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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Spotlight on Michael Shapcott: Systems Thinking and Social Change

by D'Arcy Martin

DM: Let’s start with a bit of history, Michael. How did you get involved in social change work?
MS: When I was in my teens, in the late 1960s, I had a fascination with newspapers. This was long before computers were widespread. When I was seventeen, I cast aside my last year of high school and went to North Bay and started as a cub reporter, covering speeches at the Rotary Club, and municipal politics and the courthouse and all that sort of thing. I moved around and I had this great sort of ring-side seat, being able to kind of peer over people’s shoulders. I had the professional license to be able to snoop into all sort of things that made me interested in what’s going on in urban areas.
I wrote a lot about housing and tenancy issues. Later, when I was out in Alberta, the provincial government eliminated rent regulation. And so I wrote a lot of stories about people getting a two hundred percent rent increase in one month, tenants being evicted because they couldn’t pay their rent, all that sort of thing. I wanted to be an active participant in addressing these issues, and thought that having a law background would be helpful. So I came to law school here at the University of Toronto.
DM: You’ve been active in community issues in Toronto for a long time. How is your thinking today different from when you started?
MS: Now I try to see issues as part of a system, rather than separately. The lived reality of all of our lives is that everything is connected to everything else. When we get out of bed in the morning, and go to the fridge and get out food for our breakfast, there are all sorts of connections back to the farm. There are also issues around income, because you have to be able to purchase the food. So you know, we all live our lives understanding that there are all sorts of complex connections. But when it comes to social policy, we’ve tended to try and silo and isolate things and say that it’s, you know, all about one factor like housing, or all about one factor like income.
DM: How has this systems approach evolved in the Wellesley Institute?
MS: We are building from the several decades of work that’s been done in the environmental field in systems thinking, around the understanding that in the physical world, everything is ultimately connected to everything else. And when you intervene in one part of the system, it has an impact in often unexpected ways in other parts of the system. That that kind of thinking also needs to be brought into social and economic policy. In a complex system like an urban area like Toronto, we are also using some of the models that have been developed in systems thinking. 
We have actually developed a prototype, which we call the Wellesley Urban Health Model, which looks at five issues. It looks at people’s income, access to health care, housing, education, and social networks. The idea behind the model is not to create a crystal ball that’ll perfectly predict the future so if we do X, then Y will happen five or ten years down the line, but actually to allow us to get critical insights into the fact that issues like diabetes are integrally related to income, to racial identity, to housing status, to social networks, and to better understand how all those complex connections work. 
We came to this after some years of taking huge amounts of data and sticking it on maps. There’s something that for many people is appealing about doing data mapping as a way of looking at our own neighbourhood. Take something like income, using David Olchansky’s “Three Cities” maps of Toronto, showing changes in income over a thirty-five year period. When we took Olchanksy’s thirty-five years of income and overlaid that with the prevalence of diabetes, we came to the rather stunning conclusion that the prevalence of diabetes is closely correlated to income. So the richest neighbourhoods have the lowest prevalence of diabetes and vice versa for the poorest neighbourhoods. 
That led us to linking other issues. A few years ago we did some work with Toronto Public Health on looking at a range of health indicators, everything from low birth weight babies to respiratory diseases, to accidents, people tripping and falling and breaking their leg. In very case there was a close correlation. So in other words, the poorest neighbourhoods had the highest burden of poor health, the highest number of accidents. And what we wanted to do is understand what’s behind this set of relationships, what are the links. Think of accidents related to falling – does the correlation mean that poor people are more clumsy than rich people? Well, probably not. The real explanation is around housing. If their housing is more poorly maintained, they may not have proper hand rails, they may not have proper anti-slip things on the stairs, their health may already be compromised anyway and so they may be more fragile and frail and that makes them more prone to tripping hazards and things. When we start to think about an urban area as a system, as opposed to a series of discrete issues where you make discrete interventions, it allows us to understand much better the interventions that will actually address health and equity in much more powerful ways.
DM: So what I hear you saying is rather than discrete elements, we need to be thinking about the structures of oppression in a systematic way. And that interventions need to take into account the complexity of the system in which we’re intervening. Here we are, two white men, talking about change. How do issues of privilege play into these systems?
MS: Privilege is something that is powerful but often works invisibly. I remember being in Baltimore, really racially segregated and violent. Somebody said to me in Baltimore that I looked like I was a cop because I’m White and I’m kind of bulky. That’s not just a case of mistaken identity, it manifests a certain kind of privilege. I’m aware that when I walk down the street, my experience is not “normal”. Only once, in all my years in Toronto of doing street level organizing, being out at night, doing homeless outreach, did I feel afraid personally. I came across a couple of guys who were dealing drugs and one of them had quite a vicious dog. Otherwise, I’ve been safe and felt safe.
But privilege comes up in all sorts of ways.  For a number of years I was a single dad. I can remember going to the daycare centre where maybe a quarter or more of the population were single moms. I was the only single dad. We shared a lot of similarities because we were both single parents. The women were navigating exactly the same challenges I was navigating, but it was different for me than it was for them, because of patriarchy. There are so many different ways privilege, or power, are manifest. A couple of years ago, I was invited by some people to speak at Harvard University. Afterwards they gave me a few little gifts, and one of them was a key chain from Harvard University, which I carry around. I’m aware of the fact that if I plop the keychain down, just that little simple action shifts relationships in a room, shifts the power dynamics of that room. 
DM: That speaks to individual power. What about collective power?
MS: There’s a whole body of literature in the States on collective efficacy. You know, workers who are organized in their work place tend to have better pay and working conditions than workers who are unorganized. The reason is that they have a practical tool through their organization, through their union, that allows them to extract certain benefits from their work. That’s collective efficacy. We’re trying to understand how that operates outside the workplace. The negative side of collective efficacy would be privilege, the sort of invisible patterns of power that allow certain people to gain an advantage. The positive side of collective efficacy is that when people cooperate and collaborate and network in important ways that they can achieve tangible gains for themselves and others. A big question for the union organizer or for the community organizer or for the activist, is how to work with people in networks to generate that collective power and use it for a wider purpose.
Our St. James Town initiative, which my colleague Nazim is working on, was created based out of the simple but powerful observation that when immigrants come to Canada, their health across the spectrum tends to be better than resident Canadians, but after five years, their health tends to be worse than resident Canadians. The explanation for the first bit is fairly simple, that Canadian immigration rules are such that few really sick people get into the country; that’s why it is that immigrants, when they first arrive, are on average healthier than resident Canadians. The more important question is what’s happening over that five-year period. And we think that it’s a combination of poverty, poor housing, social isolation, racism, social exclusion, and various other factors. That toxic combination adds a burden of physical and mental health issues. To figure out how that toxic cocktail works, and how to counteract it, we don’t propose hiring even more epidemiologists and medical researchers. They’re all perfectly fine and we use as many of them as we can possibly engage. But we actually look to the people that are living in St. James Town, engaging their expertise, in order to understand this complex set of relationships that leads to this much heavier health burden in a relatively short period of time, and also figuring out what are the solutions.
DM: What have you found out?
MS: Here’s an example: Everyone basically knows it’s a good thing to recycle, it’s good for our environment, but there’s not a lot of recycling going on in St. James Town. When we started talking with some of the women, they pointed out that these old high rises don’t have the chutes accessible on your floor that allow you to put different products down. So you actually have to physically take your recycling to a set of bins downstairs, put the metal in this bin and the other stuff in the other bin and so on. In that area, they felt unsafe. The men didn’t want their wives or daughters doing that. It may seem a very obvious insight but it’s actually a very powerful insight, which suggests actions other than an intensified public education campaign.
DM: That’s a great insight. Have you tried co-production around issues of health?
MS: In 2008 we did a joint research project with Street Health, the agency that provides front line nursing services to homeless people. We knew in advance that the health status of homeless people was going to be crappy, it was going to be ten times worse, or a hundred times, or a thousand times worse than the rest of the population.   So our interest was not only to document the gruesome life of people without shelter, butalso to identify some concrete solutions. So we provided the funding to Street Health for a peer research project. People who were homeless were hired as the researchers, and with us they wrote up the questions, administered the surveys and analyzed the data. And there were just some, you know, it’s incredible the insights that came out of this. I can’t think of any research that we do here in which we don’t really try and push this notion of co-production of knowledge. 
We were one of the seed funders for a study a few years ago on people living with HIV-AIDS, to look at the impact of housing, of horrible housing, on their health status. Similar studies like this had been done in many parts of the United States and Canada, Vancouver and Chicago and San Francisco and so on. All the studies are consistent in saying that people who are health-compromised, living with HIV-AIDS, for instance, and homeless, experience a high degree of respiratory and other common sort of ailments which force them into the emergency wards. So they spend a lot of time in a hospital, which is, of course, a very expensive place, from a government perspective, to deliver health care. Of course it would be better that they be healthier in the first place. When people are well housed, they still have HIV-AIDS and they still require all the anti- and retro-virals and all the complicated regime of treatment. But they’re not constantly getting the colds and the pneumonia and all that stuff and spending half their time in emergency wards. We were able to quantify all that. But working with people who are living with HIV-AIDS, we wanted to dig deeper into what kind of housing works for them, what are the supports and services.
DM: What has come out of that?
MS: One advantage we had was the chance to actually build such housing. The Wellesley Institute is the legacy institution of the old Wellesley Hospital. We had ownership of the site once the hospital was shut down by the Harris government. One initiative we always had wanted to put on the site was housing for people with HIV-AIDS. Partly that’s a nod back to the old Wellesley Hospital which had, through its urban initiative, had a very dynamic health practice with people living with AIDS. We had also, through the course of our work, identified that there was a huge need for supportive housing for seniors, frail elderly seniors. 
Our original idea had been an eight- or a ten-story residential building on the old Wellesley site, with half of it for people with HIV-AIDS and the other half for seniors. We would segregate them by floors because the notion was that maybe seniors didn’t want to share facilities with people living with AIDS and vice versa. However, luckily, before we actually made the mistake of creating a segregated building, we actually got people together and asked them “What kind of home would you want to live in? Do you want to sort of have your neighbour like yourself? Etc., etc.” And what we actually found overwhelmingly was people said “We don’t care about that kind of artificial distinction. This is housing for people that have special support needs over and above just four walls and a roof.” So everyone got all mixed up together. Now it’s a wonderfully dynamic building where people are supporting each other and a real community has emerged there in which people do take care of each other physically and emotionally. A network has been created. The necessary knowledge was co-produced.
DM: I can see how the idea of the segregated floors was well intended. You thought that people need some dignity, a little bit of space. In social research, there’s sometimes a time pressure, a push for quick results, so that people say we can’t afford co-production of knowledge because it is too slow. How do you handle that?
MS: We make no apologies, we’re in this for the long haul. In urban health, we have created a forty-year horizon. We gather a very detailed social, health, and economic data. And then the model does whatever it does, and then we’re allowed to kind of peer forward for forty years, and we can do things like address the impact of increasing investment in affordable housing on the prevalence of diabetes three or four decades away. When I think back to my days in journalism, I remember that the political policy window tends to be very short term. It’s the next budget or the maybe the next election and that’s it. Sometimes it’s not even that long. And yet in the real world, we know that the complex mixture of issues and solutions which ultimately help us to build both individual health and population health are really long-term enterprises. We need to have better tools to allow us to look at the long term issues as well as the short-term. 
DM: Could you talk about a short-term issue?
MS: Over the last year or so, I’ve been working with a group of Toronto community housing tenants to fight the plans to initiate the massive sell-off of social housing in Toronto. It’s critically important that the voices of people living in social housing be at the absolute centre of this discussion. You want to have the economists, and the financial experts, and the building maintenance people, and all those kind of people, they all have a role to play because there are many dimensions of this issue. But the central slogan is “We’re tenants, we’re not for sale”, and dammit, you’ve got to listen to our voice even if it makes your uncomfortable.
It’s not always an easy process. However, it’s clearly not sufficient just to simply rip off the covers and expose a new set of issues, a new set of voices, a new set of truths that had previously been suppressed and neglected. The second step is to mobilize around solutions that not only address the immediate issue, but change the relations of power. It’s not enough for Toronto community housing tenants to say “We’re not for sale.” What we also have to do is mobilize around practical options to address the issues that are driving the policy agenda toward sale.
Toronto community housing has a 750 million dollar capital repair shortfall that grows by 100 million dollars every year. So saying “we’re not for sale” is very important, having the tenants at the centre of the process is very important, but that 750 million, next year 850 million, the year after billion dollar capital shortfall can’t be ignored. Ultimately that’s going to lead to continuing deterioration in the quality of the housing, poor health for the tenants, and so on. So the Wellesley Institute proposed a commission, a task force on Toronto community housing, to take the issue out of the political arena.  We had to ensure that the task force has the diversity of expertise that’s required to properly address the issue.
DM: But doesn’t that delay the needed action?
MS: When I first started doing community organizing in the east of downtown Toronto, with homeless adults, I was still in law school.  We used to have a weekly dinner, a community dinner, at a drop-in centre. People came because they wanted the food. But the sort of quid pro quo was we wanted them to stay and talk about what was going on in their lives. Inevitably, we’d get into a fierce discussion about how, in those days, the landlord-tenant laws were skewed against low income tenants. A lot of tenants were being evicted on a fairly rapid basis by predatory landlords and ending up being homeless. So we wanted to engage in a law reform exercise to address this particular law. 
But then somebody would put up their hand and say “Why are you talking about a six-month or a year-long law reform process when I don’t have a place to sleep tonight? I want somebody to tell me where I’m going to sleep tonight.” And of course, you can’t just simply say to that person “Thank you brother. Come back in a year and we’ll have the law changed and we’ll tell you where you’re going to sleep”. So you always have to have something that addresses where people are at that particular moment. You can’t say to that person “Shut up. We’re into some strategy here and you’re interfering with our ability to change the world in a way that will make life better for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people across the province.” You have to stop and problem solve about where that person can pick up the phone and find an empty bed in a homeless shelter that night. Balancing the immediate with the long term, that’s always an issue for us.
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