When I interviewed Bineta Ba, she was the executive director of Toujours Ensemble, a a Canadian non profit association that helps youth succeed at school. As of next month, she’ll be leading an international development foundation.
My favourite quote is the one in which she describes her sense of being Canadian.
I’m originally from Senegal, West of Africa, a francophone country in West Africa. I lived in France a while and then I immigrated here, 18 years ago. Now I can probably say that I feel totally feel Canadian. I’m very, very, very much aligned with the values of the country. Being respectful, being caring about others. Actually, being compassionate with others, I can be myself. So the sense of freedom and also knowing that my kids can dream big. It’s really something that is important for me, that they can find their place here. So I do feel Canadian.Bineta Ba, 2020
I also wrote about Toujours Ensemble in the Montrealer as a result of this interview.
You can also listen to this episode using your favourite podcast player, such as SounderFM:
Can you talk a little bit about what you do?
You’ve been leading Toujours Ensemble for five years now, right?
Bineta: Yeah. Yeah. Five years. Time flies.
Tracey: It does really fly. So can you talk a little bit about what the organization does?
Bineta: So, Toujours Ensemble is a youth organization. We help kids, Verdun kids, aged six to 17 in the areas of education–academic perseverance more specifically. We also have a school lunch program, because we think that to be able to learn at school, you need first to eat well. And unfortunately, in Verdun and other areas in Greater Montreal, you still have many, many families with very low, low income. So we have around sixty kids who have their lunch each school day at Toujours Ensemble. Each year we help around 500 kids. Most of them, actually, we see from the age of six to the age of 17. So through all their school years, from elementary to secondary school.
Tracey: Yeah, the families that you’re working with are fairly vulnerable families, too. I mean the reason they need the lunch program is because they’re often not getting enough to eat at home.
Bineta: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes it’s actually the only hot meal they have in the day. So it’s really heartbreaking because in a society like ours, we would think that all kids can eat well. But it’s not the case. So we make sure that to help families and the kids, we tailor our activities to really address the main issue.
Tracey: Food is one of them for sure, yeah.
Bineta: Food is absolutely essential.
Tracey: Yeah. And homework help. I know that you do a lot of help with homework.
Bineta: Yeah, we do a lot of homework support as well. We have several ways of doing it. It can be really giving the kids a space where they can do their homework, like if they were at home. They can do it the way they want and if they need help, they just ask one of the youth workers.
Pathways to Education
But at the secondary level [high school], it’s more structured. It’s really tutoring. The kids have to come twice a week and read after tutoring with the help of volunteers. And they need to register to this program. The program is Pathways to Education and we follow them through all their secondary years, from secondary one to secondary five, just to make sure that they graduate.
Tracey: Because the dropout rate in families like theirs is so high and Quebec’s dropout rate is extraordinarily high.
Bineta: It’s unfortunately, if I’m not wrong, the highest in Canada. And in Quebec, it’s in the area of Montreal that we have the highest rates. And if you go a little bit further in areas like Verdun, the situation has really improved a lot. In the past years, I would say the 10 to 15 past years. We were around 45% dropout rate around 2006, 2007. And today we are around 25. That is still high because in Montreal, we are around, 19 to 20% but it’s a lot better.
Tracey: Wow, too high, too high.
Bineta: it improved a lot, but still too high.
Safe Place for Youth
Tracey: Yeah. Well, the other thing that I think is really interesting about Toujours Ensemble is that you create events so that even kids who are not necessarily vulnerable want to hang out and do things. It doesn’t look like it’s just for the other kids.
Bineta: Exactly. It’s a very important point because of course our main focus is on the vulnerable families and kids, but it’s really important for us to remain inclusive. Because the problems that kids face can be different from just the economic situation of the family. This can be because the kid has problems getting along with other kids. So they really need to socialize. You can be from a very rich family, but still have those type of problems. So we want to make sure that if a kid wants to come to Toujours Ensemble, there is always a place for them.
Tracey: Yeah, exactly. Well, even the homework space, sometimes they just need a quiet place to be because they happen to be in a very hectic situation at home. It’s struggles of all types. I mean you are, of course, dealing with families that have violence and abuse. We don’t want to downgrade the fact that you’re helping people of all struggles, too.
Bineta: Exactly, exactly. And also the population is changing and we have some gentrification here, so we have to make sure that we still are able to reach out to the most vulnerable families because they tend to disappear in the big picture and all the improvements we see in these areas. And we are very happy to see that we have nice restaurants, we have nice places, but we shouldn’t forget that there are still people living here that need help. So we adjust our services to remain inclusive, but not to forget the most vulnerable.
Tracey: And also to give kids a chance to actually reach out. I mean this year 2020 has been such an odd year, but in previous years you did, Thursday night bike repair and things that would allow anybody to participate. As a volunteer and in order to get people connecting.
Bineta: Exactly. Exactly. It’s really a community based organization. So there is a place for anyone who wants to get involved. We had this bike repair workshop and we did open it this year, but it was from the adolescents. They had an entrepreneurship project and one of the activities was to have this bike repair workshop. So people come and they give whatever they want. And the kids repaired their bikes.
Tracey: Yeah. And it gives people a chance to actually get to know the organization too.
Bineta: Exactly, exactly.
Tracey: And that’s one of the other things that you did this summer, which I think was really innovative when you consider that so many of your programs had to be minimized because we were shut down for so much of the early part of the season when Toujours Ensemble tends to be well known. The graduations weren’t happening, we couldn’t do all them. All the things that normally happen, didn’t happen this year. But I know that you were doing food deliveries.
Bineta: Yeah. Actually we completely turned our school lunch program into the preparation and delivery of food. Not only to the kids that were in the school lunch program, but to the whole family. So we tripled the quantity and the people we could serve. And we did that freely, with the help of all the community of donors. Everybody was behind us. I think people understood that there was an urgent need to help the families. So we were able to do that and the team has been so creative and so flexible in changing, in adapting the programs and the services. So this is one we called it La Marmite, I think you would say the pan maybe in English? I’m not sure.
Tracey: I think it’s a roasting pan.
Bineta: Oh, yeah, maybe the roasting pan. And so we were really happy to be able to adjust this way and to be able to serve more people.
Tracey: Yeah. And what an interesting way to make sure that those kids could get a meal, even though schools were closed.
Bineta: Exactly. Yeah.
Tracey: And get involved, because it was the kids who actually did the deliveries themselves too.
Bineta: Exactly. We really involved them. And also what we did, because we’re delivering the food, we took this opportunity to also deliver books. And activities. We printed many copies of activities kids could do and we delivered it with the food.
Tracey: Oh, okay. Wow. That’s a really big program. And how long did that go for, from when until when?
Bineta: From mid April to mid August, and it was 200 meals a day. So compared to 60 meals a day, we went up to 200.
Tracey: And you were doing deliveries, which takes time.
Bineta: It takes time, but it was also the opportunity for the youth workers to maintain a contact with the kids, because everybody was at home. So they were waiting for Audrey and they were knocking at the window when they saw us coming with delivery, with the activities and the books.
Tracey: What a great way to actually turn things around. And do you have any plans for this winter? Because it looks like it could be a challenging one again.
Bineta: Oh, yeah, it is actually. We are going to renew our Christmas campaign. So at Christmas we hand out 250 food baskets. To the families, but also we open it to the community. Sometimes we have people who live alone and for them the winter is really a big challenge. So we make sure that they will have a basket full of food. So we will deliver them in December.
Tracey: Right. Right. So that’s going to be another way for people to get involved. And I guess the schools are open now, right?
Bineta: Yeah, they are.
Tracey: So are you doing lunch programs now?
Bineta: We are actually. There are some kids coming at Toujours Ensemble, but we have to reduce the number of kids we can host. We also deliver the food directly to the two schools.
And this year we also started a pilot project with an organization involved in food security, La Cantine Pour Tous. We are turning our lunch lunch program into a catering service. So we will deliver 50 to 60 more lunches to another school, Chanoine-Joseph-Théorêt. It is a new partner for the lunch program, but it’s really a pilot. We are trying to see if we can scale the capacity of the lunch program. So we are doing the pilot now and we hope that we’ll be able to maintain this service after this year.
Tracey: Wow. That’s a really big challenge too. Talk about trying to be flexible in a really difficult time. I have a couple of questions in particular, but one thing that I wanted to ask you is a little bit of a “day in the life”, but in terms of a challenge that was really hard to deal with at the time.
What would you say your biggest challenge has been since the five years you’ve been there? And just describe that like a day in the life type story, you know, what happened and how did the organization respond?
Bineta: I dunno if this is a good example because it’s not really directly connected to the mission, but we went through a big.. can you say flood?
Tracey: Flood. Yeah.
Bineta: Yeah. Last year in January. And we have two buildings and we had to close one because there were so many damages. We had to find ways to maintain the activities for the kids.
And of course to completely change the way we generally work with the kids. So it was very stressful, very challenging for the whole team and for the kids as well. But, what was extraordinary, is just to see that all the community coming together to help us.
The schools generally don’t have any room, any space. But because we had this situation, they offered a class, a room where we could do some of our activities. Our donors reached out to see how they could help. I would say this, I knew that this was an organization with many partners, many donors, and a community behind the mission. But this gave me the confirmation that it was really the case.
So it was a challenge, but at the same time, it showed all the strengths within the team and within the organization and around the organization. Generally when we face a situation, a problem let’s say funding problems. We know a lot about that one! Or just to have to adjust to a pandemic for example. We just keep our focus on the mission, on the kids and the families. And then we can rely on our partners, our donors to come together and help us.
Tracey: So what happened in the end, is the building still flooded? Are the damage from the flood still there?
Bineta: Oh no, no. It was so long. We wanted to do it like within two months, but it took six months to get all the things done. [Thankfully] we have insurance, but of course [there were] more expenses then what we wanted to do in the first place. But what was really amazing was to see everybody coming to help the organization.
Tracey: So now both buildings are functioning again.
Dealing with the Pandemic
Bineta: Both of them are functioning. Of course, then we had the pandemic and we have to restart from scratch! So like I was saying, we always focus on our mission. We are here for the kids and for the families. So how can we do things to just keep on helping them? So when the pandemic started, that’s exactly the same thing we did. We had our zoom meeting with the team and said, okay, how do we do that? And I said, okay, we are going to do everything. So a virtual program. And we call the families, we talk to them, we assess their needs and we will see how we can, you know, from there, how we can keep on helping them.
Tracey: Wow. When you say the team, how many people work for you?
Bineta: We are 32 people.
Tracey: Plus you have a grassroots of volunteers.
Bineta: Of course. Yeah. [Every] year we have around 200 volunteers, but we have some volunteers that are in the program throughout the year, around 50 to 60 volunteers.
Tracey: And then you have the incredible donors.
Bineta: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
Creating a Permanent Space with Funders
Tracey: And when we talk about buildings, we should mention that one of those buildings, is in many ways a possible model for other organizations, because you were given the building as a donation. Right? Can you describe it a little bit, because I think lots of places would like to get their own buildings.
Bineta: Yeah, I’m sure. Yeah, because it’s really helped.
If you want to help kids, you need stability. So for us to have our own buildings really is a huge asset.
So the building we call it Centre de Persévérance Scolaire Marcel et Jean-Coutu. And it’s Marcel et Jean-Coutu because we were able to get the land from the Marcel & Jean-Coutu family.
And then we did a big fundraising with the help of the Renaud family and other donors, and were able to go and get all the money to build the place. It was really once again just the testimony of the network, the wonderful network we have. And I think we deserve it because we work very hard. But we are happy. You see that this network still is with us and we were able to have this opportunity to have this building. I mean, the building was donated to us, and then we started from scratch because the Centre was a..a medical clinic.
It was a Jean-Coutu clinic. So we were able to have the land for free. And then from there, go and get some money to build it for the kids.
Tracey: Right, to renovate it all. Can you tell me a little bit about the challenges in that, though? Because I know that when you say that… I mean, now it looks so easy, but I’m sure it was not an easy process.
Bineta: It was not at all. Actually I was not there. It was built in 2012 [before I was there]. Maybe talk to Pierre Coté, he was the one at the beginning of this adventure. So he was the one who was in contact with the Coutu family. So he will have more insights on that, but I know that it was not [easy]. Actually, I think that there were so many unplanned things. And in all buildings, you went in construction, generally you plan, but it doesn’t go the way you plan it.
Tracey: I’m sure there’s some great stories in there, but we won’t talk about those because if you weren’t there that’s hard to talk about. Can you talk about your connections to other charities in Montreal? Because I know that you are not an Island to yourself.
Bineta: Not at all.
Tracey: I know that you’re part of a network of groups. Can you talk a little bit about those links?
School Success Network
Bineta: Exactly. So we are part of what we would call a national or a provincial network of organizations who are just like Toujours Ensemble. That work in school perseverance. So it’s really important for us to make sure that we can have access to data. We have access to trainings. We have access, also, to people who can do some advocacies when we have some issues that are really bigger than us. It’s important to have those networks to [re]present you, to listen to you and to understand the reality. So our goal is to take what is the situation in Verdun and to make sure that our provincial or our national network or association knows about those issues and can give them a bigger voice, be it at the government or other institutions.
Local Community Network
And I saw that in Verdun we have a Concertation en Development Social de Verdun. So it’s the local consultation or network of community organizations, but also it’s a brilliant, multi-sector network. They directly address the issues in Verdun. So it’s really very rich to be around the table to be able to talk to all these different sectors, because of course we do not have the data. We won’t say that we will solve all these very complex problems alone. It’s absolutely impossible. So it’s really by coming together that we will be able to choose the best solution. So for me and for my organization and for the board, it’s really important to be part of those different networks. We also work as a group.
We work directly with other community organizations like, Dawson center, J’apprend Avec Mon Enfant who work in literacy. So we make sure to go and get the expertise of other organizations. So for example, with J’apprend Avec Mon Enfant, we started our elementary level procedural school program, we call it Sac à dos. We started this program with the help and expertise of J’apprend Avec Mon Enfant. They help us organize and structure the- how do we call it? The reading part of the program. So this is an example of going and getting the expertise of others. So to make sure that what we offer to the kids and to the community is relevant and is well-documented. And that we are doing the right thing.
Referring to other services
Tracey: I mean, that sort of raises another one of the issues which is literacy. Learning to read is actually quite difficult if you’re in a situation at home where you can’t actually do anything, you don’t have peace and quiet, you don’t have a place that’s safe. I mean, there’s lots of issues that arise because of a vulnerable situation at home. And one of the things, I don’t know if you work with their programs, but Verdun has the Douglas hospital network. This is a network for our mental health issues. Do you ever work with them?
Bineta: Not directly, but we refer sometimes when we have some issues with a family or a kid, we will refer them to the different resources within the community. So we don’t have direct collaboration with Douglas, but we know them. We know about them and when needed, we make sure that the families or the kids can access those resources.
Tracey: Yeah, it’s a big deal. I mean, so we have mental health. We have healthy food. We have homework help and literacy. Are there other issues that we haven’t touched on that you’re dealing with?
Bineta: Actually Toujours Ensemble started as a, how do you say?
Tracey: Summer camp.
Bineta: Yes, summer camp and leisure activities and it’s still the case. It is still very relevant.
We are not only in the academic area or the food security area. It’s really important for us to offer accessible activities. Low cost activities. We really want everybody to be able to participate in those activities. So it’s really a very important part of our mission.
It’s also the easiest way to reach out to the kids and to their families. So our doors are open. The kids come, they register, and then they can have access to a variety of activities: so it can be cooking, theater, computer.
Learning through travelling
We also do outings in Montreal and we have an annual, well this year we couldn’t do it, but we have an annual trip. There are between 10 to 15 kids that are selected to take part of this trip. And it’s really something very important in the history of Toujours Ensemble, those annual trips. The kids really remember a lot of what they experience during these trips.
Tracey: What is this trip? Is it an exchange trip?
Bineta: It’s not an exchange. Actually it’s a project in itself. It lasts like six to seven months. So we select some kids and they will do fundraising to pay for a part of the trip. And the rest of the money comes from our donors. And then they go to the North of Quebec or they will go to Vancouver or go to Boston, New York. We try to remain in Canada or in the United States. But once they were able to do this trip to France.
Tracey: So is it 10 days or two weeks or something?
Bineta: One week, it’s one week. And generally we do it with a bus of 15 seats. We choose destinations where we can go by bus. So the trip in of itself,just to go there, is really part of the whole experience. So all these leisure activities are very important at Toujours Ensemble.
Tracey: right. Because it’s connecting some of the kids together, [giving] them a chance to do something they didn’t think they’d be able to do otherwise.
Bineta: Exactly. Yeah.
Entrepreneur Projects at Toujours Ensemble
Tracey: We didn’t talk about the self-esteem side, but that’s one of the goals as well. Because I help run the farmer’s markets, I know the kids have come to do different projects. They did the eco smoothies several times. This year, they decorated bags and sold them.
Bineta: Yeah. That’s our entrepreneur projects. So we have been doing those now for three years and it’s really a way to give them a first work experience, but also to learn to work as a team, because it really worked like a coop.
They have to do the marketing, the sales, the finance, the HR. So they really go through different kind of learning experiences that will be useful for the rest of their lives. It’s really about giving them the opportunities to test things, to get to know themselves better, to get to interact with others. To socialize more and to have more confidence in their abilities and to develop their full potential.
So really, at the end of the day, what we want is for them to be happy. I know it’s very simplistic to say, but I think it’s really important for us to make sure that they have access to what any kid must have access to.
Tracey: Well that leads to two questions about you. And one of them is that obviously the team has to grow in order to serve these wonderful kids. So as a nonprofit leader what do you think is the most important growth that you’ve had since being at Toujours Ensemble in the last five years?
Bineta: Actually, I came to Toujours Ensemble at a moment where there was already a growth, but it really accelerated because we wanted to make sure that all the services, the programs work well, one with the other. So it’s really a continuum of services that are coherent, that reach as many kids [as possible].
We had growth because we set up a new program. That is the school perseverance program, but at the elementary level. We already had the secondary one. And then we saw that it was important to start earlier. And so that’s why we created the [elementary] program in 2015, and we really worked hard to grow the program. We started with, I think, 20 kids. And now we have like 90 kids who can register in the program. Doing that, we just wanted to make sure that we don’t want to just grow, grow and grow and then it doesn’t work. So we have to make sure that all those segments and all those programs really were well attached. And that when a kid is in this program, they will get the most [out of it], and then they can move to the other one.
Just to make sure that all this is coherent and that we do not duplicate our services or activities. It’s growing now a little bit slower than a couple of years ago, but it is growing to become more coherent.
Tracey: Right, but that doesn’t say how you grew, what has changed in your life?
Bineta: Oh! Sorry, excuse me. Maybe I misunderstood.
Personal Growth at Toujours Ensemble
Tracey: No that’s a good answer. I liked it. I want to just personalize it a bit. What happened to you over those five years?
Bineta: Oh my God. I grew so much as a person. I have a personal story with education, [in] that it was not very [accessible] to me, where I come from. And so [it was the] opportunity to confirm that I was working in something I deeply believe in, education.
As a leader, it was the first time I had to lead such a big team. So I really learned a lot about humility, about just letting go, being here for the people. I knew [all that] from a theoretical [point of view], but I really had the opportunity to live it. And so helping people, when I say people [I mean] also the kids and the families, but also the team. Helping a team to grow and helping people do what they do and [help them] do it better, is really something very rewarding. I want to learn from other people. So I would say that I’m a better person in general within this experience. I’m not sure I’m really answering your question.
Tracey: Yes. And that leads to the last question in the podcast, which talks about your relationship to Canada. Do you consider yourself a Canadian and if so, what does that mean to you?
Bineta: Oh, I definitely consider myself Canadian. I’ve been here for 18 years now.
Tracey: Where are you from?
Bineta: I’m originally from Senegal, West of Africa, a francophone country in West Africa. I lived in France a while and then I immigrated here, 18 years ago. Now I can probably say that I feel totally feel Canadian. I’m very, very, very much aligned with the values of the country. Being respectful, being caring about others. Actually, being compassionate with others, I can be myself. So the sense of freedom and also knowing that my kids can dream big. It’s really something that is important for me, that they can find their place here. So I do feel Canadian.
Tracey: Oh, Canada definitely is better for your part in it, that’s for sure. Was there anything that I didn’t ask you that you were hoping to talk about?
Bineta: No, I think we covered the many topics.
Tracey: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Bineta: Thank you, Tracey.
Refer to the Toujours Ensemble website for more information.
I’ve also written other stories about Toujours Ensemble, including: