The latest book in the uTOpia series published by Coach House in 2005, Local Motion is a collection of essays from prominent Torontonians about getting involved in communities and local politics. The enthusiastic response from local citizens at the event suggests that Local Motion is a particularly timely release, and editors Dave Meslin, Christina Palassio, and Alana Wilcox were visibly encouraged during a brief address to kick off the evening.
The night's main event was a panel discussion on civic engagement featuring three contributors to the book, Kelly Grant, Jennifer Lewington and Mike Smith, as well as Torontoist contributor, former City Idol winner and local activist Desmond Cole, and Che Khotari, founder of Manifesto Community Projects. The discussion was moderated by CBC Radio veteran and former city hall reporter David Michael Lamb, who launched immediately into the topic of the recent municipal election, and its implications.
To start, Cole pointed to the fact that many new faces have entered city council, and the chance they now have to present their own fresh ideas. Grant was quick to add that despite generalized concerns about Rob Ford's impending mayoralty, his vote is one out of 45 on council, and that he will be forced to work within the existing system and towards some kind of consensus.
The topic of civic engagement was often discussed as an incremental process that must be sustained, and Mike Smith raised the important point that upon the election of David Miller's “progressive administration,” much of the responsibility for change was downloaded onto the mayor's and council's shoulders, which eventually led to less action than before.
Despite some brief forays into these and other topics such as funding for the arts, the discussion seemed to consistently return to the recent victory of Rob Ford as mayor, and references to the “culture war” that led to such marked differences in voting patterns between the urban city core, and the former boroughs of Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke.
A moment of clarity that stood out over the course of the evening was Jennifer Lewington's open question: “Does anyone in the audience live north of Eglinton Avenue?” The near-silence that followed was significant, and seemed to show that there is yet some distance to go in bridging gaps among the different political perspectives in the city.
Even so, the overarching theme of the night's panel discussion is echoed in the Local Motion itself: that Torontonians need to take the extra step to meet people within their community, engage City Hall and its seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy, and find the common ground that exists among the city's disparate neighbourhoods and communities.
Local Motion is not limited to an account of interesting local stories or encouraging role models - it aims to provide readers with the toolbox they need to take action in their community immediately, and explain which avenues to pursue.
In her essay, for example, The Toronto Star's Catherine Porter provides not one but three different strategies for tackling Toronto's bureaucracy, explained through interviews with the people who put them into practice. Editor Dave Meslin even provides illustrations in his contribution, and a step-by-step guide of how to turn an idea for local change into a reality. National Post writer Jonathan Goldsbie relates his own experience as a guerrilla activist to show us how we can exert an influence from outside the political system, while Spacing contributor John Lorinc explains how youth can gradually carve out their own public spaces.
These are of course only a few examples from a talented group of essayists that include Eye Weekly Senior Editor Edward Keenan, or Globe and Mail reporter and former MuchMusic presenter Hannah Sung. Local Motion provides a broad, balanced, and diverse picture of what civic engagement means in the city of Toronto. Perhaps most significantly, each chapter ends with a short section under the heading, “Get Involved,” which includes links and important information for interested readers to check out. Those two words certainly summarize the thoughts expressed at Tuesday's panel discussion, and the philosophy behind Local Motion itself.
Hannah Sung Contributing editor, Flare Magazine; Globe and Mail columnist
How can creative outlets like music play a role in re-integrating at-risk youth?
Tamara Dawit's work at the 411 Initiative for Change is focused on educating young people. It works because her presentations and programs are always informed by the kind of music young people are listening to. Music engages them, enlivens them, speaks their language. It's important to be able to connect with young people, validate their concerns and fears and questions, and I think that music, especially hip hop, the music of youth, is a great way to connect.
Denise Balkissoon Freelance writer with Toronto Life magazine, The Toronto Star, and The Globe and Mail.
What progress have we seen towards creating a city council that more accurately represents our city?
We're doing a lot better with the gender thing and worse on the ethnicity thing, this council. Why? I'm not really sure. But I do think one barrier is that it's more expensive to run as a megacity councillor than it was in the old cities. The wards are bigger, so campaign materials are more expensive. I think this is a real shame, because it would be nice to get lower-income voice on council, or more people who, like my dad, don't have "higher educations."
There is a lot of talk about whether council salaries should stay high, or even rise, to attract people who otherwise would stay in the private sector making more money. I wish we also discussed the other end, some way of helping people who don't make a lot of money get a toe-hold into campaigning, which can be very pricey. Yes, you're reimbursed if you win. But, if you don't, well, then you aren't reimbursed. That's way too risky of a proposition for people middle or lower income people. My dad had worked for Bell for about 18 years when he ran, so he was able to get a leave of absence. There is no way people would actually quit their jobs to run, especially if they were possible going to lose, and have a huge campaign debt.
This sounds like something Dave Meslin would say, but maybe there should be a higher-government law that people be allowed an eight-week unpaid leave to run for political office, or something.
Hamutal Dotan Senior Editor, Torontoist
Why is there a degree of cynicism within Toronto about making important changes to a community?
In part because many of the decision-making processes are impenetrable - it simply isn't clear how changes are made or who is driving the changes - and in part because the changes which tend to get publicised are the controversial, headline-grabbing ones. Usually when we read about changes, let's say a new condo tower going up, it's because someone is protesting or there is an OMB challenge or the community disapproves. This creates an impression that change is most often imposed upon a community, and that it is largely unstoppable.
How can citizens best get involved in Toronto's urban planning process?
First, start talking to your neighbours, local residents associations, and community groups - a collective voice is always more powerful than an individual one. And second, learn as much as you can about what developers are planning *before* their plans are finalized. Talk to your city counsellor, look at notices that are posted up on building sites, attend community meetings. Developers are much more likely to modify their proposals if you engage with them before they've invested time and money into fine-tuning those proposals.