people volunteering graphic

ONE OF THE CRUCIAL BATTLES OF OUR DAY is being fought in the political arena, but its essence is far deeper than politics. It’s more about whether constructive or destructive tendencies will define our communities than whatever person it is that we choose to lead us.

Take London, Ontario’s recent election results as an indication. The winds of change blew so completely through the community that hardly any incumbent was left standing. Citizens came out of the experience sensing it was a new day and that new players would take them in a more positive direction. In a very real sense they were correct and, following months of hard work fighting for change, deserved the opportunity to bask in it.

One nagging problem remained, however: almost 60% of the community didn’t bother to even vote. True, voter turnout was up, but in a season of obvious change the increase was marginal. Which means that if change is to be effective, somehow its mandate will need to move into new areas of citizenship that have heretofore been allowed to atrophy – left in isolation by the historic politics of ambivalence and divisive friction.

It did seem to me in this last municipal election that citizens had begun the process of circling back to the importance of government and citizen engagement. And it wasn’t only the younger generations that did so; a healthy portion of those who voted were from the older generation , who joined with those younger in their sense of frustration and the desire for something better. This was an inter-generational, or multi-generational, change that swept through the community and that should tell us something special had transpired. A kind of city mandate had been reached that said enough was enough, and that they were using their own power of choice to reverse direction, as opposed to leaving the future to the politicians themselves.

Which leads to the big question: will they stay that way? Will they come to terms with the realization that things were continually struggling, not merely because politicians weren’t up to the job, but that citizens themselves more often than not turned away in disgust instead of engaging and changing the outcomes? Four years is a long time to wait if you’re looking for change. Would it not be better to continually engage with the system (join committees, demand frequent neighbourhood meetings with councillors, bring institutions together to force politics to listen, combine social media efforts instead of always incorporated the “scatter” approach), instead of deciding to re-enter the fray at the end of a four-year cycle and hope for the best?

If we wish to actually build on change and create the kind of community we want and live the kind of citizen lives we were meant to live, then attention and not distraction is the great criteria for making change permanent and effective. We can’t say we want a certain kind of city for our children and then hide ourselves for four years and hope to achieve it. That is expecting too much of our politicians and too little of ourselves.

If the politics of places like London, Ontario are to truly mean anything in the future, then social inclusion and civic participation must be the key over-riding practice. Without them we simply return to the form of babysitting oversight that so readily characterized the political patterns of the past. Perhaps such practices could have endured had the political class held on to pubic trust rather than squandering it away in the fashion they did. Those days are now in the past, and if we desire that people return to the kind of politics that matters, then it’s time to acknowledge that political chaperones must be put aside in favour of adult participation and responsibility.

If change really has infused the hallways of city offices then it will soon enough appear on committees, public gatherings, public participation in administrative decisions, and, ultimately, a deeper public monitoring of political decisions that involve all of us.

Has change come to London? Well, that depends on who we are expecting to be the agents of change. If it is merely the new political council we have recently elected, then we are doomed to disappointment – not because they aren’t sincere, but because the system itself can only be renewed by more citizen activism and not merely better politicians. Should we have little intention of showing up again for the next four years, then our great democratic experiment will remain just that – a trial run that never matured into a structural and communal reality.

We’re back. Citizens, even if only incrementally, decided to mix things up a bit, donned jerseys, and got back on the field. Should they grow distracted by their own personal pursuits in the months ahead, then change itself will have to be postponed once more because we couldn’t capitalize on it. We can’t merely change our destination in an instant, but we can change our direction. And for that we require citizens to pay attention and assist in driving our political institutions into a new era. Change is not a place but a process, and it should never cease until a truly equitable, prosperous, and inclusive society is achieved. “The village is coming back, like it or not,” wrote David Brin in his book Tomorrow Happens. But for how long remains the deep and abiding question.