Rhonda Teitel-Payne

Recipient: February 2010

Rhonda Teitel-Payne strongly believes that there are solutions to poverty: "The biggest challenge we face is that our society accepts that poverty has always been and always will be. We need to get past that acceptance and change it. I think we can." Rhonda is the Urban Agriculture Manager at The Stop Community Food Centre (The Stop) in Toronto. She was interviewed in advance of National Social Work Week which is being celebrated March 1-7, 2010 under the theme: "Poverty: There Are Solutions - Social Workers Making a Difference". She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during National Social Work Week.

Rhonda Teitel-Payne spoke frankly about the criticism that community food programs are not a solution. She enumerated the many benefits that can flow from food programs such as community gardens, including enhanced social connections and reduced social isolation, exercise, access to healthy and local food, stress relief and increased social cohesion. Community food programs can be incubators for leadership skills that participants can use in a job or organizing efforts on other issues in their lives and communities.

Rhonda pointed out that living in poverty can be a stigmatizing experience and community food programs offer a chance to break down isolation and stereotypes: "There is great power in unearthing skills and bringing these skills and abilities to the community. By creating an environment of trust, dignity and support, we can discover people's capacities." She also noted that when people are brought together, they realize that they face common problems and they begin to ask questions, share ideas and identify ways to respond.

When Rhonda graduated from the Master of Social Work program at the University of Toronto in 1996, she found it important to focus her work on community development. She also believes that using an anti-oppressive model is critical: "A dual approach is essential: removing barriers and creating opportunities." She decried particularly the distinction often made between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor. She noted that there are usually concrete reasons why people avoid becoming active in their community and that the removal of barriers is vital for full participation. As an example, she highlighted the social assistance system, which she believes often focuses more on policing than on providing opportunities and resources.

Rhonda feels that social workers can contribute a lot to educating the general public about the realities of trying to survive on social assistance. She points to the Do The Math campaign as a powerful tool for making people aware of the impossible decisions people with low incomes must make (www.dothemath.thestop.org).

Rhonda Teitel-Payne believes that a broad definition of the social determinants of health is vitally important: "When I first started doing community gardens, I started to realize the inter-connections between health, environments and social justice for both individuals and communities. If you want to grow healthy food in your community, you need to start with a healthy environment. People living in poverty are often more exposed to environmental toxins, experience more severe negative health impacts from those toxins and have fewer tools for coping with the effects (including access to healthy food). I have stayed with The Stop for eleven years partly because our approach strives to address all of these dimensions. It makes your work so much more effective when you can attract such a broad spectrum of people, ideas and professions. Food has this power." 

Rhonda noted that the current high public interest in food could be a great opportunity to move forward. For example, the Toronto Board of Health is working on a strategy to create a more sustainable food system, which involves many dimensions, such as income, environment, transportation, and city planning. She urged social workers to connect to this process and invited Toronto-based social workers to participate in the consultation (visit http://wx.toronto.ca/inter/health/food.nsf for more information). She hopes that the outcome will be a model that can be adapted to other communities across Ontario and Canada.

When asked about the primary achievements of her work, Rhonda Teitel-Payne said: "One of the best things I have done in my work at The Stop is to create a place where people can try out and develop their skills and then transfer them elsewhere." This has included staff, community members, volunteers and placement students.

Rhonda's greatest wish would be for everyone to have access to all basic needs and the opportunity to use their skills. She would also love to see more cooking, growing and more food events exploding across the province. Most importantly, she wishes that more governments and institutions would break down barriers and create possibilities instead of challenges.

The people who work with her and give her great inspiration and ideas are the reason Rhonda has maintained her passion. "Feeling part of a larger struggle is inspiring. Across time, across history, around the world, people come together with innovative ideas. This gives me a lot of hope."

When asked about the essential qualities in a leader, Rhonda stressed the need for a clear vision to share and articulate. She added: "An intellectual approach doesn't mean a lot if it's not supported by passion." She maintains that it's important to give people what they need to maximize their potential, to have faith in them and to know when to make room to let someone take action.

Rhonda Teitel-Payne is an inspirational leader in the social work community - innovative, perceptive and focussed on creating collective opportunities and solutions. During Social Work Week, March 1-7, 2010, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.