Valuing Communities - An Interview with Blake Poland


  1. How does this work help advance our understanding of communities and their relationships with formal institutions, particularly in light of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic?

The work reported on in our IJERPH paper is two-pronged.

One aspect addresses the lack of guidance in the literature on how institutions and formal crisis response systems could work more effectively with citizens to build community resilience before, during and after shock events. The literature is replete with examples of how formal response systems swoop in many hours or days after an event in which citizens themselves have mobilized to respond, and in a way that runs roughshod over these local efforts as if they’re invisible, irrelevant, or inconsequential. Most such retrospectives call for better ongoing collaborative planning and working relationships between community and formal institutions, but none offer much in the way of guidance on how to do this.

We argue that the CCA, developed over 20 years (and validated during crisis in the Danzig shooting), provides the guidance the field has been calling for.

The second prong of this work, less in evidence in this paper, but the focus of other papers submitted and/or published, is our work (funded by the School of Cities) on the ways in which community-level grassroots responses to the pandemic in six racialized neighbourhoods was impacted by pre-existing webs of relations within and between community and formal institutions. This provides tangible evidence in support of a Connected Communities Approach, showing how relationships are key and must ideally be cultivated and nurtured well before they become essential in moments of crisis. We stress that these relationships, at the core of CCA, are not cast as between service providers and service recipients, or in terms of mutual aid as an alternative to the role of the state, but rather in terms of community-centred development that puts the lived experience and aspirations of marginalized communities at the centre of collaborative efforts, and that works to build capacity within formal systems for a level of responsiveness to community that is all too often missing.

  1. How would a policymaker implement this, starting on Day 1, and what would be the incentive to change the status quo?

City research insights volume 1 was led in part by Blake Poland, Associate Professor at Dalla Lana school of public health - pictured here
Blake Poland
Associate Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health


    In my view, this absolutely has to start by listening, learning, and valuing community voices and perspectives, and committing to doing what it takes to ensure that formal systems are responsive to community.

    Too often systems become rigidified, autocratic, and responsive primarily to internal politics rather than accountable to relationships. This means hiring staff who are community-oriented and putting in place accountability mechanisms that respect and leverage the relational capital that is so often squandered when valued front-line staff are arbitrarily re-assigned to other portfolios. It starts also with recognizing that social resilience (in contrast to hard infrastructure resilience) is inherently and unavoidably relational, and that communities do not develop relationships with institutions, but rather with people who happen to work in particular institutions. It means embedded community development as a core ethos, and not just as one of many tools in a toolkit.

    There are several potential incentives for change. One is that truly relational community development is richly rewarding when done well. A second is that considerable resources and goodwill are wasted when institutions don’t play well with community. There is tremendous drive, energy, and knowledge that can be mobilized, not as an alternative to the role of the state, but in collaboration with the best of what the state has to offer (expertise, funding, space, and other resources). A strengths-based approach builds on the best of what all participants have to offer, and this is the core of the Connected Community Approach. A third related incentive is that systems now more than ever will have to work to regain public trust, and particularly the trust of marginalized communities who’ve been failed by the system over and over. This will be a matter of institutional survival. And just like reconciliation, it will require more than just nice words.



    1. What do you see ahead, post-pandemic, for our urban communities and their ability to "bounce forward"? 

    The pandemic has demonstrated clearly that where there is a will there is a way. Where it was previously impossible to discuss the merits of guaranteed annual income, for example, CERB showed it was entirely possible. It is harder to believe statements that “we can’t do that” or “we don’t have money for that”.

    Communities are also more aware than ever of how systems have failed them, but also of their collective power to mobilize for change. And of which relationships have proven essential. There is a palpable appetite for the need to bounce forward to new ways of doing and being, and that bouncing back to a ’normal’ that is dysfunctional and inequitable is not a compelling option.

    Many of us look forward to the day when formal institutions are committed to growing their own capacity for meaningful responsiveness to community, such that planning for, responding to, recovering from, and rebuilding after shocks and in response to chronic stressors becomes a truly collaborative effort that conjoins the best of what systems have to offer with the creativity, ingenuity, energy, and local knowledge of grassroots community leadership.


    1. For discrete crises that hit a particular community, a community-led approach makes sense. How do you scale that if it is a region-wide (or in the case of COVID, a national, global crisis)? How can formal institutions coordinate the many community-led, bespoke approaches?

    The idea is to:

    (a) enhance the overall capacity of institutions to be responsive to, and take their cue from, communities, and,

    (b)  seed the landscape with integrator organizations like the East Scarborough Storefront that can be crucial community-centred network weavers, bringing together residents and formal institutions in ways that centre community needs and aspirations.

    Those are both generic approaches that lay a strong relational foundation of trust and connection that can be mobilized in whatever ways the exigencies of a particular situation require, from isolated events (like a mass shooting or violent storm) to broader challenges (like systemic racism or COVID-19). The idea is less one of “scaling up” an approach than it is creating capacity in systems for relational community-centred orientations and practices that can (and our covid research shows, do) predispose communities to more effective responses to the local impacts of unforeseen shocks and stressors.


    1. What’s next for this project?

    We are partnering with colleagues at the University of Toronto Mississauga to bring a CCA lens into research on vaccine uptake in Peel. Members of our team are spearheading a new Climate Resilience Lab at DLSPH whose focus is the development of a racial justice lens for community resilience work. We are applying for funding to support this work.

    C3 is also the key community partner in the Towers in the Park initiative (led by the University of Toronto’s Fadi Masoud). We have been in discussion with the City of Toronto about piloting a Connected Community Approach to implementing the Toronto Resilience Strategy in three neighbourhoods. We also have aspirations to develop a SSHRC partnership grant to expand the reach and scope of CCA and develop a more robust evidence base for its deployment in a range of urban, suburban, and rural settings.


    Learn more at the Centre for Connected Communities and the Community Climate Resilience Lab recently announced at DLSPH.