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Manifesto Presents: Seven Pillars - An Interview With Positive Change TO

In Toronto, one of Canada’s largest cities, there has
been a troubling epidemic that has affected the sizable
Somali community numbering almost 80,000 that 
call it home. This epidemic of violence has taken the
lives of many of their young men. 50 to be exact.
And the mothers and other family members of the
slain have dealt with anguish in trying to find ways
to stop this violence with little to no assistance in
some respects from the police or government officials.
Two years ago, that anguish became fuel for a new
course of action. That action took shape and is now
Positive Change TO, an ad hoc advocacy group that
looks to chip away at the systemic issues that affect
the Somali-Canadian community in Toronto. Manifesto
had the chance to talk with Sagal Ali, one of the
many members of PCTO in April about Positive
Change and its work thus far. 

Manifesto: Can you give us a quick overview of how
Positive Change was founded and it’s early beginnings?

PCTO: Sure. So in the summer of 2012,  we saw a huge
            spike in gun violence amongst Somali-Canadian
            young men. We had six boys die in a matter of 
            weeks. To give you context, the year before there
            weren’t any Somalis shot. So the community was
            reeling from a shooting a week it seemed, and the 
            mothers especially felt really helpless. Their sons
            were dying in the streets of Toronto but they didn’t
            know what avenues they had to stop the violence
            and keep their kids safe.

    So a small group of Somali-Canadian mothers came 
            together and their intent really was just to raise 
            awareness of the violence. You know, our community
            left a war-torn country and now kids are dying here.
            They had enough. These incredible women came 
            together and began to speak out against the violence.
            They took whistles - literally - and began protesting.
            And an amazing thing happened - everyone listened.
            Their goal was to get to the root of the problem: how 
            did we get here and what can we do to end the violence?

Manifesto: To date, what has been the response from the
                  Toronto educational system and the Toronto
                  Police Department and has it just been satisfactory
                  or progressively promising in your opinion?

PCTO: The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
           Considering that we’re a volunteer-only group -
           we’ve made amazing progress. So, if we were to
           talk about policing first, we met with the police 
           division in an area that’s predominately Somali.
           They, too, saw the problem but didn’t know much
           about the Somali-Canadian community. After A 
           series of community consultations that we helped
           facilitate, they actually created a Somali task force
           which consists of two full time police officers 
           dedicated to the community. They would go and
           talk to the kids, a little bit more of a positive 
           approach. And I think the task force now, I’d 
           have to double check, is up to four. And what the
           task force has done is demystify the police force a
           little bit. I think it created a bridge between the 
           community and the police. There was some hostility
           going both ways. It’s been amazing with the police
           and people who live in my neighborhood say they
           feel safer and last summer wasn’t as bad as the 
           summer before.

Manifesto: Okay, good!

PCTO: And with education, we were approached by
          the school board - well, we approached the
          school board first saying we think there’s 
          serious gaps in the education system especially
          when it comes to newcomer groups, and
          especially the Somali community. They were
          also really very receptive. It kind of seems like
          they were just waiting for people to talk to
          them - they didn’t have an organized group
          approach them with a problem. So the board 
          put together a task force that we were sitting
          on along with other community leaders. This
          task force came up with a set of recommendations
          to help Somali-Canadian young people thrive in
          the school system. So it was quite an intensive
          year. The recommendations were put forth and
          were voted in. And now we’re at the stage where
          we’re talking about implementation plans, which
          is another positive story.

Photo Credit: PositiveChangeTO

Manifesto: How much of an impact have you seen in the
                 Somali-Canadian community in Toronto since Positive
                 Change was formed and with you working with 
                 other groups, especially with who you’re reaching
                 out to, which are the youth at risk?

PCTO: Well, we don’t actually work with youth. Positive
           Change’s mandate is not so much to be a service
           provider. We don’t mentor youth because there’s 
           many, many other organizatons that could do that
           much better than we ever could. Positive Change
           really focuses on advocacy work on a societal level.
           Doing what we’ve been doing with the school board,
           with policing…we’re doing similar work with mental
           health issues, working with the government and  
           other people who do provide these services. Our
           impact is a little bit harder to define. We just feel
           like there’s so many service providers and we already
           have all these great relationships in the community.
           But there’s nobody advocating for Somali-Canadians
           on a higher level, on a decision-making level. We
           went up to Ottawa to talk to members of Parliament
           and they were like, ‘how come you guys never come
           and talk to us?’ So we felt like that’s where the gap
           was and just judging by the fact that we’ve never
           had a negative reception ever, that to us means
           there is a huge need and we were able to fill that.

Photo Credit: Positive Change TO

Manifesto: Okay, great. Thank you for fully delineating that,
                 that’s actually the springboard for my next
                 question. Just in terms of how the Somali-Canadian
                 community has been recieved by the government,
                 you would say that in light of the advocacy that
                 your group and other groups have brought to the
                 government’s attention that the response has been
                 overwhelmingly positive and accepting?

PCTO: Well, I think there’s a difference between positive response
           and action, right? We’re dealing with a conservative government
           right now, and their stance on crime is different than ours.
           We’ve had a lot of healthy debate with decision makers and 
           they’ve always been respectful, but there hasn’t been any
           real concrete changes made on a national level. And I say 
           national because although there’s a lot of problems happening
           in Toronto, there’s also a large Somali Community in Alberta
           and they’re also experiencing many of the same issues we’re
           experiencing here. We meet and speak with politicians all the 
           time and they say, ‘yeah this is something that really needs
           to change.’ But that’s where the conversation ends. And it’s
           been frustrating but really all we can do is keep putting pressure
           on the government and if that doesn’t work out, come election
           time, mobilize people to vote for people who will make change

Manifesto: Has Positive Change had an eye to the future in
                  in terms of joining coalition forces with other groups
                  nationwide in Canada and also reaching out to those
                  Somali groups in the US that are dealing with this
                  issue as well?

PCTO: We’re always open to work with people, but at this point
           it wouldn’t necessarily be a coaltion. It would be on an
           event basis, a campaign basis. Speaking about our event
           that was in Ottawa, that was in November when we went
           up there - the Somali community in Ottawa was
           incredible. They essentially opened up there homes to
           us and a lot of us stayed with people that we never met
           before. And we were partnered up with a lot of amazing
           organizations working out of Ottawa. So, I see Positive
           Change reaching out to organizations in Ottawa, Alberta
           or even Minnesota which is where we have a big Somali
           population as well on a case by case basis. We’re quite 
           young…it’s kind of crazy because it feels like we’ve been
           doing our work for so long but it’s only been less than two
           years now. So, I don’t know what the future holds. But 
           we’re just going to soldier on and whoever wants to
           help along the way, we’re happy for the support.

Manifesto: This is obviously a very emotional and personal cause
                  to advocate for. What has been the sources of strength
                  for you and others in Positive Change to keep fighting 
                  for resolutions and change in the midst of having 
                  obviously full lives as individuals?

PCTO: That’s a really good question. People ask me that a lot,
           because I have a full-time job, a part-time job and I
           do this. But, I don’t think anybody in the group enjoys
           the work that we do. I think it’s difficult to enjoy. But
           I think we all feel like we don’t have a choice. And if
           we don’t do the work, who will? And I think people
           in general are like, ‘yeah that’s horrible’ and ‘that’s
           such a big problem’, but few people are willing to put
           in the work. And we have an amazing group of people
           who are dedicated volunteers. A lot of them, in addition
           to having jobs, have families. I can’t imagine how they
           make the time. But I feel like this is something we
           have to do and if we don’t, then this is just the beginning
           of a huge, huge problem. And we all have our personal
           stories that have brought us to the group, as you know
           I’ve lost my cousin…my cousin’s mom who’s been one
           of our leaders, she’s been there every week. This is a
           woman who’s in her 60’s who’s lost a son, has a full
           time job, still has children at home…and if she can be
           there every week, there’s no reason why I can’t be
           there either.

Manifesto: Lastly, what do you hope to see Positive Change
                  accomplish for the rest of 2014?

PCTO: I hope that we keep the momentum up. I hope that
           we…we’re always afraid of summer. Summer is when
           the gun violence always spikes. So we’re all a little
           bit nervous about the summer and we hope that
           through our continued effort, on school board level
           especially since that’s we’re focusing on now, if we
           can work with the school board and work on
           implementing those recommendations I talked about
           earlier, maybe we can start seeing some of those in
           the next school year starting in September, that
           will be a huge, huge success. And if…you know, we
           can’t really prevent crime. But by being out there,
           if someone thinks twice about doing something stupid,
           then we’ll have been successful.

For more information about Positive Change Toronto,
visit their website and check them out on Facebook 
as well as Twitter.

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