Russ Ford's Blog

The Seeding of Local Democracy

Last week I got the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of Toronto Neighbourhood Centres  (TNC).

For those of you unfamiliar with TNC,  and I suspect that is most of you, it has a rich history of service in Toronto. Founded in 1918,   TNC was originally a loose federation of the four  downtown settlement houses that played such a dominant role in providing settlement services to those who chose to call Toronto home. 

Over time TNC  has adapted and its membership now goes well beyond the original four. Today's membership includes a host of community based organizations with most if not all,  are  in receipt of United Way funding .  It is no longer just a downtown group as its current membership extends right across the city.

The meeting started with an "environmental scan," a discussion of the  good and the bad .  We got stuck on the bad. First, there was a discussion concerning our role as an employer.  Funding decisions by various levels of government has forced many to hire contract or part time employees with no benefits.  Were we being forced into becoming one ofthose employers. Was funding undermining our intention to be an employer of choice.

Other concerns focussed on the anti tax and the austerity agendae  which we all agreed was a war on the poor and those that serve them.  And of course there is the issue of agency mergers.  Despite the fact that there is no evidence to support it, funders seem to think that we would be more effective if some of us merged.  Such a notion however, describes  us  only in terms of being a  service provider.  We believe we are much more than that.  We believe we promote citizenship and contribute to the overall well being of the community which goes far beyond the direct provision of services.

Faced with such a mountain of issues  the sane person might take off their skies and walk down the hill  rather than try to navigate the steep slopes and crevices. I guess the people who run TNC agencies are just not sane. So after a healthy amount of lamenting the question became obvious,  what can we do about it

Obviously there is no magic bullet or quick fix. The issues facing communities in Toronto are deep seeded and growing. We are going in the wrong direction

Then sort of like when Paul Drake would enter the courtroom, pass a note to Perry Mason who would then disclose the real killer (yes, I am dating myself),  we found our legs. We found our answer.

It came in the form of a rather diminutive man known as Ken Walters.  Ken is the coordinator of the TNC equivalent in New York City and looks nothing like Paul Drake. Faced with similar problems Ken and his colleagues successfully changed the conversation.  Rather than  trying to push back against the austerity agenda, they created their own.  They created a  document called "Blueprint for Neighbourhoods. towards a strong, stable and Vibrant New York City.``

Yes, everyone creates paper but some actually stick.  This one did. It  contained a plan directly in contrast to the anti tax agenda.  It laid out in very concrete terms what the city of New York needed to do to address its many and growing social problems. It was a game changer not only because it made sense but because it had the backing and support  of many New York citizens.  It was a people`s document,  conceived and developed in the communities through the direct  involvement of residents.  The subsequent New York City election focussed much of its time on the merits of this document.                                                                                           

To say that a similar game changer is needed in Toronto would be an understatement.  To say the conversation  needs to move from tax cuts to investments; from taxpayers to citizens is  also an understatement.   The concept that services are  needed in a city like Toronto and governments have to pay for them should be a given. Sadly it is not.
Most TNC members are simply tired of the ill informed political rhetoric.  We are tired of having to pull citizens to go to city hall every budget cycle to stand up for services.

So the TNC is entering the political fray, not of course in a partisan way but in a way designed to empower  individuals to speak up of themselves.  We all know that voter participation is declining especially among the young and the poor.  That has to change.  We need to have higher expectations of our democratic process.

The plan is to engage communities  in lessons in civics,  inform people how our system works and why it important that they participate.  We need to celebrate the simple act of voting.  It is the definitive  part of a democratic society.
While we will be non partisan as in not supporting a specific party or candidate, we are not neutral.  The biggest issue facing this city, province and country is the growing inequity between citizens. We do not intend to shy away from raising that agenda.
And  yes, we do intend to change the conversation.


Fabulous Post!

Russ, What a pleasure to read your post. You've captured the conversation with eloquence, grace and inspiration! I hope it spurs the conversation in your neck of the woods. ...and that the TNC efforts across the City build seeds of democracy that sprout into a new understanding and relationship to peopled who live on low income, and those who work to support them in reaching their dreams.
best regards

Tanya Gerber & Associates
Graphic Recording and Facilitation
Supporting non-profits, charities & social purpose businesses to vision, plan and achieve.

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