Board talk: A virtual interview

Over the years, Access Alliance has benefited from the passion, expertise, time and hard work contributed by the many members who have served terms on its Board of Directors. We asked the present Chair of the Board of Directors, Arman Harmidian, and seven past Chairs, Jason Marin, Brendan Wong, Farah Mawani, Maria Antonieta Smith, Rajesh Girdhari, Anita Morris, and Nelson Cabral, to talk to us about their experiences on the Access Alliance Board over the years.

What did being on the Board of Access Alliance mean to you?

Arman Harmidian, Present Chair: I’m currently sitting as Chair of the board of Access Alliance, and it’s been a humbling experience. I knew of Access Alliance prior to joining the board five years ago but being closer to the organization has given me such a different insight. This isn’t just in terms of the services and programs that are offered, but how people feel: connected, supported, included. Being part of a remarkable organization that has made a true impact in many people’s lives is something to feel great about, but also to feel motivated to do more and to be even better.

Farah Mawani, Chair, 2006-2007: Being on the Board of Access Alliance meant the world to me. It offered me the opportunity to improve the health and well-being of newcomers by contributing my professional and lived experience of social determinants of immigrant health. In addition, I was able to do so working with and learning from incredible Board and staff colleagues. I will never forget the kindness and support of Board members and staff when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while I was Chair.

Jason Marin, Chair, 2015-2016: I had the honour and privilege of serving on the Board of Directors for six years. The most meaningful experiences I had were any opportunities to share time with the staff and clients. It can be easy, at the board table, to get very focused on policies, budgets and strategic planning. Of course, all those conversations take place because we want to make sure the agency is delivering excellent and compassionate services for clients, and that staff are happy in their jobs. So I relished any opportunity to meet and see Access Alliance staff delivering programming, or to converse with clients at events. Ultimately, my service as a Board member meant that I helped play a role to ensure that Access Alliance delivered meaningful and high quality services to those who needed it, in a working environment where staff felt challenged, appreciated, and supported.

Rajesh  Girdhari, Chair, 2014-2015: It was a great opportunity to help serve immigrant communities in Toronto. I was very proud of the high-quality services that we were able to offer. In particular, I knew that there were many people we were reaching who hadn’t ever had access to good primary health care services. I knew our services enabled many to improve their lives and succeed here in Canada and this, as the son of an immigrant, was very meaningful to me.

Brendan Wong, Chair, 2012-2014: It meant many things. I meant being able to use my legal skills to assist the broader community in a meaningful way. It meant sitting with, meeting, and becoming friends with incredible individuals with similar progressive values – some remain good friends today and we attend each others’ birthdays, etc. But by far what it meant the most to me was a learning opportunity – I learned so much about communities within Toronto that I’d never otherwise hear about, and I became aware of settlement, health care and social issues that I’d never otherwise hear about – I recall the staff were always passionate, engaged and informative. Being on the Board gave me incredible experience working as a Director and Chair – it was my first real board experience, and between Axelle [Executive Director] and Anabela [Office and Facilities Manager at AA] I learned a ton of skills that I still use today. In truth, I think Access Alliance contributed far more to my personal and professional growth than I contributed to it.

Anita Morris, Chair, 2010-2011: When my family immigrated to Toronto twenty-one years ago, we were fortunate to be coming to a job in Toronto. Even so, we faced challenges to adjusting to life in a new city and to finding a community. Through Access Alliance I was able to contribute to the well-being of the immigrant and refugee community in the GTA through orienting newcomers to health care, providing employment support, and helping them find community in their new homes. In particular, the research AA did on poverty helped us identify communities of need and expand our geographical service area accordingly.

How do you think Access Alliance is contributing to the health and well-being of newcomers? 

Jason Marin, Chair, 2015-2016: There are three things about Access Alliance that have always stood out and that together make a difference to the health and well-being of newcomers: grounding its work in the social determinants of health; promoting community-based research, and weaving “intersectionality” in all of its work. The social determinants of health allow the organization to think critically about how a newcomer’s health status is connected to other areas of their lives – where they live, how much they make, what they eat, etc, so its programming reflects those connections, and clients are better served. Community-based research (CBR) is important because without the evidence that any kind of rigorous research generates, it’s hard to convince government officials to make new laws (or change them). CBR is also the kind of research that honours the complexity and nuances of serving a population like newcomers. In this sense it connects the people doing the research (professors) with the people affected by the data (newcomers) and involves those service providers (like Access Alliance) who interact with the research subjects on a daily basis. Finally, there is “intersectionality” – the understanding that people’s overlapping identities (gender, race, sexual orientation) intersect in ways that service providers need to be sensitive to in order to meet their full needs. And newcomers, like any person, come from all walks of life. For example, if you have two newcomers – the first a black, queer woman, and the second a white, straight man – both will need to access different kinds of services and programming, and because Access Alliance recognizes that, the diversity of newcomers is something that Access Alliance sees as an asset and strength.

Rajesh  Girdhari, Chair, 2014-2015: Access Alliance’s main objective is to provide health and social services to newcomers. One of the most important enablers of this objective is cultural and language sensitive care. Through services like interpretation and innovative programs like community kitchens that are designed to bring people into “soft” contact with the health care sector, Access Alliance breaks down traditional barriers to health and well-being for newcomers.

Brendan Wong, Chair, 2012-2014: Access Alliance provides a complete and culturally sensitive approach to health that goes so far beyond just a visit to a doctor. When I first joined, I was impressed by the range of services provided – it’s like Access Alliance started with primary health care, but then started asking itself, “What other challenges are facing those newcomers who walk through our door every day?” and then started addressing ALL of those things too. Whenever I talk about Access Alliance I talk about how it doesn’t just provide the services of medical doctors, but counseling, settlement, nutrition/dietary, after-school, interpretation, tax clinic and so many other services. I know that thousands of new Canadians have benefited in one way or another from Access Alliance not only from reading reports, but also from meeting community members at events and the annual general meeting.

Anita Morris, Chair, 2010-2011: Access Alliance has an amazing reputation in the newcomer community for dealing sensitively and effectively with settlement issues including access to health care, employment, and community connections through workshops, translation services, and community events. Some refugee sponsor groups commit to locating their sponsored families near Access Alliance so they can easily access their services and develop strong networks they can rely on after the sponsorship period has expired.

Farah Mawani, Chair, 2006-2007: Access Alliance contributes greatly to the health and well-being of newcomers from the frontline clinical level to the family, community, and societal levels. It does so by leading research, advocating for policy change, and innovating based on learning from research and frontline experience. I especially admire Access Alliance’s responsiveness to changing contexts and needs and prioritization of sub-groups of immigrants and refugees experiencing the most social and health inequities.

Arman Harmidian, Present Chair: Our programs and services don’t necessarily focus solely on healthcare, but your overall health, which is different. Our social programming really contributes to a sense of community, but also to facilitate ways for newcomers to transition more seamlessly to this city. We also believe in patient-centred care, a critical approach in improving health outcomes for clients.

What was one accomplishment of the Board during your tenure?

Farah Mawani, Chair, 2006-2007: It is difficult to cite only one accomplishment during my two years as Board Chair and two years as a Board member prior to that, so I will highlight two that mean a great deal to me personally and professionally.

I am extremely proud of Access Alliance’s growth into a leader in community-based research. I was recruited to the board to support Access Alliance in developing research capacity so I was there in the early days and know how far Access Alliance has come in realizing its community-based research leadership vision.

Another accomplishment that warms my heart was the Board steering the development of and receiving funding for two satellite centres to address the gaps in services for immigrants and refugees in the east and west ends of Toronto. These are now AccessPoint on Danforth and AccessPoint on Jane. AccessPoint on Danforth serves the City of Toronto Neighbourhood Improvement Area in which I grew up after migrating to Toronto from Kenya at the age of four. I cherish the feeling of officially receiving the funding from the Minister of Health. It is only surpassed by feeling of experiencing the vibrancy of the AccessPoints and their remarkable responsiveness to community needs on so many levels.

Jason Marin, Chair, 2015-2016: There are so many to choose from! One that stands out in my mind is the Board’s support for developing our social enterprise, which provides over the phone interpretation to service providers in the health sector, and in so doing, provides a revenue stream to the organization to help cover the organization’s expenses. Another was the opening of the Access Point on Danforth. “APOD”, as it’s called, serves as a community hub in Toronto’s east end, offering clients access to a range of services delivered through Access Alliance and other partners. The hub also had a rooftop garden that clients could use to grow fruits and vegetables – and later learn how to cook them!

Rajesh  Girdhari, Chair, 2014-2015: I believe the Nahome Berhane Scholarship came into existence during my board tenure and I always thought that was a great accomplishment.

Nelson Cabral, Chair 2008-2010: During my tenure on the Board is when Access Alliance implemented what I call the hub and satellite approach to improve access to services.  Access Alliance was awarded funding to develop what has become Accesspoint on Danforth as part of the CHC satellite funding from the Ministry of Health at the time. It was a line of concerted efforts to bring services and programs to the underserved communities and priority neighbourhoods in the city and collaborate with other community organizations to truly build these community hubs. I remember being at the launch of Accesspoint on Danforth and seeing the culmination of all the actions prior to the launch that brought this community hub vision into reality. So I feel blessed to have been on the Board and to be part of the process of bringing Access Alliance and their great services and programming out to the communities and truly manifesting its vision of being a city-wide organization serving newcomers.

Brendan Wong, Chair, 2012-2014: Completion of a strategic plan. It was a lot of work with a consultant, and I believe we had extra board meetings or time extension, but at the end of the day it was a comprehensive document showing our objectives that also had tangible ways to measure progress.

Anita Morris, Chair, 2010-2011: During my tenure, we learned that the federal government was planning to implement a three-month delay for refugees to access health services after landing. Many refugees need immediate health services on landing due to untreated illness or pregnancy. The proposed government change would have further burdened refugees who had already lost everything and also had to pay the cost of their tickets to Canada. Access Alliance’s leadership and advocacy with other refugee settlement organizations pressured the government to set aside this plan.

Maria Antonieta Smith, Past Chair: I truly believe that the greatest accomplishment under my tenure was the hiring of Axelle Janczur as Executive Director. Time has proved that Axelle had the skills and vision to help this community health agency, which began serving four linguistic communities, evolve to become a huge resource for the larger multicultural communities it serves today.

What did you learn while being on the Board at Access Alliance?

Rajesh  Girdhari, Chair, 2014-2015: I learned a lot about team work, governance roles and responsibilities, and leadership. I also learned to value board diversity as an important asset for organizations.

Anita Morris, Chair, 2010-2011: Wow! So much! I learned how generous other board members were with their time and expertise. I gained knowledge and skills which I have since used on other boards, including the value of developing a robust strategic plan with input from stakeholders; involving staff in establishing goalposts and measuring successes and challenges; identifying and serving underserved populations (such as LGBTQ in newcomer communities); the importance of checking proposed activities and programs against the agency’s mission and strategic plan, how to run meetings effectively and efficiently and how to focus on the big picture stuff.

Arman Harmidian, Present Chair: I’ve learned many things while being on the board at Access Alliance, and it’s difficult to pick out just one. I believe I’ve learned so much about our healthcare system, governance, and innovation from the leadership team and my colleagues. I’ve also learned so much about culturally sensitive care and to always have a lens for this type of approach.

Farah Mawani, Chair, 2006-2007: I learned a great deal personally and professionally about leadership, and especially about leadership by people with lived experience of exclusion and health inequities.

Jason Marin, Chair, 2015-2016: I learned a lot! I learned about how health care is delivered in Ontario; the challenges that newcomers go through when building a life in Toronto; and how important it is to “think in systems” – health care, housing, employment, mental health – it’s all connected, and Access Alliance’s staff and strategy was always about thinking in systems! But what I learned that I was always inspired by was what excellent leadership looked like, as demonstrated by Axelle Janczur, the Executive Director during my time on the Board. Axelle had a rare combination of skills and talents – she is intelligent, exudes compassion, is firm in her convictions but also willing to change her mind; and above all, she believes in community and working with and through others to accomplish her goals. Axelle was a living embodiment of that proverb that says, “You go fast alone, but far together”.

Maria Antonieta Smith, Past Chair: The work of Access Alliance reaffirmed for me that our work to promote health, rather than starting from a medical model, should be framed around the social determinants of health.

Any story or anecdote you want to share?  A highlight?

Brendan Wong, Chair, 2012-2014: In my second year, Rajesh Girdhari, a medical doctor and MBA student came to one of our meetings to do a presentation as part of his program (I think). We were very impressed, and he made a passing comment that he’d love to join the board if there was a spot. We told him we’d love to have him. Anabela [Office and Facilities Manager at AA] emailed him the next week and he came on the following year, eventually becoming Chair. Raj and I have become good friends and share a love of karaoke and Korean food!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Nahom Berhane. He was one of the staff members who really took an effort to get to know the board and remember their names. I’d see him at events, or sometimes before meetings, and we’d always have a good chat.  He was always happy to see you and had a spring in his step. He was always in such a good mood it was infectious.

Jason Marin, Chair, 2015-2016: One of my favourite memories was attending a newcomer men’s cooking class. If you’ve never moved to a new country where you don’t speak the language or are familiar with how things work, it’s hard to imagine how we take for granted a rather mundane act like preparing a meal. For most of us, we find a recipe, go to the grocery store, buy our food, come home, and cook. Easy enough! But for a newcomer to Canada, each of those steps involves tasks that can be overwhelming either because it’s the first time they’re doing it, or they’ve never done it in a country like Canada. Social isolation is also a concern among newcomer populations, so the class not only taught men how to navigate the kitchen and the grocery store, but also fostered new connections and friendships between the participants. Looking around that particular class, about half a dozen newcomers were smiling, laughing, and getting ready to eat the meal that they had planned, shopped for and cooked together.

Rajesh  Girdhari, Chair, 2014-2015: I particularly enjoyed our Board social to Casa Loma’s Escape Room followed by impromptu karaoke. Lots of hidden Board member skills were revealed!

Looking into the future, what do you think is an opportunity for Access Alliance?

Arman Harmidian, Present Chair: Access Alliance is such a respected organization within the GTA, and I believe our reputation and our profile has other organizations eager to partner with us. I believe that partnering and collaborating with other organizations to enable the whole spectrum of care is delivered is a critical opportunity for Access Alliance to seize. We have many strengths, and areas we are looking forward to augmenting. Being able to share expertise and to learn is an effective way to ensure that newcomers get the best care available.

Maria Antonieta Smith, Past Chair: Because of its history of excellence in the field, and its reputation within the sector, Access Alliance’s voice is listened to when speaking up against cutbacks in health and social services, and can explain the serious risks to health and quality of life of the current policies in a way the public can understand.

Farah Mawani, Chair, 2006-2007: I am hoping to continue my connection with Access Alliance via a MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions Network focused on scaling Building Roads Together, a community-based peer walking group program I designed to promote inclusion and reduce health inequities.

Rajesh  Girdhari, Chair, 2014-2015: Our mainstream healthcare system in Ontario continues to neglect the specific needs of newcomers and other marginalized populations. Through initiatives like telephone interpretation services, Access Alliance has broken down barriers for newcomers in the mainstream healthcare system. Continuing to focus on educating and providing resources to others to help treat Access Alliance’s target populations are key opportunities for Access Alliance to continue to remain relevant and increase impact.

Anita Morris, Chair, 2010-2011: Mental health services are difficult to access for newcomers. In particular, there are currently significant gaps in services for young adults. Access Alliance could connect families with the Family Navigation Project at Sunnybrook whose ’navigators’ assess family needs and connect young adults and their families to services. Many immigrant and refugee communities struggle to adjust to Canadian values of support for individual autonomy, female rights, and LGBTQ rights. Access Alliance could educate parents/parent groups about such differences.