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Moms of the World Unite at Rose Ave PS

By Louise Brown

A clamour of voices spills out of the school gym; the sound of 80 young mothers sprung free on a school night to share biryani rice with mango salad and talk about…being mothers.

Someone asks what they’d do if they had an extra hour each day. Ha! Here at Rose Ave. Public School in the heart of St. James Town, the mothers laugh. What else? Sleep!

“Or…maybe read?” muses Binal Gala, who has a son in Grade 4.  “I’m always taking books out of the library for myself, and then I return them unopened,” she confesses, to nods from the five other women at the table. Suddenly Vanessa Eckstein, a mother of two, gets an idea: “Maybe we should start a book club?”

That would be one special book club, because this is an unusual group of friends.

Despite the laughter and raucous chatter that make this sound like a reunion of old pals, these women are not all neighbourhood parents. At each table are also women like Vanessa, whose children attend the independent Mabin School on the south edge of Forest Hill, a short drive but a socio-economic world away. Originally brought together by the schools’ principals as an exercise in neighbourhood bridge-building, these two groups of mothers have crossed a tangle of divides – language, income, race, religion – to become not just budding friends, but “change-makers” working to bring their communities together.

“We come from different countries and different backgrounds, “says Amna Syed Shah, a Rose Ave. mother. “But when we are together, we think we are all one, we are the same. These things don’t matter anymore.

Through a series of dinners and talks on parenting themes like stress and nutrition, some 10 women from each school have formed “Moms of the World Unite,” a network that not only hosts get-togethers like this for their fellow moms, but that organized an ambitious “creativity festival” at Rose Ave. for students from both schools last June, and whose members have talked at student assemblies at each other’s schools about being role models and “change-makers.”

“It’s not ‘Mabin moms’ and ‘Rose moms’ any more – it’s just us, and it’s the most natural thing, to be honest,” says Vanessa, who hosted a handful of moms from both schools recently at her home to learn Sri Lankan cooking from Rose Ave. office administrator and former parent Valarmathy Vallipuram.

“We’re excited! We look forward to getting together with this community that we’ve built, to this friendship that we’ve developed,” says Vanessa. “This is with the heart.”

On this November night, the women are chatting over a vegetarian feast by Rose Ave. mom Shazia Bhatti - Biryani rice, mango salad with red and yellow peppers, Spanish onions and coriander, and potato naan with a dill-yogurt dip. A handful of women have infants with them, but free babysitting is provided.

Two women talking

“What would I do with another hour?” asks an excited mother. “Come here again!”

In December, Moms of the World Unite was planning a fundraising dinner to help the dozens of Rose Ave. families evacuated by last summer’s apartment fire at nearby 650 Parliament St. The meal was to be cooked and served, with some maternal supervision by Grade 6 students from both schools.

Beyond these scheduled events, there’s talk among the moms of Bollywood dance lessons together, and creating their own Facebook page.

“As a school, we have a responsibility to bring children from different parts of the world together – but we also have the same responsibility to bring families from different parts of the world together,” believes Rose Ave. Principal David Crichton, who got the idea for the women’s group two years ago with old friend and former Toronto District School Board principal Nancy Steinhauer, now head of The Mabin School, where tuition approaches $26,000 a year.

“It’s not about wealthy moms being good deed-doers and parachuting in to share their expertise here,” Crichton explains. “Some Rose Ave. moms were leaders and change-makers in their home countries, in Somalia or Nepal or Tibet or wherever. They may be underemployed here in Canada, but many are highly educated and do have skills and experience.”

There are differences, to be sure. Many Rose Ave. families are newcomers from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, including some Syrian refugee families, working to gain an economic footing here. Their largest faith group is Muslim. Mabin School families are largely white working professionals, and about one-third of the students are Jewish. Most Mabin families own homes; most Rose Ave. families live in apartments. Most Mabin moms’ first language is English; some Rose Ave. moms get help from interpreters at these gatherings – sometimes other moms who speak both English and, say, Arabic, but Crichton brings in an interpreter for those from Ethiopia who speak Amharic.

Yet, despite these differences, if you put women together to talk about raising kids, the walls fall away, says Steinhauer.

“We just wanted to get two communities who would not usually get together, to form relationships,” said the award-winning former principal, who became a Student Achievement Officer with Ontario’s ministry of education before taking the reins at Mabin two years ago.

“Our hypothesis is that really, the way to solve social problems is through having relationships with people so you develop empathy for those people, so people’s decisions about how to behave and how to vote and what to support comes from a place of empathy as opposed to a place of detachment.”    

It’s an example of the kind of parent engagement being encouraged by the TDSB’s equity focus, which includes strengthening community ties and building an environment where every voice is welcomed. 

This initiative goes beyond the usual notion of school-community outreach, by reaching sideways across demographic divides to embrace another school community as well.

But why these two schools?

It started when they became the first two schools in Canada to win recognition from Ashoka, a global foundation of social entrepreneurs that promotes the principles of “change-making” through leadership, empathy, teamwork and problem-solving. Ashoka works to promote these values with corporations, organizations and some 300 schools around the world, including nearly 100 in the United States, but until two years ago, none in Canada.

That changed in 2016, when Ashoka recognized Rose Ave. and Mabin as the first two Canadian schools it felt were doing enough to nurture “empathy in action” to qualify as Ashoka partners. Crichton and Steinhauer went to an Ashoka conference in New Mexico, where they were encouraged to come up with a program that “amplified” the change-making they already do.

That was the spark for Moms of the World Unite.

“We were already doing the (equity) work with kids and with teachers – so it just seemed natural to take it one step further to families,” recalls Crichton.

Group of women at a table talking

Why Moms?

“David and I really felt strongly that we wanted to do some change-making at the community level,” says Steinhauer, “and we thought the place to start was with the Moms, and just the Moms at first, because in David’s community, there are many women who are religious and might not be as open about speaking or coming out if there were a man in the room.”

Besides, she says, Crichton knew what incredible women there are in his school community. “Look at the resilience they’ve had to show.”

In the spring of 2017, each principal tapped five mothers they thought would be “pretty cool change-makers” from their schools and brought them together for a series of meals and chats. An art teacher from Mabin ran ice-breaker activities designed to get the women talking about identity. Facilitator Amy Satterthwaite from Ashoka Canada, now a teaching-learning coach at the TDSB, helped guide discussions on parenting issues. A TDSB social worker came to talk about stress, and a nutritionist about healthy food.

But perhaps the most powerful activity was having the women bring in items from their own lives that had personal significance, and share those stories with each other.

They bonded.

“We very quickly found ourselves telling quite personal stories in all three sessions together; there was crying, there was laughing,” recalls Steinhauer. “We were connecting as parents – because all parents struggle with the same fears and anxieties and dilemmas in raising kids.”

They connected over more than just their children; they spoke about what it’s like to feel like a newcomer, to feel isolated. One woman from Rose Ave. had just experienced a family death, while a mother from Mabin was losing a sister to cancer. Some experiences transcend race and class.

“Our backgrounds were so different, but we were all concerned about the same things; it was very powerful,” says Lily Safrani, a Mabin mother whose family moved from the United States to Canada because this country is so “progressive.” Says she chose Mabin for the same reason.

At the end of each dinner, Steinhauer would ask, “Do we want to do this again?” and every time, the answer was “Yes!’”

That fall, energized by their new cross-town connections, the women decided to open up their gatherings so more mothers at each school could have the experience of coming together with moms from the other school. Rose Ave. hosts these dinners, since it draws the larger group of mothers, not surprisingly, with nearly 700 students compared to 150 at Mabin. The food is usually prepared by the Rose Ave. community, with ingredients paid for by Mabin.

Amna, a Rose Ave. mother from Pakistan, is proud of the equity message this grass-roots group is serving up.

“I think Canada should be an example for all the world for its multiculturalism – and I think this Mabin and Rose Ave. connection is a part of that multiculturalism. We are all mixed at the tables, as you see, and we feel so comfortable. We feel safe.”

For some of the Rose Ave. mothers who may be socially isolated in this high-rise community, this is an added benefit of meeting with a larger group of women, says Crichton.

“Part of it, especially women who come from conservative backgrounds, is to really give them a voice and the opportunity to learn from other women. One of the things we wanted to do at Rose was to open the world up for women and give them opportunities to understand their world is not this one block in downtown. Now they have connections outside their neighborhood.”

Moreover, “for some of our Muslim mothers, it’s a way for them to feel mothers from other faiths will support them, because I do feel it’s a community that has in many ways has been under siege.”

But the benefit works both ways, says Steinhauer, who has hired a Rose Ave. mother to cater some Mabin events. “It’s a way of networking, right? The idea was that it is mutually beneficial; the Mabin parents were going to learn from the Rose Ave. parents, and the Rose Ave. parents were going to learn from the Mabin parents. It wasn’t like anyone doing anything for anyone else; it was, how can we learn together and talk together?”

This winter, Moms of the World Unite is organizing a number of events to help the 73 Rose Ave. students evacuated from 650 Parliament. Funds raised from the December dinner were earmarked for gift cards to help the displaced families enjoy the holiday season. The TDSB has provided $15,000 to feed the families daily meals. Roots Canada is donating winter coats for the students, and the TDSB’s business development department plans to source winter boots, says Crichton.

In February, Moms of the World Unite is helping organize a skating party at the Evergreen Brickworks with families from both schools to raise the midwinter spirits of the displaced families from 650 Parliament, who may not be able to return to their homes until April.

With each get-together, the mothers from these two schools get to know each other a little better.

“Maybe our paths would have crossed,” says Vanessa, “but the reality is, as in everything, no matter where you come from, you have to go deep to expand. And with these Moms, we’ve gone deep. We’ve shared many stories, we’ve shared many nights and meetings, and when you give time to relationship, you build it. I think all of us all have this belief that we do this for ourselves and our kids; we want to be part of a society that is as expansive and open and generous and loving and want our kids to know that.

“When you want change, you have to be willing to make it happen.” 

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