The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: innovation

Smart and Caring

Smart and CaringThis week the Conference Board of Canada published a significant report relating Canada’s standing on things like child poverty, inequality and gender equity. Sadly, our “social score” has been sliding down in recent years, leaving us 7th out of 17 developed countries.

For those fighting poverty it is hard to argue with the conclusions drawn up in the report, such as: “Our middle-of-the-pack ranking means we are not living up to our reputation or potential.” It’s true and we’ve felt it for years. By continuing to compare ourselves with other nations in such issues we lull ourselves into a false sense of security. The key for any nation is to compare itself with itself – past promises, commitments, aspirations, investments, its own history. Judged in this context, Canada has been declining.

Yet a report of this scope often fails to take account of the actions taken by communities against the increasing reality of poverty. While it remains true that governments across the land have failed to develop and effectively resource cooperative ventures to deal with realities like aboriginal and child poverty, homelessness, even unemployment, the majority of our communities are endeavouring to find ways to reverse such neglect.

London, Ontario, my home, has witnessed more than its share of economic challenges in the last few years, exacerbated by the loss of manufacturing, stubbornly high unemployment, and political dysfunction. It hasn’t been easy. Sensing the lack of investment and interest from higher levels, London has been attempting to pull itself together at the local level in ways that have actually inspired hope and innovation. Coalitions have been coming together on issues like social service reform, housing and homelessness, affordable housing, mental health coordination, and food security.

No clearer measure of how our community is upping its game can be seen than in a change of direction of one of its key funders. The London Community Foundation has invested in community building measures for over 50 years, becoming one of this country’s top 10 foundations in the process. Yet something has occurred in the last two years that has, to a certain degree, seen it reinvent itself.

It listened to the challenge of Governor General David Johnston to build more “smart and caring” communities and decided to make it its own. Recognizing the overall rise of poverty, it set about to fund those initiatives that might more effectively assist those struggling in poverty’s grip. It struck up new task forces, worked with other local groups to define the challenges, undertook research, and began drafting in people and organizations that could halt the decline.

When the London Community Foundation announced recently that it would be investing $500,000 in affordable housing, it came as a surprise to many. It was a marked departure from its previous patterns, but it signaled a new era in community response. Bill Brady, a former Foundation board member, commented recently that the affordable housing measure, “Is perhaps the most exciting development in the Foundation’s history that I can recall.”

The ability to think outside the box and previous patterns isn’t unique to just the Foundation in London. Groups like the United Way, WOTCH mental health services, faith organizations, My Sister’s Place, even the London Police Department, to name but a few, have stretched themselves to develop innovative ways of breaking poverty’s grip.

The lack of effective government response in recent years has left our communities challenged but hardly stagnant. Powerful trends are shifting the roles that local actors play. The old ways of doing things are being fundamentally changed and challenged.

None of this takes away from the importance of conclusions drawn by the Conference Board of Canada’s recent report; they are valid and disturbing at the same time. Governments have a role to play and must come back to the table instead of shrinking away in silence. But it doesn’t mean that Canadians have gone to sleep in the face of such challenges. Losing confidence in the abilities of governments, and even the global financial system, they have turned to creativity within their local environs to deal with the downward pull of poverty. We are learning that civil society plays a key role in modeling the kind of organizations, individuals, movements and partnerships that help us recognize the public good, a sense of service, trust, and cooperation that will be required to prepare our communities for the coming age.

Governor General Johnston’s challenge for “smart and caring communities” is moving through the streets of where we live and reshaping how we look at our cities and one another. We are “coming of age” as communities – especially in how we treat the marginalized in our midst. However we address the challenges listed in the Conference Board’s report, civil society, awakening from its slumber, will be the key driver and innovator in tomorrow’s communities.

Citizen Gifts – Innovation

fire in handsDifficult economic times have a tendency to get communities to pull into themselves. No light appears at the end of the tunnel, no dawn on the horizon. The longer we remain in such circumstances the easier it becomes to just go along to get along. Citizens pass by and acknowledge one another, but no sparks are kindled, no dreams established. Citizenship, even democracy, often succumbs and “goes dark” for a time.

But there are those who refuse to adopt the spirit of such an age and work relentlessly to bring new measures of hope and adaptability to society, ruminating in their minds about how best they can aid humanity. Famed Canadian author, Robertson Davies, wrote stories about such people, saying, “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

For one brief 20-year period (1735-1755) some of the “extraordinary” people refused to succumb to the difficult years previous and brought a remarkable amount of innovation to their generation – so much so that the word “optimism” was used for the first time in 1737.

The accomplishments began to unfold when Linnaeus named and classified all of known botany. The French naturalist Comte de Buffon systematized all of natural history into a 36-volume set. Thinkers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Scotsman David Hume plumbed the depths of the nature of humanity and the moral foundations of law and science that it proposed to live by. We are all aware of Benjamin Franklin, his kite, and how he demonstrated electricity from lightning. Samuel Johnson, summoning up great individual effort, gave the English language its first dictionary. The first set of Encyclopedias was developed in France by Denis Diderot.

No less than 150 newspapers and journals circulated throughout England during those 20 years. The novel was first developed. At its first London performance, Handel’s Messiah created such a profound impression that by the time of “Hallelujah Chorus” at its conclusion, King George II rose to his feet, along with the rest of the audience – a tradition still practiced to this day. Someone destined to shape the progress of the American continent – Thomas Jefferson – was born during these years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau composed his Social Contract on the rights and responsibilities of self-government.

This list could go for a time yet, but just this cursory look reveals a remarkable era of innovation, social solidarity, spirituality, and knowledge that blossomed in what has been termed the Enlightenment. And what we discover is that much of the groundwork for these developments took place in the dark age that preceded their eventual unfolding. They worked through the days of despair in order to deliver to humanity a progressive view of itself.

These were the things that “appeared” over a two-decade period of time. But what is just as remarkable is what declined or disappeared as a result of that era. Child labour was eventually banished. The insane were delivered from the harsh treatment they historically received and provided more support. Death penalties were done away with or reduced. Perhaps most significant of all, a spark was lit that led to the abolition of slavery.

This last development reveals a clear sign of how humanity was looking at itself through a new and developing lens. It was personified in William Wilberforce who later built on the work of the Enlightenment thinkers and stirred a great movement among citizens that was to eventually force the hand of governments and their empires. His efforts are often portrayed as lofty and, at times, elitist, but a look at his everyday activities reveals a citizen in motion, engaging his peers in the process. He led a movement that held countless meetings, printed pamphlets, collected information on the horrors of slavery, and advocated governments to change the law. Wilberforce’s success at galvanizing other citizens became profound and powerful enough that in the end governments had to listen. In the words of one commentator, “the energized citizenry melted the hard prudence of statesmen.” A few years later slavery was finally abolished in the British empire.

From the worst of times can come the best of times. “Optimism” can again become a more prominent part of our collective demeanour. For centuries people believed that the powers that be simply controlled too much of the economic, social and religious structures and that resistance was futile. But as citizens began backing causes, pursuing the betterment of humanity, and coming together, cracks began to appear in the governing structures. Autocracies crumbled in the wake of a people energized about their own generation.

I know citizens – good people all – who are breaking the ground for a new age of equity, opportunity and basic fairness. They are meeting in the real birthplaces of democracy – homes, board rooms, coffee shops, libraries, even churches, and they are planting seeds on hardened soil. But the ground will eventually break and their diligent efforts will prepare us for a new age of democracy.

The entire original Christmas story tells of one grand act of innovation.  Clearly, few were expecting it. A manger? Shepherds? Wisemen? A star? It was a bold new stroke in the broad tapestry of humanity and it taught us that innovation is possible in any age. This holiday season a timely gift would be to provide those who you know are fighting the good fight with the support and belief they require to change their world. It’s what brings imagination to citizenship and hope to our age.

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