Witness the birth of a truly transformative organization in a city crying out for effective broad-based organizing.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 30, 2009
After a presentation this past March by Annie O'Donoghue of the Guelph Civic League explained how that group is working to transform local politics by increasing grassroots citizen participation and political accountability, a group of Hamiltonians have developed a plan to establish a similar group here.
Several months of dedication and hard work later, the Hamilton Civic League is ready to go live, with an official launch planned for this evening at the Workers' Arts and Heritage Centre, 51 Stuart St., Hamilton - the same location in which Annie O'Donaghue had inspired them with her presentation and the open discussion that followed.
The Hamilton Civic League asks: What kind of a city do we want? Like its sister organization, it plans to start by organizing a ward-by-ward survey to get a better sense of the values and priorities of people across the city.
The larger goal is to increase citizen participation - in the League itself, in local neighbourhood associations and community councils, and in the political process by increasing voter turnout to municipal elections.
The League's current board of directors are: Larry Pomerantz (Chair), long-time organizer of local Earth Day events; Jane Christmas, celebrated author and communications expert; Meredith Broughton, youth pastor and community advocate; and Brian Kowalewicz, who co-runs the Historical Hamilton website.
They hope to add many more members to the organization's roster over the coming months and years. Membership is free but the League asks for a voluntary $35 donation to support the group's activities.
Pomerantz, the spokesperson for the group, explains some of the roadblocks to greater public participation in municipal elections. "We have been told that issues related to poverty, literacy, newcomers to the country unfamiliar with the voting process and renters vs property owners affect voter turnout."
He adds that federal and provincial politics tend to overshadow local issues so that people tend to discount both the importance of local politics and the extent to which their vote in a local election "can make a difference." He sees a real opportunity:
A citizens group can begin to build momentum to help prepare the community for the upcoming election. We can go door to door to help people understand what is at stake and how it affects their daily lives. We can help our fellow citizens to understand why they should become informed, empowered and engaged.
Pomerantz wants the League to be truly broad-based, "representative of all Hamilton stakeholders, not painted as left or right wing, but truly representative of our community. We won't all see things the same way but we will surely have an opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other."
He adds, "How can any stakeholder not agree to a goal of engaging citizens and significantly increasing voter participation?"
Part of the League's strategy is to form task forces to survey each ward in Hamilton to learn about its values and priorities. Hamilton is notorious for the deep rifts that cut across the grain of our city on various dimensions, and many issues seem to reduce to crude pro/anti and us/them dichotomies.
Pomerantz explains that contradictory values and priorities "do not pose a problem" for the League. He stresses that the goal of the League is to "will provide an opportunity for everyone to discuss the issues and learn why we have opposing opinions. Our democracy will do its best to resolve or prioritize these differences."
In other words, it's not necessary to try and usurp the democratic process: instead, the goal is to get as many citizens engaged as possible so that the democratic process works more effectively and we end up with more representative, more accountable governments.
Hamilton has a history of citizens' groups that launched with optimistic hopes of transforming electoral results but folded when their initial efforts fizzled. Pomerantz argues that the League has "tremendous potential to succeed" over the long run, thanks to the following:
In other words, they've been taking the time to do things right and plan for the long term.
Pomerantz summarizes the group's goals and dedication:
It is only during difficult times like these that people finally wake up and understand they must voice their opinions on the decisions that are being made that affect their daily lives. The Hamilton Civic League is going to wake up the community even if we have to go door to door, and we will be here to encourage the community to stay engaged long after our vision is achieved.
Do try and attend their official launch this evening. You may be witnessing the birth of a truly transformative organization in a city crying out for effective broad-based organizing.
Date: Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, 51 Stuart St., Hamilton.
From Main St, head north on Bay St past Barton St and turn right at the next stop sign onto Stuart St. 51 Stuart St is halfway down on the right hand side.
Contact: Larry Pomerantz