I’d like you to meet my son, and his two amazing moms.

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I’m turning 40 this year, celebrating four decades of adventure, exploration, creating, learning, growing, loving and being loved.

I’ve had the privilege of participating in countless community projects, political movements and artistic collaborations. But the most special collaboration I’ve ever participated in began ten years ago – and I’ve never mentioned it publicly, until today.

In 2004, two of my friends – Patty Barerra and Gabe Thirlwall – asked if I would help them make a baby. It was the most amazing thing anyone had ever asked of me.

Most commitments in life come with an escape clause. You can join a group, and later decide to leave. You can accept a job, and then quit. Deep friendships can slowly fade. And even marriages, allegedly the ultimate act of commitment, have an escape mechanism which we all know is used frequently. But to be asked by someone to participate in the act of creating a child… this was truly sacred. Patty and Gabe were inviting me on a journey that we would share till our last breaths, together, inextricably connected as a family. It was perhaps the deepest expression of faith and confidence in who I am, that I had ever felt.

It took about two seconds for me to decide. The answer was yes. I love children enormously. They brighten my life more than any other source of joy. I was also attracted to the challenge of being part of a non-traditional family in a world that encourages conformity in so many ways. And I have tremendous amounts of respect for both Patty & Gabe. The faith and trust that they were investing in me, was entirely reciprocal.

They were both surprised at how quickly I accepted the proposal. They told me to think about it further. A week passed, and they asked me again. My answer was the same, without hesitation.

Santiago was born in February, 2005. He’s turning ten years old next year. I love him more than anything. I’ve spent a decade watching in awe as he’s grown. I’m so proud to be his dad, and to be a part of Patty & Gabe’s family.

santiago and moms

But some of my own friends still don’t know about him, and most of my extended family doesn’t know either! I’d like to explain why, and also explain why I want to suddenly share it with you now. Continue reading

Ottawa unveils new design for development signs

[note: this is cross-posted on the spacing wire]

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We often lament the lack of citizen engagement in our cities. But the blame shouldn’t be directed solely at residents, but rather at the municipal bureaucracies that often make it difficult for citizens to become engaged or informed.

A great example is our public development notices. Their purpose is allegedly to inform citizens and solicit participation, but they accomplish neither. They are designed so poorly, and filled with so much alienating jargon, they only serve to further disengage and alienate the average person.

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If a billboard falls in a forest… Part 1

[note: this is cross-posted on the spacing wire]

Bathurst and Davenport cross each other just below the steep shoreline of ancient Lake Iroquois. The intersection is lush with greenery and steeped in history.

On one corner lies the TTC Hillcrest Yards, where our streetcars have been repaired and rebuilt for ninety years. A recent makeover has transformed the landscape adding new shrubs, trees, interlocking brick and public benches to the corner.

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Across the street is a public park, the home of Toronto’s historic Tollkeeper’s Cottage museum.

tollkeepers park

Just steps away you’ll find the Wychwood Park neighbourhood, a former artists’ colony and the first residential zone in Ontario to be granted heritage status. Walking north on Bathurst, you’ll find yourself in a picturesque Toronto scene with large trees leaning across both sides of the wide street casting a broken leafy shadow on the streetcar tracks below.

And then suddenly, like one musical instrument terribly out of tune with the rest of the band, something sharply interrupts the thick green grove of trees. Steel structures protrude from the maple branches, inserting two massive commercial billboards into the scene.

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Someone might ask themselves “Who would possibly allow billboards like this to get a sign permit?”. It turns out the answer might be: nobody would, and nobody did. In fact, I have been told by City Staff that they do not have any records of permits for these signs. This is not an isolated scenario.  It’s quite possible that dozens of billboards across Toronto, if not hundreds, are illegal signs without any proper permits.

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‘Empower LA’ research tour • DAY TWO: Community Elections in South Los Angeles

Empower tour

I’m in Los Angeles, spending an entire week with the Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment.  I’ll be posting updates each day!

Los Angeles has 95 elected Neighbourhood Councils comprised entirely of volunteers.  Every two years they have city-wide local elections for all 95 Councils and those elections are happening right now.

I spent the second day of my research trip visiting five election polls in South LA, and interviewing candidates, voters, volunteers and community leaders.

I met a lot of inspiring people, and they all spoke highly of the Neighbourhood Council system.  Some offered constructive criticism and pointed out that there was room for improvement, but even those critics felt that the city benefits overall from having these councils.

I shot 70 minutes of one-on-one interviews, and I’ll try to post an edited piece later this week.  In the meantime, here are some photos and some quick reflections on what I saw & heard:

South LA Colage Continue reading

‘Empower LA’ research tour • DAY ONE

Empower tour

I’m in Los Angeles, spending an entire week with the Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment.  I’ll be posting updates each day!

Four years ago, I was researching innovative methods of citizen engagement for the upcoming Fourth Wall exhibit, hosted at the Urban Space Gallery.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 10.03.26 AMI stumbled upon a group in Los Angeles called the Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment.  It sounded too good to be true: a city-funded program that promotes public participation in government and coordinates 90 autonomous locally elected Neighbourhood Councils.

Four years later, I decided that I needed to see it for myself!  So I’m here in LA for one week, embedded at the Department as a foreign researcher/admirer.

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ACT LOCAL: Campus Democracy Project!!

[cross-posted from the Unlock Democracy blog]

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Toronto UnConference • January 24th • Hart House

Canada uses a broken voting system called “First-Past-the-Post”.  It’s a terrible system because it pushes out new voices, forces voters to choose ‘strategically’, encourages negative campaigns and often delivers us the exact opposite result of what we actually voted for.

But we don’t just use this voting system to choose our national parliament, we also use First-Past-the-Post to choose our provincial parliaments and all of our mayors and City Councillors.  And it doesn’t stop there!  Every week, across Canada, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of elections:  Condo boards, residents groups, non-profit boards, labour elections, high school student councils, tenant boards, credit unions, and post-secondary student unions.  And with few exceptions, almost ALL of these groups use First-Past-The-Post.

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Nine Citizen Heroes

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One of my favorite non-profits in Canada, is Samara.  Their mandate is to “improve political participation in Canada”, and their approach is always creative, unique, practical and effective.

A few months ago they launched yet another creative initiative, called “The Everyday Political Citizen Project”.  The goal of the campaign is to celebrate the “unsung political heroes such as campaigners, activists, community organizers, and members of local riding associations who work through the political system to improve their communities, and whose contributions often go unrecognized.”

It’s brilliant.  I think one of the biggest barriers to engagement is the fact that most people simply don’t realise how many ways there are to contribute and participate.  You don’t have to run for office to make a difference.  And you don’t have to march in the streets, chanting bad activist slogans (sorry Canada, our activist chants are terrible).

Canada has thousands of non-profits, charities, grassroots organisations, clubs and associations, comprised of passionate volunteers who are the driving force behind social change.  The work they do is crucial, yet often goes unseen.

I’ve nominated nine people for this project, each who have contributed to the political process in their own creative way. Check ‘em out:

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