The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: leadership

No Need For Persuasion


JUST WHEN YOU THINK NATIONAL POLITICS appears firmly cemented into the realm of hyper-partisan and unimaginative policies comes along a candidate who causes us to think different. Sometimes the effect of such a presence is profound, as I discovered over the holidays reading U. S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s gritty, A Fighting Chance. The New York Times describes the book as, “a potent mix of memoir and policy,” as indeed it is. Her presence in the political dimension is energizing enough to spend more than one post on her influence. She’s rapidly becoming the most captivating political personality in years.

Yes, Warren is a Democrat, and, yes, she comes from the progressive spectrum. But she is best described as a populist, as seen in the massive movement of middle-class citizens who have found in her practical reasoning and delightful courage a cause for hope. Tired of elitist politics, millions have come to see her as the best choice for president over people like Hillary Clinton or any Republican candidate. And because of that very reality she has become dangerous to the establishment on the Left and Right of the political spectrum.

Put simply, she has successfully launched a new wave involving millions of citizens who are buying into an agenda for political and economic change. It’s important to note that Warren didn’t woo people into such a decision; they were already there, energized and increasingly angry. It’s foolish to think that these people needed convincing and were mere kindling for Warren’s fiery rhetoric.  They lived through a number of decades which saw billions of dollars poured into politics and trillions into a globalized financial system with little to show for it in their own personal progress. So convincing them wasn’t necessary. They are savvy enough to know when the game is fixed, frustrated enough to feel they can’t prevail over an unjust economic order, but just furious enough to stay in the arena and fight back. And Elizabeth Warren has assisted them in understanding their potential for change. Whereas Obama’s early calls for change had been more of a social phenomenon, Warren’s clearly comes from a desire for equity and economic justice.

But the reality is that she has won over so many people specifically because she credits the average person with being smart enough to know something is wrong and human enough to demand change. In drawing a direct link between economic justice and financial reform she has located the sweet spot of middle-class angst.

To give us just a fleeting sense of her outlook, here’s a brief portion of her recent speech to the New Populism Conference last May:

“From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working groups get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. The game is rigged by powerful interests – against the rest of us. If Wall Street can borrow money at 0.75% interest, why can’t we? Our college kids are getting crushed by student loan debt. We need to rebuild our roads and bridges and upgrade our power grids. We need more investment in research. But instead of building a future, this country is bleeding billions of dollars in tax loopholes and subsidies that go to the wealthy and profitable corporations. For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in the public. Because it’s a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors. The game is rigged. The rich and the powerful have lobbyists, and lawyers, and plenty of friends in Congress. Everyone else, not so much. Now we can whine about it. We can whimper. Or we can fight back. Me? I’m fighting back.”

Words like these have been uttered before, but not usually by someone so high up the political ladder and who has effectively galvanized millions of people behind the message. Yes, she’s dangerous – not merely because of her rhetoric, but because of the movement she is assisting to create. Just in time for national elections looming north and south of the 49th parallel has come a voice that counts more on people like us than her own influence. It’s a start. But it’s not the finish.  It might by the early days of the new year, but the old fight continues.

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.

Ayodele Adewale – Turning Activism Into a Political Miracle


BEING THE MAYOR OF A TEEMING AND PROBLEMATIC MEGACITY in Africa can’t possibly be easy, and yet Ayodele Adewale has somehow managed it. Now into his second term as the head elected official of Lagos, he has earned the respect of his citizens despite the highly chaotic and dysfunctional national political situation in Nigeria. His city is the second fastest growing metropolis on the continent of Africa and the seventh in the entire world. It’s growing exponentially and requires a mayor who can somehow keep up with it.

Adewale has earned a global reputation as a shrewd strategist and diplomat, but what most don’t know is that he isn’t even 40 years old yet. A government bureaucrat and a chemistry major prior to his election, he has exhibited wisdom beyond his years and skills beyond his academic studies.

Nigeria has coffers overflowing with oil money. Unfortunately, the influx of so much cash and investment, has led to increased corruption and poor politics. A citizen activist for most of his years, Ayodele has decided to chart a different course and the inhabitants of his city, fed up with all the years of waste and crime, have provided key support for his many reforms. He’s blunt about his view of politics:

“Activism is just a medium of expressing yourself, particularly if you have a government that is not pro-active or a government that does not obey the rule of law. Then you have the right to civil disobedience. Activism does not mean that you’re not part of the society and does not make you an angel.”

True, but in his case it has turned him into an agent of change, despite his youth. Political dysfunction is one of the key reasons those of younger generations have turned away from politics altogether as a source of hope. Adewale claims it’s time to change that approach. While acknowledging that the young are viewed as not mature enough by older politicians, he has remained determined to bridge the divide between the younger and older generations, many of whom run key political institutions.

To prove his point, he ran for office, claiming, “The most excellent way to convince people that this change is feasible is to contest for an elective position in government where you will have the authority to effect the changes you consider appropriate that would make a difference.”

Once elected, he set about achieving goals that proved just what he said was possible:

  • Created thousands of jobs in important public sectors, including education and health. Over 6,000 of these were aimed directly at young people;
  • Promoted an expansive new online schooling project;
  • In a fascinating initiative, he has introduced a city-sponsored microcredit program at near-zero interest for people who can secure a reputable sponsor;
  • Created a community newspaper as a city engagement platform and urging citizens to town hall sessions;
  • Building recycling plants capable of yielding bio-fuels as part of the city environmental program.

He is a remarkable young man who is rapidly transforming his city into one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises and capitalizing on the skills of youth in the process. Through his efforts people are turning to politics again, not only as a noble institution, but also as a calling. We need some of that in the West, in Canada, and right now in London, Ontario.

Top, Bottom, Inside, Outside

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“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  So said perhaps the pivotal voice on cities, Jane Jacobs, in her, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

I rather prefer Italo Calvino’s observation that, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

At present, millions of us entertain questions about the places in which we live.  They can be as great as, “Will our city continue to prosper?” to, “When will they plow my street?”  Cities, overall, represent a vast array of intersections between individual and collective designs and pursuits.  Cities are great, but they are remarkably complex and confounding things.

Which makes the London X conference, taking place this weekend in my hometown so typical of the modern era.  We are a city hiding in our own shadow, lest the sun’s rays reveal even more of our insecurities.  We’ve tried everything to reboot, but to little avail.  Initially we attempted top-down ideas, only to discover that our community was tired of the old ways of elites making decisions for others.

And so we proceeded to try a vast array of bottom-up initiatives, gathering the grassroots and adding a populist voice to our city’s aspirations, but experienced great difficulty gathering them all together into a movement.

Then we attempted to move from the inside-out, only to discover that our city’s institutions seemed somehow risk-averse, worried lest their vital hold on London’s life be lost through reaching.  We’ve had big plans and talked a good game, but in the end it appeared as though these great groups appeared to lack the courage of their own convictions.  This was especially true of our political class.

And now we have come to a new phase in our current struggles.  The group Emerging Leaders has opted to step up and ask for some outside voices, passionate speakers in their own way, to bring their world to us and help us to see how we might perform some of our own miracles that could once again place us on a level of one of Canada’s great cities.  Call it the “outside-in” approach.  It might just be the ticket to move of us off of dead-centre and into the mainstream of innovation and creativity.

Again, it’s not the big players coming together to host the conference, but a rather fledgling group, with little in the way of funds, but rather huge in the realm of ideas.  By partnering with the London Community Foundation, they have been able to pull off a major event.  And by landing über popular Calgary mayor, Naheed Nenshi, to deliver the keynote address this coming Saturday, Emerging Leaders is reminding its community that part of its rebuilding process is going to be discovering how other cities reshaped their future and became relevant to new possibilities.

UnknownGrant Oliphant, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, has some interesting things to tell us at the conference as well – developments than run eerily parallel to the challenges London presently faces.  Pittsburgh’s renaissance is now old news, but how they accomplished it in such a short period of time is both remarkable and teachable.  Thanks to his leadership, Oliphant took one of the older, more established community players and turned his city’s foundation into a catalyst for relevancy.  Along the way, the community rediscovered new life along its waterfront and new vigor in its bones.  There is nothing that Pittsburgh possessed that London doesn’t.

The final speaker is Randal Charlton, and he knows a thing or two about being down on his luck.  A former journalist, dairy farmer, jazz club manager, and consultant with a global bank, he also led failed businesses and faced numerous personal challenges – justFE-RCharlton-240 like the city of Detroit where he lived.  The community faced a 20% unemployment rate, along with the almost near collapse of its famous auto industry.  Traditional approaches never seemed to work.  Then Charlton cooperated with Wayne State University to build TechTown – a business incubator.  In short, he was charged with developing a more entrepreneurial culture in Detroit instead of merely following traditional patterns.  Neither he nor the university could accept the status quo any longer and the decided to challenge the city to head in a new direction.  Their success is the stuff of national coverage, but it was in the details of how they set up that new entrepreneurship that the real story is told.  Charlton will explain it all on Saturday.

Two top women leaders were to speak at London X but due to scheduling pressures had to back off at the last minute.  That’s too bad because some remarkable women pathfinders have taken part in the new urban renaissance.  Hopefully we’ll hear some of those voices in a follow-up conference.

In this new world of possibility for cities, beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in the builders of the reinvigorated cities that include all of us and answers our questions as to why we choose to live where we do.

The excitement around London X is palpable, and right now this community could use a strong dose of the possible. The good citizens and leaders of London just have to believe they can pull it off.



War and Place



This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.  I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.  The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it.  We cannot afford to lose it.  One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support.  But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington.  It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered one of the greatest verbal challenges ever to confront American legislators.  And in case anyone wondered as to the veracity of his claim, Johnson termed it as a “war,” and he began the process of placing the nation on a war footing of moral commitment to the tens of millions trapped in the confines of poverty.

Was that war won?  The answer is clearly “no.”  On the other hand, significant numbers of Americans were raised from poverty’s clutches in order to embrace a more prosperous life.  The legislation and societal commitment was as immense as anything the country had ever witnessed and that kind of investment was bound to have some positive effect.

Perhaps it would be better to frame it this way: What if Johnson had never mobilized the levers of power and economy as he did?  Martha Burk, of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, recently talked about a Columbia University study that showed that the 19% poverty rate at the time of the announcement would have risen to a staggering 31% if Johnson hadn’t acted.  Burk then went on to highlight an ugly truth: “As a country, we’re getting stingier, not more generous with the poor – who, by the way, are mostly women and kids … All this adds up to a war on the poor instead of a war on poverty.  Where is L.B.J. when we need him?”

Indeed.  Where are those imaginative leaders who would take encroaching poverty seriously enough to wage a major fight against it?  When will they help us to understand that the poor are among us, not sequestered in certain areas, but living on our streets?  Their kids play with our kids.  The new face of poverty is that of the working poor, with men and women employed full-time for wages that can’t sustain a basic living. 

Today, everything is about the war over the middle-class and which party will capture enough of it to gain government.  But the closer we get to elections, the nearer we will get to fighting over poverty as opposed to tackling it outright.  Each party will have its own idea and seek to overcome the others with it.  But this is about us – all of us.  It’s about our political class laying out a strategy for closing the gap between the rich and poor, for eliminating child and senior poverty, and for resourcing our communities to fight on the home front, where we live, and where our citizens struggle.  And then it must be about those parties coming together in consensus to pass the legislation necessary to turn the tide.  It will involve innovation and social enterprise, a community sense of justice and a national sense of purpose.  And it will take governments to acknowledge the reality that poverty is a national shame, especially as it increases.

Please take the six minutes to watch Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress here on his intention to fight poverty at every level.  He doesn’t talk about Democrats doing it, but both parties and all of Congress.  He speaks personally but then talks about having the privilege of power to fight a national scourge.  Yes, people were more trusting of their governments then, but the only way to win that trust back if you are the political class is to dream like this again, and challenge each and every one of us to fight for our fellow citizens to have a fair shot at peace and prosperity.

The war on poverty was never won – in the U.S. or Canada.  But progress was made.  Now those advances are falling back into decline.  We need women and men in leadership to help us dream of an equitable society once again.  Should they choose not to lead in this war, it will only continue on another level and will result in the dislocation of our communities. Presently, the poor among us are locked in place, unable to improve their situation because of these swirling times of economic change and our inability to come together as a society to dream once more.  War or stuck in place – the choice remains ours.

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