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Photos courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

Community Builders: Raising all voices across Ottawa

By Samantha Pope and United Way East Ontario on September 2, 2019

Samantha Pope is one of Apt613’s correspondents at United Way Ottawa. With its Community Builder Award program, United Way Ottawa honours Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers: the organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighbourhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly to make our city a better place for everyone.

Whenever city councillors in Ottawa make important decisions, many low-income citizens tend to not speak up because they feel like their voices don’t matter.

This is according to Lisa Quesnel, who says she has been low-income for the majority of her life and has faced many challenges such as accessing food, paying bills or affording bus passes.

“I know what it’s like to go hungry and to want more, but to not know how to get more,” Lisa says. “You feel like you don’t matter. You feel like the government doesn’t care about you [and] the city doesn’t care about you—that you are just a tick on a dog.”

But about four years ago, when Lisa discovered Making Voices Count, she says her life was changed.

Lisa (far left) stands onstage with Making Voices Count as the group receives United Way Ottawa’s 2019 From Poverty to Possibility award.

At the 2019 Community Builder of the Year Awards gala, United Way Ottawa awarded Making Voices Count with the From Poverty to Possibility award for empowering low-income people like Lisa to speak up on important local issues.

When Lisa first connected with the group during an info session, Making Voices Count had the name ‘Making Votes Count’ and encouraged low-income citizens to make educated votes during elections.

“They were talking about how people like me matter and that I should have a say in what happens in my city,” she says. “I had voted before but I didn’t think my one vote mattered. That day I signed up for the Civic Engagement Table and I haven’t turned back since.”

Working with city decision-makers to create an inclusive city for all, Making Voices Count is led by citizens, the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres, the City for All Women Initiative and other community partners.

As part of Making Voices Count’s Civic Engagement Table, Lisa works with other residents to improve the health and well-being of local communities. They do so by engaging and informing city council of issues at the neighbourhood level, with the goal of creating positive change.

Many people in life situations similar to Lisa do not realize they have a powerful voice, according to Euphrasie Emedi, Community Developer at South East Ottawa Community Health Centre.

Euphrasie (right) smiles wide while receiving the From Poverty to Possibility award.

“They don’t realize that whatever they have inside of them—like an idea or comment—they are able to go out there to see their politicians,” she says, “to go to them and tell them what the issues in their communities and neighbourhoods are so that they can get heard.”

The mission for Euphrasie is to create a city that is inclusive for all and where no one is left behind, she explains. Within the organization, Euphrasie helps guide and encourage residents to advocate for their beliefs.

“Making Voices Count is a tool that gives the population a voice,” she says, “[by] igniting something in them [and] empowering them to take all these issues in their own hands and looking for alternative solutions.”

One of the priorities of the Civic Engagement Table, Euphrasie describes, is advocating for affordable housing in Ottawa. When Making Voices Count asked city council for $12 million dollars to be invested in response to Ottawa’s housing crisis, the city listened.

The Mayor announced in February 2019 that $15 million would be invested for affordable housing in the 2019 city budget. Because of the noise that Making Voices Count created, Euphrasie says, positive change followed.

“It doesn’t take a thousand people to get something done. If you have a passion and it is fair and good, you need to advocate for it,” Lisa says, adding that the organization also played a role in successfully advocating for OC Tranpo’s EquiPass for low-income citizens.

The From Poverty to Possibility award was given to Making Voices Count during the 19th annual Community Builder of the Year Awards Gala on May 16, where United Way Ottawa honoured the organization’s achievements, among other change-makers from across the city. This award recognizes an organization who is working to improve the lives of vulnerable people in Ottawa.

“Advocacy is my favourite word… You don’t need money to [advocate], you don’t need anything to do it. You just do it,” Lisa says. “You go out and you fight for what you believe in. That is what Making Voices Count has done for me.”

Through research, evaluation and partnerships with community experts, United Way Ottawa identifies the root causes of the biggest social challenges facing our community, and helps find solutions that change tens of thousands of lives for the better. One hundred percent of donations stay in Ottawa to help those most in need.