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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 18 July 2014

Emerging Consciousness

These biases are emotionally wired.  Some of them are learned, some of them are genetic programming, but they all exist to make us feel a certain way so as to catalyze a behaviour.  The problem is, emotional reactions are one-size-fits all, meaning they're often wrong.
My favourite example is how we might feel scared of an unwilling to touch a burn victim.  Why would that be the case?  It's likely that our limbic brain is perceiving unhealthy-looking skin that looks like something that could be contagious, like an ebola, and is encouraging us to stay away for that reason.
It's a reaction grounded in reasoning, but one not appropriate to the situation.  The same holds true for a white woman scared by a black youth on a subway, when there's really no in situ cause to validate that fear.
Homophobia is another one.
These biases are pervasive on countless levels that we're not even aware of (for the reason that our body is designed to take care of all this situational management stuff for us) - ignoring homeless people, being more interested in what attractive people have to say, disliking ideas that differ from ours or loving what a confident voice says, even if it's crap.
We make unconscious, reactive decisions all the time that we then justify consciously; it's the Vic Toews syndrome, one we are all susceptible to in differencing degrees under varying circumstances.
The only way to overcome these biases to realize that having them doesn't make us weak, or flawed, or evil.  Also, just because we feel a certain way, it doesn't mean that instinct is a good one to trust.  We have to learn to step back from our feelings - appreciate them for what they are and listen to them, but not to stop there.
This is the process of consciousness, of becoming aware of what influences our thoughts - and, at the same time, understanding what influences the thoughts of others.
A conscious society is a long way off, but I can see we're moving there in fits in spurts, even while reactive hatred and war continue to spread, like an illness.
I don't know if I have hope for us, or even our children, but we will get there.
I've got faith in that.

Todd Smith Nails It: Leaders Walk with the People

Are Liberals the only ones who care about your children's future - or is that the PCs, the NDP or the Greens?  Are the Liberals the only ones who are like political wraiths, not-quite-human and therefore can be trusted only to destroy your lives - or is that the PCs, the NDP or the Greens?
As politics has become more tribal, two significant things have happened. 
One - political parties have become more insular, seeing themselves as soldiers on the front lines of democracy while citizens are the passive folk on the homefront.  As such, they've begun to adopt more militant mentalities, both in terms of "fighting the competition" and how they view citizens themselves.  Joe and Jane Frontporch are the beneficiaries of the unpleasant but necessary work of political soldiers and, as such, need to stay out of the way and play by the rules those political operatives lay out for them. 
A great example of this is the current challenges around polling.
Two - political organizations have become more tribal and militant in their hierarchies, with the people at the top wielding battlefield commander-type authority.  Staff can expect to face drumhead trials and excommunication if they don't do as their told and break the code of political omerta.
Those at the top will justify this tight control because, well, they get it, they've got the battle scars, only they know how to win and, by dominating politically, restore/maintain democracy.
This is, of course, a dangerously facetious delusion.  Militaries aren't democracies - they function externally, protecting a nation from foreign threats; the moment military action or approaches start being applied internally, you don't have a democracy.
There are no only we can save or only they will destroy in democracy; we're in this together and it's up to all of us to make it work.
There's a reason for this - because, in a sustained social context, it's absolutely true that only we can make things work.  It's especially true in an open economy; if we're all pursuing selfish interests or pushing our mandates onto others without meaningful dialogue and co-design, we are going to come up with the wrong answers.
We see this all the time - even when a Party wins and claims some kind of victory, people lose.  Democracy loses.  It doesn't matter what rhetoric gets spouted in the media, or even believed (or as is more often the case, paid lip-service to) inside; it's a lipstick on a pig kind of thing, or better yet - a fresh coat of expensive paint on a rusting car. 
That's the rub, and that's the secret sauce that Todd Smith has nailed - compassion isn't a weakness, nor is it a virtue that is the sole property of one tribe or another, one leader or another.  It's way more than that.
Especially in today's climate, we're realizing that compassion and empathy are simply good management practices.  They involve theory of mind, listening, exploring perspectives and thinking holistically.  Instead of whack-a-mole politics or policies that are decided, sold and defended without thorough exploration, you get shared, co-designed solutions that are constantly iterated upon.
It's not about failure, but iteration, expansion, inclusion, dynamism.  You only get that through collaborative efforts.
You don't get that when you assume you're smart and they are dumb, or they can't do a task that you know how and just need to get out of your way.
This is especially true in a democracy; they may not be good at top-down messaging or packing rooms with koolaid-drinking fanatics, but maybe the reason isn't that they're incompetent, but because those aren't skills that are actually useful in a democratic contest.  By dominating the field with their top-down, tightly controlled ways, maybe these political operatives are weakening democracy.
We'll have to see how the PC's reform shakes out, just as we'll have to see what steps the NDP take next and how the Liberals make use of their majority. 
The jury is still way out on whether the behavioural economics lessons of the last 20 years, or last election have been learned by any.
One thing is guaranteed, though - we'll never get where we need to do if we are dedicating the vast majority of our energy and building ourselves up and putting others down.
If we are to move forward at all, we can only do so together.  Which means leaving no one - no one - behind.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Strange Bedfellows: Sex Work and Politics

As all things sex-trade related have bubbled to the surface as a hot topic in Canadian politics (and features as the subject for next Monday's Why Should I Care) I've found myself thinking about the social views around prostitution.

It's generally accepted that prostitution is not a desirable career, as in no child dreams of growing up and becoming a prostitute like they may a lawyer or a politician.  It's recognized that being a prostitute is a potentially dangerous job, carrying the risk of catching (and transmitting) sexually transmitted diseases, but also the risk of abuse by clients and exposure to seedier elements of society.
Are those reasons to stigmatize prostitution as a trade, though? 
I don't imagine many kids dream of growing up to clean floors or toilets or collect garbage, but those things get done.  I know in my home town (Cornwall) kids in school would often assume they'd follow in their parents' footsteps and work on a factory assembly line - this wasn't a lofty, aspirational goal, but then work was seen as a way to make a living rather than a focus on personal growth.  Life was what was lived outside of the 9 - 5 workday.
At the same time, I know a bunch of kids who paid their way through university by performing as stripper at strip joints frequented by factory workers after that work day ended.
Not to diminish STDs, but there are a great number of illnesses that can be contracted on other jobs, ranging from cancer through inhaling chemicals as a firefighter, coming down with PTSD as a police officer or social worker, even carpal tunnel syndrome from too much typing (I fit in this category).  It could be losing a limb on a factory floor, too. 
For all these careers, though, government (through fits and starts) tries to create and enforce safety standards so that these vital positions can be carried out with minimal risk to the worker.  Do we penalize the consumer of products developed in unsafe conditions?  I imagine there are a host of kids in Bangladesh who'd disagree with that notion.
That leaves the exposure to seedier elements of society and the risk of exposure to drugs, crime, etc.  What we always miss in these sorts of conclusions is the fact that crime breeds where civil society opts not to tread; safe drug injection sites, licensed brothels, transparent government are all ways to cast light into the dark corners of our society and bring them into the mainstream.
So, all this aside - why is it that we look down on sex as a trade?  And is it the actually the case that nobody wants to be a prostitute?  I find it hard to believe there aren't some who gain meaning from their profession.
The stigma around prostitution has less to do with the logistical nature of the work, I think, and more to do with the cultural associations surrounding it.
One - when we think prostitutes, we tend to think women.  Women, in our eyes, are mothers; each should be Gaia - nurturing, loving, child-focused and family-oriented.  Sex is a means to create babies which women nurture into adults who repeat the cycle.  For a woman to sell sex is somehow a betrayal of this unspoken (and unagreed upon) social contract.

Two - sex is power.  Men the world over like to feel strong and in charge, yet are fearful of the power women have over them (Oscar Pistorius or Boko Haram, for instance).  For alpha males that like to feel they're in charge, there must be something disconcerting about women having ownership over their own sexual relations and not needing to be property of any one man.
Three - sex is a biological act that, at its core, is about reproduction.  Human babies are totally helpless, requiring a certain level of parental commitment for those children (our future) to survive.  A kid you can buy at the corner store will have less value and, theoretically, receive less attachment than a child conceived through intimate acts between committed individuals.
Of course, sex is more than that - the sexual drive to reproduce is more deeply engrained in our cognitive matrix than is the urge to commit sociology.  Even if we don't always act on sexual urges, we experience them; the hot guy or girl on the subway or in a TV ad may have us feeling lusty; attraction is, after all, why we pursue intimate encounters in the first place.
Where sex is a service, though, the intimacy is gone.  The entire mythos around sex is gone.  It becomes a transactional enterprise, something that could be bought and sold on the market.

Now, theoretically, you'd think the Conservatives would be all for promoting a money-generating enterprise, especially one as lucrative as sex.  Imagine Canada having the best modern Geishas in the world, creating a regulated sex holiday sector that would draw in cash from all over the world.  You could attract the best sex talent from around the world, creating a powerful industry - and then tax it.
But that's economics, not social conservatism, which brings us back to the Gaia complex.  Prostitution is not a noble profession; no one with an ounce of nobility or integrity should want to take part it in, either as a provider or a consumer.  In fact, folk like Peter MacKay seem convinced no prostitute wants to remain a prostitute and is just hankering to get out of the dirty business.
Which is a really interesting position to take, given the fact that MacKay is a politician.
MacKay, who I think it's fair to say had some tumbles in the hay with a couple of women prior to getting married and having a kid, is an expert at contorting himself into partisan knots and slips.  He spins, deflected, misleads, obfuscates and is hypocritical.  He's a great partisan politician in that it's easy for him to do whatever benefits his Party without any thought as to the ethical implications.
His boss, Stephen Harper, is even worse.  We can't limit ourselves to just the Conservatives, though - through all Parties are Members who will spout rhetoric they don't believe in because it helps further their political career, will ignore issues of relevance because they can't be bothered and will generally twist the purpose of being a representative of the people for personal gain through partisan gain.
There are many elected officials with integrity, but there are plenty of partisan whores out there, too.  Just as their are lawyers who will defend clients they know to be guilty or support insurance claims they know are fraudulent, because it pays their bills.

Such abuses of power and public interest are at least as "dirty" as sex with strangers, yet how many kids want to grow up to have powerful positions like this?  How many politicians and their supporters like being in the ethical quagmire of politics?
It really doesn't seem that surprising that politicians and prostitutes should find themselves bedfellows. 
Which is why sex as work is such an interesting, challenging topic.  One the one hand, there are real risks that could be mitigated - that's logistics.  There are financial gains to be had and capitalized on - that's economics.  Then, there's all the social and biological baggage around sex.
So what are we to do?
There are solutions to be had, behaviours to be corrected and stigmas to be addressed - there always are.  For any solution involving sex workers to work and be sustainable, though, here's an unavoidable truth -
Solutions can't be conceived on high and seeded among prostitutes; they have to be agents and drivers in the social/structural changes that will make them safe and empower them to make the choices that are in their best interests.
The next time we see changes to prostitution laws, it shouldn't be a frat boy like Peter MacKay leading the charge - it should be sex workers themselves.  The role of the Minister should be to listen, empathize, facilitate, understand and serve as a conduit for solution.
Surely, Peter MacKay doesn't think that's women's work, does he?

Wednesday 16 July 2014


Time to get off the Stigma Train

Fascinating, tragic, avoidable interaction on the subway. Passenger emergency alarm used by a middle-aged white woman who felt threatened by a young black male who took issue with her bike blocking the aisle.

She reacted to his words, he reacted back, she hit the alarm.  Did she feel threatened? I have no doubt she did.  WAS she threatened? No.

The youth wasn't diplomatic, he did have his shorts low and his underwear sticking out, and he was black - these may have been cues that caused the woman to register a threat, but he didn't, at any point, use words that were threatening.

Would she have reacted the same way to a white youth in a suit who used the same language? Or a black man in a suit with more diplomatic language? Or if it had been a young black woman with similarly rough language?

Security arrived and attempted to de-escalate the situation.  The youth was asked to leave the train, defended himself by rightly saying he'd done nothing wrong.  The woman reiterated that she felt threatened; when the youth asked "what exactly did I say" she had no answer.

To the security guards' credit, they suggested to the lady that if she felt uncomfortable maybe she could take the next train.

By this point, both sides were looking for a face-saving way out; the woman, by her body language, may have decided she'd overreacted, but didn't back down.

The youth, to his credit, walked away - but eventually left the train of his own volition.

I can't help but wonder - what's he feeling now? What are his thoughts on how the situation unfolded? How many times has he been caught in similar circumstances and what impact has that had on him?

The woman moved down the train and engaged someone in conversation about the incident.  Everyone buzzed about it for a couple minutes after.

I did nothing.  I thought about helping the guards facilitate, but didn't want to add to the escalation or step on their toes.  I thought of offering the youth a chance to sit by me, but he had that cornered look and didn't want to add to his feeling of being singled out.

As friends tell me, no one person can fix the world on their own.

As I tell them, yes - but that doesn't mean it can't be fixed.   We, and only we, can be that change we seek.  But we have to want to be part of the change.

We don't.  We want someone else to do the changing, or for change to happen outside us.

And that's the real tragedy.  We are architects of our own social solutions, but our shared social challenges, too.

Until we become collectively conscious of this, the cycle will continue.

How Important is Youth Employment to Toronto's Election?

Politics is a finicky thing, especially when it comes to elections.
While partisans and pundits like to talk about defining issues and how whatever message they were plugging was the decisive factor in determining an election's outcomes, the truth is that people have their own minds and make them up through a myriad of reasons.
One of the key things we do cognitively (and we see this manifested in many ways throughout society - "low hanging fruit", "optimization" and "strategic priorities" being some examples) is discount what we think is irrelevant to focus on what presents either a threat or an opportunity to us. 
This doesn't mean we land on the right assumptions - ask any pundit about that - but it's how our brain works.
That, and by association.  If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck - it's a duck.  This is why partisans work so hard on defining issues and the like; Rob Ford won the last election because he was the perceived anti-establishment candidate and the only one talking rough on cost cutting and social justice masquerading as punishment for champions of the status quo.
Chow's got a couple of different definitions she's playing with, but this champion of youth employment is both a very interesting and very risky one.
Because in the mix of folk running to be mayor is an actual youth who has youth issues as her centerpiece of her campaign.
Morgan Baskin is 19 years old, smart, articulate, quick on her feet, getting some positive attention from increasingly big media outlets and, most importantly, earning a lot of support from an incredibly wide demographic:
That's from an article in Forbes.  Most of the time when Toronto gets any attention beyond local media, it's because of crack-smoking Rob Ford.  There's real appeal in a fresh face that has the ability to re-brand Toronto in the eyes of the world.
Oh, and her answer to "why are you running" is a powerful message geared right at the people that Chow is trying to target:
It's not for no reason that Baskin's been receiving encouraging emails to drop out of the race from other teams.  Some folk are afraid she may "split the vote", making it easier for Ford to win again.  Others are afraid she may actually be capable of winning this thing.
Of course, good will and emails don't equate with dedicated volunteering and votes on E-Day.  Baskin has a tiny campaign team without the bandwidth to answer all the emails she's getting, which is problematic - nobody likes to feel neglected.  At the same time, people get clearly why this is the case, which may bolster rather than take away that initial enthusiasm, especially as her media attention grows.
Baskin is a fringe candidate and not included in the main debates; this hinders her for exposure, maybe, if anyone beyond the already-committed folk are following the debates.  That's debatable in itself.  Not being in the debates also keeps her out of the line of fire for the kinds of bitter attacks that dominate political debates and seem sure to be a staple of the rest of this election.
Having said that, should it look like Baskin proves a legitimate threat, you can bet that the war room masters of other campaigns will set her in their sights.  From their perspective, politics is war and if you're on the field, you have to be prepared to be fired upon.
Would Baskin hold up to blistering attacks of her character, her positions, her age, etc.?  How would she respond?  She's never been tested under such focused negativity, so there's no clear answer to that one.
Plus, smart backroom folk wouldn't necessarily need to go overly nasty - they could, if they don't think she's up to it, poke Baskin on the really tough issues that mayors face; how would she respond to a mass-shooting or a massive natural disaster?  Does she have the moxy to be a beacon for the people in times of hardship?
It's a risky question to ask, because the answer may well be yes.  Particularly under our weak-mayor system, one of the key roles of chief magistrate is to be a community cheerleader, and a rallying point.  Basking could potentially be that.  She certainly wouldn't be worse than Ford.
So it's an interesting gambit for Team Chow to play, this focus on youth employment.  It may yet prove to be a case of be careful of what you wish for... because if that really is what the people really want, that's probably what they'll opt for. 

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Wonder if Richard Pietro Can Relate...


Long Emails, Big Ideas and Shared Solutions

We all know that money is tight these days.  We want to be sure that whatever financial resources are being used get used effectively, efficiently and towards the realization of the right goals.
That doesn't happen in silos.  It can't.  Society is a complex machine with multiple moving parts - we need all hands on deck, all parties collaborating to make the thing work.  It takes discipline, patience, foresight, communication and a great deal of empathy to bridge the gaps, mend the fences and build the relationships necessary for success.
Here's the good news.
If we can get past the barriers that divide us, overcome the turf wars fostered by a silo-based, top-down work culture that impedes ownership and shared solutions, the table is already set with all the tools, ideas, organizations and people we need to make success happen.
Here's an email I sent yesterday that, while long and cumbersome, maps out some of those organizations, individuals and initiatives and indicates how they can connect.
All it takes is for the people with money and influence to step up - or help others to do the same.

It's good to hear that there's both recognition of an interest the importance of providing youth positive, skills/employment related alternatives.

Be warned: a lot of content follows!

There are a lot of players looking to support the same thing in different ways; what's needed is a strategy and some lateral-thinking, dedicated outreach to bring all these ideas and organizations together.


Andrew Cox/Teisha Mullings had a great idea for a safe space that local residents (their focus was youth) could go to for computer access, table space, a business-book resource library, etc.  Andrew also had the idea of this space holding info sessions around how to do business plans, where to find funding, etc.

Sylvia Kim, manager of CSI Regent Park has invited whoever wants to come from Lawrence Heights to visit the office, see how it operates, etc.  I've offered to help Andrew with the logistics, planning, timelines, etc.

I don't know where he's at in the process, but I haven't heard from in a while.  All these resources are available, just waiting for a call to action.


Additionally, I've connected with AJ Tibando, CEO of an NFP web platform called My SoJo that is a resource hub for people wanting to turn ideas into action (a new project, a business, a political campaign, etc.).  One of the things I'm hoping SoJo includes are templates and how-to videos on everything related to start-ups and campaigns.


The City (as well as the province and the Feds) are pushing Open Data initiatives - making public data available for public usage.  This serves as a tool for government accountability (ie, backlogs for community housing repairs and whether come communities get more timely repairs than others), but also economic opportunity.  There are many active public servants working with whoever's willing to make this happen.

RocketMan is a great example of how Open Data can be turned into a business idea; public info on where public transit is has become an Ap that lets people know when their bus is coming.

Make Web Not War (a Corporate Social Responsibility project of Microsoft) is pushing for governments to open data for all these reasons, using Microsoft's cloud for presentation.  They are looking for stories of how open data has made a difference/led to businesses as part of their advocacy push.


Jabullah Murray (of Lawrence Heights) has a cool program that provides basketball training, but also leadership training and community engagement for youth.  I don't know how effective his curriculum is, but this is the kind of grassroots, success-oriented program that could do wonders if properly supported.

And, if it works, could be promoted as a model to be copied in other communities. That would be a great win and branding opportunity for Lawrence Heights, as well as a source of pride.


There is a ton of money available through existing and emerging government programs (as per the Wynne budget) that could go to creating new, duplicative programs instead of being directed towards tying existing programs like everything above together.

Trillium has a focus right now on youth and all things digital that could be tapped into by community youth if they knew it was there and knew how to access it.

If provincial/city funding goes to salary top-ups for summer programs for youth, we know that's not sustainable and ultimately demoralizing for the youth.  If a condition of that funding were to be tied to leaving youth time to participate in leadership-building, business-skill building, financial literacy, etc., more youth would get this support as well as getting the summer jobs.

There is a lot that could be done right now if existing programming were lined up and funding properly allocated - the problem is that nobody's paid to be the middle man and few people have the bandwidth to bridge the gap between all of these communities.

Happy to discuss/connect you gents with players in this space.


Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

Monday 14 July 2014

Olivia Chow and Banning Handguns

Mayoral candidate Olivia Chow reiterated her support for a federal ban on handguns on Monday.  Rival John Tory called the proposal an "empty gesture."

I'm hesitant to weigh in on stories like this, lest my position be viewed as or skewed as an endorsement (I've not committed to any mayoral candidate, yet), but feel compelled to say something in this instance.

I happen to sit on the Lawrence Heights Inter-Organizational Network (LHION) Safety Sub-Committee as a friend of the community.  My family used to live nearby and my wife used to teach at a school there.  We've been to countless birthday parties, community barbeques and school events in Lawrence Heights.  It's the closest place I have in Toronto to a community of my own.

There are a ton of talented, dedicated and entrepreneurial people in Lawrence Heights.  These people don't get much attention, nor do their projects.  What does get attention, always, are crimes, particularly gun crimes and homicides.

Whether I have right to or not, I feel very protective of my friends in Lawrence Heights.  I hate to see them judged on negatives alone, while the value and community generated every day by its residents gets neglected.  By the same token, when anyone sticks their neck out on behalf of that community, I hate to see them targeted by cheap politics, too.

Abshir Hassan happened to be shot when Rob Ford was returning to Toronto's political scene.  As always, he sucked up all oxygen, driving all attention - including that of other mayoral candidates - to his antics.  This bothered me, as it seemed like poking at Ford was taking precedence to the human tragedy and repercussions facing Lawrence Heights. 

So, I issued a tweet challenging mayoral candidates to show as much concern for this community as they did for Rob Ford.

Team Chow answered.  They were the only ones that did.  Through Jennifer Hollett and now, through the amazingly dedicated and empathetic Bori Csillag, Team Chow has remained committed to the community, seeking details of the funeral and vigil as well as asking how people were doing at today's Safety Sub-Committee meeting.

Perhaps John Tory thinks this is an empty gesture, too, but at least Team Chow made it.  Sitting back and waiting for others to come to you isn't leadership.  Griping after the fact is even worse.

This is not to say Tory's heart is in the wrong place - I sincerely think he does want to help - but he has yet to demonstrate any facility for understanding the structural problems and offering realistic structural solutions, either.

Which brings us back to Chow.

I think that her position of banning handguns is consistent with the position she has always taken on this issue, but I also think it's the wrong place to dedicate energy or attention.

At today's Safety Sub-Committee meeting, banning handguns wasn't raised once; not by residents, not by city staff and not by police.  This is for good reason - it's not a structural solution.  Banning handguns won't eliminate access to handguns; even if you could wave a wand and vanish handguns from the earth, those using them now would pick up a knife and the violence would just get messier.

Besides, owning a handgun doesn't automatically mean you're going to use it on a person; there are people on Chow's team who own handguns and have never used it on a person, ever.

Where solutions were discussed by all concerned, the talk was of providing positive alternatives to crime - mentorship for youth, parenting advice for their folks, sustainable, opportunity-creating jobs and entrepreneurship.  The question wasn't "how can we stop a negative from happening" and instead was "how can we encourage positives to happen?"

There's something all politicians can learn from this wisdom - if they take the time to listen to people from communities like Lawrence Heights.

I wrote a long email to one of the officers present which raises many points I've raised elsewhere on this blog - that the solution has to be community-led, but that there are countless partners willing to help out.  Heck, the actual programs and ideas necessary already exist - someone just needs to properly fund, organize and coordinate them. 

The problem is that nobody has that as their job description.  Turf wars, a lack of transition strategies, poor management and insufficient training, among other things, lead to a perpetuation of the cycle that could and should be broken.  Private sector partners that want to fund one-off projects, whatever their noble intentions, aren't helping to take the lead out of the pipe, either.
It's these structural issues that absolutely most be addressed if we're to solve violent crime, poverty and youth employment in this City.
While banning handguns isn't the answer, at least Team Chow has made an effort.  It's a good start, something everyone can build on.
Instead of casting stones, I would encourage each and every mayoral candidate to also make the effort to engage, to listen and to learn that Team Chow has set in the wake of this shooting.
After all, when we throw those stones, it's folk like Abshir Hassan  whose lives get cut short by the falling shards.

I've no interest in cutting anyone, nor standing by while others get cut. 

We've bled enough already.