Harry Jerome honouree Denise Campbell’s leadership makes a difference

By Neil Armstrong

Denise Andrea Campbell, executive director of the City of Toronto’s Social Development Division, has been leading transformative change for the past three decades and her work has been recognized with several awards.

Denise Campbell

In 1994, at age 19, she copped the leadership award at the prestigious Harry Jerome Awards and 30 years later, on April 27, she will be presented with the professional award at the 42nd BBPA Harry Jerome Awards. The seasoned public servant is among 13 individuals who will be honoured, one posthumously, at the event.

According to the changemaker, she is “in the right place” and “have been in the right place,” and will soon celebrate working at the City of Toronto for 20 years. Campbell is proud of many things in her work but said, ultimately, it is about building and sustaining an incredible team of innovators.

She beamed when talking about working with her team and partners to develop the Toronto Community Crisis Service, the alternative response for people experiencing mental health crisis. This is an alternative to a police-led response and has served over 14,000 people so far. It is part of Toronto’s Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan, SafeTO. 

In October 2023, Toronto City Council designated it as Toronto’s fourth emergency service so the police, paramedics, fire, and now the crisis response.

She is also proud of the work to create the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism because it “built and lifted community work and efforts and hopes and turned that into tangible action by the City in a way that has positively impacted opportunities for Black Torontonians.”

They are nearing the fifth year of the original plan and Toronto City Council has given them direction to create a new ten-year plan — something Campbell said will have generational impact. On April 10, the City launched consultations to inform the new 10-year plan, its development is considered to be the “longest anti-Black racism mandate and strategy in Canada,” notes a media release.

Denise Campbell

Campbell said the City has a lot of work to do both in terms of reflecting and embracing the talents of Black people in Toronto inside the organization and supporting quality of life and opportunity in Black communities.

“But over the last five years, we have multiple parts of the city system, many divisions really did work to try to understand anti-Black racism, to recognize white supremacist thinking and patterns, to partner with Black communities and change how they’re doing service delivery to better support Black communities,” she said, noting that there are Black employee groups in multiple divisions and new programs and strategies that are working in partnership with Black communities. There is also a council advisory body of Black leaders.

When she was 19, she was a cohost for a season of the show, Girl Talk, on Women’s Television Network (WTN) and she hosted thirteen documentaries on international developments. She was also a part of some education videos as well.

In the wake of federal NDP Leader Jack Layton’s passing, Campbell created a photography book, “I Am Jack Layton: A People’s Tribute of Love, Hope and Optimism,” which documented the one-year anniversary.

Describing it as a happenstance, she said when the federal NDP Leader died there was a talk tribute that started happening outside of City Hall and every day she would take a break, go out and read the messages.

“I started taking pictures, mostly for myself, documenting what happened, and I was creating it into a photography book for myself just to keep the pictures,” she said. But her plan changed when her then boyfriend, Bentley Springer, now husband and a Justice of the Peace, told her that it was too good to keep to herself so she should publish. This led her on a journey to talk to some public figures like Jagmeet Singh when he was an MPP, and various people about the impact that Layton as a politician and a person had on them personally or professionally.

She presented a copy to Toronto councillor Mike Layton and asked him to give a copy to his stepmother, Olivia Chow, now mayor.

Campbell, who is the mother of twins, Zander and Zion, has received numerous awards, including Who’s Who in Black Canada, Young Woman of Distinction Award in 1993 when she was in high school, and in 2021, being named one of Toronto Life’s most influential Torontonians.