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January 25, 2024 | Alumni

‘Bringing people together to make good things happen’: Gordon Cressy has played his part in helping transform Toronto

Gordon Cressy standing at a table tennis table

The accomplished U of T alum has been a Toronto city councillor, launched Take Our Kids to Work Day and helped pressure Toronto’s mayor to end police carding.

Last fall, Gordon Cressy (MSW 1969) picked up his table tennis racket and faced down opponents at the Huntsman Senior Games. It had been 60 years since his last formal competition.

Back then, Cressy was a kid practising with his dad in the basement, en route to winning four Ontario Junior Championships. “You played to 21 points in those days,” says the former Toronto city councillor and former vice-president of development and university relations at U of T. “He’d give me a 19-point start and play as hard as he could. That start then went down to 15 points, 10, five, and then eventually I could beat him and he was so excited.”

In 2023, the excitement was for a totally different reason.

In this tournament, I played a woman who was 90 years of age. I was thinking, I’m gonna be nice, but I still wanna win. But we had this lovely chat afterwards and she said, ‘You know, I used to win these tournaments. I don’t anymore, but I get to play.’ And that’s what I think. It’s nice to win, and I did win a bronze in the over 80 category, but what’s important? To play.”

Cressy relates many more tales about table tennis – and about playing the game of life – in his new memoir, Gordon Cressy Tells Great Stories! (available on Amazon, at Indigo, at Barnes and Noble, and at A Different Booklist). There’s how he brushed up his skills in his 70s at a sports boot camp in China. There’s the group he started at a care home to help a friend with Alzheimer’s disease.

A group of table tennis players
Gordon (far right) plays regularly at Trinity Community Recreation Centre with friends (left to right) Desi, Richard and Hui.

And all the extraordinary accomplishments before that – promoting big ideas as a Toronto city councillor, launching Take Our Kids to Work Day and Canadian Tire Jump Start, and helping pressure the mayor of Toronto to end carding. “There’s something magic,” he says, “about bringing people together to make good things happen.”

Here, Cressy shares four stories about those good things.

1. Deciding what part you play

Cressy has been an activist from the time he ran a YMCA in Trinidad at age 19, raising funds for a pool and starting a swim program. Later he organized adventure trips for kids as a student in the south side of Chicago and helped prevent school boards from bringing back corporal punishment as a school trustee in Toronto. “I’ve never been a sideline sitter,” he says. “What you have to do is decide what role you want to play. In my early days, I would call myself a confronter or polarizer. I was trying to [draw attention to] issues.

“More recently, I’ve been a connector, the kind of person who moves things through. Both types are important. At the Learning Partnership we worked with a program called Change your Future. We went to the schools and said ‘You can identify kids at risk.’ We went to the banks and said ‘Mentor these kids on staff time and if the kids’ marks improve, you can hire them in the summer.’ We make progress when we get the corporate world to say these programs are important and worth our time and money.”

2. Take Our Kids to Work Day

Gordon Cressy sittingAfter qualifying as a social worker, several years in politics on Toronto city council, and stints heading the United Way and serving as chief fundraiser for U of T, Cressy founded The Learning Partnership and launched, in November 1994, Toronto’s first Take Our Kids to Work Day.

“The first kid I took to work was my son Joseph. As a staffer, I would go out to six different places during the day. The one he liked best was the Cadbury chocolate factory, where they gave the all the kids chocolate! We had a full circle moment on the 25th anniversary at City Hall. Joseph, then a City Councillor, and I were being interviewed on TV. Joseph said, ‘Actually, today it was take my dad to work day.’ I love that we’re into the next generation, and I love the fact that it has spread across the country.”

3. Jump Start: access to sports is a game-changer for kids

“For girls and boys to have something that they can feel passionate about is really important. Something that they can do well. To move, and feel good at it, develops a sense of self-confidence. When I was in high school, table tennis was not a high-status sport. But the football team had a table tennis table and they asked me to come and play with them.  I think for anyone, sport activity builds self-esteem and confidence, especially in the teenage years.”

4. If it’s the right thing to do, find a way to do it

Two men standing with table tennis bats
Gordon with his primary playing partner, Desi Noel.

Ever since his days in Trinidad, Cressy has worked closely with the Black community. In 2015, after attending a community meeting about carding, a student challenged Cressy, who was then retired, to do something. “That was it for me – I was back,” he says. Working with community leaders like Mary Anne Chambers, Denham Jolly and Jean Augustine, he drew on his years of contacts with Toronto’s movers and shakers and launched a pressure campaign called “Stop Carding Now.” The mayor announced he’d end the practice.

“Carding is officially over but sadly racial profiling still exists.” Cressy says. “So for me the keywords are tenacity and vigilance. You stay with things because they can come back. Just witness the spike in antisemitism and islamophobia. 

“What gives me hope? I’d say that overall, we’re in a much better place in 2024 than we were in 2000. Look at U of T leadership. When I led the fundraising division, from ‘87 to ‘93, it was totally white everywhere. My grandchildren are growing up in a city that is better for them than the one that I grew up in. We all have a part to play in this and that’s why I encourage volunteerism. There’s a difference between charity and justice, and pushing the justice side of this equation is really important.”

Want to be like Gordon Cressy and help make good things happen? U of T offers alumni fantastic opportunities to volunteer and uplift students. Learn more here.