Planning alumna Claire Elizabeth Williams (MPlan’08) was recently recognized as a recipient of the annual Top 25 Women of Influence awards. These awards recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of Canadian women who have left their mark over the past year in one or more of the following ways: contributing to the greater good through their initiatives; using their influence to drive positive change; or reaching inspiring heights on a global stage.

Williams entered the Dalhousie School of Planning fully committed to leading a gentle life with respect for the natural world. Upon graduation she moved to Vancouver to work as a planner on corporate social responsibility and environmental assessments. As her company turned its focus to projects in the oil and gas industry, she recognized the misalignment of her own values with this work.

In 2015 Williams made a big change. To fulfill her desire to make a positive impact in the world, she moved to India to manage a children’s home. After six months of volunteering there, Williams returned to Vancouver seeking to pursue work that would make a real difference in her community.

Williams soon met Frans Tjallingii and inspired by Rutger Bregman’s TEDTalk “Why we should give everyone basic income”, they discussed the provocative idea of providing direct cash transfers to people who were homeless, an obvious issue in their community. This had been studied internationally but never implemented in Canada.

Williams and Tjallingii collaborated to earn grants, partnerships, and the funds needed to create Foundations for Social Change, where Williams is currently the CEO. They soon launched the New Leaf Project, the world’s first direct cash transfer program and study of its size, to help those who are recently homeless.

Some of the participants who have been impacted by the New Leaf Project

The impacts speak for themselves. In October 2020, results were published showing that the pilot project’s $7,500 transfer to each of 50 participants was a key factor in their ability to achieve greater food security, spend fewer days homeless, and access housing faster, improving stability and lowering the risk of trauma. The New Leaf Project showcased the importance of meaningful and tangible support, breaking away from traditional models of supporting the homeless by placing autonomy and dignity at the core.

What’s next for Williams?  Foundations for Social Change has been shortlisted for a Transformation 2020 grant. This prestigious tri-council grant would lead to millions of dollars in funding over a 6-year period and would bring Williams’ work to Halifax through a partnership with Dalhousie professor Jeff Karabanow (Department of Social Work).

“We believe that economic inclusion is critical to being able to participate in society and that no one should be left behind. This requires disrupting the status quo and compels us to think radically and test innovative solutions that have not been tried before.” 

-Claire Elizabeth Williams