The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Lit From Within

IT WAS TOUCHING, HUMOROUS, AND A SIGN of the changing times in our city. Newly elected city council member Jared Zaifman, in a reflection of his Jewish faith, brought in latkes for his counterparts as a celebration of Hanukkah. Zaifman’s reasoning was simple and profound at the same time:

I brought latkes for council and staff to have because very simply, this is a food that I indulge in over this time of the year, and I wanted to share that hospitality and treat with them.  I am very proud of my heritage and traditions, and I think being able to share that and give people a better understanding of my background and practices goes a long way in allowing us a better understanding of one another. I think also like myself, many members on council love the diversity we have in London, and we all want to learn more about that diversity, and sometimes the most fun and enjoyable way to do that, is through food!

The previous evening, Adam Caplan spoke of his Jewish heritage and the importance of Hanukkah during a Christmas community reading celebration at the Grand Theatre.

All of this is important because these young leaders were reminding us that light during the holiday season is about much more than mere celebration. For those celebrating Hanukkah it reflects the miracle of survival and enlightenment, of creating light in a time of darkness. It isn’t merely about celebrating what one has, but recapturing what was lost. For any community seeking to find a future, the lessons of Hanukkah, regardless of one’s background, teach us that we must fight for community or we simply won’t have one to celebrate.

You can read about the history of this great tradition here, but its lessons have endured and continue to redefine what it means for us to live in community. It reminds us that to live together involves dedicated effort and that it is often a hard thing to fight for our ideals. The ancient Jews who watched their Temple desecrated and their community diminished by outside forces learned that falling back on tradition alone would not overcome the darkness they faced. And so they fought a battle that looked to the outside world as the weak taking on the strong. But what everyone overlooked was that this was their community and it was all they had. And so they fought for the life they wanted in order to preserve the history they had known. They recaptured and re-consecrated the most vital building in their community, in the process becoming better prepared for their future simply because they battled for it. A community dedicated to one another is never powerless. Sometimes the only way ahead is the hard way.

Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights” for a reason. When they went about to rededicate their temple, the ancient Jews discovered there wasn’t enough oil in their lamp to burn for more than a day. Yet tradition says it burned for eight days in all, effectively reminding the community that those who labour for its future have more resources than they realize. They believed it was a miracle and that God was behind it, but the lessons learned during that troubling time were ultimately about one essential truth: without light, only darkness is left and the sense of community declines. And a second great lesson emerged, namely that it is inward beauty and light that is ultimately responsible for overcoming the darkness. The Jews were willing to fight and in that resolve their inner enlightenment overcame the outward darkness.

And from that historic moment evolved the tradition of the exchanging of gifts. Perhaps unlike Christmas, where shopping and giving can often be opulent, Hanukkah is about the giving of small gifts as a kind of humble way of acknowledging a festival that was a costly thing to bring about. Lives had been lost, a community had been set back on its heels, and the revitalization of the people hadn’t come through a credit card but the steep cost of struggling together in order to endure.

It has been said that existence isn’t something to be endured but to be lived. That is merely the view of someone who has forgotten the past. To the Jewish people, life is one long story, millennia old, and capable of still producing sadness intermixed with joy. For them living is testifying to the miracle of surviving and growing in collective goodness and justice. It is not about some man in a red suit with eight shiny reindeer, but about a menorah with nine lit candles that brings light at a price.

What Jared Zaifman provided in his gift of latkes and Adam Caplan prompted in his gift of traditional storytelling was a timely reminder that a worthy community doesn’t just switch on some lights, but fights for the enlightenment of all people, regardless of the cost. We all need to thank them for the lesson and their willingness to tell it in a troubled age. Happy Hanukkah.

 

A City of Soul

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THE CITY OF SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, decided it was time to get more serious about the arts. Only they didn’t undertake the task in the fashion other municipalities had tried. Believing that every aspect of the arts was vital to any future life the city had, they laid out some clear markers:

  • they would develop 6 community public art plans, identifying sites and themes for the public arts around the city
  • Surrey would compile an inventory of public and private sector cultural assets, services and facilities n the city – identifying gaps and needs
  • seek to identify needs, opportunities, space and operational requirements for a decentralized model of arts and heritage
  • identify space and resource requirements for the growth and preservation of cultural and art collections
  • assess needs and roles for effective communication of cultural values and benefits by public and community stakeholders
  • identify cultural spaces and amenities in city centre development plans

What’s important here is the sheer comprehensive nature of their undertaking. This wasn’t about merely supporting one group or another, but was instead an inspiring attempt at getting every sector of the community to buy in. Just like other communities, Surrey had been through its own economic difficulties and it would have been easy to place what many regarded as the “soft stuff” on the back burners in favour of the harder financial realities. City leaders quickly discerned the fallacy in such an approach, reasoning that if citizens lost the ability to express their emotions and celebrate, then economics alone would lead to a diminished municipality.  Numerous cities have cultural prosperity plans, but Surrey actually implemented theirs.  Great cities find a way to get it done.

What’s the point of living on the same streets if we merely become an audience. Visionary community planners understand that citizens must become players in their own performances and the best way to achieve that is to inspire them – not just with amazing arts but in giving a city some soul. As David Binder puts it:

“Twenty-first-century arts festivals] ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

Those communities that make art to be solely about money have forgotten how they initially came together through community singing, acting out life in real-time, and painting the essence of a streetscape. Only as communities grew could they eventually sustain concert halls and art galleries – a great step in their respective evolutions as communities.  Any aspiring city should seek out the arts and support them at their very best.  And when they are performed at their very best, the arts help a city to become a showcase to the world.

A city that no longer has something to sing, act, or draw about inevitably loses those higher levels of the arts that can inspire entire communities through talented performances. It is through the arts that we learn to dream together, to feel the same collective emotional tug to weep or laugh, to mourn, or to live with purpose. Participatory democracy is better flamed through the passion of the human spirit than through any other source and it is often through the culture of a city that this passion is resourced.

There are those who occasionally imply that cities and their huddled masses will destroy themselves. We have yet to see it. Just two words remind us of just how resilient cities are: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their future seemed obliterated in a millisecond, yet today they thrive, having overcome some of the worst humanity could throw at them and prevail as robust communities.

In reality, cities can survive against the most amazing odds. They come back from floods, famine, conflict, poverty, and political catastrophe because in the end their citizens still dream and find way of using their emotions, intellect, and willpower to forge their own future.

If communities die, it will be mostly because individual lights went out over the process of time. People lose hope. They feel the odds against them are too great. They grow isolated, losing the humanity in one another. The bulbs burn out and the light is gone. It is for the very purpose of restoring the human soul and spirit that the arts were born.

Why a community flourishes is every bit as important as how it does so, and it is often through the presence of artistic communities in our midst – amateur and professional – that the will to actually be a great city is generated. The day a city can no longer find its purpose will also be the day that culture must rescue it. “To be or not to be” never came from a corporate or political leader, but from a writer. The ability to find ourselves and lose ourselves in the same moment is the gift of art. And no city can ever dance when its leaders can no longer hear the music. The question should never be whether we can afford culture; it should be how can we possibly survive without it.

Tom Gosnell: The Gift of Access

FOR MANY, FORMER LONDON MAYOR TOM GOSNELL’S passing came as a shock, but in truth he had been struggling for some time. In numerous coffee shops, offices, homes, over the telephone and online, people shared their thoughts of someone who led this city through some important years and left his mark.

So many tributes and memories have been shared in the media that leave a clear sense of the man and his gift for administration and leadership. He cut an imposing figure, but was never small in spirit. He loved the rough and tumble world of sports, but was repeatedly gentle with his colleagues and visitors. Though clearly good at building a team, he nevertheless could stand alone on difficult issues because it was his belief that London deserved a chance at whatever he was fighting for.

Tom became mayor in 1985, during the precarious few months when the London Food Bank was launched. We often forget how difficult those times were economically. A recession had gripped the province and London felt the weight of it.

I had never met him before that year, though we shared numerous friends on the fire department and police services. As the new mayor, I felt it was essential to get his read on whether the city truly required a food bank. He did his research before I even entered his office for that first time. Speaking in advance with numerous social agencies and his own economic team, he made it clear that he believed a food bank was essential and asked if there was any way he could be of help. It ended up being the first of numerous trips to his office over many years.

Look at the picture on this page. We were so young then, almost 30 years ago.  Even now the photo fills me with emotion and gratitude.  It was from our very first food drive in 1986 and Tom was everywhere during that event, even assisting with picking up food from the fire stations. On one occasion a couple of years later, he drew together some of the city’s key business leaders to gain their support for one of the food bank’s initiatives on getting people back to work.

The first food drive launch - 1986

The first food drive launch – 1986 (London Free Press)

He merely had to stand at the front of the room asking for their help and they gave it without question. I’ll never forget that meeting, or the way he kept in touch with them to keep them in the loop.

When he discovered that another social agency was experiencing difficulty, he called me in and asked how he could be of help. He followed up in every detail and that agency moved forward. When, on the other hand, he believed a certain sector of the city wasn’t pulling its weight, he listened intently as Jane and I presented evidence to the contrary and quickly changed his approach. And when he believed I was wrong about something, he let me know in no uncertain terms.

Jack Burghardt was deputy mayor and a friend. One day at lunch he told me of how Tom had approached him, asking that he take on the role of keeping the council team together, along with the management team in City Hall, and preparing them for votes and challenges ahead. “He reasoned that I was good with people and he gave me a role I cherish. I respect him for that willingness to share the leadership.” That was Tom’s style – share the load, share the credit. It is the memory of many that this was one of his great gifts.

In an age that preceded social media and large efforts at citizen engagement, Tom Gosnell had an office that was always open. If, in his journeys around the city, he encountered individuals or groups that required help, they inevitably ended up in his office, guided in by the mayor’s welcoming staff. It is vital that we don’t underestimate the importance of this in a time when so many Londoners were reeling from the economic downturn.

There are numerous organizations like the London Food Bank that owe so much of their success to this mayor who didn’t just show up at press conference, but who followed up with frequent calls and continual offers to help. Like few others, Tom Gosnell offered this community the gift of access – to his office, to city expertise, to his time, and ultimately to his willingness to be a politician who felt politics was not only about vision, but about the very people who would live it. He taught so many of us by his clear example that being mayor isn’t about rank or power, but responsibility to use both of these privileges for the sake of the people who elected him. He comprehended that if he didn’t live attentively today, then tomorrow wouldn’t matter.

Tom Gosnell’s life can never be counted merely by the things he did, but by the people he challenged and enabled to lead in the city. He was a gentle giant, yes, but with a firm grip on the need for politics to prove productive and collaborative. He did it well, so well, in fact, that even the grief at his death has drawn us together – just as did his life.

Making History Without Knowing It

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ROSA PARKS ADMITTED THAT SHE WAS TIRED on that particular morning as she shuffled off to the bus stop and began a journey that was about to form part of the seminal beginning of the civil rights movement. As procedure demanded, she entered the front of the bus, paid for her ticket, then exited to the outside and re-entered through the back door to the black section. Realizing the white section was filled, the bus driver ordered Ms. Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger.

We all know what happened next and the movement her refusal helped to launch. Her own simple account of that day is still inspiring: “I had no idea history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” That was 59 years ago this month (December 1, 1955), but in so many ways average citizens have felt that kind of despair that says enough is enough. It can’t be compared to what southern blacks endured in the 1950s, but it’s been real to many citizens in London just the same.

Londoners were tired of a politics that seemed to shift our priorities to the rear of city business. On the occasion of this last civic election they refused to give in again and settle for more of the same. The effects of thousands of individual acts of conscience were cumulatively transformative, at least in the moment. The change was clear when some 800 Londoners attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new mayor and council – an occasion that rarely drew 50 people in years previous. Perhaps without realizing it, citizens were determining that the best way to find a future was to create it – a remarkable moment in time.

Tired of the status quo, they began to imagine new ways to move forward. It was is if they suddenly reminded themselves that the purpose of politics wasn’t to win elections but to govern collaboratively, and in the process they gained a new lease on life.

They also came to understand that a jaded kind of politics was something in which they had played a part. Many of them were tired of it all and had just quietly moved off to concentrate on their own private lives. But it eventually became obvious that even their personal worlds were circumscribed by a politics that under-performed. Their sense of optimism felt increasingly hemmed in, and so many among them re-engaged.

Voting as they did, Londoners were, in effect, declaring that they weren’t going to give up their hopes to that same kind of stasis that said they should merely give over local government to others and just sit back. They decided they wanted to play a part. Yes, voter turnout was up only slightly, but those who did show up actually stood up, saying, like Parks, “we were just tired of giving up.”

This council’s being successful isn’t a sure thing. The challenges before them are imposing and there are years of status quo thinking to overcome. The risks are high. Council could be tempted to spend wildly beyond its means. On the other hand, it could fail to invest sufficient resources to give the city a new sense of being. A spirit of experimentation is in the air, a willingness to entertain the unexpected. Innovation can no longer be about tweaking a little bit here or there, but can only emerge when people who care for their city are welcomed to think freely and create. For that to occur, London has to build a culture of inventiveness and originality, regarding the odd failure as a valuable lesson that inevitably gets them closer to their purpose.

Democracy was never meant to be easy. Nor was it meant to be merely top-down. Citizens and their representatives must agree to a covenant that each will do her, or his, own part. It’s been some time since Londoners felt that way, but a couple of weeks ago things clearly took on a new tone. Citizens took their seats at the swearing-in and refused to yield them up. In remarkable fashion, they were taking their own collective oath to participate in the process – remarkable.   They were there for what many hope to be the beginning of a movement. By growing tired of being tired, they, like Rosa Parks, placed a down payment on the future. Their time as Londoners has arrived and they will only succeed as they set a new direction, fulfill their covenant to one another, and derive the courage to become the heroes of their own story.

Time For a Millennial Moment

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IT’S NOT DIFFICULT TO OBSERVE THAT POLITICS, as an occupation, has entered a dark era – been in it for some time, in fact. We continue to ask ourselves how it is that good people running for office can get so disconnected from those they are supposed to represent. The chief reason is that the political system itself, predicated on a debilitating kind of partisanship, where politicians live in a bubble-like culture. Unless that system itself can be transformed, politicians themselves are doomed to ineffectiveness.

A lengthy tenure in politics definitely brings experience and know-how, the ability to communicate and glad-hand, to read a room and give the impression that people matter. But if the latter point was true the system itself would change. Experience in politics doesn’t necessarily translate to openness and innovation. It’s like we’re trapped in a time warp of decades-old animosities, relentless arguments, and a dispirited citizenry. We all know it and yet tolerate the treadmill as though nothing can be done to change it. Younger generations don’t care to engage, we’re told, and few of them look to politics personally.

And then something happens like in London, Ontario, a few weeks ago – a largely new council and mayor are swept into office and their average age is 41. So much for the idea that younger generations aren’t engaged. And, for now at least, we can put to bed the sense that they don’t care enough about politics to enter it themselves. Something is happening, and I suspect it won’t just pertain to one city.

If governing has become such a challenge and the political system appears so intractable, perhaps it’s time to look to a new generation that isn’t so inured in the present dysfunctional paradigm to have its own opportunity to attempt transformation. There will be significant complications, but it’s not as though the old system hasn’t been fraught with not only difficulties, but perpetual breakdowns.

The Millennials have something to stay at this moment in time, starting with the fact that they deem these political culture wars to be detrimental to public life. And they are finding allies among the older cohorts.  Political parties can attempt to tease them into the political battles all they like, but they are finding little resonance, other than those who already have pre-determined political mindsets.

For years it has been assumed that Millennials, as well as Gen X, hated government. That just isn’t so. What they can’t stand is a political agenda that seeks to drub others in order to win power. Millennials are intelligent enough to know that such an approach burns bridges that will eventually be required if communities are to come together. They just think that the present political approach of divide and conquer is dumb – and it is. Millennials see government as an essential partner in reaching for the world they desire. That motive was clearly on display in the recent London election, with most of the 800 present for the swearing in process of the new council were under 45 years of age.

They are also tired of hearing that government can’t fix our economic problems, that somehow it remains powerless in a globalized world. It’s a rationale that’s been used for 30 years, often as an excuse for inaction. Millennials don’t buy it, neither do Gen X-ers. Government has legislative powers for a reason, they argue, and the problem is that it presently refuses to use it, in part because internal squabbles have rendered it ineffective. British politician Iain Duncan Smith gets it just about right:

All too often, government’s response to social breakdown has been a classic case of ‘patching’ – a case of handing money out, containing problems and limiting the damage but, in doing so, supporting – even reinforcing – dysfunctional behaviour.

A new generation of citizens is emerging that won’t abide by opaque political answers. If there is a housing problem, a dysfunctional public transportation system, an ineffective response to climate change, or a politics more interested in war than progress, they say simply that such things should be fixed without delay. They mean it and they are increasingly proving that commitment by attempting to make politics relevant again. Given what’s been going on in the last few years, they can’t do any worse than what we’ve been experiencing.

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