“Let the Zone be your mentor. Zone will cultivate your ideas and fertilize your passions!”
Jennifer Fischer on the SocialVentures Zone at Ryerson University
Jennifer Fischer is an example of a student who won’t let barriers stop her from pursuing a project that will improve Toronto’s green space. She is the sole proprietor of Soul Roots, an endeavour that began as part of the SocialVentures Zone community at Ryerson University. Since its inception Soul Roots has expanded due to its great potential to benefit the city. Soul Roots is a social enterprise that aims to use alternative farming practices to create crops on a contaminated land site, providing meaningful work to low income residents as part of the Co-op Cred Program. The Co-op Cred Program is a Toronto-based community food security project that facilitates access to local, sustainable and nutritious food and employment for low-income and marginalized groups. With Soul Roots, Jennifer hopes give the city more appeal through the creation of green space.
Originally from the west coast, Jennifer moved to Toronto to attend Ryerson University. While living in Toronto, she experienced some frustration with the lack of green space in the city. Jennifer describes how her inspiration for urban farming came to fruition:
“When I moved here I lived in Parkdale, and I was frustrated with how many vacant sites there were in my neighbourhood and how there wasn’t a lot of access to green space. When I take my dog out for a walk in the morning I would have to cross sixteen lanes of traffic to access the beach. When I grew up those things weren’t part of my landscape and that was something I became really frustrated with. Then, I took a class at Ryerson to develop a project, which was on Toronto Island. Through the course and through a professor I had [Alex Gill], who is a social entrepreneur in residence, he helped develop this idea.”
This course, Special Topics in Social Ventures (SSH 400), held its classes in the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), and she refers to it as a ‘social entrepreneurship boot camp’. Jennifer says that watching this class of fourteen students pursue their own social entrepreneurship ventures was an incredible process. She highly valued the rigorous criticism and guidance she was given that helped her grow Soul Roots into actual being.
Jennifer places emphasis on Ryerson University and its SocialVentures Zone, and how it has played a large role in the upbringing and execution of her Soul Roots journey:
“The SocialVentures Zone created a space for [social entrepreneurship]. You know, there’s class, but if there hadn’t been an incubator in our community that supported me in this I don’t think I would have still worked on my venture but it’s the fact that Ryerson has been so supportive in a way that’s like, ‘Yeah, you can do this!’ I don’t think I would have gotten that anywhere else. It’s been a really unique experience, I feel like I graduated with a degree and the ability to start my own business.”
Three of her professors are past RECODE recipients for projects they have worked on. RECODE is a program that provides social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for post-secondary students. Jennifer says she believes that RECODE is a strong part of Ryerson’s business culture.
Jennifer has been working on Soul Roots for over two years now, and there is still a lot of work going on regarding the development of her project. This year Jennifer plans to do a small prototype of Soul Roots in an alleyway in the Parkdale area of Toronto, to show the potential of the project to the general public. She discusses one major challenge Soul Roots has run into thus far:
“The plan is to have to use the space of 12,500 square feet in the neighbourhood. We’ve been in conversation with an oil and gas company to access that land and they said, ‘Yes, you can have it.’ But there are barriers with the Ministry with accessing it. The oil & gas company would be willing be working to work with Soul Roots, if the Ministry was compliant on necessary policy changes.”
Jennifer says that the policy issues which block Soul Roots from accessing the land lie with the province and not the city. According to Jennifer, 25% of Toronto’s land is brownfield and there are 30,000 brownfield sites in Canada that tend to appear in disenfranchised areas of the city. They are designated as commercial land sites, and when these sites are environmentally assessed (which can cost between $50,000-$100,000 for a ¾ acre site), boreholes are made in the ground to test levels of contamination. Due to the impact of testing on the land, its value goes down. Currently, the policies surrounding brownfields are specifically regulations for oil and gas companies who wish to utilise the land. Since the government did not consider that non-profit organizations would want to use this land, these regulations inadvertently block them from access. Jennifer has been working with Toronto Public Health and a team of lawyers provided by Ryerson, as well as dedicating her graduate program, to overcome these regulation barriers.
Some of the inspiration for the project comes from Sole Food, founded by Michael Ableman and Seann J Dory. Sole Food is a similar project in Vancouver whose goal is to “transform vacant urban land into street farms that grow artisan quality fruits and vegetables, available at farmers markets, local restaurants, and retail outlets.” They also aim to provide jobs and agricultural training to people with limited resources in a supportive community. Jennifer hopes to collaborate with Sole Food in the future.
Jennifer sees herself continuing to work with Soul Roots after she graduates in June 2016. There isn’t a lot of research that has been covered on vacant brownfields, and Jennifer would like to be the one to unearth the extent of its potential in the upcoming years.
 Quote taken from SocialVentures Zone profile http://www.ryerson.ca/svz/projects/soul-roots.html
Increasingly, we are seeing that some of the greatest advances in social entrepreneurship and social innovation are coming from students. These stories are being lived, but they are rarely told. As a result, RECODE and the Trico Charitable Foundation are collaborating to survey and interview leading examples of Canadian post-secondary students who are developing social enterprises (for profit or not for profit).
This work seeks to build on RECODE’s survey activities with Emory University in Atlanta, and the insights from the Scaled Purpose and Mount Royal University report “Where to Begin: How Social Innovation is Emerging Across Canadian Campuses”.
It is hoped this research will inform our efforts to help Canada’s post-secondary institutions lead the way in supporting student social entrepreneurs and social innovators. But more than that, it will lead to a series of blogs capturing the students’ journeys. These stories will “reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact” and, hopefully, inspire and inform social entrepreneurs within and beyond our Universities.