Michelle Joseph is RJHO’s consultant for the Women’s Program. She is also the full-time CEO of Unison Health. Despite her busy schedule she found time for an interview in late August, 2022.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and go to school? What were significant influences?
I grew up in Toronto in a very traditional household…white, middle class, didn’t have a lot of influences of social justice…
I went to an alternative high school. When I went there, things started to change. I got introduced to a lot of new influences that got the ball rolling.
After high school I went to McGill then I did international development work in Central and South America. During this time I developed an interest in women’s/feminist issues and I decided that I wanted to go to New York City and do a degree in Feminine Studies and Gender Theory in a political science department that wasn’t offered at that time in Canada. Worked and studied with a variety of people who weren’t just professors but community activists. They weren’t just theorists, but they also did a lot of practice.
When I returned (to Canada) I started to work in women’s services, predominantly shelters, women and children fleeing intimate partner violence and I did that for a number of years then went into reproductive health and that got me into health, more that social services and I started at Parkdale Queen West, then I moved to Unison.
You said you went to university in New York. What university?
New School for Social Research, which is part of NYU (New York University) and CUNY (City University of New York).
It was gritty. My program was not based on the ivory tower. We were fortunate that we were a consortium, so we could take classes at Columbia, NYU, and CUNY. It was designed for people interested in the intersection of theory and practice, as opposed to a theoretical, academic career. I worked in the Bronx while I was there, at an agency serving people leaving incarceration who had HIV-AIDS.
So in fact, coming to work at RJHO is not that far from some of your academic training experiences.
RJHO is different because it is volunteer-based organization. I’m learning and meeting a lot of different people with different backgrounds and experiences. But the issues are familiar, in terms of what the women and men are facing, coming out. In terms of the trans-gender people I think these are longstanding issues.
Restorative Justice Housing struck me as cutting edge. It’s working from principles, best practices and evidence-based work but it’s practical. It’s doing something. I like the marriage of the two: trying to do something. I was really drawn to that.
Tell us a bit about Unison health, where you currently work. It also allows you significant freedom.
Unison Health is one of many community health centres across Ontario. It has six sites. We provide primary care, metal health, housing, legal services, chronic disease management, health promotion, primarily to marginalized populations.
The “health” part in the name arises because we work with social determinants of health. Health is made of many different factors. Seeing a primary care provider may accounts for 5-8% of the factors that define total health. Having decent food, housing, employment, mental health services…. all these social determinants of health are actually what keeps people healthy.
We work from that perspective in northwest Toronto. The vast majority are living below the poverty line… many racialized communities, black communities, a large number of immigrant families, high levels of refugees, many different languages, chronic disease. We work with people who have multiple barriers. We work with a lot of non-insured, so we’re probably the biggest provider of healthcare to non-insured clients.
Tell us a bit about how you go about juggling your time between this full time job and the work with RJHO.
Right now, we have a very clear objective: trying to find a house (for women). Every morning I get up and spend about an hour and a half looking at (real estate and rental) postings seeing if anything new is coming up then I spend a certain amount of time following up in the day. You send out feelers then waiting to be contacted. Of course you want to move quickly, so that if someone gets back to you, you want to move quickly, so I have the ability to do that.
The other areas that I’m working on, in terms of program development are … are straight forward because I have a lot of connections. I think about the program while I’m going about my work. If I’m talking to Fred Victor,(www.fredvictor.org), and I’m thinking about the client that uses those services, I think “how can I use this information”. It’s not that separate. I can do that work at the same time. It’s integrated, because I have that time during the day between meetings to think about these things.
Every time I interview someone they provide me with materials, like the St. Leonard’s Society (www.stleonards.ca). I read those articles, understand what are the best practices. So I do learn a lot from that. I wouldn’t always have access to those materials or know which are the best. So when I talk to experts it’s invigorating.
The work I’m doing for RJHO right now requires checking in and taking the time when you need it. That might change over time ….
What attributes and insights do you bring to the position?
The first is a good balance of knowledge and skills. We have a lot of volunteers with skills and expertise. They may no longer be working in the current social services field and things may have changed a little bit. I bring knowledge about social services and health care services in Toronto and across Ontario. I have a lot of good connections.
I’ve been doing this work for about 25 years. In a community health setting, there’s many different kinds of services… and different funders. If you have different funders you’re connected to different kinds of services. But you also see what is possible by way of fund-raising.
This morning at the housing committee (of RJHO) there was a discussion of mental health and the question was: did I think we could find some mental health support. I can say “Here’s the ten agencies I would approach”.
I think I also bring a different understanding to how complicated our goal is. There’s the stigma of a criminal record, but on a day to day basis, life is messy. It’s especially messy for people who may have mental health or addiction issues. While we’re trying to build community we also have to deal with the issues that these bring. There are always hiccups and bumps on the road, some of which are specific to the individuals and some of which land on top of the people from outside (like Covid)
What are your early impressions of the work and the people, both the people in the residences and the people who work with Restorative Justice Housing?
I’m very impressed with Joseph (Lauren: the Program Director). He’s not a social worker. He doesn’t come from that background. He’s had lived experience that has helped him, and a great ability to manage the houses,
The residents have their own life experiences. As individuals some come with their own challenges… trauma, substance abuse, psychological issues. But they participate in a healthy way in a lot of activities.
They care about the houses… You can see that. The gardens and the cleanliness. The other thing I’ve seen, that really blew my socks off, was, when the individual who had a mental health crisis a few weeks ago, one of the other residents called 911. That was remarkable. No one who has been in contact with the justice system wants to call 911 because they don’t want police involvement. They did it because they cared about their fellow resident. That speaks to the morals of the individual and also what we’re trying to achieve. That’s amazing.
The volunteers come with different skills and knowledge and expertise. I find it easy working with them. People are pretty interested in achieving the goals.
The one thing I’d say that is a challenge, is how do we beef up the service? Covid set back volunteer engagement. That’s one area we could address.
Are there other things that would be significant for residents, other volunteers to know about… what are your hobbies? Are you a vegetarian? Do you have pets? Are you a gardener?
Gosh! I wish I was a gardener. I’m an aspiring gardener.
I like to work out. I like to learn about new exercises… something I’ve learned from the residents, already. One house is planning a gym in their basement, so I had a discussion about what kind of exercises they would do. I’m learning about different ways people stay fit.
I really enjoy chatting with volunteers and resident and learning about what they’re interested in. Joseph and the residents have taught me a lot about being incarcerated, and translating that into re-integration.
How do you approach working with volunteers?
What’s helpful is finding out what they are looking for, what’s their interest. I’m meeting with people from Spring Garden next week. Understanding what they are looking for, what they’d like to do, how can they be involved, what makes sense, and are there things that they could be doing even in the interim as we are setting up the (women’s) house is interesting and valuable.
It’s important to keep the momentum, especially for people who have had the training. How do we keep them engaged? So that’s a piece of my work: figuring out what’s important to them and reaching out to them and how I can support their involvement.