Do you have ‘social capital?’ These Mississauga men have used theirs for the greater good


William Graham parked his car near a busy plaza on Dundas street, his trunk facing a fold-up table near the sidewalk.

As rush hour traffic whizzed through Mississauga, Graham unloaded some items the car and set them on the table.

There was a box of peppers and tomatoes, bags of beans, baby powder and a frozen tray of ground beef. In just two hours, the table would be empty again.

Graham and his wife spend their days putting food on tables set up around the city for those in need.

“We’ve always been involved in helping people to some extent,” said Graham, who started the food tables when the pandemic hit, temporarily closing a local shelter he volunteered at.

Now, there are 16 tables set up across Mississauga and Brampton.

“I’m absolutely amazed by the kindness of people that I see,” he said, explaining that every day people bring sandwiches, water bottles, homemade meals and more.

This is an example of social capital, and how it works in a community.

Social capital is defined as networks of relationships that help society function, and the United Way Greater Toronto has just released a report on it in Peel.

“Social capital is actually quite strong in Peel,” said Daniele Zanotti, president and CEO of the United Way Greater Toronto.

The research found that 60 per cent of Peel respondents feel that most people can be trusted, however, out of respondents that didn’t know their neighbours, only 32 per cent felt most people could be trusted.

It found that 90 per cent of residents have at least one friend and one family member that they feel close to, 65 per cent are part of a group or organization, and 80 per cent say they have donated goods or money in the past year.

Money appears to be a factor in social capital.

Respondents who reported that they were struggling financially were less likely to say that most people can be trusted, or to report that they trust institutions, neighbours and people of different ethnicities than themselves.

Only 55 per cent of people making less than $30,000 a year think their neighbours are helpful, compared to 86 per cent of people making over $150,000 a year.

“For Peel Region to be great, it has got to be great for all,” said Zanotti, explaining that social capital is a valuable tool to help assess community well-being. “It is a critical ingredient to making residents, agencies and communities stronger.”

When COVID-19 hit Mississauga, Weiguo Zhang was worried about how isolated older members of his community would be.

The sociology professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) campus started an online "tea house" for older Chinese residents to connect with one another.

“I have enlarged my own social network,” he said, explaining that the group started with about 20 members, and grew to 338 members.

He says that many residents who immigrated from Mainland China don’t speak fluent English or French, and during the pandemic weren’t able to visit their friends and carry out in-person routines.

“They take up all the opportunities to learn,” Zhang said, explaining that seniors in the group displayed a resilience, learning about Zoom, listening to presentations, and taking part in the intergenerational English language program.

“By bringing younger students together with older adults,” he said, it wasn’t just about learning English, but also teaching youth about Chinese culture.

Now, there are members from Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal and even B.C., and Zhang believes there’s more social capital between Chinese-Canadians than ever before.

“People are taking the opportunity to make their community stronger,” said Zhang. “It’s truly an amazing experience.”