The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: collaboration

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition

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IN ITS OWN WAY, THE LONDON FOOD BANK’S fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien – articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation’s focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

Politics Without the Politics

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Read this post on National Newswatch here.

IN IRONIC FASHION, POLITICS IS SEEING a resurgence in Canada – not the kind that swirls around professional political parties but the kind which inevitably finds its way in discussions in coffee shops, among neighbours and employees, even between parents and their high school or university-aged kids. It’s not the rants between partisans that we have grown so used to and rejected, but open conversations about all those aspects of citizenship that we must live out together.

There was a time not all that long ago when people pined for this true essence of democracy. It’s been some time coming. Politics had become what citizens saw on television, and in social media, or encountered with indifferent bureaucracies, negative campaigning, and partisans raising their fists across the aisle at their opponents.

Nevertheless, while we look for the end of blind hostilities, the same can’t be said for the things the political class continues to scrap over. Climate change matters to us, as does education, healthcare, poverty, joblessness, and the need to better provide for our children. And, surprisingly perhaps, we yet look to politics to assist in solving those problems – just not the dysfunctional sort we encounter in Question Period. We are intelligent enough to know that it is politics itself that is meant to draw us together in times of national and international challenge. And so we refuse to give up on the political options as citizens that were meant to appeal to the better angels of our collective nature.

We have been through decades of hearing that government itself has been the cause of our discontent. It’s a narrative that has resonated with Canadians because we see the results in our national distemper, our decaying infrastructure, our growing inequities, and our almost absolute lack of dealing with a natural environment that is itself in crisis.

Yet now, with the devastating fires in Fort McMurray, we understand once again why politics is important. Even those who traditionally rail against government intervention are now requesting assistance from every political level and are demanding that parties refuse to be partisan about it.

Flint, Michigan, has recently endured its own catastrophe with the defilement of its water. While the Republican candidates for president were campaigning for smaller government, the people of Flint called on them to visit the area and see exactly what leaner and incompetent government had created. And then President Obama came to the city, providing an able defense on why citizens require a politics that is bigger than mere individual pursuits. As reported in Politicususa, Obama mused:

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how responsible you are, how you raise your kids. You can’t set up a whole water system for a city. That’s not something you do by yourself. You do it with other people. There are things we have to do together, basic things that we all benefit from. Volunteers don’t build water systems and keep lead from leaching into our drinking glasses. We can’t rely on faith groups to reinforce bridges and repave runways at the airport. We can’t ask second graders to raise enough money to keep our kids healthy. These are the most basic services. There’s no more basic element sustaining human life than water. It’s not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is going to be safe.”

Wrapping up, Obama exhorted, “We’ve got to fix the culture of neglect.” Who can deny it? The issue isn’t about big or small government, but effective and capable leadership and management. That takes resources, a focus on the essentials, and the kind of partisanship that clarifies the issue, as opposed to burying it under enmity.

Canadians aren’t fools, blindly believing that their democracy is enhanced by hamstringing government. But neither do they accept party promises that if people would only vote for them and turn over to them the keys of power that their lot will naturally be improved. They expect a politics that actually works. Should that transpire, then they are willing to accept that government has a vital and activating place in their collective life.

This country has progressed for 150 years, not through ideological belief but practical co-existence. What the political parties see as “politics” Canadians choose to view as people working together in collaborative fashion to keep a remarkably decentralized country together. Enact those principles and citizens will be prepared to let effective government back into their collective life as a catalyst for progress and management.

Twitter and Growing Out of Touch

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SO, TWITTER HAS ENCOUNTERED SOME TURBULENCE, and not for the first time.  The company’s quarterly earnings report sent its stock price circling downwards. But it’s even worse than that, as former users in significant numbers abandon what had once been a popular platform for quick and incisive communication in favour of more pleasing options such as Snapchat and Instagram.

Michelle Fleury, BBC business reporter, suggested yesterday that Twitter execs consider how Wall Street sees them. Twitter’s inability to add significant numbers of new users has got investors thinking that the company’s best days might have passed. Twitter let go 8% of its workforce in an effort to appease investors, but unless new users come aboard quickly, Twitter, once the darling of the social media set, might still be perceived as a dying force.

Another BBC reporter, Dave Lee, challenged Twitter leaders to view themselves as the techies in Silicon Valley see them. Despite having a clearly recognizable brand known by millions worldwide, fewer and fewer of those aware of Twitter are signing up and getting involved. A big part of the reason, Lee suggests, is that Twitter is bringing new tools and innovations too slowly to keep people interested and to attract new users.

But then there’s the third group, and they are the biggie. Along with investors and the tech industry, there is the general public – all those citizens who initially took to Twitter to create a new generation of engagers. Yes, a good number of them are intrigued by other options and moving on to different platforms, but the real root of Twitter’s decline lies elsewhere.

People initially took to Twitter because it provided them a fast and easy way to speak their minds. Yet by creating a generation of users that focused more on giving an opinion before even endeavouring to understand issues more deeply, Twitter became a platform for abuse, leaving us separated from one another in ways we can’t fully fathom. The organization’s very openness resulted  in people closing it down on their personal screens. More frequently than anything else, it is this complaint that is heard from those who have moved on from the app.

Twitter’s difficulties roughly coincide with the online comments that so quickly came to define the life of newspapers. Understaffed and under-resourced, most papers left the field open to anyone desiring to comment. It quickly went from a sphere of ideas to a swamp of intolerance and bigotry. Readers no longer had the patience to locate the more responsible comments because of the carnage wrought by the abusers. The engager’s field of dreams became a war zone. Faced with increasing risks of liability, individual papers, and even entire syndicates, began the process of shutting down the online comment sections before they lost support altogether.

Twitter is approaching that same moment with destiny. Instead of becoming the theatre for the wisdom of citizens, it quickly became the weapon of choice for the bigots, trolls, self-made critics, and stalkers. People can still spot the value of Twitter but are growing increasingly impatient with the sewage that goes along with it.

Twitter was to become the fulsome dream of future generations, the great online citizen’s assembly, a responsive engagement tool, a fundamental necessity for start-ups, and a generator of new ideas. But, as with any business, once the abusers reach a critical level of harassment, customers stop coming back.

So, yes, Twitter has to address the concerns of Wall Street and of Silicon Valley, but its greatest challenge lies on Main Street, from where the majority of its users emerged and to where it must ultimately return if it is to survive. It is a street where human decency and respectability season the diverging opinions of the tweeters. The less Twitter respects that reality, the more rapid will be its decline. It is increasingly becoming the favoured venue for short tempers, hurled insults, even creepy behavior.

And yet millions of us still yearn to explore the possibilities of Twitter. All that we ask is that the company enact policies that permit us to journey on its massive potential in security, trust, and at least a modicum of respect. Make no mistake about it, Twitter can still be a preferred tool for those seeking to build a more open and progressive world, but it is rapidly becoming the poster child for the deeper, more troubling waters now emerging in social media. Opinions and debates are important to our future, but not when couched in insults, lies, deceits, and, yes, borderline criminal behavior. The best way those of us who appreciate Twitter can be of service is to demand the same brand of conduct that we would wish to see in a private home, an open street, an assembly hall, or a Parliament. In a world that has become too sinister, we require a Twitter than can enable us to speak decently and respectfully again.

Innovation Agents

 

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ONE OF THE GREAT CRITICISMS THAT HAS that always confronted the World Economic Summit in Davos each and every year is that its pronouncements sounds so grandiose and global when in fact little, if anything, concrete seems to come from all that talk and collaboration. We need evidence, the kind that is supposed to emerge when connected minds and collaborative intelligence get together and map out a way forward. Proof of what is possible is far more important to the billions in this world than mere projections of what could be.

In numerous and provocative dimensions this is what billionaire and elite rebel Nick Hanauer has been prodding his peers to do: get real. Yet he understands that financial reform will prove impossible without political renewal. As long as the political spectrum remains as rigid and ideologically fixed as it has shown in recent decades, any sense of change in world finance won’t find a willing partner in transformation politics.

Hanauer points out that many of the greatest democratic movements occurred far away from the apex of power, in regional areas where citizens successfully mobilized on issues ranging from pensions to affordable health care. Often the reason is not merely due to the dynamic resources of those pressing for change, but the demoralizing inflexibility coming from party central – all parties.

“The politicians just don’t get it, and haven’t for years,” he observes. “The Right screams for growth and the Left keeps calling for fairness – and they both just keep losing legitimacy.”

It’s really not in the nature of government to innovate, except on rare occasions. Governments have historically been viewed as providing stability, maintaining the status quo, but that has become precisely the problem in the modern era. Political parties remain entrenched, making renewal all but impossible. In such a setting, how will they take risks, thinking radically outside the box, or even take the lead from outside forces. It’s true that governments around the world became far too easily influenced by free market ideologies, but that has now left both politics and capitalism as appearing unable to solve our greatest problems. While political leaders in places like Davos acknowledge that financial inequality has become one of our greatest challenges, they see no desire for change from the financial order and so remain mired in their redundancy. The status quo no longer works because far too many people are being left out of the wealth being generated.

Not even a year ago, the Coordination of National Digital Strategy of Mexico launched a program called “Innovation Agent.” They invited leaders from within both government and capitalism and asked them to think of the great global challenges in the way average people would see them. Over the course of time the organizers easily spotted the true innovators from both sectors and were amazed at how they worked together to formulate solutions.

Yet the success of the exercise wasn’t so much predicated upon the ability of the participants to start thinking like average people as it was the freedom the innovators felt once removed from the stifling orthodoxies and ideologies of both politics and business. The business innovators showed remarkable dexterity, not only in admitting corporate failures but of the need for governments to take on a more equitable leadership role. And the politicians? Once they were freed from partisan constraints, they were far more effective in designing collaborate solutions that showed promise.

Participants in the exercise acknowledged that in order to build governments and businesses that truly apply themselves to the challenges before the world they must get out of being isolated from citizens in general. Innovation didn’t come for the participants until they were willing to entertain the possibility of destroying the old paradigms and partisan leanings.

To succeed in reforming both politics and business we must find some way to get them outside of their comfortable confines and into communities where the greatest kinds of innovations play out. The governing and corporate sectors have come to be exclusively defined by three general terms – size, money, and power. Until they both work together to change that perception, it will only be a matter of time, as Hanauer repeatedly claims, until everything collapses due to irrelevance.

Democracy’s Urban Face

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SOME SERIOUS MOVEMENT AT LAST. During President Obama’s visit to China, it was announced that the two superpowers – the world’s largest economies, as well as the largest polluters on the globe – had reached an accord that would see the United States cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26-2% before the year 2025. China signed on to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. In a world where climate change have fallen off the front page headlines, this is a significant move forward and is likely to resurrect global climate talks.

Canada responded in that familiar fashion that has earned the scorn of many nations by saying it would attempt to link its plan to that of the U.S.. Sadly, there is no concrete plan to do so, and if past history is any indication, lack of any clear federal action will lead to forgetfulness. That’s the plan, confirmed again when Canada’s poor environmental performance was centre stage again last week as it was announced that we are at the top of the list when it comes to global deforestation. More than one-fifth – 21.4% – of global deforestation occurs in Canada, a recent study has discovered. Russia is in second place. Brazil, often derided for its deforestation of its massive rainforest, stands at 14% – well below Canada.

There are reasons why the Americans have taken on a form of environmental leadership and Canada has lagged behind that involve more than just federal governments responding to a global challenge. Put simply, it’s a matter of cities.

Sometime in 2009, for the first time in history, more people lived inside cities than outside of them. But the indications of the rapid rise of urban importance were already in the wind for anyone willing to take notice.

Tired of waiting for national governments to take action, cities around the world have taken on ambitious plans to fill in the vacuum. Prior to the US/China agreement, nation states around the world were noted more for their bickering than bargaining. Housing half the world’s population, cities simply couldn’t afford to wait any further and have been reaching out to one another, despite distance, cultural and linguistic complications, and their lack of formalized networking.

Put simply: the future of democracy has a decidedly urban face. Solutions are often best found where problems exist, and in the world of economics and social cohesion, cities form the vast network of laboratories where effects can be researched and bettered. It’s clear that cities are becoming more ambitious when it comes to solving difficulties because it’s not only effective, but within their own best interests.

Another aspect that’s becoming obvious is that municipalities are filling in the void created when senior government levels lost the imagination for solving societal ills. Obama’s agreement with China is a welcome development, but it does little to alter the global stasis that has resulted from nation states constantly debating one another in their own self-obsession.

Cities, and many prominent present and past mayors, aren’t waiting around any longer. For all their importance, international climate change conferences have yielded little, and the effects of such failures will be felt most catastrophically in cities – especially those close to oceans and seas. Something has to happen, and fast.  And while nations fiddle, cities are acting.

Yet in Canada, movement in this direction has been slower than we would hope. While groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are working on vast collaboration networks among cities, the results haven’t been up to the speed at which the federal government has abandoned its leadership role.

Perhaps that’s about to change, as a large number of Canada’s major cities meet regularly under the rubric of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus and have increasingly placed the environment as front and central to their future deliberations. In the absence of federal leadership (with some provincial laggards), these mayors should formalize themselves into a working body of municipal elected officials who will work together across the country to bring about the kind of coordination that could run counter to our troubling international decline on the climate change file. Cities could co-jointly set targets, help and challenge one another, and begin demanding that the feds wake up before it is too late.

Leadership as we know it has to change. For too long we have permitted politicians to list the various crises in our society without forcing them to admit that they are largely the cause. Less than 20% of Canadians trust their political leaders specifically because they are perceived to be asleep at the switch while our problems mount. Those who have the power to lead also have the power to stall – a reality rapidly becoming our federal narrative. Cities can no longer afford to tarry. Our effective future leaders will be mayors, not prime ministers.

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