Building Toronto’s Food Infrastructure: A Spotlight on Agent of Change Emma Tamlin

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all. 

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Emma’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities, SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 13: Climate Action

Emma Tamlin’s passion for Emma Tamlin standing in front of Avling Brewery’s Rooftop Gardenfood systems began in childhood. Growing up on a farm, where ingredients for meals could be found 100 metres away from the house, she recognized the importance of healthy, accessible food.

As she grew older, Emma became a fierce advocate for food justice, taking on leadership roles with the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council as the Co-Chair for two years and at Green Roofs for Healthy Cities where she leads green infrastructure policy and rooftop urban agriculture initiatives. 

Most recently, she took part in CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program. It’s designed for young changemakers who want to make an impact, supporting them as they identify their purpose, map out an idea, and build the foundation so they can grow their venture.

When the program started, Emma knew she wanted to create something that combined her passion for sustainable cities and food justice. As a result, Emma started Raised Roots, an urban agriculture operations and consulting company, with two co-founders: Rav Singh, an urban farmer and educator with a passion for food policy and food justice and Amanda Klarer, a sustainable food systems specialist. 

“Our mission is to support property owners in integrating food production into projects but also work to change policy to make it easier for everyone in the city to have access to fresh, nutritious and culturally appropriate food.” 

When we look at the impacts of our existing food systems and the impacts they have on the world, Emma explained, there are three driving factors pointing us in the direction of urban agriculture:

  1. In Canada, the average age of farmers is nearing 60 years old, and there aren’t enough young people joining the profession to replace them. Statistics Canada found that there are more farmers over the age of 70 than under the age of 35, meaning we have under 10 years to figure out who will be producing food when these farmers retire.
  2. The global food system is responsible for up to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly derived from the harvest and transportation process. 
  3. If you look more locally, the Toronto Resilience Strategy shows that we only have three days of fresh food in case of an emergency. When you consider the panic buying that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic, we want to have local food infrastructure in place.

Urban agriculture can strengthen our food supply chain, reduce food miles, make fresh food more accessible and increase our local resilience in the event of an emergency. But food and the power of food systems to facilitate solutions to urban challenges is not being fully realized in Toronto. 

In October 2019, Toronto City Council adopted a food lens framework which sought to mandate city departments to approach their projects and programs with food in mind. Unfortunately, due to COVID19 the food lens framework has yet to be fully implemented. 

Part of Emma’s work through Raised Roots has been advocating for the role of food in various city departments and in development projects. One of her favourite examples of a food systems approach is trees, specifically fruit trees: 

“Fruit trees manage stormwater, purify air, reduce the urban heat island, provide shade. They do all the things regular trees do but they also produce food! And this food can create jobs. A great example of this is in Toronto. There is an organization called Not Far From The Tree (NFFTT). They pick the fruit from the trees around the city on both public and private property and then share the bounty with community partners. In 2020, NFFTT picked over 10,000 lbs of fruits and nuts!”

Emma notes how compared to regular trees, fruit trees provide more services to our city but they are not incentivized in policy. 

“It has been incredibly frustrating talking to people who work at the city who tell me that ‘food security isn’t in their department mandate.’ There is a lack of incentive for policy makers to go out of their way and create new policies without public pressure but as cities work to become more resilient given what we saw happening during COVID-19, trees are an easy place to start. Of course, they are not a silver bullet but most cities have tree programs in place already.”

During the Agents of Change program, Emma learned about challenging biases and testing ideas. At the end of the day, understanding different perspectives, contexts, and viewpoints will help her overcome objections and strengthen her work.

“When you are surrounded by people who also believe the same things [as you], I think it’s really easy to assume that you are right. Sometimes I need to remind myself that not everyone sees things the same way. The program offered me an opportunity to reflect on my own values, biases and reinforced what I already knew which is that it is important to listen to everyone including those with different perspectives to ensure my work actually solves problems”

Looking to the future, Emma is excited to continue building Raised Roots and advocating for edible green infrastructure in municipal policy and land-use planning. “It does not have to be elaborate, it just needs to be supported. There is massive potential for food production in our urban environments that we urgently need to support to increase Toronto’s resilience and equity.”

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada

How shared platforms help grassroots and community-based initiatives grow

Printer, paper cutter, single desks in front of a window, plants, and microwave in the fourth floor lounge in CSI Spadina.

Last year, as we navigated the pandemic, communities came together to take care of one another. They formed grassroots and community-led initiatives, like neighbourhood pods and mutual aid groups. This year, as we continue on a path of recovery, we must ask how we can support these initiatives as they grow and expand their impact.

One solution is shared platforms. Traditionally, organizations who want to grow will incorporate and/or register as a charity. However, incorporation also brings on additional administrative and governance responsibilities, adding to an already-full plate.

In a shared platform model, another organization provides the administrative and governance infrastructure. This frees up time for the newer initiative’s leaders to develop a solid foundation, build, and grow.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) describes it as “an alternative […] that is more accessible, and is more time- and cost effective.”

In Shared Platforms: An Introduction, the ONN outlines why the shared platform model is a critical tool for pandemic recovery:

Almost every nonprofit got started when a community identified a need and did something about it. But it has become harder to start, operate and sustain an organization over time. This is why it is so important for established nonprofits and charities to support emerging grassroots projects through shared platforms. Some of these projects will grow into new organizations, while others will remain small and project-based. All will enrich our communities and allow for innovation and emergence of new ideas and new ways of doing things in our communities.

At CSI, we understand the importance of shared resources. We were built — quite literally — on shared supports for social enterprises, nonprofits, and innovators. We offer shared workspace, to lower the cost of rent; our buildings have shared printing and fax services, to lower the cost of equipment.

We took it one step further when we incubated the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN). We provided insurance, bookkeeping, leadership, accounting, management, and a board of directors. Ultimately, we were responsible for the ONN’s success. This allowed the ONN leadership to figure out what worked (and what didn’t), build a strong foundation, and grow their network. After spending seven years at CSI, they got to a place where they were able to incorporate.

Recently, we built a virtual shared space for social innovators: The Common Platform. It’s a hub for ideas, opportunities, events, and conversations. It’s a place where people who want to make a positive impact can find what they need to succeed. And since we can’t meet, ideate, and innovate in person right now, we hope you’ll join us online!

Bringing small businesses to the global stage

Person in a peach-coloured blouse sitting at a wooden desk using a black calculator. The desk is covered with notebooks and printouts with calculations.

A spotlight on Agent of Change Maheshi Wanasundara

Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. They’re filled with passion, drive, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to create a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world for all.

We’re profiling five participants from Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals — an 8-week, impact-driven course that taught 100 youth how to use the tools and tactics of social entrepreneurship to work towards the achievement of the SDGs. Maheshi’s work touches on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth, SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure, and SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities.

Even though she has moved often, Maheshi’s heart remains in her homeland, Sri Lanka.

Fiercely proud of her cultural heritage and determined to share its beauty, she hopes to elevate the profiles of Sri Lanka’s creative artists, innovative thinkers, and sustainable producers while preserving the authenticity of their work.

“There are amazing products and businesses [from Sri Lanka],” said Maheshi. “I want to bring them to the global market and make sure those creators and business owners get the recognition they deserve.”

She’s doing this in the form of Musey, her social enterprise.

Maheshi’s passion brought her to CSI’s Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program, where she met other young people hungry for change. Over the eight weeks, she began to finetune her purpose as a social entrepreneur, and started to map out her business structure.

“The biggest plus for me was connecting with individuals and hearing their stories. It encouraged me to take a step back and look at my ideas, and figure out how my ambitions matched what I want to do,” she recalled. “I was able to identify how my personal values connected to what I wanted to invest my time and energy in.”

Musey is the culmination of Maheshi’s love for her home country and her newly-gained knowledge of social entrepreneurship. At its essence it’s an online shop, but really, it’s a platform where Sri Lankan small business owners can shine on a global stage. Shoppers will be able to find anything, from health and lifestyle products to furniture and home decor.

All of the young businesses Maheshi collaborates with have to meet three requirements:

  1. They use sustainable material, sourced locally in Sri Lanka;
  2. They are environmentally-friendly and minimize waste; and
  3. They provide opportunities of employment to their community.

Most of these ventures are owned by women or young families.

One of the brands she is working with uses “end-of-roll” materials from large garment factories to make their clothes. In this way, they are saving this fabric from being thrown away, and each piece of clothing will be unique. The brand also provides an opportunity for the women in their neighbourhood to earn some extra income and develop new skills through casual employment.

As Maheshi helps these young entrepreneurs reach and connect to an increasingly-online world, she plans to reinvest profits into the communities of these original artists. Decolonizing wealth is one of her main goals.

“I’m really excited to be a part of their journey, to help lift them to the next level of income or knowledge, and to learn and grow alongside them.”

Next steps for Maheshi involve finding ways to collaborate with the artists. Although she can’t conduct informational interviews in person in Sri Lanka, she’s been continuing her research and connecting with people virtually.

“I want to [gather] information and knowledge in the community and facilitate the sharing of it,” she said.

Currently, Maheshi’s days are filled with work, a newborn, and two beagles. But despite the strangeness and novelty in her life (and the world!) right now, she stays positive: “Being responsible for my daughter makes me a bit more focused and determined. It really helped me see what I want in our future.”

As she continues on her social entrepreneurship journey, Maheshi is constantly on the lookout for people she can learn from. If you have advice for an up-and-coming entrepreneur, or experience bringing businesses to the global market, definitely get in touch!

Our Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals program is designed to equip the next generation of changemakers with the skills, resources, and coaching they need to make an impact. Check out other stories from program participants here!

Agents of Change: Sustainable Development Goals is made possible with the support of the Government of Canada.

Maayan Ziv: Governor General Laureate and Community Advocate

Chalkboard welcoming CSI members home as they move into 192 Spadina. Photo credit: Sara Elisabeth Photography.

The objectives of the Governor General’s Innovation Awards are to celebrate excellence in innovation across all sectors of Canadian society and inspire Canadians — particularly Canadian youth — to be entrepreneurial innovators.

The list of 2020 laureates, includes Torontonian Maayan Ziv. Maayan was part of our 2016 Agents of Change: Community Health accelerator with her Access Now app. Using crowdsourced information, the app connects people with ratings, insight and information on the accessibility features and status of businesses and experiences in over 30 countries.

In addition to being a social entrepreneur, Maayan is also an advocate and activist. She has recently launched this online petition after learning that American Airlines has created a new policy banning people using power wheelchairs from flying.

She says:

“Like many, I have personally had my wheelchairs damaged or totaled. I have faced extreme discrimination, emotional trauma and physical harm.

What the entire travel industry needs to do is redesign wheelchair handling and overall customer care for people with disabilities…not further isolate and discriminate paying customers.

I am calling for an immediate reversal of this new discriminatory policy by American Airlines, and further, a complete and comprehensive review of how American Airlines addresses customers with disabilities in designing new policies moving forward.”

Sign her petition here.


Are you a social entrepreneur or advocate looking for a community to help accelerate your impact? Join CSI today!

SchoolMatch helps find the school that is right for you

Canada has great schools. Students from Canada and from all around the world choose to further their education by studying at Canadian universities and colleges. But how do you select the best school for you? How can you be sure which school is the right choice for you? Will your school live up to your expectations?

SchoolMatch Canada was born out of the idea that matching — not searching — is the simplest and most effective way to answer some of these questions. SchoolMatch takes a student’s individual characteristics and uses them to identify the best possible schools for that student. Students are given unbiased results about which schools would fit them best and why. It’s an entirely new way to think about finding the right school.

SchoolMatch was a CSI member for five years, but have decided to work from home during COVID-19. We chatted with SchoolMatch’s  Anthony Di Monte to say farewell (for the time being!) and share a little more about being part of the CSI community these past years.

What first brought you to CSI? What did you need? What were you looking for?
We had just launched our website and were working out of a small space above a store further West on Bloor St. We were starting to transition from part-time to full-time work and needed a bit more space. We had hosted an event at CSI a few months earlier, and it just kept popping up as a collaborative hub where these interesting things were happening. There were these neat small and growing companies, and interesting events all in this eclectic space. It seemed like the perfect fit for us, so we applied and moved in a few months later.

Can you tell us about a few of the relationships you built with other members?
GoodFoot was in the office beside us when we moved in. They impressed us right from the start. It was great to see an organization bring so much to the community, and to get to know their hard-working staff. They offered us a great, new perspective on work, and challenged our concept of what it takes to succeed. They really showed us that everyone has abilities, these just may be different from our own pre-existing ideas. GoodFoot gave us daily proof that with the right tools and support anyone can thrive.

How did working in a space with a shared set of values benefit your work?
One thing that we took away was the sense that the initiatives all around you start to sneak into your thoughts. When I first learned about the work that OceanWise does, I thought it was great… but that it was in a different sphere from my focus. Then, over time, as we chatted more, and spent more time with their organization, I started to think a little more about small things that I could do to personally help improve the fate of marine life. With repeated exposure, what seemed like a disconnected and monumental objective became personal and doable. Something as simple as asking for no straws at a restaurant is painless and can have a huge impact if everyone does it. That then translated into “are we using other plastics that could be reduced or eliminated?” These daily interactions with other organizations peppered our thoughts with their efforts. That made their efforts more salient, and helped us reflect on how we can integrate their causes into what we do personally and professionally.

What’s a memorable moment from your time at CSI?
When we first moved in, OceanWise was in the office immediately to our right. At the time their team lead was a friend of a friend of mine. That was a total coincidence and completely unplanned. We were both like, “You work right beside us every day? That’s crazy — what are the odds?” It was a great start to our time at CSI.

What’s happened for you in your time at CSI? We want to share your successes!
We started out focused on students locally, Torontonians and Canadians. At CSI though, we learned about Canada’s strong standing around the world for post-secondary education. Our time at CSI helped us understand the benefits of reaching an international demographic, something we had not originally considered when we set out to help students choose the best university/college. That helped us grow to where we are today.

What’s next for you and your team? What are your hopes for the post-COVID-19 world?
Though international travel has slowed down with Covid-19 we’re hopeful that students from across the world can continue to see what a great place Canada is to study and to live.

How can CSI members (or anyone!) support you?
We’re still operating (from home!) and we’re hoping to continue helping future university/college students for years to come! SchoolMatch can be a valuable resource for these prospective students who need a little help in selecting the best post-secondary school for them.

“When there are people in your community who are suffering, that is also your suffering.” – Desmond Cole

Desmond Cole — who is a former CSI Community Animator — recently published the Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance. The book chronicles just one year—2017—in the struggle against racism in this country.

When in Halifax for a launch event for his book, Cole spoke to the CBC about why he thinks things are not getting better:

People are desperate to hear that we are, and people are also angry that when Black people are asked that question that we don’t say, ‘Oh yeah well we’re not in chains anymore so things are better.’ If there’s such a small Black population in this country, why are so many of us in jail? Why are so many of us being apprehended? Child apprehensions in Black communities in Toronto are going up. We are almost 40 per cent of the new child welfare cases. That wasn’t the case a generation ago. Why is that happening?

Not everything is on this natural, as people believe, upward trajectory toward everybody being great and equal. And I think that that really bothers people because they think, I don’t have to work for it. I just have to live off the avails and the fumes of being a Canadian, and if time passes things will automatically get better. Not if we don’t fight for it.

Until all of us are free, none of us are. So when there are people in your community who are suffering, that is also your suffering. If there are people in your community who are afraid to call out for help when they need it because they don’t think that the help is going to come, that affects the health and safety of the entire community. When some people live in fear it makes other people live in fear.

So anti-Black racism might not affect everybody in this province directly. It might not affect everybody in the country directly, but it creates a set of circumstances where our well-being is tied to one another. And so I wrote this book primarily for Black people first and foremost to see ourselves and to see our stories, but justice is a collective enterprise. It’s for everybody.

Read the full interview here.

Are you looking for a way to be part of a conversation about 600 years of Black history in Canada? CSI member Michael Bolé is producing The Melanin Project, an art show celebrating over 600 thousand years of Black History. The event invites collaboration by combining dance, poetry, music, and food while celebrating black excellence a culture of kings, gods, goddesses, and queens.

CSI Success story: Nadia Hamilton

In 2011, Nadia Hamilton was the winner of CSI’s Project Wildfire. She earning $25,000 for her project to improve the lives of adults with autism. She went on to start a company called Magnusmode, creating products and services that connect, engage, and enable neuro-atypical people lead more independent lives. The company’s flagship product, MagnusCards™, is a web and mobile app that helps companies make digital step-by-step life guides for using their products or services. McCarran International in Las Vegas just became the first American airport to use the app to make traveling more accessible.

If you have an idea that could change the world, become a CSI member today.

Making Zoo Poo a Household Name

Cocktail dresses and ties packed the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library for the ClimateSpark Launch Gala on Tuesday night. Bay Street bankers rubbed shoulders with climate change activists and entrepreneurs, sipping organic red wine and talking about poo.

Wait, what? Yep, this refined crowd couldn’t help the toilet humour as ZooShare, the biogas cooperative and CSI member who turns zoo poo into energy, won the Toronto Community Foundation’s Green Innovation Award.

The Centre for Social Innovation teamed up with the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the Toronto Community Foundation in 2011 to launch the ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge. This amazing project had three phases.

In ClimateSpark Ignite we used an online platform to find, support and evaluate projects that reduce the causes and impacts of climate change. In ClimateSpark Accelerate we took ten winners from the Ignite phase and brought them through an in-person, two-day business development bootcamp at CSI Annex. Finally, in ClimateSpark Launch the finalists had their chance to pitch for up to $750,000 in funding and financing.

The Ignite phase was an amazing experiment in crowd-sourcing that attracted 2,300 registered online participants, 61 entries, 40 expert reviewers, 20,500 site visits by 9,700 unique site visitors over three months, and more than 3,000 comments.

“I’m taking away a very strong feeling of support from Toronto’s environmental and social innovation communities—through the many excellent online questions and the number of poo jokes made, it’s clear to me that people are eager to support ZooShare’s mission,” said Daniel Bida, executive director of ZooShare. “Participation in ClimateSpark really helped to hone the unique selling points of the project as a result of getting feedback from so many individuals and experts from around the city.”

ZooShare, a nonprofit cooperative, is planning to build a biogas plant at the Toronto Zoo’s existing compost facility that will convert zoo poo and food waste into methane, which will be burned to generate enough electricity to power 500 homes. Solid and liquid by-products will be sold as fertilizers. ZooShare plans to finance its operations by issuing Community Bonds, as pioneered by CSI.

SolarShare is another ClimateSpark finalist and nonprofit co-op raising money with this social finance innovation, allowing Ontarians to invest in community-based solar energy installations across the province.

“The best part of the competition was having a chance to meet some of the other groups and learn about what they were doing,” said Julie Leach, member relations coordinator at SolarShare. “The chance to pitch to investors gave us the opportunity to improve the content we use for presentations and also improve our presentation skills.”

We were thrilled to see another CSI member walk away with grant money on Tuesday night. Young Urban Farmers was boosted by CSI as part of the Youth Agents of Change competition. Young Urban Farmers, a nonprofit organization, helps people grow organic food in the city, converts underutilized backyards into thriving vegetable gardens, and distributes the food via a community shared agriculture model.

“There was an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm in the competition between participants, mentors, sponsors and organizers,” said Kate Raycraft, a hub coordinator at Young Urban Farmers. “There was a genuine sense that the projects we are working on can and will make a difference in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and that was truly inspiring.”

Raycraft says the most challenging part of ClimateSpark was quantifying the carbon impact of their operations.

“This was definitely a valuable exercise, and something we will continue to build upon in the future,” she said. “We were lucky to have the assistance that we had in modeling and projecting this.”

Without any doubt, all of the finalists are working on trailblazing initiatives. From carbon-cutting schemes, to rooftop gardens, to collaborative consumption, CSI is proud to have provided support to these innovators and entrepreneurs with so much pootential…