Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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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

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.

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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

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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

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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VIDEOS: Tales from the Twin Cities

A few weeks ago, I drove for 16 hours to Minneapolis along with two other volunteers from the RaBIT campaign: Sarah Rimmington and Chloe Doesburg.

We spent one week documenting and researching their municipal election.  A new City Council was elected – using a ranked ballot!!

After 40 years on this planet, I’d finally witnessed an actual fair election.  There were no distorted results, negative campaigns or ‘vote splitting’  – the hallmarks of a Toronto election.  They elected a female mayor, 46% female council, as well as their first Somali Councillor, first Latino Councillor and first Hmong Councillor.  It was a breath of fresh air, compared to what I’m used to.

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Here are three videos I’ve edited, from the footage that the three of us shot on streets of Minneapolis:

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This ad is vacant

Three years ago, I launched The Fourth Wall exhibit containing 36 practical ways to make our local democracy more inclusive, inviting and participatory.

Recommendation #22 was simple:  “The city should pro-actively promote the nomination process and encourage nominations”.

We have this wonderful thing called “Democracy”, where anyone is allowed to put their name on a ballot and ask the public to support their vision and their ideas.  But it only works if people actually know when and how to participate!

In the exhibit, I pointed out that the city does know to produce good outreach materials, when they are seeking nominations for OTHER things …like the ‘Green Toronto Awards’:

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Note the effective use of colour, images, pretty fonts, and attractive layout/design.  There’s even an exclamation mark. (!)

As part of the exhibit, I created a fictitious “Call for Nominations” for City Council:

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But this ad shouldn’t be fictitious.  We know the City has the capacity to design effective marketing materials.  So I was disappointed to see this ad in today’s newspaper: Continue reading

The Professional Guest

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Seven years ago, it occurred to me that paying rent was a real drag.

I was putting together the original business plan for Cycle Toronto, and I realised that we’d need to have a full-time staff person for about nine months, being paid roughly $0 per week.  As long as I needed to pay rent, we couldn’t start the new bike group.

So I came up with a fun idea called “The Professional Guest”.  I sent the following letter to all my friends:

November 27 2006

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dear friends!

I’m moving out of my house and I’d like to move into yours.  Don’t be alarmed.  My plan is not to be a moocher nor a ‘Couch Surfer’.  As of New Years, I will begin my new career as a Professional Guest.

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Rob Ford proposes 16 new seats on City Council

Mayor Rob Ford was in Winnipeg this week, and commented that “The thing I liked about it, they only had 16 councillors down there and a little, small council chamber,”

Well, that might be because Winnipeg is roughly a quarter of the size of Toronto.

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Keeping a TAB on City Hall

City Hall has more than a dozen committees, dealing with parks, transportation, budget, social services, development planning, etc.  And each committee meets every month, with a huge agenda.

For those who want to stay on top of a particular municipal issue, the hardest part is navigating through these agendas, and finding the topic you need.  After all, it’s not very helpful to find out about a decision at City Hall after it’s been made.  The trick is to know about agenda items, before they are debated.

Well, here’s some good news!  The good folks at the Toronto Public Space Initiative have designed a new website called TABS: Transparent and Accessible Bulletin System.

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