Wednesday, October 24, 2007

aren't they asking the wrong question?

A week or two ago I was reading a series of features in Canadian Business magazine about how best to make Canada more competitive globally.

There were arguments about the need to commercialise innovative inventions and ideas, the need to keep skilled individuals in Canadian companies, and in the country, and the need to transform Canada's regulatory environment and cultural bias to one that encourages participation in the world economy, rather than shying away from it.

As one author has pointed out - it's about the way you can buy a Corona all over the place, but you're not likely to find a Molson in a Mexican bar.

The prediction was that since history has shown Canadian business leaders to be loathe to think globally, if things don't change by 2020 Canada will be left behind.

I was almost convinced. But then I started thinking about the individuals I know who are truly outstanding minds. Which is not to say that they are at the top of the food chain in their places of employment. Often these folks are too independent-minded to play office politics well. But I do know quite a few people, actually, who might be classified as brilliant. Inventive, imaginative, well-above average certainly.

And these people live all over the world.

They keep in touch virtually. Share ideas informally and across geographic boundaries. Recruit each other for projects. Ask each other for career advice. Now, when you add to this the fact that Canada has the world's highest rate of immigrants as a percentage of population, you have yet another factor contributing to our outward outlook and outward ties to other countries, cultures, and approaches.

I know that there are regulatory barriers to trade and worker mobility, but my observation is that the truly creative find ways to operate outside of national constraints. They are not bound by questions of sovereignty. (Like our last Prime Minister who was also a shipping mogul, accused of flying different flags on his ships, depending on what port thew were in...but I digress.)

My guess is that the threat is not simply that Canada's regulatory regime is falling behind that of other countries. Or that Canadian entrepreneurs have been too inward looking. Or that there are (not enough) virtually no Canada-based multinationals. Or even that we're suffering brain drain as Canada's best and brightest migrate to the international centres of excellence.

Nope, my bet is that the best and the brightest - in Canada, and the world over - will develop new and informal modes of networking and collaborating that will supersede governments and individual nations in general, making their regulatory regimes irrelevant altogether.

And so as the boomers debate how to make Canada relevant - a debate in which I am keenly interested, not just because of the economic implications, but also because of the political and foreign policy ones - I can't help but intuit that Gen X'ers are going to blast this debate out of the water.

And Gen Y'ers will not even be able to wrap their heads around the idea. Being constrained by country barriers from doing business, commercialising new ideas, or influencing policy in foreign countries? Think Gates, Clinton, and the Google boys.

Surely the web has made it clear that the best and brightest are constrained by nothing of the like?

Monday, August 20, 2007

hell no, we won't go

I'm sitting next to a guy holding a cup from Starbucks. He has the look of someone fresh off the boat. He's reading an article entitled "Retire Rich", and I'm craning my neck to see the magazne's recommendations and stock tips.

Just half an hour ago I was outside with the indignant masses - that is those protesting Bush's visit and the Security and Prosperity Partnership between Mexico, Canada, the U.S.

Ahhh, the eternal dilemma of an immigrant kid.

This weekend, after much research and mental consternation, I took a decision as to where to park the the nest egg I'm prepared to gamble in the hopes it will multiply and become a cushy retirement fund. And then I left the house. That's when I ran into the protest rally against this week's Montebello summit where President Bush, Prime Minister Harper and President Calderon will discuss the SPP.

How to honour one's parents' struggle to improve their lives, while also acknowledging that by taking part in the North American economy...and, umm, investing in multi-nationals, you're probably squeezing your very own relatives 'back home'?

I followed the protesters from an observer's viewpoint along the sidewalk. Stopping to buy coffee and a muffin en route. I sat on a low wall down the street from the Parliament buildings, popped the lid on my double double, and set in to watch.

Time was I couldn't attend a rally without joining someone I knew. This time - I ran into just one acquaintance. A former colleague from the Minister's office who once also worked for the UN. Did we take up signs and join the marchers?

No, no, my friends.

Instead, my partner in crime spotted and flagged over the new police chief in order to introduce herself as a fellow east coaster, and to say hello. We ended up talking to him and an outgoing police chief about how best to clean up Ottawa's streets. And you know what? Good ideas were shared.

While protesters chanted about the evils of private leaders' meetings, the new police chief, an old one, a government official and a lobbyist whose firm has ties to both the mayor's office and the very business executives advising on the progress of the SPP held one of sorts ourselves.

We talked about the dropping price of drugs in the city - how a hit of crack is now cheaper than a bottle of beer. We talked about the school teacher officers busted for prostitution last week - her income from teaching doesn't meet her living needs. We talked about another street walker who stopped officers and asked for treatment - two hours of searching later, they couldn't find a shelter or a treatment centre to which she could be referred.

And so we talked, too, about which community organisations might form a useful coalition in the fight for more treatment dollars, housing shelters, and against the trend of mainstream residents taking more and more serious drugs.

So perhaps the protesters' one-way chanting achieved more than media coverage today. It sparked an exchange and dialogue on the streets of Ottawa amongst those who might actually hold some sway.

Undisclosed, private meeting? Sure, you could see it that way. Self-serving conspiracy to maintain the power of the elite? Not so much, I'd say.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

don't be realistic

I got this video in my email inbox this morning. The basic message of the video is to stop being "realistic" and stick to your big, impossible dreams. I enjoy this.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

baby with the bath water

A lot of theorists have been writing about the declining influence of government. In fact, this was the subject of one of my major papers during law school ten years ago. The argument goes something like this:

  • Security is being taken up by private bodyguards and gated communities amongst those who can afford not to rely upon the police
  • Non-state militia groups wage war outside of the guidelines of the Geneva Convention and international law
  • Public policy decisions are increasingly taken by judges - whether on issues like gay marriage, abortion, or labour disputes...leaving elected officials off the hook
  • Professional lobbyists - whether lobbyists-for-hire or representatives of civil society organisations - effect more influence on government decisions than the civil servants on the inside
  • NGOs and community organisations deliver services, shape public debate, and collaborate with partners overseas - directly
  • Non-governmental organisations also deliver government-esque services directly overseas. For example, War Child contributes towards cleaning up after the devastation of military operations, Amnesty International shines light on government abuse, and Doctors Without Borders delivers healthcare instead of local health authorities overseas

Governments are obviously becoming less and less relevant - "A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem," Einstein said. And so why should we care about them?*

Well...call me Pollyanna, but I still have faith. The infrastructure of government is still in place; here in Canada we generate $10 billion annual surpluses federally, and taxpayers don't seem to mind. So we have an opportunity to use the system and the funding that's already in place if we can figure out what to do with the networks we have.

We could be actively trying to create an economy of care - incentives to business to support civil society. Government as direction-setter instead of implementer, providing the overall guidance structures and funding for regional and local organisations to do their thing. Government as think tank to generate data about how certain programs are working and what international (or obscure, local) group is already doing it better.

I've mentioned experimental pilot projects like harm reduction drug clinics, daycare on site at business centres, investment in research & development, construction of community-focused public spaces and innovative public buildings, and reducing poverty overseas before.

But I'm sure there are lots of people saying this, and when pilot projects do sprout up, the average citizen is often unaware of the opportunities that exist.

So how to make a stronger connection between government and community...any ideas?

*Of note, last night I bought World Inc, which explores the question of whether now that companies are more powerful than governments, they have an opportunity - a responsibility? - to make social responsibility part of their mandates. Will report back with thoughts.

Monday, June 4, 2007

too cool for school

In his 1957 essay "The White Negro", Norman Mailer argued that:

"If the fate of 20th century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to live without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself. One is Hip or one is Square, one is a rebel or one conforms."

So far, I've met one super over-achiever who also has that kind of crazy hipster cool. Usually, the "psychopath within" tends to overshadow the productive side of the crazy cool people I meet.

Just in April I'd been pitching to a group of people that the truly gifted and avant-garde - the innovators - are hardwired differently. And that, as a consequence, they are often a little crazy too. That was before I'd read the Mailer quote, and I know the people I was talking to thought I was strange.

I feel vindicated now, if at a loss, because the leap from crazy-productive to crazy-subpar may be all too short.

Take Montreal, for instance, the city of my undergrad youth. I've always admired its graceful seediness. The way its people continue to sneer in the midst of its decay. And I've always preferred it over the bigger, richer, more sanitised Toronto as well.

But despite its beautiful people, it's superior fashion, its local arts scene and quirky pockets of tight knit communities, Montreal never beats the Vancouvers and the Torontos for the "Top City to Live In" in the global awards. Perhaps the continuum from haunting beauty to just plain ghoulishness is too close a spectrum for the average citizen to bear.

Still, I remain optimistic that the balance can be made. I think that sometimes simply being innovative, alternative, or daring in one's thinking, is what is seen as crazy. As Einstein quipped:

"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions"

and

"A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?"

Sunday, May 27, 2007

no, my first name ain't baby

Remember Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation (get the point? good. let’s dance). Straight up hard on civic issues, then she brings the beat back.

Today I spent the afternoon in the park, reading, people watching, counting marathon runners go by. Summers are always good in Ottawa, but today was the first time I’ve considered it could be home.

No coincidence these thoughts coming once the snow is gone, and particularly while I’m in the park. I could see the Hill over my left shoulder, open and accessible by foot, the national art gallery in front of me, boasting displays of Renoir, modernist photographs and the Governor General’s (our first black, female head of state!) picks. And to my right the steel and concrete gated fa├žade of the American Embassy, an architectural statement of everything our country is not.

Then a random man approached me. I guess during the winter he’d seen me reading at Chapters every week. He wanted to know if I’d like to join him this evening at a church concert. It seems my sister might have taken me to his congregation once when she was in town, cuz he thought he'd also spotted me in a pew.

He came across as courteous and respectful, but also possibly trying to flirt. Alas, I’m not born again, nor interested, so I didn’t take the bait.

Still, between the sun on my face, the political theory in my lap, the national icons in the distance, and the friendly courage of this man, I left at sundown with a renewed faith in the potential of the city, and good feelings about how great the country is overall.

It was like listening first to “people of the world unite/strength in numbers we can get it right/one time”, then skipping tracks to “as I was walkin’ by/saw you standin’ there with a smile.”

Looks like my girl Janet knew what she was talking about. (you might think i’m crazy but I’m serious. it’s better you know now.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

wtf?

So I'm walking home yesterday after work and there's this skater dude following along the same path.

Next thing I know, he's shouting insults, obscenities, and finally WHITE POWER!!! WHITE POWER!!!

For a full block.

ummm...it was 31 degrees with humidity yesterday. could he not deduce that we don't need any more hot air?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

can governments still inspire?

My boss' father, who is from India, says that "the problem with Canada is that there are no problems."

Perhaps this is why government is less ambitious now than it was in the Trudeau Charter of Rights era...or even the Mulroney era of Free Trade.

With the exception of the disparities in income, health and education between First Nations communities and the rest of Canada, these days the most urgent social problems to be addressed are most often found overseas.

But what is the role of a national government in helping to solve the problems of people who don't live in the nation? How can we engage citizens in supporting foreign aid? And how can we offer foreign aid in a non-paternalistic fashion or without inappropriate strings regarding the recipient country's domestic policies?

National governments are hard pressed to focus on initiatives that won't score political points. But the political system - the way individual candidates are nominated, elected and keep their parties in power - isn't really built to focus attention outside the country. And once a government is in place, does it really have the tools to effect meaningful international change? Military action has been used as one piece of the puzzle, but the military isn't designed to cultivate grassroots support.

A few weeks ago I was at a Facebook party comprised of political staffers and bureaucrats where I met a feisty woman who is a lawyer with the feds on First Nations issues. She had been a political staffer for a cabinet minister before the Liberal government fell.

We spoke at length about how well government is equipped to improve the socioeconomic status of First Nations communities. She was pessimistic about the government's ability to be an effective catalyst on its own. But she was equally adamant that economic advancement in the absence of self-government, improved infrastructure, and social programs would do little as well.

If an insider sees such challenges in working to resolve a domestic policy issue, what kind of tactics are needed to generate support, mobilise resources, and partner with the private sector and civil society for initiatives overseas?

Aside from funding (and perhaps managing) existing social programs, infrastructure and healthcare - can national governments set (and achieve) loftier goals in the modern age?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

lessons learned, revisions made

After three days of reading, reflecting, dancing, and socialising, I have the following revisions to previous thoughts, musings, and posts I've published about a) effective activism & b) socially responsible lobbying.

This morning I read an article in the NY Times about the tactics behind the campaign to end partial birth abortions, and potentially many more types of abortions down the road. It seems that the activists appealed - not to rhetoric about morality, values or religious suasion - but rather to empirical data that they say shows abortions are not in the best interest of women in terms of physical or mental health.

I found this interesting as an example of how the pro-choice movement got outmanoeuvred. It used to be that when you (am I the only one?) thought of pro-choicers, you thought of feminist intellectuals, perhaps offering reasoned rationales for why the tough decision to have an abortion should be left to individual women, and not the state. And you maybe thought of pro-lifers as placard-waving protesters outside of health clinics.

Now, the roles have switched.

It's the pro-choicers who are the (impotent) protesters and the pro-lifers who are successfully changing law and potentially public policy through the traditional tactics of strategic lobby plans.

But having said that, I have an edit to my earlier assertion that more social cause activists should hire lobby firms (in addition to using our tactics). At the Make Poverty History meeting we talked about how having equal rules is not enough if there are discrepancies in resources between the players.

In the context of lobbying world, the issue is not precisely whether you can afford a blue chip firm like mine; it's that by virtue of being so big, my firm is better able to cultivate relationships with decision-makers.

When I call a political staffer or government official, I can call with the policy concerns of five clients, knock off multiple birds with one stone. Which makes it more (worth the official's time) efficient for the decision-maker to speak to me than to each individual social cause activist who might be pounding at their door.

As a result - I have more access. Which leads to an imbalance in the overall democratic objectives of the lobbying system. So. Potential solutions? Big firms should (be required) feel obligated to do pro bono work for resource-poor organisations.

Luckily, last year my firm provided pro bono services to Ashoka, an organisation that provides three years' salary to social entrpreneurs. Other offices/sister companies offered pro bono work to other orgs. Globally we gave away 3.4 million pounds and we have staff volunteer programs in each office to get individual employees engaged in the communities where they work. So. That's not bad.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

make poverty history

I've just come back from a meeting of the Make Poverty History campaign.

It was an inspiring mix of savvy policy advocates, idealistic grassroots activists, fresh faced international development types, newcomers to the city, and social justice campaigners from faith-based groups. It seems I've signed up to co-chair the campaign in my riding. (Thank god for Facebook.)

There were (only) two people who had been born outside of Canada - from Bosnia and from Colombia - both seasoned anti-poverty services workers. There were the requisite students, some middle aged folks, and lots of women who seemed to be like me*.

The purpose of the meeting was to develop strategies to put the Campaign's four anti-poverty goals into the election platforms of each political party in the next election campaign. The four goals are:

More and Better Aid (Reach the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income by 2015 by committing to increase aid by 15% each year from now to 2010, then by 16% from 2010 to 2015.)

Trade Justice (Press for trade and investment rules that ensure governments and their citizens can choose the best solutions to end poverty and protect the environment, particularly in the agricultural sector.)

Debt Cancellation (Between 1970 and 2002, for example, the poorest African countries received $294 billion in loans, but paid back $298 billion in interest and principal. Yet they still owed more than $200 billion.)

End to Child Poverty in Canada (At the start of 2005, one million Canadian children - nearly one in six - were poor. First Nations children are disproportionately affected).

You can support the Make Poverty History Campaign online, by clicking here.


*but white. and not so much in the private sector. or in partisan politics. okay...so maybe not so much like me, so much as my age. ish.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

who da Man?

I've just discovered the Hip Hop Project, the "compelling story of Kazi, a formerly homeless teenager who inspired a group of New York City teens to transform their life stories into powerful works of art, using hip hop as a vehicle for self-development and personal discovery." The film opens May 11th and is produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah.*

Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Rebel Sell - Why the Culture Can't be Jammed by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter. The thesis of the book is that the counterculture movement has not only been unproductive, but has also helped to create the very consumer society that radicals oppose.

My favourite quote from the book so far?

"From the standpoint of social justice, the big gains that have been achieved in our society over the past half-century have all come from measured reform within the system. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement have both achieved tangible gains in the welfare of disadvantaged groups, while the social safety net provided by the welfare state has vastly improved the conditions of all citizens.

But these gains have not been achieved by "unplugging" people from the web of illusions that governs their lives. They have been achieved through the laborious process of democratic political action - through people making arguments, conducting studies, assembling coalitions and legislating change. We would like to see more of this.

Less fun, perhaps, but potentially much more useful."

God I agree. People ask me why I like working for a corporate lobby firm. (aka The Man) It's cuz I can't find a more efficient - or consistently effective - place to be an activist for hire. My job description is exactly this: to make arguments, commission studies, assemble coalitions, and push for politicians and government officials to legislate change.

I think social cause organisations should spend less time complaining about the success of professional lobby campaigns and actually hire us themselves.

I participated in the anti-war rallies when Bush first contemplated invading Iraq. And, sure, the tam tam playing and megaphone shouting was fun. But our boy George still went to war. I attended pro-choice rallies in undergrad, and yeah it was thrilling to stand up to riot police, see other supporters in the streets. But the current U.S. Supreme Court is still taking active steps to open the door to state by state abortion bans.

What is needed is not a critique of how repressive the State and Markets are. Buying alternative sneakers and beauty supplies does not shatter the Dow Jones. But how much more effective is the global access to essential medicines campaign with generic manufacturers available in India than with simple moral claims?

What is needed by social cause activists are coordinated, strategic offensives in support of specific policy goals. A desire to get out of Opposition, to assume the reins and lead. Less fun, more useful, indeed.

So what I like about the Hip Hop Project is the way that it leverages the cultural appeal of hip hop and the resonance of one guy's story to shine a light on a range of specific social ills. And then it provides a blueprint for how to bring disaffected youth together and to channel their discontent. And then it uses the power of (all types of) media to extend the story's reach. And it's not afraid to align itself with business, or the industry's elite.

When we watch the movie, we'll be touched by this guy's story. We'll start to see how a music project can change individuals' lives. And then we can buy the soundtrack, hear the characters' social commentary - and know that the net profits from the project will go to helping different youth organisations make a difference in some other kids' lives.

*the filmmakers are Matt Ruskin, Scott Rosenberg, and Ari Issler. They've been filming the project for the last four years.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

speaking of petards

So the Conservatives have been disturbingly effective lately at painting Dion and the Liberals as ivory tower talkers and the Harper/Baird crew as men of action.

Many a beer has been shared and a sparky debate initiated as good Liberals in the nation's capital critique and lament the Conservative attacks.

Today, some hope. A fellow former-staffer sent round the following link to a mock-site about the Conservative's environmental policy plan:

It's called "ecoFRAUD - Sounding Better. Doing Less", and is a direct rip off of the look and feel of the Conservative's real environmental site "ecoACTION - Using Less. Living Better".

Which is amusing...if slightly ivory tower. Because isn't "sounding better" the cornerstone of winning elections? Regardless of what the newly-elected government actual does?

NGOs, activists, academics and other civil society actors have a good case to make for being in perpetual opposition. Constant critique may or may not push a government to amend their policy approaches - but it can garner media attention and encourage coffee shop chat amongst voters.

Still, for the Liberals and our upcoming election campaign...no point sneering - we need to sound better too, if we want to win.

Check out the Conservative environmental plan here.

And the mock ecoFRAUD site here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

slovenly, but cute

I've just spent half an hour flipping between Fashion File and Fashion Television, followed by 2 minutes watching a short film about pretty people. Conclusion #1 - I am reeeeaaally not stylish. Conclusion #2 - I'm okay with that.

Case in point, this morning I went down the road to pick up a Tim Hortons double double, a muffin, and a Jamaican patty from the local West Indian grocery shop. I rolled out of bed, exchanged my pjs for black sweats, red glasses, and pink running shoes, then headed out the door.

As I ambled down the street, it took just 2.5 blocks to realise just how fashion-challenged I really looked. Perhaps it was the once over and frown of disapproval I received from the corner bag lady. Yeah...that might have been a clue.

Undeterred, I paid for my coffee and boldly walked into an art gallery en route back home. I'd seen a gorgeous cityscape in the front window last week, and wanted to find out more about the collection.

Sadly, it appears the gallery was hosting an open house day - wine, beverages, and freshly baked goods. Which means that I maaaaay have given the impression that I was a homeless person come in for the free food.

It was shame alone that stopped me from gobbling up all of the chocolate chip cookies on display. Which is fine, because I already have a pint of chocolate brownie fudge ice cream waiting for me at the corner store.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

belinda chooses private sector

Belinda Stronach announced today that she will be leaving politics to return to an executive position at her family's company, auto parts maker Magna.

In her interview with CTV's Mike Duffy, she reiterated her commitment to fighting malaria through spread the net, her commitment to transforming the Liberal Party to a one person one vote system of electing leaders, her commitment to contributing to the community her family and her family's business are based in, and she spoke about the need for young women to get involved in politics.

Classy dame.

At the end of the day, Belinda said she thought she could make more of a difference in her role at Magna than she was making as an MP. Alas, I fear I have come to I agree.

How to strengthen the position of civil society and public sector leaders? The private sector continues to pave a seductive and influential path.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

what's goin' on

When I lived in Toronto I spent a year working at a legal aid clinic representing women in domestic violence, workplace harassment and general dispute resolution files. It was then that I decided I didn't want to practice law. I just couldn't bear how impotent the law was to address day-to-day conflicts in a meaningful way.

Fast forward to this afternoon - I'm scanning the NY Times and I see three articles on the same page that spark this issue for me again.

First headline, the members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team have agreed to a private meeting with radio host Don Imus, who called them "nappy headed hos" last week.

NBC News suspended Don Imus following the broadcast, and others are calling for him to be fired. Today's story was accompanied by photos of team members looking somber and the coach shedding tears.

But the team's captain said "we do hope to get something accomplished during this meeting."

Below that story was a report that a Serbian court has convicted 4 members of the Serb paramilitary police for the execution of six Muslim men in Srebrenica in 1995. The killings were caught on videotape and released in 2005 by Serbia’s leading human rights group, the Humanitarian Law Center. Until then, the Times reports, the majority of Serbs did not believe that the executions had taken place.

Which got me thinking about police brutality in the States and then about race relations more generally south of the border.

The next story to catch my eye - Catholic schools in East Harlem closing down, only to re-open as expensive private schools for newcomers to the gentrifying neighbourhood.

“They just want us out to make room for the new and improved people,” one parent said.

"[The pastor] wants the black and Hispanic children out first. Ninety-sixth Street is an up-and-coming area. But 30 years ago, it was us, the immigrants and the working class who donated our little pennies faithfully. He is turning his back on this community,” said another.

And finally, “I am all for progress, but do they have to push us out?”

Indeed.

Can facilitated meetings, legal action, or citizen pleas heal the wounds of military injustice or even feelings of having been betrayed? How far can truth and reconciliation proceedings succeed in righting wrongs?

**********
Today's music line up - Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Al Green. I guess the Motown era's got me remembering the struggles of the times.

Monday, April 9, 2007

mozart effect

I elected to work from home today in order to benefit from the extra brain waves I get when I'm wearing comfy clothes, wrapped in a blanket, and blasting the music of my choice. I've since moved on to Prince's Purple Rain, but earlier today it was all about Jill Scott.

(Right now I'm working on helping a client prepare to appear as a witness before a Parliamentary Commitee regarding Canada's Access to Medicines Regime. We're going to offer MP's our observations on working in developing countries and how best to increase access to affordable medicines in developing countries.

Of course, Stephen Lewis will be appearing as well, so no doubt he'll steal the show. Check out what happened when B saw him speaking in Vancouver a few weeks ago.)

In any case, Ms. Scott is just what the gods of productivity have ordered. I give you the following - delivered with the precision of a Maesha Brueggergosman or a Charlie Parker, mind:

"You're here/I'm pleased/I really dig your company/Your style, your smile, your peace mentality."

and

"Let's take a long walk around the park after dark/ Find a spot for us to spark/ Conversation, verbal elation, stimulation/ Share our situations, temptations, education, relaxations, elevations/ Maybe we can talk about Surah 31:18"

"Or maybe we can see a movie/ or maybe we can see a play on Saturday/ or maybe we can roll a tree and feel the breeze and listen to a symphony/ or maybe chill and just be/or maybe/ we can take a cruise and listen to The Roots/or maybe eat some passion fruit/or maybe cry to the blues/or maybe we can just be silent..."

raise the wage

The other day my friends and I were discussing how it is possible for one of our acquaintances to be getting by on what we estimated is a salary of $17,000 - $22,000 per year. We spent considerable time wondering how this guy affords rent, cable, clubbing four nights a week, and the drinks that go with it.

K thought it just wasn't possible. I suggested that we used to buy books, pay tuition, and lounge about at spring break on just $12k per year.

In the end, I stumbled upon this article regarding average incomes in Canada, which once again shed light on just how far out of the mainstream politicians and university-educated professionals really are.

It seems that the median income of Canadians in 2004 (that is where half the population makes more, half less - including all income from employment, RRSPs, investments, etc) was $24,400.

If you made more than $35,000 in 2004, you were in the top third of incomes in this country, and if, by chance, you made between $50,000 and $75,000 in 2004, rest assured that some 87 percent of Canadians were making less than you.

Of course, then I remembered that after the BC government privatised non-medical hospital workers in the province, staff incomes dropped to about $18k a year - this for mature, long standing employees, many with kids to support.

So a single guy with no responsibilities, expense-sharing roomates, and free food on the job, holding it down on $17k to $22k a year? Looks like he might be ahead of the game.

But MPPs in Ontario were making approximately $88,771 during the time the median Canadian salary was tallied for the article above.

An after-tips salary of $17,000 to $22,000 per year might be near-average...but it doesn't seem right. M's party is working on a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10/hr*.

You can help by signing here.

*yes, yes, the inflation implications of such a move are hugely significant. but how to counter them?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

newsflash

Two quick points of interest:
  • Check out my interview with A Blog Without A Bicycle regarding feminism and social media (and the links there to a cool feminist carnival)
  • Barack Obama recieved donations from 100,000 donors, whereas Hilary Clinton had just 50,000...the race is on

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

barack at the first quarter

Barack Obama has raised $25 million in the first quarter of his campaign for President of the United States. And he's raised it without taking money from political action committees (PACS) or federal lobbyists.

Just keeping you in the know.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

new favourite quote

discovered on the site of one of my colleagues in NY:

"be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

- gustav flaubert

the age of the tribe

I attended a two day symposium on digital communications last week, put on by my firm.

One of the guest speakers – Mitch Joel of Montreal’s Twist Image – blew my mind with his presentation on the trends in communications, the impact of Web 2.0*, and the need for those in the communications industry to either get ahead of the current changes, or to become irrelevant.

Among other things, Mitch argued that whereas communications professionals used to be able to control the message because they were the only ones who could afford the means of distribution (eg. advertising, press releases on the wire, creating coalitions of supporters to advocate as a single voice*), the Internet has now made it possible for anyone to distribute a message – for free.*

Today's Internet has changed the dynamics of the game from a one-way communication from the professional to the target audience, to a two-way conversation between the speaker and her audience – and between the audience members themselves.

The result, Mitch argued, is that the age of marketing to demographic groups is over – we are now in the age of the tribe.

By this theory, consumers/voters/individuals are no longer best (or most usefully) defined according to age, race, gender, location, income level, etc, but by their ideas, interests and approach to life.

Our job as communications professionals is to identify which tribes the people we want to target belong to, where they congregate, and what they’re talking about when they’re there. Then, to join their conversation, and get on with our usual business of building relationships and trust.

I’m still grappling with the social, political, and business implications of this concept.*

But over the last month or two I have noticed three concrete examples of how the evolution from demographics to tribes has begun to change the landscape:

1. Politics
In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama asserts that although he identifies as black, he also believes that his race is not necessarily the most influential aspect of who he is:

“…I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.” (p. 231)

Contrast this view with how obsessed the U.S. media is with whether or not Americans are ready for a black president, and with the debate amongst African-American civil rights leaders and thought leaders as to whether a man raised by a white woman and born of an immigrant African is really a member of the African-American community, shared legacy, or experience.

We might be moving towards a community of tribes online, but we’re clearly not there yet when it comes to politics.

2. The Arts
I attended a solo performance last night that was promoted as “a powerful exploration of isolation and difference" by a Brazilian dancer-choreographer, using original music and a blend of Mozart, Lauren Hill and others. The audience included a sprinkling of black youth who complained bitterly and vocally during the intermission that they had been deceived - the performance was less dance than “idiosyncratic movement style” together with sometimes-alienating narrative, better targeted to lovers of the radically modern and avant-garde than to those looking for more accessible hip hop or funk-tinged ballet.

The organizers had marketed based solely on the demographics of the dancer, but her performance would have been better suited to a more specific tribe.

3. The Personal
I write and think a lot about personal identity and finding a like-minded community that also lives where I live, because I notice that it has happened only once in the seven regions I’ve worked or studied in over the last 15 years.

Social media tools like Facebook, Linked-In, MySpace and blogs allow users to present an image of themselves and then to find others who may share the identity presented. It also allows them to hear back from these people as to what they’re thinking about at the moment.

This intertextuality* not only allows us to connect with others, but to shape each others’ perspectives - it pushes us forward and helps our thinking evolve.

But what is the tipping point from change of outlook and opinion to change in consumer choices?

Implications for Business
Social media tools lend themselves well to grassroots mobilisation, sure – but is there a limit to how well the traditional techniques for mobilising individuals can be applied to consumerist goals?

How can those communications professionals who are marketers, not lobbyists, avoid the sheen of artificiality when social media are used as tools to bring people together - not around policy, emotion and ideas - but around merchandise?*

And how can pure-PR practitioners identify which members of a tribe have the disposable income to act on their suggestions?

Those of us who are lobbyists might have it a bit easier because using the techniques of social movements translates well to campaigns for changes to government policy.

But, still, a question remains - how can we leverage the support built through social media (i.e. after we’ve raised awareness and cultivated grass-roots support for a policy shift), and turn it into political support if the politician can’t identify which members of the tribe are relevant sources of votes or financial support?

Ideas?

**********
*digital communications and Web 2.0 meaning using the Internet to create or use tools that allow individuals not only to access information, but to find and communicate with each other – and to give timely feedback on how well what they've heard has resonated.

*
astroturfing

*of course, we’re only talking about people and societies who have access to computers

*Mitch Joel is an upwardly mobile acknowledged guru and white guy, which might influence his view of the declining importance of demographics in the purchase decision. Me, I still find it disturbing that there are so few members of my demographic group to be found in my tribes.

*Intertextuality – another Julia Kristeva gem, developed pre-Internet, but even more relevant now I think.

*I am reminded here of the way Mac owners feel about their Macs. A quick search of Flickr or of Apple’s emotion and tribe-based advertising campaigns pokes an slight hole in my argument/query, but I maintain that many communications professionals are not hired to promote the industry underdog – so can the same marketing techniques be successfully applied to a Microsoft or a Bell?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

a new politics is needed

So Quebec has elected a minority government, dominated by right wing ideology. Canada's last bastion of social spending, big government programs, and championing of progressive values has taken a turn.

Much has been made of the rise of the Mario Dumont's ADQ and his defence of Quebec's "traditional culture in the face of calls to reasonably accomodate ethnic minorities - especially Muslims and orthodox Jews."* Apparently voters outside of Montreal feel they have been asked to stretch too far in welcoming newcomers and 'others' into the province.

But although I agree that last night's election results signal a political realignment and a shift in values across the province, I believe the results point to a more basic shift in Canadians' expectations of politicians.

Our leaders lack vision.

In the West, in Quebec, and in Ottawa, the politicians of the day have each been consumed with federal-provincial relations. Under the guise of asking how best to divide tax revenue amongst the regions, which level of government should develop strategic policy, and which should implement it; how best to tackle rising health care budgets, and what type of public schools to fund - politicians have really been asking simply "which of us can have the last say, and which should have the most control over taxes raised?

Citizens should get more from their politicians than debates about division of power and division of revenue. Voters should feel that their elected chiefs are out ahead of them, setting the pace towards bold and ambitious aims. Politicians should inspire young people to dream big, entrepreneurs to take risks, civil society to bridge the gaps where government and business leave off.

During an election campaign, Canadians should get a sense of what Canada's role is in the world, and what their role is in the country. They should feel both that their governments' rhetoric is lofty and that their discourse is supported by a will to experiment with pilot programs, to test new ideas, new models of partnership, and to set examples that more nimble groups can then run with down the line.

I recently had drinks with a new Canadian who spoke at length about the essential role of the extended family, about the kinds of values that should be taught to kids. He had much to say about the ability of film and media to shape individuals and society, and about the destructiveness of military interventions, regardless of their goals. But when asked how policy could influence these areas, or to assess existing parties against his views, he was dismissive. Disinterested. Bored.

In the absence of a politics based on inspiration and leadership, Canadians would prefer that government simply get out of the way. Get smaller, spend less, and give back our money in tax breaks. The rise of Harper and of Mario Dumont is a signal that Canada lacks this vision.

Canadians are tired of waiting for government to lead, and have chosen proponents of government-as-ATM-machines instead.

*CTV News and Canadian Press

Friday, March 23, 2007

revolt, she said

Right now I'm reading "Revolt, She Said" by Julia Kristeva, who is a psychoanalyst and theorist living in France. First, a wee quote from the book:

May '68 in France expressed a fundamental version of freedom: not freedom to succeed, but freedom to revolt. Political revolutions ultimately betray revolt because they cease to question themselves. Revolt, as I understand it -- psychic revolt, analytic revolt, artistic revolt -- refers to a permanent state of questioning, of transformations, an endless probing of appearances.

And now, a description of the book from the publisher:

"In this book, Julia Kristeva extends the definition of revolt beyond politics per se. Kristeva sees revolt as a state of permanent questioning and transformation, of change that characterizes psychic life and, in the best cases, art. For her, revolt is not simply about rejection and destruction -- it is a necessary process of renewal and regeneration."

Okay, so there are fifty million things I could say about how this collection of thoughts on culture, politics, feminism, motherhood, psychoanalysis, language, and the the life of the mind is speaking to me at the moment. But I wanted to take just one throw-away comment/idea that she's raised and pose a question to you.

In talking about psychoanalysis and the theorists who shaped her, Kristeva says that the British approach to psychoanalysis emphasizes catastrophe and psychosis, whereas the French tradition is to privilege the erotic. (eg the Oedipus complex)

I've long been curious about how my parents' people (from the Caribbean) speak English but are Catholic. Shouldn't they be speaking French?* After spending nine years in a proudly WASP private girls' school, I've spent considerable time thinking about how British culture is different from my own. One area of interest has been sexuality. In the Caribbean, our music, Carnival, dance style, jokes, poetry...it's all infused with the erotic. I've usually put this down to a combination of heat - when you live someplace hot, you become very aware of your body - and the legacy of slavery. If you're not allowed to marry legally, you might become less prudish about pre-marital sex.

But how best to explain this difference between France and England?


*Or being Protestant - okay, that, I can't even imagine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

cool magazine, cool business idea

I recently received my second issue of Good Magazine, billed as a magazine "for people who give a damn". I came across it during one of my Saturday jaunts to Chapters, where I lounge about drinking Tim Hortons coffee and reading magazines that I'm too cheap to actually pay for. (Current faves: Harvard Business Review, the Economist, Walrus, Macleans, New York Magazine, the New Yorker, Heeb, and Tikkun. probably in reverse order.)

Anyway, I call attention to Good Magazine for its interesting business structure. The magazine makes money from ads, of course. The latest issues have had some protest-inspiring ads from Marc Jacobs, a shout out to the documentary about the Newark, NJ campaign for mayor, and ads for an innovative graphic design house.

But the interesting part is that all the subscription money goes to one of twelve admirable non-profit groups. I guess the magazine gets the money back as a tax break, while you can feel good about having made a contribution.

The issues focus on a range of themes, like community activism, media, politics, travel, religion and the like. Issue one revealed that Hilary Clinton had fund-raised $33,180,949 by June 2006 - $3,533,740 from lawyers and lobbyists.

The next month featured a creative series of portraits on people doing inspiring things. The next, a spread on photojournalists and their work, and also a write up about a travel site called Couch Surfer that organises people with free places to stay around the world. I think the Couch Surfer founder is lurking somewhere in Montreal's Plateau.

This month's interactive reader project - Good invites readers to alter the front page of your local newspaper to add your own depth and commentary to the day’s news. An exhibition of the work will take place on Friday at the Felissimo Townhouse in NY.

Maybe if enough of us subscribe, they'll bring some events up here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

wee hee!

So it seems that our firm is on fire at the moment. This is just a little shout out to our accomplishments over the last three days:

First - securing several hundred million dollars for a major - and socially responsible - client in today's federal budget.

Second - making it into a skit on a national political comedy show (apparently they mocked our reach and influence...listing all the clients we've worked for, who's joined our firm from Cabinet...and generally wishing they they had the impact we do.)

Third - we've now locked up every former chief of staff to every minister of health from every major jurisdiction in the country by hiring them to our team.

March madness indeed.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

ambition is good

I sat in on Stephan Dion's speech to the Canadian Club today. He outlined a three point economic plan for the country, and threw in a few points on his social justice agenda as well. His ideas (okay, so they've all been discussed in the Economist before) were pleasingly broad. Big picture. As my boss said - "high brow".

But applause was stilted. Enthusiasm, muted. Like lemmings, no one wanted to be the first to admit they liked the man's ideas. But who doesn't care about building a competitive tax system, investment in research and education, and diversifying our export markets to establish a broader approach to international trade?

Also, as the only black person in the room (I think I spotted three other people of colour there), I suspect I was one of the few cheering for Monsieur Dion's emphasis on improving the status of women and First Nations.

Pundits and voters mock this man because he is stiff and cerebral. Me, I like the geeky intellectuals. It's worked for New Yorkers - what's wrong with us? I'm encouraged to hear that Dion has a plan to help the country move forward, compete with other middle powers, and advance the interests of the next generation.

So he's no showman. Please. I'll take Malcolm Gladwell over Arnold Schwarzenegger any day.

intellectual is the new black

I received an email from the Barack Obama campaign on Tuesday. Apparently Barack is "waiting to hear from" me. I'm waiting to hear from Michelle - that she's decided to set that man free.

Alas, Barack wanted to let me know that "[t]he special-interest industry in Washington has only grown since the last election, and it will spend more money than ever this time to try to own our political process and dictate our policies in Washington. We're not going to play that game. We're not taking any contributions from Washington lobbyists or political action committees."

And yet...this is precisely the game I play. But hey, I'm not in Washington - can I come volunteer on your campaign?