Q&A: Jack McCarthy, Executive Director, Somerset West Community Health Centre

On October 7, 2014 the Association of Ontario Health Centres (AOHC) together with the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa (CHRC) released Bridging the Gap, a report card on Ottawa’s wellbeing. Using the framework of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), one of the world’s leading instruments to measure societal progress, the report connects the dots between the health of the people living in Ottawa and the factors influencing their quality of life.

The report was released in advance of Ottawa’s recent municipal elections with the hope of informing voters and policy makers. It highlighted policy recommendations for municipal candidates related to housing, transit, food security and employment that were garnered from community consultations done through The Making Votes Count Where We Live project.

We spoke with Jack McCarthy, Executive Director of the region’s Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC) since 1989, about this initiative.

Why do you think it’s important for organizations like community health centres and community resource centres to get involved in an election process in the first place?
I often draw on the mission statement of Somerset West. In a nutshell, we talk about three things. First, providing services in the most efficient, effective and compassionate way to individual families and groups, but that’s only one piece. The second piece of what we’re mandated to do is build a healthy, vibrant community. The third piece is contributing to healthy public policy. To me, it is an abdication of responsibility if our voices are not heard on pressing issues of healthy public policy.

With the Ottawa municipal election in mind, and your responsibility to speak up on healthy public policy, what did you want to add to the discussion by putting together this report?
CHRC wanted to profile important issues that city politicians can influence in terms of decision-making. Transit, food security, employment and affordable housing issues are very real to many of the people that we’re here to serve. For example, we profiled the Making Votes Count project where we worked largely with women from within social housing communities as a way of enhancing the electoral process, engagement and building civic leadership in low income communities across the City of Ottawa. It wasn’t just to put a policy paper together on these issues..

When I first heard of the CIW, I thought, “not another strategic planning framework.” But it’s not just another analytical framework. It can incorporate policy asks. What Ottawa did not need is another whiny report saying we need more affordable housing. I read enough of those reports to last a lifetime.

For those who haven’t heard about the CIW, what’s the main thing you want them to know?
We finally have a balanced framework that’s easy to understand, that relies on good data, data that’s not just focused on economic indicators but looks at the whole, the breadth of a community. A framework that can also incorporate policy asks and drive change.

After reading the final Bridging the Gap report, I felt very hopeful. The CIW was refreshing for me because it enabled us to tell our story well. And it allowed us to profile what community health and resource centres are doing to address some of these very issues which are raised in the report. So it wasn’t just us saying here’s a bunch of problems we need to work on. It demonstrates the ways we are stepping up to the plate.

Your centres are already addressing red flag issues, can you give an example?
I would say a great example is food security. We’re leaders in this area. From good food boxes to community gardens, there’s such a buzz now about food security. In our new site for Somerset West, we’re going to collocate with Parkdale Food Centre which historically was called a food bank. The shift is now teaching people about preparing nutritious food, buying affordable food, and coming together to celebrate around food and building community.

So, it’s about healthy populations, it’s about education, it’s about leisure and culture, community vitality, all these things tie into food security. It’s a great story to tell and there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm particularly on that issue.

What would you say was the main takeaway from the report?
The main takeaway was, as the title suggests, Bridging the Gap. For example, the gap between the rich and the poor in this town is widening at a dramatic rate. And I think it was kind of an “aha” moment when reading the report. We’ve got to do something about that. A second thing was the City of Ottawa having one of the lowest rates of community belonging among major metropolitan areas in Ontario. From 65% in 2009 to 59.8% in 2011. That was disturbing as well. The report provokes the questions: What’s driving that? Why is that happening?

What was the impact of the report? Are you able to quantify that?
Anecdotally, there was great media uptake on it. For example, the Francophone media, just last week, Luc Ouellet, the Co-Chair of the CHRC, was interviewed on Radio-Canada again pertaining to an issue that was in the report. And we were at a meeting today with City of Ottawa staff, they wanted to know more about the report. They put that on the agenda, it wasn’t us putting it on. So, anecdotally, I’m hearing that this report continues to provoke interest, provoke questions. It wasn’t just a one shot wonder early in October.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

For the full report visit: Bridging the Gap: The Ottawa Community Wellbeing Report 2014 (pdf)  

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