunities for us to learn from each other."

“This initiative breaks down the boundaries between academia and a neighbourhood that has been historically marginalized in terms of income and access to social services,” says Bunce. “The community is right on our doorstep, and UTSC has so many resources within our student body to support it.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough