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An important part of the knowledge and experience that informs Hamilton Community Foundation’s focus on post-secondary access, as a pathway to Hamilton’s prosperity was garnered in over a decade of experience working side-by-side with citizens in the city’s neighbourhoods.

Recognizing strong neighbourhoods as the key to a strong city, Hamilton Community Foundation launched its Growing Roots…Strengthening Neighbourhoods  initiative in 2002.  This small grants program received attention across North America and proved the power of small grants and leadership development to help the city’s most challenged neighbourhoods identify and build on their assets.

This experience helped us in the ensuing years as our ongoing research and experience pointed to one pervasive barrier to Hamilton’s vitality: poverty.

HCF’s board decided to tackle this complex, long-term problem, head-on, focusing the bulk of its discretionary granting on this single issue. It was a bold approach, unheard-of in the community foundation world at the time.  The Foundation’s focus on reducing and preventing poverty was multi-faceted, employing both strategic grantmaking and community leadership.  We established the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction to address policy-level changes while stressing the importance of healthy neighbourhoods which in turn led to a city-wide neighbourhood action strategy. Some of the changes resulting from our work include:

  • Increased community leadership and participation in some of Hamilton’s most challenged, yet resilient, neighbourhoods.
  • Citizens receiving help in meeting their basic needs where they live. Food security, transportation and local services are being addressed directly in the neighbourhoods.
  • New programs and services planned, delivered and provided at a neighbourhood level, especially services for children and youth.
  • Neighbourhoods that look different because decommissioned schools and churches are now community centres offering a wide range of services/programs. There is also new affordable housing, neighbourhood park clean-ups, playground builds, community gardens and property repairs.
  • Grassroots groups who have access to space and support as these new centres allow neighbourhood groups to have space at no or low cost.

Moving forward

Hamilton has changed since 2002 as have the needs of its neighbourhoods, and the Foundation’s role has evolved in response.   We fundamentally believe in the importance of neighbourhoods and increasing equity for all citizens and we continue to highlight the remarkable work being undertaken by residents most especially with our donors and other partners.

In 2016 the City of Hamilton asked HCF to lead a review of its own neighbourhood strategies, working with local residents to determine the best ways to continue to be a relevant, effective and supportive resource. As part of this research, known as (RE)Imagine, the Foundation also had the opportunity to reflect on how to amplify and enhance two elements of its own neighbourhood support: the small grants program and the Neighbourhood Leadership Institute.

Small grants 

(RE)Imagine affirmed the importance of small grants for neighbourhood-driven grassroots projects as a catalyst for people to make positive change. Following on the report’s findings, HCF’s small grants continue to reach into vulnerable communities to help support projects that address health inequity.

Neighbourhood Leadership Institute 

The NLI provides equitable access to community-based education that enables residents to transform their neighbourhoods. (RE)Imagine helped HCF understand new opportunities for NLI to expand and be more responsive to people’s desire to learn together. As a result, a revised program which is more accessible and suits a broader range of learning styles is under development.

Beginning with “Growing Roots… Strengthening Neighbourhoods” to our multi-year poverty grantmaking focus, through to new and evolving ways of supporting healthy neighbourhoods, such as the Neighbourhood Leadership Institute, Hamilton Community Foundation has held fast to two principles:

  • We believe that every neighbourhood has assets: people with ideas and strengths and skills to offer. Our job has been to help them build on those assets.
  • We believe that residents know best what their neighbourhoods need. Our job has been to listen, to be responsive, and to help their voices be heard.

Of course there is always more to be done and more to learn about how best to do it but our neighbourhoods have shown that, with committed support from responsive partners in the public, private and voluntary sectors, they are more than up to the challenge.