We were thrilled to have a number of journalists at our in-person sessions over the past two weeks. Joanne Chianello wrote the following piece of the Ottawa Citizen. You can find the article online here.
OTTAWA — In a packed meeting room at Ben Franklin Place, Ken Victor scanned the big sheets of white paper taped up on the walls. On each, the room’s occupants had written questions. If you’d like to know how to succeed at the earliest opportunity? Have fun with together with the casino spiele kostenlos ohne anmeldung und ohne download appropriate now. There exists some huge cash plus entertaining!
“At what point can citizens influence decisions?” Victor read out loud. He kept rhyming off the top query from other groups’ lists. “How is it possible to get everyone engaged?” “How can you keep momentum going on community engagement?”
Everyone seemed to want to know much the same thing: How can regular people have a say in the city’s decision-making process more often than once every four years?
Which is just what Victor and the other founders of the ambitiously named Citizens Academy were hoping for.
Their concept is as earnest as the name suggests. They proclaim it a “new grassroots initiative” dedicated to civic engagement. Beyond the buzzwords, the Academy aims to be a practical tool for anyone interested in wanting to know more about how this complex city really works.
Here’s how it has worked so far: Over two Thursday evenings this month, the organizers brought together senior bureaucrats, politicians, academics and community activists who share their experiences about working with — or within — the municipal government. (The Citizens Academy operates under so-called Chatham House rules, where ideas at the sessions can be reported but not the identity of the speakers.)
As a pilot project, the organizers held just two thematically linked sessions. The first was about the decision-making process at City Hall, and featured a speaker who was instrumental in the decades-long campaign, under both the old Ottawa government and then the amalgamated one, to save the Plant Bath pool. (She was definitely the star of the show — everyone was awed by her tenacity and ultimate success at getting the old pool reopened.)
The second session, held at the Hintonburg Community Centre, was about recreation, including discussion about how much the city spends on it, how decisions are made concerning what programs are offered where, and whether the city has any clear goals with its recreation policy.
There were detailed presentations, small-group discussions and plenty of question-and-answer sessions. And so, in a way, the academy is a sort of school — a very polite one.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the Citizens Academy is the non-judgmental tone its organizers are trying to instill. Presenters and participants are supposed to leave behind their preconceived notions about how decisions are made or how things “really” work in the halls of power.
This isn’t some inconsequential warm-and-fuzzy notion. Dialing down the fight rhetoric is imperative to making this city work better. Sit through a year of planning committee meetings and you’ll routinely hear residents openly accuse city staff of bias, or worse. It becomes obvious that we need to neutralize the “Us vs. The Man” mentality that casts a shadow over too many citizens’ relationships with city hall.
This is not to argue against keeping a critical eye on council and city staff. But not much can be learned from a starting point that assumes the worst of everyone else.
Manjit Basi, another of the Academy’s key founders, said she wasn’t sure they could find 40 people interested in taking part in an experiment to increase “civic vitality,” let alone put together a diverse group. In the end, 109 people applied to participate, from which the Academy selected a group that represented different ages, genders, geographic areas and socio-economic backgrounds.
“I think Ottawa’s a changing city. It’s complex and it’s getting more complex,” said Manjit. “We’re also becoming more siloed, which isn’t good for the city.”
Indeed, bringing together different parts — physical or metaphorical — could be key to the Academy’s future. While cautioning that plans for rolling out a full program are still very preliminary, the organizers foresee six to eight sessions that cover the gamut of municipal processes and policies.
“We want citizens to come out not just because you want to learn about a specific issue,” said Victor. “You’ve got to come for the whole thing. That’s how you learn all those things are interconnected, and you forge a bond with your cohort that reflects the diversity of the city.”
Manjit talked about how in 10 or 15 years, there will be widespread citizen interaction with the city. That’s instead of, as Victor put it, “just when you want an itch scratched.”
It’s very early days for the Academy, but signs are promising. Crucially, city bureaucrats who attended seemed eager to share their unfiltered view of how things work.
As well, the pilot sessions brought to the surface encouraging evidence of common values. A broad swath of citizens clearly want to feel they can directly participate in how this city is run. Even though the second session’s presentations felt to me less focused than the first, the participants still came up with sharp questions for the presenters.
Those who were in the room have likely already answered many of their own questions about how they can influence decisions on Laurier Avenue. Mattering starts with mastering some of the intricacies of the system.
Nobody said participating in democracy wouldn’t take some work. For trying to help people start that effort, the Citizens Academy has begun to make good on its grand name.
Catholic Centre for Immigrants
Centre for Global and Community Engagement
City for All Women Initiative
City of Ottawa
Coalition for a Better Ottawa
Community Development Framework
Community Foundation of Ottawa
Community Health Resource Centres
Ottawa Neighbourhood Social Capital Forum
Ottawa Neighbourhood Study
Social Planning Council of Ottawa
University of Ottawa