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#HumansOfCoopHousing: Denise has given (and gotten) a lot during 30+ years managing co-ops

Published November 18, 2020

Denise Toussaint has worked as a manager in the co-op housing sector since 1986. She currently manages Hazelburn Housing Co-op in downtown Toronto.  Denise’s work in the sector reflects her own upbringing, and she brings her core values to her daily administrative duties.

Managing a co-op is more than just a job for me. I think my motivation comes from being raised in an east coast, steel mill community in a family of 15 by a single, West-Indian immigrant father who was dedicated to his children.

My mom died when I was 18 months old and our youngest boy only six months, but our dad always made room for one more. If you came to our table and it was set for 10, it got set for 12. When we were staying at my sister’s after we had a house fire, people sent food and whatever they could, not just for a few days, but for months. They looked after us, made sure things were okay. I’ve carried that with me.

 

There were no managers of colour in Toronto when I started. I continue to be a resource for others, and do my best to make sure I leave things in good shape. It’s who I am.

A family connection

I worked at Harbour Channel Co-op for 13 years. That co-op supported 12 units of teenage girls who had children. They were living on their own for the first time, and I felt good to see most of them building better lives with support.

One of those girls came to me one day and said, “My mom had a baby.” She asked if I’d consider adopting the child, and at first I said, “No!”, but I came in to work one day and there was a brown paper bag on my desk, and in that bag were two photos of the little girl, and a note that said I could think about it. My daughter’s 20 now.

Helping members thrive

Denise and her daughtersIn 1985, I trained with Diane Miles at Windmill Line Co-op. She was an excellent mentor. After that, I took a job at Perth Housing Co-op in Toronto’s west end. It was new construction, so there were a lot of issues. The co-op helped marginalized women, some from shelters, and they were fairly fragile. As we built a co-op, we built a community, and that built their self-esteem.

They learned about everything, from maintenance to financial, and they were happy to contribute. It was a fresh start, a safe haven for them and their children. Two of those women eventually became co-op managers themselves.

In my four years at Perth, I learned a lot about people, and what a co-op needed. It was hard work, but also fantastic. You could see the hope. When there’s safety, people have the ability to grow.

From Perth I went to Harbour Channel and then to Riverdale Co-op, where I worked for another 13 years. Riverdale  is the largest, scattered co-op in the country, and the job was challenging. I adopted my second daughter while I worked there.

Members helping members

Managing Hazelburn is a job that fits me well. It has a history of being very well run, a good, solid community. Socializing is kind of flat right now with Covid-19, and we’ve had to adjust.

Fortunately, we had $60,000 set aside for a maintenance project that wound up being unnecessary, so we portioned out that money to people who were struggling when they were first laid off. There’s a strong sense of fairness at Hazelburn, and people are always looking out for vulnerable members or those living alone.

Building a better future

I love working in this sector. Its community emphasis is a reflection of how I grew up. I’ve seen changes over the years, like the push for more youth involvement. CHFT’s diversity scholarships act as a catalyst for kids to move forward in life in ways they might not have been able to. We’re not keeping up with the need for affordable housing, but enough political action from inside and outside the sector could result in more federal funding.

I have lived in two co-ops and have helped six diverse people become managers in the sector. There were no managers of colour in Toronto when I started. I continue to be a resource for others, and do my best to make sure I leave things in good shape. It’s who I am.

Throughout 2020, our Humans of Co-op Housing series features individuals who are making their co-ops a better place or speaking up for the importance of co-op housing. Let us know at info@chfcanada.coop who you’d like to see featured next.


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