Community Organizing Insights: An Interview with Steve Boyle
Is anyone still on Facebook these days? I am and one of my reasons for staying on the OG social media platform is to follow the happenings in my neighbourhood (Willowdale in Toronto) through this group. Whether it’s finding a good plumber, learning about the sales at the grocery store, or hearing neighbours’ opinions on local politics, this Facebook group is my go-to for staying abreast with my community.
Recently I noticed this post in the group and immediately recognized it as an excellent example of volunteer recognition and stewardship:
I reached out to the post’s author, Stephen Boyle, who I learned volunteers as the President of the Willowdale Central Ratepayers Association (WCRA). Stephen kindly took the time to chat with me about his experiences as a community organizer and volunteer leader.
JPP: Hi Steve! Thanks for meeting up with me. Volunteering as the President of a community non-profit takes a lot of commitment and dedication. Why were you motivated to serve in this role?
SB: I had been volunteering in various capacities since 2005. When our kids came along in 2009, I started to get more involved with the daycare industry and school council.
In 2018, I decided to invest more of my time because of my personal experience with social media and the news headlines of the day. There appeared to be a lessening of political and social standards and more “us vs them” mentality.
I believe that we as human beings have a very low tolerance for other people’s opinions and perspectives when we don’t know them. I also believe that community building, one conversation at a time, can help to counter the ignorance and combative interactions that dominate our society.
At that time, I had some experience engaging with our elective representatives at all levels of government. I felt compelled to start to better understand how municipal decisions were being made and saw volunteerism as an avenue to pursue this.
JPP: Those are certainly great reasons to start volunteering. Tell me about what keeps you going in the role- why do you enjoy this volunteer work?
SB: I have met wonderful people through my volunteer work and have built up a strong network of friends as a result. Volunteering is very rewarding and I get a lot of happiness out of it.
In particular, I’ve stayed motivated by feeling first-hand the impact of getting involved. Through my volunteer work at WCRA, I have learnt a lot about municipal affairs and how to get things done by engaging city staff in a professional and constructive way. I’m not talking about world-changing things but rather the smaller, everyday things, that might not seem like much.
For example, I heard from WCRA members that our local “arts park” Lee Lifeson Park wasn’t getting animated with performing arts. So, we worked with the city councillor’s office to make the permitting process easier and networked with Park People for advice and support.
I’m happy to say there has been much more park animation at Lee Leifson over the past few years and the momentum is growing. Examples like this, when added up, make a difference.
JPP: From your Facebook post about the ice rinks, I can tell that you’ve engaged some amazing volunteers. How did these ice rink maintenance teams come together and how does WCRA keep them engaged?
SB: I initially organized recruitment via Facebook and got introductions to lead volunteers from community leaders. We engage three great rink leads at each location who have the right equipment and expertise to mentor other volunteers. They do things like set up practice floods at rinks so that newer volunteers can build up their experience and confidence.
We continuously recruit people through informal networking at the rinks. We ask them what they want to do as volunteers and how much time they have to share. From there, we use Team SNAP for communications and scheduling.
JPP: I understand that you’re hoping to engage more volunteers as we start 2023. What events and initiatives would those volunteers support?
SB: The WCRA would like to host a wide variety of events throughout the year. It’s all about community building and supporting our neighbours.
Some of the past activities we hosted and would like to continue in 2023 include:
Performing arts shows at Lee Lifeson Park
A community barbecue
An artisan market which supports local and regional craft makers and small business owners
Sports drop-in programs
Educational seminars on provincial and municipal topics that impact our daily lives.
JPP: As a leader of volunteers, what challenges do you anticipate around recruitment? And what might you do to overcome those challenges?
SB: In Willowdale, there are a lot of people that don’t know their neighbours and aren’t comfortable meeting up with people they don’t know. This is a diverse community and language barriers also pose a challenge.
I think we will need to figure out a way to encourage people to engage with their neighbours and provide them with more accessibility to do so. This will take time and effort, as well as volunteers who are willing to coordinate events that bring people together.
Back in 2019, the councillor’s office organized a “Leaders Summit”. I thought this was a great event as it brought together many individuals from our community that were “connectors”.The networking from that event resulted in some great collaboration between groups and it would be great to have another one of these events in 2023.
Personally, I have found kids and animals to be a great way to break down barriers. I’ve made a number of connections through my children’s friends. Perhaps this is another avenue to explore for volunteer and community engagement.
JPP: I’d love to support a summit, so please reach out as you start planning! Over the course of our conversation, I noticed that you are a big proponent of networking. What networks have been particularly beneficial to WCRA’s mission?
SB: The main networks that we have tapped into are those connected through the local councillor office, local non-profit agencies (e.g. Ontario Historical Society, NeighbourhoodLink), other ratepayers associations in the area, and Park People.
Last August, WCRA partnered with the Edithvale-Yonge Community Association and NeighbourhoodLink to pilot a sports drop-in program for kids. This was meant for families who either couldn’t afford or couldn’t register in city-run summer programs, as well as families that happened in the park during our two program times each week.
In this example of community networking and collaboration, WCRA provided the sports equipment, Edithvale-Yonge Community Association provided access to space, and NeighbourhoodLink provided facilitators who were employed through Canada Summer Jobs.
I hope this program grows over the coming years and that volunteers from all three organizations will raise their hands to support it.
JPP: That’s truly a win-win-win story! Congratulations on the partnership and the impact it made on kids in the community! As we wrap up, what advice would you give to someone who is hesitant about community-based volunteering?
SB: The great thing about community-based volunteering is that volunteers get to call the shots. They choose how much time they want to give, what activity to support, and when that activity happens.
If you’re hesitant, start small and with something you like. If you enjoy the arts, volunteer for an event at Lee Lifeson Park, like an outdoor concert. It could be in a planning capacity or helping out during the event.
Volunteering doesn’t mean committing years of service. You can try out one event or something short-term. You can always give more time or try something else.
Finally, I would recommend bringing a friend. It’s always easier to meet new people when you have a friend. And, it means an extra set of hands to help!
JPP: Finally, how can Willowdale residents contact you to express an interest in volunteering around the neighbourhood?
SB: I would encourage people to become a member of the WCRA. You will get information about some great events along with information about issues that impact our community.
JPP: Thank you Steve for the conversation and for all you do for the Willowdale community!