As long-time partners, BMO and United Way have worked closely to address societal challenges. In that time, we’ve found that while every community is unique, lack of economic inclusion is a common issue affecting residents of many of North America’s large cities. More and more, we have seen that “the neighbourhood you live in can either help or hinder your chances of getting ahead—getting a good education, having access to good housing,” says Nada Ristich, Head, Community Giving for BMO Financial Group. And increasingly, finding employment that provides a firm footing on the economic ladder to greater security and prosperity is becoming more difficult.
BMO and United Way share a common belief that the best way to combat this challenge is to act locally and collaboratively. That collaborative approach means everyone gets a seat at the table at every stage—the public sector, community leaders and the business community, too.
This approach is effective because economic opportunity and strong neighbourhoods go hand in hand. “We believe economic activity brings resilience to a neighbourhood, forming an important part of its stability – along with schools, health care providers and community connections, among other things,” says Nada. “And economic activity in a neighbourhood needs to include good, local jobs. Jobs need to exist where people live, because It’s not sustainable to ask a population to travel great distances to work on public transit, especially where transit infrastructure is not sufficient. And it’s also not enough to offer only low-skilled, casual retail employment close to home. Local jobs should be available at different levels and for different types of workers.”
So BMO is acting locally, beginning with two of our largest markets: Toronto and Chicago. In partnership with United Way Greater Toronto and United Way of Metro Chicago, and supported by a $10 million commitment to each organization, BMO is driving locally focused, innovative approaches to spur economic activity through jobs and entrepreneurship in Toronto’s Greater Golden Mile neighbourhood and the Chicago neighbourhood of Austin.
Two Neighbourhoods—but with a common path forward
Originally one of Canada’s first industrial parks, Golden Mile—a part of working-class Scarborough—sees little remaining industrial activity today. It is home to a burgeoning immigrant population, but few home-grown businesses, as big box major retailers predominate. The Austin neighbourhood on Chicago’s West side is also extremely populous—in fact, it’s the city’s largest community. Once prosperous, it has experienced economic divestment for a generation, but is now seeing increasing gentrification.
What do these two areas have in common, besides a large population? Lack of access—to services, to opportunity, but especially to good jobs close to home, according to Nada. “Both are disenfranchised neighbourhoods where job opportunities are a critical issue, and quality of life is suffering as a result. We see both areas, though, as places where there is a lot of opportunity to grow jobs, to grow small businesses, and restore economic vibrancy.”
Despite common challenges, the areas are unique, and local expertise will be critical to reaching our goals. “We know in broad strokes what some of the differences are between these projects—Golden Mile is the focus of tremendous development commitments, including new housing and improved transit infrastructure, for example,” says Nada. “We need to work with community partners and the municipalities on the ground to determine how big differences—and smaller ones, too—will shape our specific approaches in each area. But at a higher level, our approaches in these two neighbourhoods are fundamentally aligned—with our emphasis on private/public/community sector collaboration, the imperative to listen to those with local knowledge and the greatest stake in our work’s success, and a relentless focus on economic activity that is sustainable for the long term.”
What does success look like in Greater Golden Mile and Austin? More, better jobs close to home. New, growing businesses. And a local population with an ability to succeed and thrive where they live. For BMO, our work in Austin and Golden Mile represent an important opportunity to lead by example, bring a private sector lens to the effort to increase equality of opportunity, and honour our commitment to help create a society with zero barriers to success. Initiatives like this are an important part of living our Purpose: Boldly Grow the Good – in business and life.