Photography By Nicholas Jones

A day in the life: Sureya Ibrahim, a.k.a. the “Mayor” of Regent Park

Wonder what it’s like to spend your day making positive change? We spent a 9-5 with this Toronto changemaker to find out

In Regent Park they call her “Mayor,” so entwined has Sureya Ibrahim become with community-building initiatives in this downtown Toronto neighbourhood she’s called home for the past two decades. “I’m not sure about the ‘Mayor’ thing,” Ibrahim says, laughing. “They want me to run for politics, but I feel like I would be lost in that system.”

Instead, Ibrahim is helping change policies and systems at a grassroots level. That means long days of interacting with local people, listening to what they have to say about their needs and priorities, and then making sure they’re represented when decisions are made for the future of Regent Park.

“When I first moved to this community [from Ethiopia], I wasn’t as engaged,” Ibrahim says. “It wasn’t until I joined the Immigrant Women Integration Program (IWIP) at the Toronto Centre For Community Learning & Development (TCCLD) that I got inspired to give back.”

The IWIP at the United-Way funded TCCLD is a leadership training program for immigrant women that aims to foster civic engagement, employability, leadership and a sense of personal wellness and belonging.

Ibrahim, who now works as the TCCLD’s supervisor of community connections, says the training encouraged her to look at her community critically. For one assignment, she had to conduct a needs assessment with 75 local residents, so she could identify service or resource gaps that needed filling. After some initial discomfort approaching people, she quickly found her groove and discovered that community building was where her passions lay. “It felt like what I was supposed to be doing,” she says.

And that much is obvious from all Ibrahim has accomplished in the past decade. Most notably, she has founded two successful social enterprises that offer immigrant women paid employment, and a community advocacy group that supports the families of victims of violence. She also represents her neighbours in Regent Park on numerous local councils, including at crisis tables with Toronto Police and at community feedback sessions with the Daniels Corporation, the builder and developer tasked in recent years with revitalizing the entire neighbourhood.

To see just what a typical 9-5(-ish) day looks like for this changemaker, Local Love joined Ibrahim for an inspiring—and dizzying—jam-packed working day.

8:50 a.m. Ibrahim heads to work at the TCCLD, an organization that provides educational resources to adults in Regent Park to help them build new futures.

9:15 a.m. Ibrahim speaks with representatives from Mothers for Peace, a community group she helped found in 2017. What began as a way to help combat the stigmatization of families that had lost children to gang violence has evolved into an initiative benefitting not only mothers, but the community as a whole. At today’s meeting, some of the group members are discussing last night’s community meeting on gang prevention with the Toronto Police Integrated Gang Prevention Task Force.

10:00 a.m. Colleagues at the TCCLD plan for the coming year and brainstorm how they can create more partnerships, beyond Regent Park, to share their successes and models of operation with other neighbourhoods in transition.

11:00 a.m. The Regent Park Catering Collective is hosting Morris Komakech from Toronto Public Health. When Ibrahim started this social enterprise, she had to overcome many barriers. The most significant was that, in order to sell their food, the women in the collective needed food handler certification. Komakech and his colleagues helped achieve this and they have maintained a close relationship with the Collective.

11:30 a.m. The Catering Collective returns borrowed trays to Paintbox Bistro, a local B corporation that engages in social justice issues as well as providing an events space and food-and-entertainment hub, where people can gather in the neighbourhood. Bistro founder Chris Klugman is a longtime friend and supporter of the Collective. He opened his commercial kitchen to the Collective as they worked towards certification and hosted culinary training sessions on topics like knife skills and healthy eating. “Chris is a businessman with a community mindset,” Ibrahim says. “He is an example for others for how you can make money while helping to solve social issues.”

12:15 p.m. Back at the TCCLD, local fashion designer Naomie Kija drops by to print materials for tonight’s Sew Fun Fashion Show, where designs from the sewing class she teaches are being shown. Both the class and tonight’s event have been funded by a community grant that Ibrahim encouraged Kija to apply for. “Sureya told me ‘whatever you need, go for it and I will support you,’” Kija says. “That really helped. Sureya’s like a mentor to me.”

1:00 p.m. The synergy of Ibrahim’s social enterprises is evident as the Regent Park Sewing Studio machines go at full whirr to create chef’s hats and aprons for the Catering Collective. The Sewing Studio was the second social enterprise Ibrahim helped found, allowing local people to leverage their skills to create items to sell in the community, such as tote bags, laptop cases and purses.

Many participants have also found paying work beyond the community, such as sewing pillows for the yoga and wellness products company B Yoga, and working as instructors at United Way-supported agency The 519 and George Brown Fashion Exchange.

Ibrahim says the most meaningful thing participants take from these jobs is self-confidence. “They feel valued,” she says. “They help to support their kids without having to ask anyone. It’s empowering.”

1:30 p.m. Ibrahim meets with volunteer yoga instructor Lisa Rochon in the Regent Park Community Centre dance studio. Ibrahim got to know Rochon when the instructor volunteered to offer free classes to Regent Park community members. What started as a yoga practice grew into a series of sessions focused on the wellbeing of participants, and included a healing retreat at Rochon’s cottage for women dealing with a lot of stress at home.

2:00 p.m. Ibrahim returns to the TCCLD office to find a group of industrial design students from OCAD University waiting for her. The students are part of a joint project between the Sewing Studio and OCAD, which will see them design an item for the Studio to sew and sell in the community.

2:30 p.m. Toronto Police Service Community Officer Farzad Ghotbi drops in on the TCCLD to get Ibrahim’s feedback on how she and her community felt about last night’s community meeting on gang prevention. Ghotbi says he’s glad to have engaged residents like her sharing their thoughts on his team’s work. “Sureya is a fantastic individual,” he says. “She’s a leader in this community and a great example for all the residents.”

3:30 p.m. Donning a bright pink construction helmet and oversize safety boots, Ibrahim arrives at the Daniels Corporation construction site on the north-east corner of Sumach and Dundas to meet with Fatima Saya, manager of community partnerships. The two have had a working relationship since Saya’s first day on the job.

“When I started, it was made very clear to me that I needed to meet Sureya as soon as possible,” Saya says. “That’s how important she is in the community.”

This building is the future home of the Centre of Opportunities for Regent Park Enterprises (CORE), and will be the first permanent home for both the Sewing Studio and the Catering Collective, when it opens in 2021. This is Ibrahim’s first visit to the new space, and as she takes in the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows, she says she’s happy there’s a clear view back to the TCCLD, where these enterprises were born and grew.

4:30 p.m. Ibrahim’s official working day at the TCCLD is over, but her other community commitments often keep her busy well into the evening. Later tonight, she’ll be modelling at the Sew Fun Fashion Show in African-inspired garb. A bit of glamour in the hectic day of a changemaker working to bring community together.

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