The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Mayors: A Culture of Respect


WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MAYOR WHO ACTUALLY FIGHTS against senior levels of government in order to get a fair deal for a city? Palermo, Sicily, has just such a champion and his efforts are showing effect.

Leoluca Orlando began years ago by rescuing Palermo from the clutches of the Mafia at great risk to himself and his family – death threats were common. In fact, it was so bad that the local media labeled him “the walking corpse,” in anticipation of his assassination. Nevertheless he prevailed, reforming portions of the national justice system in the process.

He then undertook what he called the “second wheel” of his platform – engaging and empowering the citizenry of the city to organize and move forward with attempts at change. The defeat of Mafia control made it possible for average citizens to step up without fear. The next few years came to be known as the Palermo Spring – a time when the local and rich culture bloomed and introduced new creativity. As mayor, he believed that the only places where people were truly equal despite their level of wealth were civic and public spaces, and so he used them to inspire local citizens and turn them into civic champions. Orlando even gave it a brand: “culture of respect.”

Like most mayors he’s a multi-tasker. His efforts to promote urban democracy have seen him create some success in replacing partisan battles with multi-partisan cooperation – quite a feat. This was where he came up against senior levels of government more interested in party allegiances than policy that would actually work for his city. He used his background as a writer, actor, and civic organizer to build a momentum among citizens that forced the national and regional governments to make the changes required to give Palermo a chance at a new future of prosperity, openness and inclusion. He claims that all he really is looking for is “the civic renewal of his city,” and for that he needs citizens who believe they can lead that change.

It is one thing to overthrow the mafia, but his greatest accomplishment will be in how he got his city to believe in itself, despite its history of being at the lower end of the political totem pole. And for this he has received numerous awards from around the world, including the Human Rights Award from the American Federation of Teachers.

Like other mayors, he repeatedly claims to love his city. But such words can remain merely a sentiment. Orlando has gone on to prove that love by giving his fellow citizens an open and working relationship to build their city together with him.

Politics has changed and the type of mayors we choose must change as well. Regardless of their platform, mayors that are finding success are doing so on the realization that power shared has greater chance than power monopolized.  Head elected officials like Orlando are in the process of designing a new kind of citizen architecture – the framework of a new democratic exercise in which citizens discover common purpose in the process of turning their cities into breathing, organic entities.  Any mayor or mayoralty candidate who claims to exclusively have a “plan” with which he or she will lead their city is a throwback to the past.  The only visions that can succeed and last are now those that are shared.  Everything else is just the same-old, same-old.

Cities: Democracy’s Shadow Side


ONLY THREE MONTHS AGO, MOST OF US WERE TAKEN UP with the plight of over 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. The number of celebrities, politicians, and average citizens who used the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls numbered in the hundreds of thousands – the majority of whom lived in cities around the world. Today very few us know what happened to those abducted, in part because what had become something of a brief fad couldn’t really compete with some dedicated criminals and militants who simply outlasted the outcry.

Just for clarity, here’s what we know now. The girls haven’t been returned, despite much talk and some action about securing them. Some sources now say their whereabouts is now totally unknown. And Boko Haram is now stronger and more belligerent than a few months ago, despite all the public outcry that once was. Perhaps tragically, we’ve moved on.

It remains a very difficult thing to maintain an interest in problems when our lives are so busy and transitional. Cities can easily add to that pace because of the speed at which they move and the crowding of issues that can get at us from so many venues.

In fact, some of our most entrenched human problems are intensified in our cities, more than anyplace else. There comes a point where realities like homelessness, poverty, mental health and addictions, pollution, and joblessness can no longer be hidden behind some institution or in some policy manual. In fact, cities often become the breeding grounds of despair and cynicism. And we just let it continue, despite the occasional awareness campaign, because … well, what can you do?

For many of us, cities come to mean home and work, friendship and prosperity. But for others it becomes the exact opposite of these things. For all their potential, cities can not only make such problems worse by ignoring them, but by permitting them to fester so that they multiply and become embedded in city life. It is a reality, as Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi noted, that, “Cities have inequality and wealth by definition: the reason they are cities is because people come from different parts of the income scale.” That is clearly true, but entrenched civic problems can often take on a different face – isolation, racism, depression, feelings of alienation, and feelings of helplessness.

It is often for this reason that candidates in civic elections fail to focus on such difficulties in their campaigns – there are no simple solutions to such things. And yet any good mayor comes to understand that cities also carry within them the capacities to combat and overcome such complications. No municipality can be successful if it doesn’t house such agents for change and a shrewd political leader will incorporate them into any plan to improve a city.

At the time of this writing, one black Muslim man, Mo Salih, who by all accounts has run an energetic and fully respectful effort, found himself the object of negative chicanery and personal attacks in the London civic campaign. Opponent’s signs were placed directly in front of his own, but such things sadly happen in campaigns by dubious organizers and volunteers. It was much worse than that, however, as his faith, colour, and country of origin all came in for some kind of innuendo. For a time he kept it respectfully to himself, but when the practice didn’t cease, he finally went public, as when he told the London Free Press:

“I didn’t want the youth — a young black Muslim boy or girl — thinking they’d face these kinds of things” in politics, he said. “In the unlikely event that I lose, I didn’t want them to think I lost because of my faith.”

This story reveals what all cities often attempt to conceal. A good candidate running for mayor should immediately be all over it, speaking out against such practices. The amount of support generated for Mo Salih has now become significant – a clear sign that a dynamic might exist to counter racism or innuendo and that could overpower such negative characteristics. That should be heartening for any good mayoralty candidate, for it represents the very mandate he or she could plumb in efforts to move the city along a more progressive path.

The task of restoring public faith in institutions, fellow citizens, and meaningful values might well be said to be one of the chief tasks of any elected official. As this recent case in London has revealed, a rather sinister action can result in an opposite and sometimes greater reaction that can put a city on a sounder footing. Often such moments are never capitalized upon because political leaders, often mayors, miss the opportunity.

The worst human traits are most often revealed in cities. The fact that campaigns can take place with little mention of such issues likely means that candidates are proving they aren’t up to the task of governing. Such negative influences exist to be tackled, overcome, and eventually minimalized as a city moves forward. If a candidate doesn’t have the courage or imagination to tackle the worst in our community, then it’s likely they’ll never bring out the best.

Citizens: The Arsenal of Politics


THINK ABOUT IT: WOULD THE ARAB SPRING HAVE OCCURRED in the countryside, or the Occupy movement, for that matter? There was a reason Chairman Mao banished millions to the countryside in 1949 during the Cultural Revolution, or why Chairman Stalin forcibly removed most of the political activists to Siberian isolation.

There is a pattern to this, as when Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf of his, “dislike for that mammoth city (Vienna), which greedily attracts men to its bosom, in order to break them mercilessly in the end.” It was fundamental to Nazi philosophy that the grand movement from the countryside to the city had weakened the Aryan race to the point where a cleansing was required – a justification for Hitler to be the one to lead it.

Revolutions and renaissance in any age were largely driven on the fact that citizens had to come together in sufficient numbers to prompt governing or military forces to sit up and take notice. Political tumult often originated in rural areas, especially in much earlier times, but with the eventual rise of cities and city states, the threat to hardened power became acute, specifically because more citizens were living closer together. It made it easier to be educated, to culturally celebrate, to fund important institutions, and to press for the organized betterment of human living.

But it also made possible organized rebellions on a scale unknown previously in history. There were more places to hide and build a movement, more opportunity to locate funders and gifted writers, and, above all, there were more centralized institutions from which to press for change. It is one thing for any powerful government to come up against individual citizens, but to stand against empowered individuals and organized institutions is another thing entirely.

Even as city as placid and conventional as London, Ontario received a lesson in this only weeks ago. An initiative to extend a college campus into the downtown sector was defeated in a close vote by city council. What had seemed like a no-brainer was suddenly transcended by a non-enlightened politics. But in a rare occurrence, many in the community fought back against their political masters through both creativity and a joining of forces between citizens and some of the city’s largest institutions. It worked, but even if the revisiting hadn’t succeeded, the political culture was changed that day, as politicians looked up at a packed gallery and realized they no longer had an open field in which to operate at their leisure.

Regardless of how one sees it, the process of city life is largely a political one. Citizens and groups that have learned to co-operate together serve as a natural balancing force to a politics run amok. No sooner do citizens recognize this than politics becomes relevant again, because they can’t force change on others but instead have to persuade and enhance the democratic spirit in order to succeed. The very reality that once irked jaded citizens – a dying form of politics – suddenly becomes their way forward for change. Democracy can sometimes turn on a dime, as in London that day, but it is made possible by the fact that so many citizens and organizations co-habitate in relatively confined spaces: cities.

It is ultimately for this reason that the future of democracy will be determined by cities. Those that can keep citizens from organizing, either through despondency or willful ignorance, will drag the democratic spirit in the muck – a tragic possibility we will explore in an upcoming blog. But those municipalities that discover citizens and institutions working together might well witness the rebirth of a vibrant democracy for a new era. That especially holds true if political leaders read the tea leaves and begin resourcing and promoting citizen and institutional engagement.

Are cities really that vital? Just do the math. Already the world houses 28 cities that contain over ten million people each. Almost 3 billion people in the world now live within urban parameters. For better or worse, the future of civilization will be politically determined in those areas. Each location will have a different outcome, but the ultimate success of each place will inevitably depend on the balance achieved between citizens, institutions, and how political representatives will follow their lead. Tomorrow’s truly successful civic politician will be the woman or man willing to learn from their own community.



Ayodele Adewale – Turning Activism Into a Political Miracle


BEING THE MAYOR OF A TEEMING AND PROBLEMATIC MEGACITY in Africa can’t possibly be easy, and yet Ayodele Adewale has somehow managed it. Now into his second term as the head elected official of Lagos, he has earned the respect of his citizens despite the highly chaotic and dysfunctional national political situation in Nigeria. His city is the second fastest growing metropolis on the continent of Africa and the seventh in the entire world. It’s growing exponentially and requires a mayor who can somehow keep up with it.

Adewale has earned a global reputation as a shrewd strategist and diplomat, but what most don’t know is that he isn’t even 40 years old yet. A government bureaucrat and a chemistry major prior to his election, he has exhibited wisdom beyond his years and skills beyond his academic studies.

Nigeria has coffers overflowing with oil money. Unfortunately, the influx of so much cash and investment, has led to increased corruption and poor politics. A citizen activist for most of his years, Ayodele has decided to chart a different course and the inhabitants of his city, fed up with all the years of waste and crime, have provided key support for his many reforms. He’s blunt about his view of politics:

“Activism is just a medium of expressing yourself, particularly if you have a government that is not pro-active or a government that does not obey the rule of law. Then you have the right to civil disobedience. Activism does not mean that you’re not part of the society and does not make you an angel.”

True, but in his case it has turned him into an agent of change, despite his youth. Political dysfunction is one of the key reasons those of younger generations have turned away from politics altogether as a source of hope. Adewale claims it’s time to change that approach. While acknowledging that the young are viewed as not mature enough by older politicians, he has remained determined to bridge the divide between the younger and older generations, many of whom run key political institutions.

To prove his point, he ran for office, claiming, “The most excellent way to convince people that this change is feasible is to contest for an elective position in government where you will have the authority to effect the changes you consider appropriate that would make a difference.”

Once elected, he set about achieving goals that proved just what he said was possible:

  • Created thousands of jobs in important public sectors, including education and health. Over 6,000 of these were aimed directly at young people;
  • Promoted an expansive new online schooling project;
  • In a fascinating initiative, he has introduced a city-sponsored microcredit program at near-zero interest for people who can secure a reputable sponsor;
  • Created a community newspaper as a city engagement platform and urging citizens to town hall sessions;
  • Building recycling plants capable of yielding bio-fuels as part of the city environmental program.

He is a remarkable young man who is rapidly transforming his city into one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises and capitalizing on the skills of youth in the process. Through his efforts people are turning to politics again, not only as a noble institution, but also as a calling. We need some of that in the West, in Canada, and right now in London, Ontario.

In a Topsy-Turvy World, Local Rules


FOR ALMOST FIVE YEARS I SAT IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, becoming increasingly aware that the more we discussed policies and procedures, the more removed we were becoming from those average places where people live. It was an occupational hazard: the farther a politician is away from those he or she represents, the greater the challenge to stay pertinent, aware, and connected. As the years pass, this very reality of political distance is quickly rendering senior levels of government more detached and irrelevant than any other time in memory.

But the opposite is also true: cities, where political representatives live among those they are sworn to serve, are increasingly becoming the arena for “in touch” democracy. As author Alexander McCall Smith presciently put it:

“We have moral obligations to those who we come up against, who enter into our moral space, so to speak. That means neighbours, people we deal with, and who occupy a common place.”

That’s part of the beauty of cities – they are naturally networked, as opposed to the more artificial dealings of senior governments. In fact, each city is uniquely defined by such networks. They are supremely relational, within earshot of all citizens, and constantly having to manage those intersections where inhabitants encounter one another. It can be frustrating at times like rush hour, but the ability to get the word out, to float an idea, start a business, or bring people together in celebration, is unique to communities and largely out-of-reach from provincial or federal capitals.

Moreover, cities inevitably have much more in common with one another than with any other level of government. They share similar challenges and usually suffer from the same sense of remoteness that is the fate of all cities situated in a broader country. Provinces and countries naturally have borders; cities instead have channels to one another. People pass easily through cities with little to hinder them. As they witness each senior level in serious combat with their competitors, those journeying through cities sense no such artificial barriers.

All of this makes the office of mayor so much more loaded with potential and innovative possibilities the other levels of politics. Citizens are growing in their understanding of what it all could mean. As Obama strategist, David Axelrod, put it: “I think people desperately want leaders who will make cities work, and they take them in whatever shapes, sizes, and colours they come it, provided they bring their cities together.”

The future of politics – its legitimacy and effectiveness – now rests on the fate of cities. As municipalities rise in importance in the political firmament, it stands to reason that the political leaders of those communities, and by extension those who elected them, have much more at stake concerning the future and hope of democracy than they might realize. The political world is about to turn topsy-turvy and effective change is often accomplished in such times, especially if rooted in the ideals and everyday desires of average citizens. The political future belongs, even in an age of globalization, to that which is near, not far.

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