The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Ontario

For Libraries, It’s Their Time

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Ferguson Library During the Crisis

 

LOOKING BACK ON A LIFE THAT HAD FAR more twists and turns than most of us could endure, Lemony Snicket considered one aspect of his journey that provided him solace: “A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up reading them.” To that list could be added the extra dimensions of viewing, listening, dialogue, and social media.

It’s likely we know this already, yet in some of the most significant happenings of modern life – many of them tragic in nature – libraries having taken on the roles of consolers, citizen guardians, event educators, and, in some senses, emergency agencies. Some examples.

Consider how Ferguson, Missouri’s, libraries stepped into the breach of social conflict, legal confusion, and general unrest following the Grand Jury’s decision to decline to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown a year ago. By any measurement the community was facing a defining moment. With local schools closed, along with others buildings, the city’s library system went to work in ways nothing less than transformational. They remained open and welcoming for students to be taught by working and retired teachers, in what was termed as the city’s “ad hoc school on the fly.” Reaching even further, the libraries hosted the U. S. Small Business Administration in order to provide emergency loans, and the U. S. Secretary of State Department to provide document recovery and preservation services. Extending their reach out into the community, library staff circulated “healing kits,” filled with books, stuffed animals, and activities to help Ferguson’s children cope with the tensions of what they were seeing and feeling. When the worst of it was over, citizens realized that they could never quite look at their libraries the same ever again.

Libraries in Connecticut and New Jersey welcomed residents under assault from Hurricane Sandy, and who found themselves without power, by providing spaces for emergency services. They also hosted citizen dialogue sessions that encouraging locals to “talk through” with one another their stories, frustrations, and sense of loss. Those conversations inevitably became circles of hope – something that would never have transpired unless the libraries moved beyond their traditional mandates.

Public libraries are now more popular than at any other time in their existence, which is saying something, considering that they were some of the first physical structures to appear in our communities. In a world changing every day through dramatic technological innovations, libraries have kept themselves relevant by keeping pace with such developments.

And they are discovering new ways to enhance those communities in which they function. In London, Ontario, the city’s library system has taken on the vital partnership role of helping its community to think of how the Thames River might take on a more pivotal role in the quality of life of citizens. In an effort spearheaded by the London Community Foundation, local libraries will serve as information collection and disbursement centers, as individuals, organizations, businesses, and entire neighbourhoods are consulted as to how the historic waterway system might assist us in coming to terms with our future in ways that will preserve river’s integral and sustainable relationship with a people and its land. More will be announced by the London Community Foundation as to public sessions and the library’s vital role in it all.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries,” noted Walter Cronkite, “the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” And now we can add the observation that our libraries are now healing and transforming communities, helping them to discover a new future. Quite a bargain.

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.

Showing Up

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Last Saturday night I gave a speech, in which I endorsed Matt Brown’s candidacy for mayor of London, Ontario.  Later, a number of people asked if they could acquire a copy.  I had spoken spontaneously and had no written record, so I informed them that I would write down what I could recall of the speech and put it in my blog.  Below is the text of that speech.  Following all the research undertaken in recent weeks on the need for mayors with a new outlook on citizenship, I am only too happy to vote for Matt and the respect for the average citizen which I believe he will bring to politics.


 

I’m at this rally tonight for Matt Brown because I’m tired. For decades my wife, Jane, and I have fought for pro-democracy efforts across the globe and the results have been exciting. When South Sudan voted almost 99% in favour of directing its own path into the future, with 98% of those who were qualified to vote actually doing so, I sensed the democratic movement was finally beginning to connect.

But not here at home, where our voter turnout numbers have been steadily declining. When only 40% of local citizens turn up for a civic election, you sometimes wonder if your efforts are worth it.  Fatigue has set in as a result.

Yet I still dream about what our city can become when its citizens take part in its ownership. I want a city that’s as romantic as our marriage, that thrives with poetry, music, a rich cultural life, and the belief that we celebrate our collective life together because we’ve helped to build it.

I want a city whose potential matches that of my children. I can’t help it; I’m a Dad and I want them close by, in a city where they feel appreciated as they age, that provides meaningful employment, and engaged citizenry, and a politics that matters.

Tonight I came to endorse Matt Brown as the candidate I wish to support for mayor in this coming election. The reason? Because Matt’s vision includes you … and me. It’s not about some dated idea of leadership where the person in charge directs everything. Rather, it’s about the people in this room and out in our neighbourhoods. It’s about those that show up to care for their community. And it’s about Matt’s support for the London Plan. We helped to craft it and we deserve the chance to build it.

The most powerful office in all the land belongs to the individual citizen, not the mayor. Citizens possess the power to choose different political representatives and the legal system respects their full right to do so.

And so this community is ours – each of us can make it into what we dream – as you and Matt have done tonight by just showing up. Tonight I’m looking at you, where the true power lies in this city, and I’m backing the person who has known that from the beginning and is willing to govern with us.

A long time ago, a friend asked Thomas Aquinas, who was about to embark on a sea journey, where the safest place was on a ship. “In the harbour,” he responded with a tinge of joviality. But ships aren’t built for that. Their place is out on the waves, discovering new possibilities, learning new skills, and overcoming the fear of an unknown future. It’s not all about the captain, but his efforts together with the crew. That’s us, and I think it’s time to take London out of the harbour of security and set ways of doing things and into the challenges and opportunities ahead.

One person has repeatedly talked about that kind of shared future – a mayor and citizens together – and I think it’s time to take London out for a test drive with that spirit. It’s not about top-down or bottom-up; it’s about inside-out, together. I am honoured to announce my support for someone who believes in that vision wholeheartedly. Matt Brown will govern from among us. There is no better place for him, for us, or for our community.

The Genius of Naheed Nenshi

On March 1st, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi will address the X Conference at London’s Convention Centre.  Find out more at www.londonx.ca

‘WHEN THE BURDENS OF THE PRESIDENCY seems unusually heavy,” said President Lyndon Johnson, “I always remind myself it could be worse.  I could be mayor.”  There’s much truth in that statement when we consider that mayors end up at the end of long line of designs promoted by more senior level politicians and larger jurisdictions.  The tools needed to do an effective job at leading a municipality are often owned or manipulated by others with their own political goals.Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is in town to promote his city as a great place to work, live and do bus

Yet occasionally a mayor comes on the scene who teaches us we can do more than we think within our local confines.  Despite all the recent scandals confronting many of the country’s leading municipal executives, other mayors are forging new futures, extending networks, and challenging the status quo.  Ottawa mayor, Jim Watson, is just one example.  As is Naheed Nenshi, Calgary’s mayor, one of the few rock stars in Canadian politics.  He’ll be in the city for London’s X-Conference on March 1st and even the announcement of his coming has created significant buzz in a city that has almost forgotten how that felt.

Nenshi and I spoke at a venue at the University of Calgary a few years ago on the idea of global citizenship.  He brought energy to the room and the students found in him a kind of connection that was a pleasure to witness.  But given that he was a business prof prior to his run, it’s understandable why students liked him.

But there was more.  In two words, he was challenging and electric.  And his own background is so varied as to make him unique.  He’s an east Indian who lived in Tanzania prior to coming to Canada.  He’s slightly over 40 years of age, a Muslim, has a degree from Harvard, and just happened to best three solid status quo challengers to win Calgary’s top job.  Seated together at the front of that assembly room, I realized it was the very mystique about him that caused people to look at things in a new fashion.

Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, once stated that, “I didn’t run for mayor to be the caretaker of the status quo.”  Neither did Nenshi, but there’s something of the effortless in him – he not only acts and talks different, he is different, and in that distinction politics in Canada might discover some new hope.  And it is that sense of optimism, of the possible, that lies at the root not only of Nenshi’s success, but his genius.

There is a kind of sagging despondency not only in our cities, but in the country in general.  Politics has become something of a calculated science.  It scopes out its enemies instead of concentrating on its potentials and winning friends.  It reduces us to the confines of a ballot box instead of communities who have yet to achieve their best.  In our sinews we know it and we’re tiring of being fodder for someone else’s designs for power and ideology.  The greatest thing we have lost is not only our sense of expectation, but our own place in it.  Partisan politics has led to a petrified democracy, and in the process we have lost trust in our political class, feeling that the moneyed class has the run of the field, and that the citizenship class holds no place of priority in those two areas other than our money or our vote.  Our country is now being built on tactics and privilege, not on us, and we’re opting out as a result, feeling things are disappearing.

And then along comes Nenshi and he causes us to revisit our presumptions.  He’s all over Twitter and Facebook, champions citizen engagement with considerable skill, and states that the purpose of politics is to unleash our communities.  The good citizens of Calgary were just as tired of the old politics as the rest of the country, but in Naheed Nenshi they caught a vision of themselves.  This eclectic politician showed Calgarians that they were just as nuanced, just as capable, and just as diverse as any elites.  More than that, he showed them not only that the future could be theirs, but that it should be theirs – they were the true heirs of democracy and politics should help them get it.

A now he comes to London, Ontario – a city down and out on its luck, but seeking a future community that would include them, not just power brokers.  We are a city hungry for ideas and many are willing to build that community.  Many of our politicians only show up when there’s a funding announcement or when they have an axe to grind.  A new breed of candidates are attempting to turn the tables by offering their names in the next municipal election.  We are a city creeping ever so slowly towards taking charge of our own fate, but we haven’t quite found our way yet.  We are dried kindling hungering for a spark.

Shortly, the mayor of Calgary will speak to us, reminding us that the flame required to start the bonfire resides in our own dreams, in our own commitments to one another and our children.  He will ask us to stop looking for saviors and just start looking out for one another.  And he will remind us that the political order can only find new life by following our reconnected neighbourhoods, our dynamic citizenry, our diverse businesses, and our enlightened artists.  He will hold up a mirror to us and we will suddenly see hope.  Nenshi’s genius at restoring faith in ourselves might well restore our future. 

Note:  Naheed was actually born in Toronto and moved to Calgary when he was one year old.  It was his parents who came from India, via Tanzania.  Apologies for the error.

A Place For Us

How do you write a book about the city in which you live? Seriously. There are so many takes on London from people with countless points of view. In the last year and a half I have had a wealth of conversations with others about how they feel concerning their city. Everyone has an opinion, and a good many put forward solutions that they believe would help our city get its game back. Their energy is inspiring, but it’s also true to say that they are in the minority. While many citizens have an opinion, it doesn’t mean that the majority of them are engaged. This is London’s chief problem at present, and unless we support groups like ReThink London in its efforts to get the public back into the mix for collectively deciding upon our future as a community, then our future will be decided for us.

I wrote the book A Place For Us as a means of condensing much of what I have heard from Londoners in the past year. There are overarching themes that transcend the myriad of complaints out there and those issues must be addressed. You’ll notice in the book that I don’t name names. That’s on purpose, because I don’t think there’s any point in laying blame anymore when instead what we require are two others traits: solutions and the will to implement them.

London is like a book, with chapters, a table of contents, appendix, and pages. We are writing it everyday, whether we realize it or not. Our inactions speak volumes; our actions make up the chapters.

The preponderance of television shows and movies these days focus on average people as victims – anti-heroes in times of challenge and change. Londoners often fit right within this mould, blaming governments, politicians, corporations, media, even themselves for our collective lethargy. That is beneath us, I believe. Our parents created a meaningful and livable city; why can’t we recreate one? We are our own action figures, the modern heroes of citizen possibilities and potential. Our old heroes are experiencing trouble getting their act together, but we need not be victims to their present dysfunction. This is now our tale to write, not theirs alone. We need to start acting so at least we compose our own plot and aren’t the victims of someone else’s design. Now more than ever we have to know why we matter – if not for our children, at least for one another and the future.

And so in that sincere belief I wrote A Place For Us. It took me time to realize that it wasn’t really about my ideas; it was about you – every Londoner who possesses the potential to graduate the place where we live from a city into a community, and our peers from consumers to citizens. In the process of that great enterprise we turn ourselves from victims into the vanguards of a new age.

You can purchase the bound book from Amazon.com here, or you can download the ePub or audio book by following the links at the top of this page. No money is made from the book; it’s more or less a conversation piece. The first installment was published in the London Free Press this past weekend, with three more installments to come in the next succeeding Saturdays. You can read it here. Some copies are also available at the Red Roaster at the Covent Garden Market. Read it if you can, but above all be part of the city’s future. I was asked the other day in an interview about the book what was my main purpose in writing it. The answer is two-fold. First, I am a citizen here and I have to play my own part, regardless of how small it is. And second, the book is for discussion – a means for bringing us together to discuss the community we want. As I say in the last paragraph of the book:

“This is our own story we are writing. The plot, the characters, the situations – all of these are ours to blend together in a story that is uniquely our own. We have merely lost track of the historic narrative we once possessed. Rediscovering means that inevitably we have to rediscover one another.”

There is a place for us in London, Ontario, but it is no longer a place apart. It is about citizens collecting in the public space to fight for their quality of life together. That was always the space we were meant to inhabit; it just got away on us for the last couple of decades, that’s all. Time to get back on our game – together.

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