By Sean Meyer/London Community News/Twitter: Newswriter22
The Citizens’ Panel will be spreading out across the city over the next 12 months to find out what London residents think about community engagement.
While the members of Citizens’ Panel expect to hear from thousands of residents during their initiative, the biggest challenge the group faces was shown clearly during its first live event.
The panel held its initial engagement event on Thursday (May 24) at the Wolf Performance Hall, Central Library. The event, which featured three of London’s most engaged bloggers — Phil McLeod, Gina Barber and panel member Glen Pearson — was designed to lay the groundwork for what the group hopes to accomplish over the next year. It drew about 60 people to a venue that typically holds five times that number.
During his segment, Pearson said that kind of turnout worries him because despite the desire he sees for change in the community, apathy and a distrust of politics in general are difficult obstacles to overcome.
“The numbers aren’t what they could have been and I am worried that people start with interest, but peal off if it doesn’t go there way or goes on too long,” Pearson said. “We have one fundamental problem as citizens; we cannot sell it (engagement). We can’t even fill this place. We are going to have trouble making ReThink London work because a lot of citizens aren’t going to come out to support it over the long haul.”
Pearson, who is also co-director of the London Food Bank and a former MP, said the panels’ job is not just to set its sites on engaging with the mayor, council, or city staff, but rather, “It is our job to go out among our regular citizens and ask them to come to places like this and get engaged.”
Panel members Sean Quigley said he believes people in London are becoming more involved (a point Pearson would agree with during his presentation) and that makes it all the more important to find out what their experiences have been around engagement.
“The conversation has been going on for a long time; I don’t actually think we started it. What we are doing is taking the opportunity to gather those conversations into something we can present as a unified whole,” said Quigley, who also pointed to the efforts of groups such as Citizens Corp, the Urban League, and even the city’s own Community Engagement Task Force.
“Maybe there is something positive we can create out of this. I don’t know. Maybe it won’t be,” Quigley said. “Maybe it will be a difficult conversation, but around things you care about, it is OK to have those difficult conversations. And it isn’t the Citizens’ Panel’s input, it’s the people of London’s opinion. That’s very important.”
McLeod lead off the program with what he called “a subjective history” of citizen engagement in London. It was a picture that would focus on how Centennial Hall was built without any engagement, how the John Labatt Centre was built with very little public input and how the Vision ’96 initiative was undone by the intervention of developers.
Essentially, McLeod said, the lack of public engagement over the past 50 years comes down to a pair of key points.
“I think city council drags its feet on citizen engagement because it is afraid of losing control. It likes to do things on its own without the messiness of involving the public,” said McLeod, who has been covering London as a journalist for over 25 years.
“Secondly, we get the kind of public engagement we have because we don’t ever stand up and shout about it,” McLeod said. “I think after 50 years of being browbeaten by various councils, there are significant numbers of people who are unhappy about that and are trying to find ways of doing something about it.”
Barber, who sat on London council for years as a controller under the former government structure, said she sees more engagement going on than ever before, whether they are huge events like ReThink London or smaller initiatives such as Strengthening Neighbourhoods or Age Friendly City.
“The public has demonstrated they want to be involved. It may not always be the engagement council wants, but it is the engagement they have,” Barber said. “I am optimistic about what the panel can bring together. I think we have people on it who are serious about bringing about a better London.”
Chantelle Diachina, one of the newest members of Citizens’ Panel, said she remains encouraged by what the group is trying to do. More importantly, Diachina said she is excited by what London residents are going to say.
“I think we can have a really good conversation about community engagement and seeing what that means on different levels,” Diachina said. “I am hoping we can draw some people out in ways they never considered before. I am hoping we can get some new faces out and we can build some momentum from it.”
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