No one person can represent a whole community. To make better decisions, we need broader civic engagement.
By Larry Pattison
Published September 27, 2013
I have been interested in municipal politics since the last summer of the fight to save Red Hill, when I found my voice and my passion for what is truly better for Hamilton and not just those with their own agendas. Since then, I have been actively following municipal politics for the past few years.
If I was to sum up my civic engagement experience in a few words, I would say it's infuriating and intimidating, but mostly a rewarding experience. I believe we are slowly eliminating the two I's, but there are many examples, and I have a few of my own as well, of how getting involved and sharing your voice is truly making a difference in our city.
From grassroots James Street North, Livestreaming of many levels of City services meetings, Tactical Urbanism, superior Community Television, Yes We Cannon and our up-and-coming bike lanes across Cannon Street, groups like the Hamilton Civic League, to the Mustard Seed Cooperative grocer, people are getting involved, expressing their thoughts, dreams, and concerns, and even inspiring our decision-makers in the process.
There are a lot of people putting a great deal of their own time and a whole lotta heart into making this a better place for us all to live.
What I find most inspiring, though, is seeing children become part of the engagement process - because after all, we are ultimately building a city for them.
I certainly have a lot to learn about being engaged and being an effective voice of change in this community. I do think I carry a few important ingredients, however, including a deep passion for people, our city's history, and the existing built and environmental tools we have at our disposal to fully revitalize what so many are realizing is an astonishing and diverse community of promise.
I am rather confident that first quality, passion with peoples best interests at heart, is what is needed most. That, and an open mind to allow your fellow citizens to help you diversify that passion with the knowledge and tools required to turn our voices into change.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board debate regarding the impending closure of Delta, Sir John A. MacDonald, and Parkview Secondary schools, and the planned new North High School that will replace them, has recently reached a critical point.
I have sent a few messages to the Trustees this past week, carbon copying members of council and the media as well. I have made it quite clear that those thoughts are of my own opinion. I am by no means an expert in education or community planning, but I have lived in this city most of my life. I have also been following the area discussions revolving around the stadium district quite closely since the stadium debate as well.
I likely touched a few nerves in my pleas to encourage the board and council to put aside their differences and come back to the table - encouraging them to lead our children by example. I don't feel that Trustees should have the final say in what I feel are the most important decisions for a community to make: building and closing schools. I was quite frank in stating that I wished we could cancel the ARC review and start over.
I was upfront in my opinion that these decisions should come from the community through City Council.
It's no secret that I don't agree with school closures. Schools were meant to walk or bike to. I don't agree with centralizing everything, from business to education. I despise big box. I didn't agree with demolishing the downtown Education Centre, and I especially don't agree with building a new board headquarters.
I think board employees should work out of the schools they service. Those are the creative ways we could be filling the empty spaces in our schools, while we are working on filling those spaces with children.
It's difficult to watch the board trustee meetings via Livestream. It's hard to listen to them rip council for allegedly standing in the way of the HWDSB's ability to plan the new north school. Their frustrations toward our council area all too obvious.
From their questions they don't seem to be privy to past history such as outcomes of community meetings held at Prince of Whales school, that have focused on development planning for the Stadium District. If they had, they'd know that many in the community have expressed a desire to re-purpose the 100+ year old King George school the board wants to add to the list of heritage it has recently brought to the ground.
They'd also realize that many want to save the Jimmy Thompson Memorial Pool, or that we don't want to lose green space or the baseball program at Scott Park.
One thing we did agree on was that if King George had to come down, it was a preference that those old grounds become a green space or entranceway into the stadium district. Preserving perhaps the archway of King George and other key elements in the design of a neighborhood entrance and gathering place, that would act as a symbol of history and a gateway into to the future.
The community expresses their thoughts on these and other items of importance to council as our decision makers. We often don't feel that they are listening either, but the community meetings being held to discuss the plans for the Stadium District are steps in the right direction in our goal of bringing citizens and decision-makers closer.
I believe we should have one single point of contact in each Ward, which means Trustees aren't hearing the level of feedback that they should be receiving to make these vital education decisions.
During Monday's Livestream of the HWDSB trustee meeting, the camera focused on one trustee who, I could plainly see, was referencing notes I had sent him from one of those community meetings where neighbours talked of their desires for the district. Right there plain as day, was an example of our leaders at least acknowledging our voices.
I felt that moment was a great example of our ability as citizens to make a difference in the future of our city.
Then it happened. Another Trustee indirectly took a verbal swing at me, stating, "Just because you have an email from someone claiming to represent the community... They don't represent the community."
I would have understood a spirited rebuttal email from this specific person in response to my email messages to them in their colleagues, but to respond in this manner in front of a public broadcast and in response to quotes from a City document outlining suggestions from the community, I felt was taking ten steps back for those advocating for better civic engagement.
It was an unfortunate moment because to me. The ARC review is the single most important set of decisions this city has had to make in quite possibly a very long time. As I said in my letters to Trustees and Council, I do not feel citizen engagement was were it needed to be to make these vitally important, community-changing decisions regarding the closure of so many schools.
We can't be okay with sending out a few letters to parents, of whom we missed so many people who will be affected by these decisions in the near future, and say we reached out. If the above situation is any indication, input from the community was the last thing they wanted to get in the way of securing funding to build what they don't like us to call, a mega school.
Why is it that what I read about people's feelings towards school closures, and especially the loss of Parkview, isn't as supportive as the board makes it out to be?
Oh, but that's right: I don't represent the community. But no single person - whether it be a Trustee, Councillor, or even the Mayor - represents a community.
During Monday's meeting of Trustees, this same individual also talked about how they had spoken with members of the Parkview community, and that the message they came away with was that Parkview was excited about a new updated facility and that being merged into Delta would bring new opportunities. They were not worried about multiple school changes before they finally came to rest at their new high school home.
Parkview closing in June would mean that many of these kids will have gone to three high schools by the time they graduate. That's not a healthy situation for any child.
It makes one wonder who this Trustee was talking to. Were they intimidated by this person? Did they feel there were no other choices or as though they were going to close all these schools down anyway and that they likely had little choice in the matter?
Was it a 'we're excited' with an exclamation point or a somber 'I guess we have no choice' response?
Do Parkview teachers, students, and families know the details of all all options on the table? Have they been asked what they feel the ideal situation would look like if it were up to them? Would the ultimate desire be, as expressed by a grade 9 Parkview student Wednesday, that Parkview live on as a separate entity, with all existing programming left intact? Was this discussion presented as here is option 1 and 2. Which one do you chose?
How these questions are brought forward, who is asking these questions, and a full history with every single available option, need to be brought to students and families as well as those we feel these changes will affect in the future.
Ideally, for the sake of this little community, council and the board would come together in one town hall to discuss Plans D, E, through Z so that we can walk away from all of this, knowing that we have truly done right by this community - not just to appease some budget and a stringent timeline.
So it brings me back to this. I don't agree with school closures but if we have no other choice, I see opportunity in Plan C.
I strongly feel, however, that no matter which letter of the alphabet we chose, Parkview and it's programming should remain intact until we find a solution for this special and unique facility and it's place amongst our community. If they feel they should continue to have their own separate building, then I think we owe it to them to listen long, hard, and closely with an open mind.
As far as I am concerned as a parent, I believe Parkview is the future of learning. Big box schools are not. We all live, learn, work, and play better under different circumstances and surroundings.
There is a deep spiritual reason why people enjoy living in the country and small towns and that's because of the small, close community these environments foster. We can make living in the city feel more like a small community but it's going to take all of us, and open minds, to achieve this goal.
Being part of a community is something our souls all long for. How can we create the kinds of neighbourhoods we can all thrive in?
In my opinion, not as an educator, planner, or anyone of any importance, but as someone with 40 years of life experience as a mostly-quiet person who loves watching and listening to people, Parkview needs to live on so that we can learn from them. All of them from the teachers, the parents and most importantly, the students, in how to properly run a school. How to run a community who recognizes the differences we all share.
I guarantee you that there are thousands of kids and teachers for that matter not reaching their full potential because one teaching and learning method for all is not the answer.
I believe we need to keep multi-use Delta and Sir John A. MacDonald intact as education and business centres. I do believe we need a central school, and I believe that school is of Parkview programming. I believe we can turn a couple of hundred students each from other schools into 800 alternative learners. I think we can make Parkview not about special needs or slow learning, but about individual learning.
I believe it's time we mesh the other way around. I believe this 'new' school can influence a different design for the south school, and inspire other communities as we truly become an actual top learning centre. Not a self perceived one.
I also believe we can do all of this without building one single new school. Fix what we've got, and re-obtain what we have lost in Scott Park. That is how we can possibly both save money, and keep more kids in their own communities.
"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
— Frederick Douglass
That should be our goal in these discussions. Not our budget.
We have schools for advanced learners. We need to grow schools for different learners.
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