Activist Dave Meslin wants citizens to get engaged 

Organizer has mobilized citizens, beaten apathy

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Activist and community organizer Dave Meslin is used to appealing to Toronto councillors who have 60,000 voters in their wards with too little time to focus on every issue put in front of them, or even to make changes that would make their city hall more democratic.

So he took them on.

On Tuesday, May 29, he told more than 60 people at Pemberton Library all about his adventures in civic engagement. The engaging talk spoke to how he worked to influence political decision-making, and try to effect change in the famously fractious Toronto council. Meslin also told Pembertonians what it could mean for communities as small as Pemberton or Whistler.

For him, it starts with the perceived apathy of voters. Most citizens who are not engaged are so because they feel they have no impact or control, and that the status quo is fixed and unchangeable. It wasn`t simply a question of turning people into activists — Meslin said many people were disconnected from the media stereotypes of who were engaged with the process: mainstream politicians, who were not always presented in a fair or positive light, and masked rock-throwing nihilists at the other end of the political spectrum.

Most people could not relate to either and saw no place for themselves in the political process; it was not apathy, he told the audience, but disillusionment.

"It's trying to get people to see the world as malleable... because people assume that the world is not malleable," he said. "After 10 years of activism, what started bothering me was that people were not involved (with the issues)."

In his own case, he decided to organize around issues that he felt important; when the council considered putting up a distracting video corporate advertisement billboard in the Don Valley park area to reach drivers on the nearby parkway, which he thought would ruin the beauty and peace of the park he stepped up.

Meslin formed the Toronto Public Space Committee, which was initially comprised of himself and some creative ideas at getting attention. Suddenly, as president of an official public body, he started being listened to and invited to speak by people like then-Councillor Jack Layton.

Meslin won his case.

He gave the Pemberton audience several examples of public engagement and noted that once information was imparted to the public in a clear way, the apathy against city hall melted away and more people came out to work on improving their community.

To that end, he praised the way the Village of Pemberton simplified public information notices to communicate and said it was among the best he'd seen, presenting Mayor Jordan Sturdy with the "2012 Dazzling Notice Award" to laughter and applause.

His current work is a case in point. The Fourth Wall: Transforming City Hall was developed by Meslin to build awareness of what he calls the "fourth wall" in politics, referring to the sense of disconnect between politicians and citizens. It is essentially a list of 36 actions — some fall under municipal jurisdictions, others at the provincial level — that can be taken by councils and organizers to encourage public participation. Some are as simple as setting up free WiFi at city hall; some take more effort.

About 18 months ago these points developed into an interactive exhibit, a series of panels and materials, and a PowerPoint talk.

"It's about the general theme of what role citizens play in local decision making, and how can we increase that role," he said.

Meslin encouraged those present to find what was important to them and become engaged in the process of promoting change by creative participation rather than the emotion that all too often accompanies members of the public who engage with the political machine — anger.

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