It’s hard to know what word is more popular these days, ‘citizen’, or ‘engagement’. Put the two together, and you have the making of a blog post/city initiative/drinking club/ or website. Now don’t get me wrong, that sounds like a cynical opening, but I am all for citizen engagement. Create a list of engaged citizens in London, and I hope my name would be on it. I read the blog posts, I go to the city events, I’ll be at the Mo for pints and politics, and I comment on websites. However, there’s a sorrow deep within me because I already know what we’ll do wrong, and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it.
A look through London’s great blogs will show you that most of what we are talking about in terms of citizen engagement is reaching out to the disengaged. Brian Gibson hits home for many of us regarding political cynicism: “I hope we all listen, and can help engage the cynical among us. And defeat the cynic that resides inside us too.” Jo-Anne Bishop highlights the irony of the declaration of London as the city of opportunity at a time of eroding citizen engagement. Glen Pearson confronts skepticism, highlighting that it is up to us, the citizens, to show we have the maturity to co-lead our city along with Council. Even I have championed a growing citizen movement that falls outside the established bounds of a special interest group.
And it’s working. Look at the turnout for Rethink London, a sold out crowd of 1300 people suddenly interested in the official plan process. But look a little closer, actually look around the room. Yes, we got the Homeless Coalition, and the neighbourhood associations, and university/college student councils, and non-profit staff, and business association members out, we have revived flagging interest and brought out the cynical middle class. But who isn’t there? The poor. Those fighting from paycheque to paycheque, those on endless waits for social housing, those who smell too odd, drink too much, and swear at the mayor when they see him because their child got apprehended by CAS, and goddamnit, they don’t know who else to blame. These are the unengaged.
The unengaged. Those who are never asked to be engaged. Those who aren’t cynical, because they never cared to begin with. Because no one has asked them to care. Those for whom skepticism is far too soft a word, rather they are completely opposed to anything and anyone in the policy sphere, because the policies are their enemy. The policies are why all they can afford is processed food, why potential employers can ask them to bring in a criminal reference check and find out about supposedly protected information of youth criminal records, why in spite of their flagrant mental and physical illnesses they can’t move from OW to ODSP, why the school kicked them out only slightly slower than their mother kicked them out.
The unengaged. History, research, and experience tells us that those living in poverty will for the most part not engage unless we make a concerted effort to try. It’s a hierarchy of needs, your lens is small and your time is precious when you are struggling to survive. Therefore, our decisions for our community will continue to be made by those with access to the most resources. We may be able to shift decisions from a more elite network of business owners and politicians to your average middle class, but that still excludes 1/5-1/6 of our citizens. And although I can try to be a voice for the poor, I’m not the voice of the poor.