Joining Tout ce petit monde to animate social capital

Seeking to repair the social fabric, Maira Alejandra Gonzalez Navarro envisioned a series of participatory, festive, and empowering initiatives in the neighbourhoods most affected by physical and social distancing. Tout ce petit monde (This Small World), her project to bring these communities together, was selected in the autumn 2020 cohort of the Civic Incubator.

Fostering collective resilience

Maira’s work is founded on two observations. On the one hand, as she notes, periods of confinement create physical distancing which, for many people, is accompanied by social isolation. Restricted access to services and greatly diminished interaction with neighbours are contributing factors. In the Montreal neighbourhoods most affected by the spread of the virus, the situation is exacerbated by the small size of housing units and the lack of safe and pleasant green common areas.

On the other hand, in these same neighbourhoods, such as Montréal-Nord, large warehouses typical of urban commercial zones can be found close to residential areas. While these structures do attract a certain amount of traffic, they are neither aesthetically pleasing nor socially unifying. Yet they present an untapped resource: their flat roofs.

Thanks to her expertise in environmental design–which she acquired during her studies and developed during the course of various projects in urban redevelopment and citizen collaboration–Maira saw an opportunity to transform the roof of a warehouse on Henri-Bourassa Boulevard East. She envisioned turning it into an inclusive and accessible public space featuring greenery, entertainment, meetings, and cultural exchanges around the theme of travel.

Credit: Youssef Shoufan

“Since we couldn’t travel outside the country, we imagined bringing travel here, in all its diversity and changes of scenery. We wanted to offer an opportunity for the people in Tout ce petit monde to share a pleasant space and to be energized through exchanges with other members of this richly diverse community.”— Maira

Refocusing on the desired impact

Maira joined the fall 2020 cohort of the Civic Incubator with the goal of making her vision a reality. But during the field research stage at the outset of the course, obstacles emerged to the implementation of a roof redevelopment project in the midst of a pandemic. Several factors brought the initiative to a halt: the reluctance of the building’s owners to participate, the cost both of insurance and the work required to make the site safe, and finally the difficulty of obtaining the necessary authorisations.

Maira took a step back to consider the intended impact of her project. In the theory of change workshop, she looked more closely at the composition of the community her initiative targeted. Different profiles of individuals emerged from this analysis. They included members of single-parent families, people living alone, and people with intellectual or physical disabilities struggling to meet their basic needs during the pandemic. But their unifying characteristic was social isolation.

Her objective thus became to break through this isolation by creating festive activities on a hyperlocal scale. Her solution took shape around an initative that would allow people to participate in a social activity, offer a break to parents (especially single parents) by enabling them to pool childcare, and provide meals at low cost through volume discounts. Additionally, relying on existing functional infrastructures would further reduce costs, making it possible to organise multiple events on a small scale. Maira explains:

“That’s when the idea came up to work around food. It’s festive, unifying, and universal: Everyone eats! It’s also an excellent way to promote the culinary heritage of the people in the neighbourhood—highlighting the traditional dishes of their respective cultures! We identified the collective kitchens as an ideal partner around which to animate social capital.”— Maira

Collective kitchens, gathered within the Regroupement des cuisines collectives du Québec (RCCQ) (Québec Collective Kitchens Association), are small groups that pool their time, money, and skills to make economical, healthy, and appetizing dishes that participants take home with them. Collective kitchens are part of an approach aimed at achieving food autonomy and, as a result, improving quality of life and well-being. The RCCQ brings together more than 1,000 groups throughout Québec, including more than 100 in the Greater Montreal area.

With Tout ce petit monde, Maira hopes to offer support to collective kitchens seeking to extend their impact to their entire community. The idea is to rely on underused surrounding infrastructures such as parking lots, parks, and schoolyards, and then to add an event component—transforming these sites into engines of neighbourhood animation and community meetings which are also conducive to self-financing through participants’ contributions.

The pilot phase of the project is being carried out in the Montréal-Nord neighbourhood. Other collective kitchens in Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve have also expressed interest in the proposed model.

“The project can be deployed as public-health measures are relaxed. For the time being, it’s complicated to work with collective kitchens because of COVID-19 restrictions around food. Over the next few months, while we wait to work directly with the collective kitchens, we plan to give greater visibility to the various small businesses in the neighbourhood by inviting them to take part in a festive event and by helping to coordinate meetings between the various stakeholders. Our objective remains to strengthen social ties and to work with the social capital of the arrondissements by assembling local assets that are already present and activating their potential to bring Tout ce petit monde together. Stay tuned for upcoming events in your neighbourhood!”— Maira

Three alumni of the program look back

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The potential realization of a positive-impact project idea—one that has long been brewing in the back of their minds—has motivated over one hundred change-makers to join the MIS Civic Incubator.

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