When Mitzie Hunter was an undergrad at U of T Scarborough, she had her sights set on a law career. But due to the recession of the early 1990s, Hunter couldn’t find a summer job that would help her underwrite the costs. Instead, she secured a small business startup loan from the Ontario government and launched her own firm – an event management and talent agency that later morphed into a business that did marketing for commercial property owners.
Starting a business in her early twenties was an “incredible experience,” says Hunter, CEO of Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance. It was also something she juggled while completing her degree on a part-time and then full-time basis. Her parents, who emigrated from Jamaica and eventually settled in Pickering, wouldn’t have it any other way. “I always worked and studied,” she says. “It was drilled into my head that education was critical.”
Yet her entrepreneurial instincts proved to be a launching pad for a career that allowed Hunter (BA 1999 UTSC, MBA 2009) to put her marketing and communication savvy to use in the corporate, not-for-profit, government and advocacy worlds. As CEO of CivicAction, Hunter helps bring diverse stakeholder groups together to solve stubborn urban policy issues and promote economic and social development in the GTA.
Her skills will be put to the test in the coming months as Hunter and CivicAction chair John Tory quarterback the group’s campaign to persuade Greater Toronto residents to back new taxes and fees meant to underwrite billions of dollars in transit investment in the region. She relishes the prospect of being at the eye of this political hurricane. “It’s the place you want to be,” says Hunter, 41, who is pushing commuters, civil society groups and policy-makers to participate in a broad dialogue about the issue.
There was no shortage of dialogue around the dining-room table in the Hunter household – she has three brothers – when she was growing up. Mealtimes featured lots of talking, laughing and, as she admits with a broad grin, a fair amount of noise. Indeed, Hunter loved to be in the thick of things, and was involved in student government at UTSC, where she gained experience in advocacy by promoting cultural awareness events to counter xenophobia.
After serving in management positions at Bell and Goodwill, Hunter completed an executive MBA at Rotman. She then did a short stint as chief administrative officer for Toronto Community Housing before stepping into the top job at CivicAction. Some insiders have suggested she run for public office, but she says she’s had no serious backers.
While at Goodwill, she attended a presentation by David Pecaut, who had launched CivicAction (then known as Toronto City Summit Alliance). She was struck not only by his arguments, but also his determination to promote collaborative approaches in his advocacy. “He always made you feel included.”
Like Pecaut (who died in 2009), Hunter sees her role as that of a convener who will help forge some kind of consensus among the many disparate groups that influence policy in the GTA. But, she adds, the transportation issues “won’t be solved ‘over there.’ Citizens have to be part of the discussion. That’s how change occurs.”