The Accelerator Hub is WE’s 25th-anniversary legacy gift to the community we call home. In a new state-of the art facility, WE will leverage its status as a social enterprise innovator and thought leader to support inclusive growth and development in east downtown Toronto neighborhoods like Moss Park and Regent Park. Local non-profits and aspiring young social entrepreneurs will have free access to training programs, mentorship, technology and work space—exponentially scaling their power to be positive agents of change in their community.
A social innovation revolution is coming to east downtown Toronto.
For our 25th anniversary in 2020, WE is continuing its commitment to the community it calls home. The planned WE Accelerator Hub will unleash the power of social enterprise across North America and globally, and especially champion inclusive growth in east downtown Toronto.
Located beside the WE Global Learning Center on Queen Street East, and funded through the generous support of donors, the WE Accelerator Hub will be a three-story facility dedicated to providing non-profits and youth with social enterprise training and resources.
“By creating this hub, we want to make east downtown Toronto an anchor for social enterprise, creating empowering opportunities in this community, and transforming the way Canadian society addresses today’s most pressing issues through social innovation.”–WE Co-founder Craig Kielburger.
WE strives not only to be a good neighbor, but also a contributing one. In 2017, WE Charity opened its WE Global Learning Center on the corner of Queen and Parliament streets, south of Regent Park and in between the Moss Park and Corktown neighborhoods. With this, WE introduced a community space that makes doing good doable for youth and adults in Canada and internationally, through technology, leadership programs and social issues workshops. WE has actively sought out ways to use these facilities for the good of our host community.
Youth Gravity, an organization run by and for the youth of Moss Park and Regent Park, now holds monthly poetry slam events in the theater space. WE has also co-hosted events with Building Roots, a Moss Park non-profit promoting local food security. And hundreds of WE staff are volunteering in the area and shopping at neighborhood businesses, proud to be creating economic impact.
Looking forward to WE’s 25th anniversary in 2020, the organization considered how to take its community contribution to the next level.
The areas of east downtown Toronto, where WE has been based since 2004, have the highest incidence of homelessness in Toronto. There is also a high concentration of other under-served communities, including urban Indigenous peoples and new Canadians. To support these populations, there is a high concentration of non-profit organizations.
Many of these organizations reach out to WE—a recognized leader and innovator in social enterprise—on a weekly basis, looking for advice and support to build their own social enterprises. They’ve seen the power of social enterprise to create sustainable change at a community level as well as inclusive employment opportunities.
There are successful examples of social enterprises doing the same thing around the world, like The Clink restaurant in the UK, which is staffed by prison inmates, providing them training and job experience to help reduce recidivism rates. Or WE’s own ME to WE Artisan’s program, which creates economic opportunity for women in the rural Maasai communities of Kenya and the Amazon region of Ecuador.
All around, WE saw opportunity and an answer to their quest for a 25th-anniversary project. Using its expertise in social enterprise, WE decided to empower the charities and community groups working in the neighborhoods surrounding the WE Global Learning Center to become financially self-sufficient and scale their work to create even greater positive change. The idea for the WE Accelerator Hub was born.
WE looked to the work of organizations like MaRS, with their technology-focused accelerator, and drew inspiration from incubation hubs like Chicago’s 1871, which have created systems to incubate, deeply invest in and exponentially scale business and charities. From those models, WE envisioned a place that would complement these organizations, with the WE Accelerator Hub’s added value of building a hub exclusively focused on social enterprise. The WE Accelerator Hub will serve charities seeking to deepen their impact and sustainability through social enterprise. WE further adds a unique focus of making its space and program inclusive of often-marginalized populations, especially young people.
They’ll have access to resources like work space, a “maker’s studio” kitted out with high-tech gear like 3D printers and computer design suites, and communications technology like Skype pods and podcast-recording studios. Secondment programs with partners will enable cost-free support like probono legal consulting, financial advice and design and product development guidance.
Through the WE Accelerator Hub, these new social enterprises can connect, network and support one another to ensure long-term growth.
All those same resources will especially serve to unlock the entrepreneurial talents of youth 18–35. The WE Accelerator Hub will be a place where young people from across North America are empowered to start their own social enterprises, creating jobs, economic growth and transformative change on the issues that affect their communities. Program graduates will continue to receive long-term mentorship from a roster of skills-based experts across sectors and disciplines, to ensure their business’s sustainability and success.
The initiative is designed to remove barriers. To ensure that growth and change are accessible and inclusive, 75 percent of spaces will be prioritized for youth from vulnerable populations, like new Canadians and Indigenous peoples. Donor support will enable us to offer many Accelerator programs cost free for youth cohorts and the local community.
Up Close with Erin Blanding
Erin Blanding is the Head of Global Program Innovation & Development and an expert in social justice and social innovation curriculum and leadership. She will be developing inclusive programming for youth and non-profit organizations for the WE Accelerator Hub in east downtown Toronto. As a teenager, Erin volunteered with We Charity, visiting WE Villages in Kenya and connecting with other youth who were passionate about change. She believes that to have true inclusive innovation, we need to ensure our programming includes all youth everywhere.
How did you first get involved with WE?
I started as a youth in middle school — Craig Kielburger had launched Free The Children (now WE Charity) a couple of years before. I was a kid in rural PEI Canada and was really excited about everything connected to youth, getting involved in social change and making things happen for other young people. My journey has been very long and incredibly varied.
So far, what has been your proudest moment or achievement?
I am most proud of the work done at WE’s Windsong Peace and Leadership Centre in Arizona, where so many youth have come to learn about issues like border and environmental sustainability, and gain the skills to live regeneratively in the world and do it in accessible ways. I returned to Toronto headquarters in September, 2017, after 10 years at Windsong. It was sort of an innovation hub where we combined social justice programming and place-based education, which have now become key pieces of all our leadership programs. It was a space where young people felt safe diving into different issues and learning about what was happening in the community around them—it also taught them how to mobilize in their own community when they went back home.
What is your role with the Accelerator Hub?
I lead the team that builds the social innovation and social entrepreneurship programming—right now, it’s focused on youth. The idea is to prototype ways of getting youth involved in social entrepreneurship and innovation programs, and to ensure that all those programs are fully accessible to everyone—the full gamut of inclusive and accessible programming.
What would you say the difference is between social entrepreneurship and social innovation?
Social innovation is the next stage of social entrepreneurship, and it allows us to think beyond the concept of commerce and business and think more around ideas and concepts that are going to shift structures and systems in our world. I want young people who not only come in to us with ideas that have a business aspect, but also ideas around sustainability and regeneration. They come to us with an idea that we want to incubate and accelerate.
What does ‘inclusive innovation’ mean to you?
Well, for me, it mostly comes from my understanding and work in inclusive education. There is a great quote in the disability justice community by Dan Wilkins, “a community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all.” Inclusivity means seeing who’s missing from the ideation table, asking why are they missing, and figuring out how to get them there. The other part of inclusive innovation is justice focused. The key features of social justice are that it’s inclusive of the communities it’s supporting; the community needs to be involved throughout, making their own decisions on what’s best for them, and creating results that benefit their community.
Why will the WE Accelerator Hub be a game changer for east downtown Toronto?
I think, metaphorically it’s around opening doors. It’s our responsibility to do that for our immediate east downtown Toronto community and Toronto as a whole. For us, whether it’s young people or families, they need to see this as an accelerator hub for them, for their schools, for their families, for their businesses. This is their “community center for social change”. The WE Accelerator Hub should be a space where this immediate community can come and make their own, get engaged in WE and be ambassadors for how we can continue to serve them in this community. It’s also a Hub FOR Toronto —this city is known globally as a diverse, dynamic, innovative place and our space should be the ideation location and cultivation space for possibility in this city — and eventually as a model for the rest of the world. The concept of a hub is everyone coming together, sharing ideas, networking and bringing folks to the table who wouldn’t normally be included.
Is there anything else you think people should know about the Hub?
WE has always provided support to marginalized communities or folks who wouldn’t normally be given power and influence. It’s given a voice to women in our WE Villages community who have traditionally been marginalized, kids who cared but didn’t have resources, and teachers who were elevated into celebrities through their work to promote educational change. WE said, not only do you matter, but your ideas are awesome and you’re already doing amazing work — look what’s possible now! The WE Accelerator Hub will allow us to support them better and faster.
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