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TBC: Rethinking Civic Participation

Toronto is the home of a new initiative to generate more civic participation. Photo: courtesy

Toronto is the home of a new initiative to generate more civic participation. Photo: courtesy Dhodges, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

When it comes to participation in civic issues, it seems there are plenty of citizens with the will to be involved, but not all of them know how to do that in a way that’s right for them. If you ask neighbors to volunteer at an event, for instance, they probably will, with pleasure, but they may not have thought, cared, or had the time to put that event together themselves. Or perhaps they just haven’t come across the mode of civic participation that suits them.

At the same time, and on the flip side, there are hundreds out there who are involved—so deeply involved, in fact, that they may not have had the time to look up and reach out to connect with others who may be able to make their valuable work easier or more effective through collaboration.

At the Lab, I often watched these issues naturally dissolve thanks to the unique sort of cross pollination that came from putting such a diverse mixture of citizens, thinkers and groups together in the same open platform. I maintain that some of the most useful and enduring things to come out of the Lab were, indeed, those new relationships.

Thus, I was inspired when I heard about a recent event in Toronto dedicated to making just those two things—participation and collaboration—happen in the city. Dubbed “Turnout Toronto: A Civic Engagement Fair,” the event was like a job fair for citizen participation—a room full of tables staffed by a couple dozen NGOs, city government departments, citizens groups, and the like, ready to speak to anyone interested in learning about all the ways they could get involved. More than 500 people attended the event, and though it seems like a simple concept, the implication of breaking down that barrier and helping people navigate their options was profound in more ways than the organizers, all staff members of Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation, expected.

I caught up with one of those organizers, Adil Dhalla, to find out what lessons Turnout Toronto has to offer us in cities around the world.  

When you started Turnout Toronto, you saw a gap that needed to be filled. What was that gap and why do you think it exists?

The gap is in understanding, from a citizen perspective, what the opportunities are . . . to be involved in the direction and the success and visioning of your city. I think this gap has always existed to a certain degree. Collectively, generally speaking, we’ve done a lot of work to really bridge the gap between leadership and the citizen, and technology has been a large player in that, but for us in Toronto, we’re a galvanized city. It’s so clear that regardless of what side you belong to, a lot of people care about the city but don’t really know what they can do for it. We created “Turnout Toronto” to respond to our own interests, as an organizing group, to invite a bunch of groups and create a menu of opportunities to get involved in ways that were of interest to us respectively.

You say that when it comes to problems of civic engagement, a lot of that has been fixed through technology. Is this true?

I don’t think that a lot of the problems have necessarily been fixed, but that we’ve seen progress . . . That said, there’s a general feeling and concern that technology contributes a lot to cosmetic activism—a sense that, “oh, just because I’ve posted online my belief, therefore I’ve played a part.” I generally think that there’s value in sharing what [one] believe[s] in or what [feels], especially as it related to how [one’s] city or province or country functions, but I think that we still . . . have a ways to go in encouraging people to take a truly meaningful step forward . . . I think online and offline both have their respective strengths and weaknesses, but I don’t think that online spheres, with all due respect, develop the same type of social capital and energy that you get when you have 500 people in the same room talking about how to make the city great.

Can you share a few anecdotes that illustrate the effects of that in-person gathering at “Turnout Toronto”?

One of the really cool things about “Turnout Toronto” is that we had 25 civic champions . . . hosting tables, and many more that were present. So, while we had 500 people that came through the door, I think that if those 500 people didn’t come it would still have been a huge shift for the city because we had 25 groups together that don’t talk to each other that much. For very understandable reasons, they operate within respective silos, so it was so interesting to watch. [In] one session, we had a city councilor actually stand up on a chair and say he was holding a session on what would be a slogan for our city that we could believe in. They had a breakout session and we saw different advocacy groups and citizens and other city councilors all [contributing ideas] and sort of jamming together . . . . just being there [with] one another was a tremendous opportunity to build social capital and awareness in order to truly collaborate with one another.

What are some structural fixes that could make that type of cross pollination and collaboration more present on a day-to-day basis in government, in decision making, and in activism?

It’s a great question, and I guess I’ll be honest with the first part of my answer and say . . . I actually don’t know . . . That said, I think so often we put pressure on ourselves and our public systems to not show where their weaknesses are, and as a consequence the further we go down the path, the weaknesses tend to find ways to manifest in ugly ways . . . I often use this very literal example: what would happen if I wore a sticker that said “I’m awesome at x and my needs are y,” and I wore that every day. It’s fascinating to imagine who would come up to you and say, “Hey, what you’re awesome at is what I need,” or, “What I’m awesome at is what you need.” I think that’s really the basis of most collaborations: two sides who see value in what the other needs or does really well . . . What happens in government is that they’re large and they have specific objectives, so you have multiple departments working concurrently but couldn’t be further apart. As simple as it might sound, creating space and opportunities for different departments and opportunities . . . to get to know one another, it’s amazing to think what would come about just with that.