The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Is Leadership Dead?


WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DAYS WHEN LEADERS, through hard work, ingenuity, and personality, could apply themselves to our greatest problems and solve them? Of course there are numerous factors, but the reality remains that our greatest difficulties are hardly matched by visionary leadership. As a society we quibble over minutiae and increments, but the bigger tasks escape us. Our present leadership at varying levels, and to greater or lesser degrees, bears much of the responsibility for that failure.

There is something different about today’s leaders. As with any election season, they continue to offer us boutique initiatives that cater to our self-interest, believing that it’s the best way to attract our attention. Sadly, they are largely correct, but it still doesn’t change the reality that most citizens no longer look to politics for either inspiration or solutions.

Today’s leaders seek to take us to a place that’s manageable or incremental. That’s okay as far as it goes provided that things are progressing smoothly overall. But they’re not, not even close. We don’t know what to do about our lethargy, lower voter turnout, escalating poverty and joblessness, democratic and infrastructure deficits, environmental calamities, even international insecurity.

As our problems become more complex and intractable, it isn’t a good sign when our leaders pride themselves as managers. We require visionaries, risk takers, and truth tellers. Sometimes, especially in seasons of growing crises, we require people to move us to the impossible, not the probable. We need those who will guide us to places that don’t yet exist. We still search for a truly democratic state. We continue to require a space that strikes the adroit balance between prosperity and social accountability. We yearn for education that is increasingly affordable. We need to find that sweet spot balancing individual opportunity and collective responsibility.

We require leaders to take us to places we have never been because, other than the modern awareness of climate change, where they are taking us at the moment is where we have been before. For centuries we sought to escape the trap of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, powerlessness, elitist privilege, and patriarchal myopia. Civilization is supposed to be about progressively moving beyond such things, not falling back into them.

This is what Vaclav Havel was referring to when, in speaking about leadership, especially in times of great national and global challenge, talked about “the art of the impossible.” Like Mandela, he accomplished what people said couldn’t be done by appealing to their intelligence and sense of social and political awareness. We need leaders who will take us down new paths and who, through their inspiration and belief in the citizenry, teach us how to adapt. We don’t need to be led to a slight alteration, but to our better selves.

In real terms, today’s leaders run the danger of being anti-leaders. By asking us to trust them, their policies, their political skills, they are ultimately requesting that we hand over the keys and trust them with the direction. We are now seeing where that is getting us. In a complex world, we can’t be led by an old world sense of hierarchy. We – citizens, voters, enlightened, empathetic, and lately too self-absorbed – want in on the action of power, not merely to observer it. We wish a hand in creating a world of new solutions. And for that we require a new kind of leadership.

This not a question of us reclaiming our birthright. We never had power in the first place; it always swirled in the area of hierarchical leaders. It’s a question of us now progressing to the point when power is shared, not just owned, monopolized, or exercised.  Are we ready for it as citizens?

Gone are the days when we can conveniently leave the pressing tasks of leadership to the boardroom or the backroom. Tomorrow’s generation of leaders must be able to inspire us towards a cooperative way ahead instead of merely managing our collective decline.  I believe those leaders will emerge and are readying themselves – women and men of courage and inclusiveness – but that we must first demand it, not only of them but ourselves.

In our present life everyone has an opinion. Some even have ideas. But it seems that no one has solutions. They must yet be discovered in those areas we once deemed as unreachable. We now stand between the inevitable and the impossible. Our next generation of leaders must shake off the former while leading us to the latter.

Next post: Leadership and “followship”


Broken Trust. Broken Future.


THE CITY OF LONDON, ONTARIO, and its inside unionized workers announced over the weekend that they had reached a tentative agreement, subject to the full approval of both groups. Predictably, opinion was deeply split on both sides throughout the community. The loss of trust across many fronts has made this recent labour conflict perhaps a harbinger of difficult days ahead, as more contracts come up for renewal and disillusionment festers.

It’s become a kind of open season on public employees across North America. The rationale, most often produced through extreme ideological politics, is that it’s difficult to justify public sector salaries when money is scarce and job security fragile. Behind it all is the belief that only the private sector can create jobs and that governments only get in the way of free market development. Unions and public sector workers get caught in the crosshairs and, as in London itself, city managers and politicians who appear to favour the view that a city should be run as a business only simplify the tensions to a degree that continues to threaten social cohesion.

The private sector has basically had the run of the field in the last two decades, with stimulus funding, lowering corporate tax rates, ongoing access to global markets, and an increasingly corporatized methodology moving into the public space. Yet despite such advantages the job market continues to shrivel, not because of government expenditures but corporate efficiencies and the move into the global marketplace. Put bluntly, the more corporatism is enhanced, the more the employment sector is in decline, this mostly through efficiencies. To place the blame for low employment opportunities on government itself is a misnomer and only muddies the waters.

To claim that everything needs to be poured into the private sector as the only effective place where “productive” investments should be made is to forget than the context for a healthy economy is as vital as the players themselves. Canada is a vast nation and the need for timely investments on roads, airports, public transportation, electrical grids, waterways management, and a productive standardized food system fall under public purview and form the vast canvas on which the private sector can invest, grow productivity, and compete effectively. If the private sector had to fund this infrastructure, the cost of their products and services would mushroom. And that doesn’t include the public investments in healthcare, education, research and development, fire and police, public security both domestically and globally, and the vast diplomatic networks that empower international cooperation in everything from trade to immigration.

The real power behind the ideology to cut the public sector is derived in its ability to turn citizens against one another. Few of those citizens makes a fortune, and the vast majority of Canadians have far more in common economically with their public sector counterparts than the wealthy elite. And yet we are increasingly told that paying the public sector means less money in the pockets of the average Canadian. This is a ruse, one that is manifesting itself across the globe, even in those developing nations that have recently begun investing in the public service in order to gain legitimacy and spread the wealth only to be informed that such measures should be cut through austerity.

One thing is obvious: income for most Canadians hasn’t changed much in recent years, except for the wealthy, of course, whose income has doubled, and sometimes tripled, in that same time period.

Canada remains a fabulously wealthy country; it’s just that an increasing amount of that wealth has gone to a relatively few in the nation’s financial order capable of adapting to the global restructuring. Rather than our bounty going to a strong public and private sector workforce in balance, it has been stripped out of both and gone elsewhere. In going after public sector workers, we are inevitably cutting the very services that we will eventually have to pay for, forcing us to stretch our dollars even further. To turn on one another just at the time we need to fight together for a fairer Canada is one of our greatest tragedies.

Wealth is not the issue; there’s plenty of it for all in our vast country. It is the effective sharing of that wealth that we must strive for. We have been tricked, bamboozled, into turning on our own service providers and protectors out of our own anger at a diverted economy.

Government (as opposed to merely politics) and the public service are the names we give to those things that we share and build together. It’s time to turn our focus to the equitable distribution of our shared wealth. In a land struggling for employment, we all have a collective job right now: pull together and achieve economic balance once more, to get our groove back. As cities like London are in danger of discovering, you can’t break trust with historic partners and build an equitable nation at the same time.

Food Waste? There’s an App for That


WE’VE BEEN AWARE OF THE PROBLEM for decades, have wished some solution(s) could be found, and are slowly working towards finding ways to divert good and nutritious food from landfills. All of the efforts in this regard are driven by a simple ethical question: how can we be tossing out perfectly good food when hunger is growing in our communities?

In reality, a vast array of initiatives is underway around the globe to tackle this dilemma head on. One of the more interesting ways to approach the issue comes from recent MIT graduates Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter. Key to their success has been the ability to divert quality food from landfills as soon as it becomes surplus or redundant.

To facilitate the effort, Malina and Ashenfelter developed Spoiler Alert – an app that quickly connects business with business, or business with charities or non-profits, and effectively makes connections between the surplus and the demand as it’s required elsewhere. In fact, the transactions are sometimes so quick that the deal is struck inside of five minutes.

These two innovators grew troubled that, while some 50 million Americans face hunger, nearly one-third of food inventory goes to waste in America. That’s 20 pounds per person, according the UN’s Environment Program. This is a predicament just begging to be overcome, and many are endeavouring to do just that. Malina and Ashenfelter are attempting to address it at its source.  Soon they hope to expand their efforts from the New England area to all the U.S. and around the world.

Often it’s just easier for food surpluses to just be tossed in the landfill. It’s the least expensive option for companies, especially those looking to externalize their costs off onto someone else, or even the future itself. Stores are often required to make quick decisions about products soon to expire or spoil. Surprisingly, many of those decision makers aren’t aware that there are other, more ethical options. Malina feels that there are also economic reasons for locating better places for the surplus than merely landfills:

“Many people come to this issue from an environmental or social perspective, which is absolutely right, but it also has serious financial implications for food businesses, many of which are dealing with extremely slim margins across the industry. In America, businesses are throwing away $50 billion worth of lost revenue and hauling fees in wasted food.”

That’s a lot of lost capital, and it’s where Spoiler Alert wants to create its greatest impact. The application is designed to remove obstacles to food donations, by connecting retailers, producers, and supplies to nearby organizations for donation, or, in the case of products that are no longer edible, companies that make fertilizer and animal feed. As soon as inventory becomes available, notices are sent out and all transactions are recorded in the app itself, thereby making it easier for donors to prepare tax deductions. The operation offers a secondary market for discounted food sales, provides new revenue streams, and simplifies documentation.

It’s only a matter of time until ethical demand from citizens prompts governments to legislate and provide incentives to divert food from landfills and onto the tables and cupboards of those who are hungry. Europe is already far ahead of North America in this regard, such as in France, where grocers that deliberately destroy unsold goods face hefty fees, perhaps even jail time.

But while keeping good food out of landfills is a noble quest, the ultimate task, especially on a planet already under duress in its attempts to feed billions, is to seek efficiencies where surpluses are greatly reduced and better planning will mean that the world will produce only that which it can eat. Somewhat like some food banks, Spoiler Alert sees itself as possibly working itself out of existence. “If we can get to the point where there is zero wasted food,” Malina says, “I will feel like we have done our job.”

However all these efforts to keep good food out of landfills and waste bins shakes out, it is becoming a global movement driven as much by efficient business plans as ethical concerns for the hungry. There are numerous apps dealing with diverting food available. Spoiler Alert shows what can happen when creative people create immediate connections that can head food supplies off in another direction almost immediately. Food that is good enough to eat is also too precious to waste.

It’s All Greek to Us


AVERAGE CITIZENS CAN BE FORGIVEN for a general confusion and alarm emerging from the Greek debt crisis. The sheer financial numbers, opinions, and economic layers are dizzying. For every economic theory coming from established experts comes another established opinion stating exactly the opposite coming from others.

Let’s put the various viewpoints aside for a brief moment, if indeed we can, and consider the trends emerging from the crisis.

First, it’s not really the Greek currency that’s back of all these difficulties but the euro itself. Across the vast networks of the EU the rips appearing because of the competing policies from individual member nations are increasing and troubling. Britain particularly appears on a collision course with the EU framework, especially now that British PM David Cameron is just coming off a convincing win in the recent election. Yes, today it’s Greece, but tomorrow the crisis could shift in numerous directions across the old continent. Ambrose Evan-Pritchard, international business editor of the Daily Telegraph, was forced to conclude as a result of yesterday’s vote: “Leaders of the Eurozone have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing” – a conclusion that confounds us even further.

Second, the recent financial compromise reached in the last few hours in many ways is as infuriating and harsh as the earlier arrangements that led to the Greek revolt in the first place. According to recent economic reports, the new deal creates levels of austerity more severe than its previous counterparts. Following 31 hours of grueling torture, the EU got its questionable deal, but for Greece, as Evans-Pritchard adds, “the terms are harsher by a full order of magnitude than those rejected by Greek voters in a landslide referendum a week ago, and therefore can never command democratic assent.”

And herein lies the deeper problem. For almost two centuries it appeared as though democracy and finance walked a similar path, albeit with frequent tensions. The world’s managers – financial, corporate, and political – are still attempting to hold to the line they believe necessary for future prosperity. Citizens, however, now harbour increasing doubts as to whether the global financial system acts in concert with the ideals of democracy itself.

This dislocation grows every day and in every financial quarter. Greece’s leaders can’t just expect the EU to bail them out every time and then pretend as though their debt doesn’t matter – they at times borrowed irresponsibly. Yet the EU is also realizing that soon enough what took place among the citizens of Greece will surely happen again, and perhaps spread across the continent – partly due to irresponsible lending. Though President Obama supports the outcomes of this week, it was only a few months ago that he observed, “You can’t keep squeezing countries, like Greece, that are in the middle of depression.” That is exactly how the Greeks feel, and whether people agree with it or not, it is a sentiment creeping into other nations.

Spain and Portugal are about to head into national elections, with the present governments enacting heavy austerity measures for dealing with debt while arousing increasing anger among voters at the same time. France and Italy will go to the polls at a later time, but the opposition to austerity measures has found significant support in those countries, with the developments in Greece surely not far from their minds.

In real terms, Greece’s problem has become our dilemma. How else to explain the surging popularity of Bernie Sanders south of the border? That he was popular was no surprise, but that he could raise millions of dollars and pick up as much momentum among Americans as he has must surely signal that democracy is increasingly at odds with the global financial practice of austerity.

Regardless of our opinions on the Greek crisis, we must all become more concerned over the growing gap between democracy and economic viability, as much as the expanding chasm between the rich and the poor. New York Times writer and economist, Paul Krugman, noted a few years ago that, “For most Americans, economic growth is a spectator sport.”  As the signs from Greece and the rise of the anti-austerity movement are revealing, citizens are now pouring out of the stands and onto the field. This is going to be a melee of significant proportions, and only adroit leadership, and economies heavily seasoned with humanity, will find their way through this next difficult phase. Regardless of which side you are on, or even if, like most of us, you just remain muddled, it’s in everyone’s interest that a global consensus be achieved.






The Radicalization of Education

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IT WAS A WORD TOO FREQUENTLY co-opted for use in the War on Terror, yet for some reason it came to mind as I keenly watched the faces of over 300 students at Fanshawe College’s graduation.

Jane and I were deeply appreciative to be given an honourary diploma that day (the first shared diploma in the college’s history), and we talked about the message we would give to the graduates. Jane, as always, was awesome, yet when my turn came that word “radicalization” popped into my head again. “This isn’t the end of your formal education,” I said, “but the start of the radicalization of it.”

I used the word purposely because it means more than how some terrorist groups seek to recruit young members. Kenyan writer, Shadrack Agaki, has called for the radicalization of African youth into social innovation as the only way of keeping them from being pulled into something criminal and sinister. Blogger John Grant writes in Counterpunch of how he became radicalized by the extremes of America’s war on Iraq and called for key American political figures like Dick Cheney to be tried in regular court.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the term as, “To cause someone to become an advocate of radical political or social reform,” and gives as an example the opposition of younger Americans to the Vietnam War. At times the impulse can turn overtly violent and should be shunned, but on other occasions radicalization results when people become agitated enough to speak out against injustices or current practices that are deemed no longer acceptable.

The students seated before us that at Fanshawe College were rich in potential, coming from Autism and Behavioural Science, Early Childhood Leadership and Education, Human Services, Recreation, and Social Services. In other words, most were about to be pressed into service on the margins, in those places where so many citizens struggle to be recognized despite the many odds against them. Ironically, for many, they were about to enter fields that were in the process of getting worse, not better. Funding in many areas is getting cut, the numbers of those at risk get greater, and society’s understanding of the challenges is increasingly lost in an economic and political order that talks about human needs but refuses to adequately fund efforts to find effective collaborative solutions.

The students before us that day were about ready to enter a world of hurt – not theirs necessarily, but that of individuals and families in various and diverse kinds of conflict and scarcity. Those remarkable young women and men were heading into global service to provide essential care and understanding.

But that is no longer enough. It’s like watching poverty grow or climate change be ignored. To work in such fields is commendable, but the overall structures require fundamental reform. And so that day Jane and I asked them to use their voice, not just their hearts; to use their convictions and not merely their compassion; to fight for adequate public policy and not just public care; to fight for justice and not just charity. They must speak up before the silence becomes deafening.

Judging from their reaction during the graduation and after, many of those with diplomas were already radical in their outlook, believing in the need to fight for their clients or patients instead of merely serving them. Some, who through emotion thanked us for the speech, said they were now ready to change their world and we fully believed them.

As author and writer Derrick Bell plainly put it: “Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.” Those students are now out in a world starving for reform, equity, and understanding, radicalized in their empathy for others and determined to bring them compassionate justice.  Fanshawe had served them well.




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