The recent OCASI Executive Directors' Forum - 2012, has been talked about by many who attended as ‘one of the best.' When asked why, many responded that the policy plenaries and discussions were timely and informative. Folks liked that there was a common theme running through the plenary: A theme about change. Change in the non-profit sector, change in the immigrant and refugee serving sector, in sector-funder relationships and with relationships between and among governments.
What is interesting though is that when one probes further, as in the seminar discussions that looked at managing various changes - the need for new ways of funding human services, the need for formal collaboration, partnerships or mergers; one can feel the level of discomfort begin to rise. There was a sense of a bit of pushback from participants about the suggestion that some agencies' Boards must do some serious thinking about evolving the programs. Or heaven forbid, even closing up shop in the realization that one's services and programs are no longer meeting the needs of the communities that they are mandated to serve, because those needs have changed or there are others who do it better.
All indications are that we are entering a period of significant rearrangement in our sector. The widespread access to and use of information technology, the sharp increase in education levels of immigrants and first generation Canadians, the changed labour market and the successes we have had in making public institutions more responsive to an ethno-racial, linguistic and Faith plurality, all contribute to this changed environment. The implications are serious.
The elephant that has been in the room for many years, and one that as sector leaders we have shied away from confronting, is the enduring role (or not) of “Ethno-Specifics”: Agencies that for the most part evolved organically as a grassroots response to specific needs and challenges faced by particular communities. Some of these agencies were created with significant support of government as a way to “manage” competing political interests within multi-ethnic, multi-faith national groups, while others came out of communities organizing themselves to support the settlement and integration of their members. The majority has been successful and many have evolved into multicultural (in spite of name), multi-service agencies serving a broad cross section of the communities where they're located. There are others that serve a social, cultural and political purpose including being the meeting place of a community, and where informal supports can be found. This is an important function that needs to be maintained.
What we do have to grapple with is the reality that serious questions are being asked about the efficacy of small ethno-specific service delivery agencies; and the sustainability of this particular ecosystem of service delivery that is ethno-culturally and linguistically exclusive. The fact that almost 50% of the member agencies defunded by CIC in 2011-12 were ethno-specific was no coincidence. We can and should question the process whereby policy changes are made by stealth with no notice or debate, and we did. But it was a strong signal in terms of where governments are willing to invest. Other funders have looked at this and are weighing their priorities in an age of shrinking dollars.
I know that some of my colleagues within the membership will see the opening of this debate as heresy, especially coming from the Council that has championed and continues to support the fragile infrastructure of grassroots, and ethno-cultural agencies. But I would argue that the Council is the best place to have this honest conversation with each other. To shape the debate that we know is coming, and is already happening in some important circles. The argument here is not whether these agencies bring a value to the sector. I believe they do. But there is space to discuss how they are organized, what models of cross-cultural collaborations exist that can be adapted, and what changes are imperative for their survival individually and as a collective. These questions must be examined and answered if we are to maintain the social assets that they have developed over many years. Let the debate begin.