Susan McGrath: someone to watch in 2006

On Jan. 1, the Toronto Star profiled 10 people to watch in 2006, including York social work Professor Susan McGrath. The Star highlighted her work to connect with the troubled Jane-Finch neighbourhood nearby after discovering through focus groups that young people view York as remote and separate.

McGrath isn’t heading a task force, nor does she have an official title attesting to her leadership in what’s called the Black Creek West Community Capacity Building Project, said the Star. A more accurate name might be Working to Make Things Better. (Note also the name Black Creek instead of Jane-Finch, which has become – wrongly, residents say – code for violence and social dysfunction.) The project brings together Jane-Finch businesses, social agencies, York University, the city of Toronto and others. And McGrath is the catalyst. “She doesn’t have to be the number one guy,” said Karen Swift, also a professor in York’s School of Social Work. “She’s the stalwart, the one who goes to meetings and becomes, I don’t know if that’s the right word, a kind of leader, the responsible person, the person you turn to.”

McGrath took her students out of the lecture halls and into the neighbourhood to listen to what residents say. In the beginning, some of them resisted going to Jane-Finch because they were scared of its reputation, but eventually they all went. “This is what Jane-Finch labelling has done,” McGrath said. Some students ended up doing research – one paper was on the role of mentors – which was helpful to understand what works in the community. Then, in turn, single moms and young community leaders went to the University to lecture the social-work students. McGrath got them honorariums for their work, which will continue next semester.

McGrath is working with others to get a York storefront in one of the area’s strip malls, so young people can walk in to find out more about University programs, or use it as a research centre or student placement centre. She wants Jane-Finch businesses to develop a plan to employ locally. How can the colleges and York train young people for jobs in their neighbourhood? “It’s about creating connections and working with people; there’s a shared commitment and synergy,” said McGrath, 59, married and the mother of two grown daughters. “If you left me alone in a room, I’d wither away. People need their ideas reflected back and valued. I have an idea that’s not well developed and it goes back and forth with others and in the end we have something much richer.”

Are politicians ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ on TV?

In a Toronto Star article Jan. 1 applying Marshall McLuhan’s “hot” versus “cool” media criteria to federal party leaders’ performance during the December TV debate, columnist Philip Marchand cited Marshall McLuhan Cosmic Media (Sage Publications) by Janine Marchessault, film professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Referring to McLuhan’s “hot” and “cool”, Marchessault writes, “As concepts they remain among his least developed and confusing.” Changes in television technology since the 1950s and ’60s make such concepts even more slippery. “What is surprising, however, is the extent to which his description of early television continues to provide useful descriptive categories,” Marchessault observes.

Fewer killings – but more by guns – than in 1991

Crime experts today take no comfort in the fact that there have been 10 fewer killings in Toronto this year than in 1991, and say today’s gun violence places bystanders at far greater risk, reported the Toronto Star Dec. 31. York sociologist Desmond Ellis cautions against taking one year’s crime statistics out of context. Toronto’s murder rate is still less than half of that of Regina, where the killing rate per 100,000 people was 4.98 per cent. Toronto’s is also less than the murder rate for Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver or Calgary. Canada’s murder rate is similar to that of Finland, and pales compared to those of South Africa, Russia and the United States. “Canada’s violent crime rate is still among the lowest,” said Ellis, a professor emeritus who will be teaching a course on Toronto youth gangs at York next spring. “We are fairly good in Canada. That’s stable.”

However, statistics show that guns have become relatively easy for youths to get on Toronto streets. There were an average of 10 people per year shot dead in Toronto with guns in the four-year period from 1987 to 1990 – less than a fifth of the 2005 total. Ellis would like to know what has happened since 1991 to make a life of guns and gangs more attractive to Toronto youth. “Focus the attention on those who make the rules,” says Ellis. “What is it that they have been doing to make the streets and its allure more attractive to young kids?”

Levee a chance to support mayor and city councillors

Toronto Mayor David Miller’s New Year’s levee Sunday came as the city was still reeling from the Yonge Street shootings a week ago in which a 15-year-old girl was killed and six others injured, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 2. But Susan Gapka, a political science graduate student at York, said the levee must be held because “this is a day of celebration and appreciation for what our city councillors do for us. Many people are concerned (about the violence), but there has got to be a time of peace and love and celebration – even if it is just for a few hours at city hall.”

Historian despairs of party leaders

”Martin is a vapid cheerleader. Harper looks like a guy selling you coffins. Layton is, I think, about one millimetre deep, and Duceppe is Quebec’s own. I don’t know what one does when you look at them, except despair,” said Jack Granatstein, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at York and author, in evaluating Canada’s federal leaders for Regina’s Leader-Post Dec. 29.

2006 will be ‘positive’, predicts business prof

If 2005 was the triumph of the optimists, 2006 could be a call back to reality as observers predict last year’s solid overall business performance will be tough to match, reported the Toronto Star Jan. 1. “It won’t be a bumper year,” said Theo Peridis, policy professor at York’s Schulich School of Business. “There are too many stressors that won’t allow it to happen again. But it will be a positive year,” he added. One way of countering falling productivity and the slowing United States economy is to invest in technology, said Peridis, echoing the sentiments of a study released late last year that showed Ontario is severely lagging the US in productivity levels.

Financial soothsayer makes funny forecast for ’06

Given that nobody knows what 2006 will bring, we asked our crystal-ball gazers to spice up their opinions with a little seasonal eggnog. Some, including York’s Moshe Milevsky, may have overdone it, reported The Vancouver Sun Dec. 30. Milevsky, a finance professor at York’s Schulich School of Business, may or may not be joking when he predicts Canadians will cash in their equity mutual funds, registered retirement savings plans, guaranteed investment certificates and Canada Savings Bonds in a mad rush to purchase any available housing south of Nunavut.

Captivated by cocktail culture

Edmonton Journal writer Marc Horton cited Christine Sismondo, author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History (McArthur and Company, $24.95) in a Dec. 29 pre-New Year’s Eve essay about the allure of cocktails, also published in the National Post. Her handsome book is crammed full of fascinating cocktail lore that simply can’t be found anywhere else. It’s clear she loves her cocktails, but it’s equally obvious she knows more about what goes into a mixed drink – and why – than just about anyone else on the planet. And despite the topic of her book, and her passion for a good mixed drink, she insists she doesn’t down more than most people. “I started to wonder about that, and kept track,” she says. “I probably have two or three drinks a day, I suppose, which includes a cocktail and then wine with dinner. It’s not cocktails all the time.” Sismondo issues some warnings to drinkers. Make sure you’re in a good bar before demanding specialized drinks. “It’s really hard to find a good mojito or a mint julep in places that don’t specialize in those kinds of drinks. You shouldn’t expect to get a really good margarita at your local pub.” Also it doesn’t hurt to get to know your bartender. “Certainly it can vary from bartender to bartender. You should always ask the bartender what their favourite drink is and you’ll likely be all right.” She should know. While she now teaches new media at York, she worked as a mixologist for years, and until recently held forth behind the bar at her local pub on special cocktail nights.

On air

  • According to education Prof. Heather Lotherington the Xbox 360 is a learning tool that belongs in the classroom, reported CHAN-TV’s “News Hour” in Vancouver Dec. 25.
  • York fine arts graduate student Jennifer Lefort won the $25,000 Joseph Plaskett Foundation Award, reported CBC Radio’s “The World at Six” Dec. 23 in a roundup of Canadian artists who have won financial prizes to defray their costs.
  • National unity has become a major front in the electoral race, according to Daniel Drache, associate director of York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, reported “Montreal Today” on CINW-AM in Montreal Dec. 21.