The Power of Community Benefits

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. Colette made these remarks about the 2022 Good Fight Prize winner — the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) — at the GTHA Community Benefits Summit at Toronto City Hall on Saturday, October 28. The theme for the day was “The Power of Community Benefits Agreements in Building the Cities We All Deserve”. She is pictured here with TCBN’s Campaigns Director Kumsa Baker and Executive Director Rosemarie Powell in Council Chambers.

It’s good to be with you today to talk about the cities we deserve and to celebrate the people who build them – people just like you – who get up every morning (even on Saturdays) ready to do this essential civic labour. And it does take all of us – residents throughout the GTHA, elected officials and public servants, trade unionists and workforce developers, contractors and property developers, trainers, policy advocates and community activists.

But without organizers like Rosemarie and her team, how would we find each other let alone combine efforts to make democracy work for the benefit of all? How would we even know that change is possible?

TCBN has shown up every day for over a decade to do this highly skilled labour. And we can agree they’ve done it brilliantly –- with deep conviction, courage, and unwavering commitment to communities who too often don’t get what they deserve. Communities who are systematically denied a voice in decisions that affect them. Communities who do not share equitably in the prosperity generated with public resources. And communities who simply do not have access to economic opportunities created by the infrastructure development process. 

That’s why TCBN is the 2022 Good Fight Prize winner. We didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate among friends last December. So, I was delighted to accept TCBN’s invitation to speak about the award today.

Put up your hand if TCBN has drawn you into the campaign for community benefits over the past ten years. Put up your hand if you:

  • Are a TCBN member or part of the network in other parts of the GTHA
  • Canvassed residents or attended neighbourhood events
  • Participated in a community meeting, workshop or forum
  • Supported or participated in job fairs, pre-apprenticeship and trades training
  • Made a deputation or participated in public consultations about infrastructure development
  • Developed policy ideas and options
  • Worked on a community benefits agreement

It’s taken all of us, working together and persisting over a decade, to achieve the campaign wins we’re building on today.

Two American capitalists who have seen the light, Nick Hanauer and Eric Beinhocker, gave us a great definition of prosperity a few years ago. “Prosperity in a society is the accumulation of solutions to human problems” –- not the accumulation of wealth by individuals. 

Community benefits are this kind of solution, the kind that makes a society more prosperous.

No doubt Joseph Atkinson would agree. When he was the publisher and owner of the Toronto Star, he wrote about great wealth. This is what he said: 

“Great wealth is amassed, accumulated, collected, gathered, taken. There are many words to describe the process but ‘earned’ is not one of them… The wealthiest among us do not operate alone in the world. What they enjoy has been brought to their door by the labour of a vast number of people.”

When Mr Atkinson died seven years later, he gave the Toronto Star to the working people of Ontario. The same people who had brought such great wealth to his own door. He believed that merit and hard work had less to do with success than unearned privilege. Thrift and initiative were no guarantee against poverty. He argued for the necessary role of governments in taking on the problems no one can solve on their own, and in fixing unfair social structures and systems. He valued democracy and the role of an independent press in making it work.

That’s why he deployed the Star to fight for workers’ rights, universal social protections and a progressive tax system during his lifetime. And that’s why he set up the Atkinson Foundation:  to fuel the fight for as long as it takes to win and to invest in the place he called home –- Toronto, the treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee peoples.

2022 marked the 80th year that we’ve helped fuel the fight for social and economic justice in this place. The Atkinson Board acknowledges anniversary years with a monetary gift to a grassroots campaign, coalition or network that is having an unmistakable impact on public policy.

The Good Fight Prize recognizes the combined and collaborative efforts that improve public policies, systems and structures. No one person or single organization can achieve this kind of impact. The choice of prize winner testifies to our belief that a just society and an equitable economy are more than high ideals. They are attainable through a principled struggle with the realities created by income, wealth and democratic inequality. That is our definition of a “good fight” –- and the fight for community benefits has brought this definition to life.

From its inception in 2012, TCBN has fought for a process that respects the voices and interests of communities most affected by infrastructure development –- especially those who have historically benefited the least and have been harmed the most by these investments.

This broadly-based movement for equity in local economic development is raising our collective expectations. It’s no longer enough to build and provide better transit. The new standard is that developers must show exactly how communities most directly affected by transit projects will benefit.

Today, many more people are grappling with the conventional rules of the game. They’re asking how to move from a zero-sum to positive-sum approach to economic development. 

And that’s why we gave TCBN the 2022 Good Fight Prize. I don’t have a trophy or poster cheque to present. Putting $80,000 immediately into their bank account was the best thing we could do –- so we did it.

Another sign of a “good fight” is that more time is spent in the arena than on the stage. That’s where the real rewards of this work are found. In the moment when victory is uncertain, but you know you’ve done everything you can do –- and you’re not going to give up — win or lose.

We’re proud to be in this fight with TCBN and all of you. Thank you for playing your part and thank you to TCBN for getting us — and keeping us — organized.