The Dialogues:  One   •  Two  •  Three  • Four •  Five •  Six  •  Seven



Who Cares?  
Creative Responses to Social Obligations—A Dialogue Series

Monograph 6

A Dialogue with Sherri Torjman

November 2, 2001

Government has a crucial role to play – perhaps more than ever in light of an insecure economy and turbulent labour market.  But there are many actions that communities can and should take to solve problems and improve the quality of life.  In fact, there are some things that communities can do far better, quite frankly, than governments.  In some cases, governments, with their myriad of roles and regulations – actually are responsible for many of the problems communities are trying to tackle.

Sherri Torjman

Dialogue six of the ‘Who Cares?’ series was a rich and textured exploration.  Our discussion focused on two inter-related and crucial issues in addressing our social obligations: the language we use to describe caring and the way we measure the success of our caring interactions.  Emerging from this dialogue were several themes that inform the kinds of creative responses we take. Catalytic to this discussion was a presentation by Sherri Torjman.

Ms.Torjman’s presentations centered on community.  In particular she explored what caring communities do and the connection between community and policy.  Through comparing and contrasting current examples of community development Ms.Torjman led the group to a deep and emotional dialogue about some of the challenges at the heart of community and caring.

This monograph summarizes the key points of Ms. Torjman’s presentations and examines two key issues in the task of finding creative solutions to our social obligations that were raised by participants in the dialogue group.  It concludes with some themes for creative responses to caring that emerged within the group.  Web sites for resources identified throughout the dialogue are referenced at the end.

The Actions of Caring Communities

Today there is more pressure on communities according to Ms. Torjman.  The events of September 11 highlight the need for caring communities and have made it likely that the federal government will put on hold support for key issues for communities such as affordable housing and personal support financing for people with disabilities.  Ms. Torjman has been researching the question of what caring communities do and as a follow-up, exactly how they do it.  Her findings will be presented in a new paper entitled Reclaiming Our Humanity.  In her research Ms. Torjman has discovered that caring communities do three key things: provide support for all members, provide opportunities for learning and promote inclusion.  Inclusion is the most complex of these activities.  It involves access (barrier free design), finance (fiscal inclusion - the ability to pay) and engagement (ways in which citizens engage with and contribute to their community).

Ms. Torjman’s research found caring communities maximize their resources in two ways.  First they recognize a wide array of resources (social, financial, physical, cultural and human capitals) and find new ways to use them.  Second they find ways to generate new capital.  For example, schools are often closed and empty after school hours and for holidays.  They are not recognized as public spaces.  Public space is central to citizen engagement and school space can be used to generate community involvement in a variety of ways.   Another example of caring communities generating new capital is the use of mentors.  Mentoring relationships are recognized as a powerful tool in maintaining and refining human capital.  These relationships also strengthen the social capital of a community.

There is much interest in the social networks (relationships) of communities.  Communities with dense social networks have been found to have better health and stronger economies.  There is a positive trend toward strengthening community networks through collaboration between the public, private and civic sectors.  The problem is finding funding for this kind of activity.  Relationships take time to form.  Building social capital in communities, extending and strengthening relationships, involves bringing people together for support, education, celebration and conflict resolution.   A challenge for caring communities is to find ways of financing social capital development.

Community and Policy

Ms. Torjman chose two examples of multisectoral approaches to community development to examine successful community development practices and the barriers policy creates for communities.  As a starting point she referenced her work "From Information to Application: How Communities Learn." The focus of this work was to translate good material from colleges and universities into useable forms for communities.  

Community development is an iterative learning process. There is a great deal of information available to communities but it is not readily accessible.  Communities need to know what the problem or challenge is, why it exists, how to go about addressing the challenge and who can help.  This information may be required in different forms at different points of the development process.

Shared, accessible information is an important component of multisectoral approaches to community development.  Statistics and key factors related to an issue (the what and why of the situation) can mobilize leaders across a community.  Multisectoral approaches offer a great deal of promise in addressing long standing community challenges.  Ms. Torjman provided two examples of how such approaches can work.

The first is from Kitchener-Waterloo where the challenge was poverty reduction. Leaders from across the three sectors were invited to roundtables to discuss a paper entitled "Poverty in the Waterloo Region."  From these roundtables a comprehensive strategy for poverty reduction was introduced.  It involved four streams of potential interventions: meeting basic needs, removing barriers, building skills and promoting economic development.  With a bold target of moving 2000 out of poverty by the year 2000, leaders from the roundtables set about creating partnerships.  Their goal was to involve everyone in the community.  Evaluation of this project shows that 1700 families were helped by either increasing their income or gaining employment.

The second project from the Ottawa-Carleton area was focused on underemployment.  A study entitled "A Labour Market Strategy for Ottawa-Carleton" led to the creation of a multisectoral task force convened by the city’s mayor.  The work of this group led to the creation of "Partners for Jobs" a consortium of employers, educational institutions and community groups dedicated to the creation of customized training to meet local needs.  "Partners for Jobs" currently conducts training around seven different clusters representing different sectors of employment in the Ottawa-Carleton region.  

In comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the two models Ms Torjman suggested that two central considerations impact the success of multisectoral approaches.  First, consideration needs to be given to who takes the lead role and where the project is situated.  For example, in Ottawa-Carleton the fact that the mayor convened the project gave it great credibility.  On the other hand the municipality has come to play such a pivotal role that the community does not own it.  If the municipality pulled out, continuation of the work would be questionable.

A second area of consideration is accountability.  In a multisectoral approach, who is responsible if things do not work out?  Such collaborations are ‘voluntary.’  In addition, government can hide behind ‘community process’.  This is particularly serious when we look at service delivery versus policy.  If communities deliver services such as training that government was originally responsible for, what happens when there are funding cuts?   It is great to be able to get money back into the hands of the community but who is responsible?

There is a great deal of pressure on community groups to produce results.  Ottawa-Carleton used an outcome-based management approach.  The question is, are management ‘outcomes’ really the best outcomes or are there other difficult to quantify processes and benefits that we should be paying attention to? It is clear that in multisectoral approaches there is a need to allow time for process and a need to recognize that the barriers to long standing societal challenges such as poverty and employment are deeply embedded.

The Language We Use

For much of the work of caring, for the essence of our countless daily caring interactions, we lack the terminology to describe it.  Participants noted that the people who are doing the caring might not use the relevant terminology yet they must be consulted when we are trying to translate what they are doing into policy.  In meeting our social obligations we need to listen to people whose lives will be impacted by our interventions.  We need to work to develop a shared language in order to develop responses that work.  At the same time we must not reduce our language.  We are not a homogeneous community. The task is complex and we may need to develop several ‘languages’ to communicate about caring.

Participants noted the disturbing trend to commodify our humanness.  Love, caring, etc. are not recognized as legitimate terms.  Social capital on the other hand has risen to fame by suggesting that to be human (to care, to trust, to be in relationship) makes good economic sense.  The problem is that this suggests that we should be human only if it makes sense economically.  We see this in schools today where there is a profound disconnect in what elementary children and senior high school students are taught.  In the younger years they are taught to share and care, in the later years they are taught to see themselves primarily as consumers rather than citizens.

When various sectors do not speak the same language communities can get caught in a confusing web of accountability.  For example, in today’s current response pattern, government often gives people who are marginalized the responsibility and some resources to solve their own problems.  On the surface this looks good but they are rarely given adequate resources to address the deeply enmeshed barriers that are at the root of their marginalization.  As a result the community’s efforts are unsuccessful.  It is government that frequently creates these barriers but in this scenario the community becomes the fall guy.

Government currently speaks the language of efficiency and effectiveness and as a result has difficulty communicating with community groups as they tend to speak the language of process and caring.  Funding mechanisms are frequently informed by government language and as a result are sometimes structured in a way that the ensuing projects won’t work in a community context.  An example was given of a group of people being forced to take a training program that clearly did not meet their needs in order to access funding for their project.

Trust was described as being the most valuable commodity a community has.  However when different sectors use different languages it can be difficult for them to communicate and build trust.  In addition, when there is a lack of trust between public funders and the civil sector groups that they are funding, there is often a demand for increased accountability measures on the part of the funder. These measures pose some significant issues in creating and sustaining caring responses.

How We Measure Success

Participants noted how difficult it is to quantify caring.  One member said it's as if that which matters most is not quantifiable. Interestingly, Margaret Somerville also referenced the dilemma of measuring caring when she stated that sometimes the measurable excludes the extraordinarily important.  Ms. Torjman and some of the group members worried about what happens to some of the softer, human elements of caring when we try to quantify them because to do so fundamentally changes their essence. 

Accountability frameworks tend to measure effectiveness and efficiency.  This can result in what one participant described as ‘perverse effects’.  For example, one indicator, caseload reduction, usually measures welfare reform.  What about what actually happens to the people in this scenario?  Another example is the education system that counts how well students perform academically as its key measure of success.  This means that a school can be penalized for successfully engaging and retaining students who are not strong academic performers.  In these scenarios it as if the human part of the equation is amputated from what systems of funding consider important.

One group member stated that we need to find ways of measuring quality from the point of view of those who receive the services we design.  Measurement of caring interactions should focus on value and quality versus cost saving and efficiency.  Important inroads in this kind of measurement are being made in Italy where alternative structures for civil economies have emerged leading to a robust civil society.  There is also some interesting work in measurement being done at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Innovation and Management.  This research involves a shift in emphasis from costs and revenue to how something is made.

New work related to sustainability can be an informant for the measurement of caring.  Work in the environmental field is taking into account the reality that investments take twenty to thirty years before there is any return.  Currently the G.D.P. and related market statistics are the biggest informants of policy makers.  These measures can send inaccurate and even dangerous signals to policymakers because vital social and economic factors remain invisible.  There is work being done in Canada today related to the creation of measures of national well being.  These include Genuine Progress Indicators and the Canadian Index of Well Being.  A comprehensive example of a new approach to measurement is the Oregon Benchmark Project.  This work includes indicators, outcomes and targets for the societal impact of its work across all levels and sectors of Oregon society.  The Aspen Institute was also mentioned as doing some interesting work in this area.

Caring Action

Throughout the dialogue, ideas and examples of approaches to caring that work were shared. We were inspired and moved in this dialogue by many stories. There was a sense of positive and possible courses of action that flowed alongside our recognition of the depth of the challenge posed by the question ‘Who Cares?’ As one participant said, “There is no magic bullet but there are rays of light everywhere.”   As the ideas, suggestions and examples emerged some themes were formed.

Finding creative responses to our social obligations (the fundamental quest of this series) calls for personal as well as system and societal transformation.  On an individual level extending care for others stretches us.  Caring for others is often risky, messy and unpredictable.  It usually does not fit into the bits of time we might want to assign it and there is rarely a predictable path.  Each step informs the next.  Caring can call us to our greatest heights as human beings but the process of truly caring often challenges our boundaries and concepts of who we are.  It is through addressing these challenges that our understanding of caring deepens and influences how we might proceed in implementing any new approaches to it.   One participant noted that we need to be grounded personally in order to understand the unique and complex rhythms of caring interactions.  Caring is as much about what we do as how we do it.

Relationships are at the heart of caring communities.  When we are connected to others, when there are no isolated members in a community, it is a safer place to be.  In addition, relationships give us access to resources such as information and the contacts held by those we are in relationship with.  A primary issue for many people who are marginalized is not a lack of money but lack of relationships.  A lack of relationships is a growing issue across our society, as people become more and more fearful of others.  Simple communal acts like eating together with friends and neighbours can reduce our fear.  Entering into relationship with someone who is perceived as different because of his or her appearance, age, ability, race, etc. can transform our fear.

On a broader level multi-sector relationships as illustrated by Ms. Torjman’s presentation, are also key to mobilizing community capacity and problem-solving ability. Multi-sector relationships, like individual relationships, provide access to a breadth of resources and reduce the fragility of the efforts of any one sector working alone trying to address community issues.

Governments have an important role in caring.  While there are many, many examples of simple caring actions in communities we need to be careful not to highlight them in a way that suggests governments do not have a role.  We need to find ways to create, replicate and sustain ideas that work.  Policy and funding structures can have a profound influence on this.  In addition, building bridges across the sectors, strengthening relationships, developing a flexible infrastructure and creating a ‘shared language’ of caring are crucial activities that policy and funding mechanisms could be developed to support.

We need to think big and be bold.  In finding our creative responses to ‘Who Cares?’ our work is not about finding an ultimate answer but identifying the key elements of societal caring.  We need to become much smarter collectively rather that individually if we want durable results.  One participant compared this to ‘paradigm shifting without a clutch.’  Real transformation takes place in complex and complicated ways that are difficult to measure and replicate.  We know what works. Our biggest challenge is finding ways to bring it to scale.


Ms.Torjman’s presentation helped the group to take the values, principles and ideas of our earlier dialogues into a more applied exploration.  As one participant noted, she helped us to connect the dots. This dialogue moved the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogue group into a deeper and more focused discussion. The candor and passion of participants touched the group.  Concluding comments included recognition that we are growing as a group and that we will need each other in addressing the tough challenges before us.  Ms. Torjman invited the group to continue to share our stories of caring communities with her. 


Aspen Institute: 

Caledon Institute: 

Canadian Index of Well being: 

Genuine Progress Indicators: 

Oregon Benchmarks: 

Simon Fraser Centre for Innovation in Management:

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