What’s Possible When the ‘System’ and Citizen Action Converge?
What’s Possible When the ‘System’ and Citizen Action Converge?
While a participatory budgeting experiment has sparked openings between the citizens and government of Peterborough, Ontario, citizenship in the city has been coming alive in exciting ways of late.
“There’s been a really powerful intersection between what the city requires and wants to cultivate — and has the skills to cultivate — and emergent, life-giving citizen-led action,” says Peter Pula founder and CEO of Axiom News and cofounder of the Peterborough Dialogues, an initiative of Axiom News.
“It’s a beautiful model of the system converging with citizen action.”
‘Our Gatherings have Never Felt Like Work’
A citizens group, Peterborough Pollinators, is an example of the emergent, life-giving citizenship occurring.
|A recent planting of a three-tiered pollinator garden at the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough.
(Photo: Ben Wolfe)
Rooted in the Peterborough Dialogues and evolving out in the community over the last seven or so months, Peterborough Pollinators holds to certain organizing principles intended to cultivate space for people to come and go and for what is going to come alive naturally to unfold.
The way Peterborough Pollinators gathers lets each person bring their own latest questions and insights, and follow their own sense of energy, Peterborough Dialogues cofounder Ben Wolfe says.
“The effect is that our gatherings have never felt like work. They’re full of unexpected moments of discovery and personal connection.” And yet out of this, “more is getting done than usually happens in a traditional way of meeting,” Ben says.
“It’s a trust-based system,” says Peterborough Pollinators cofounder Carlotta James.
|“What matters is that we’re trying to create something new with the assets and gifts that are found in community.”
— Carlotta James
“How do you get a trust-based system? … By building community through intentional questions, intentional purpose, intentional meetings.”
What Matters Most
Carlotta also points out that as a citizen-created group, the Peterborough Pollinators is wide open to people of all walks of life.
“It doesn’t matter someone’s background, the religious, the ethnic, the political, the economic. None of that matters.
“What matters is that we’re trying to create something new with the assets and gifts that are found in community.”
‘The Long Conversation Works and is Necessary’
A key learning from Peterborough Pollinators is that cultivating a community effort like this takes time.
“(The group) had a long gestation period that included deep dialogue, connecting with each other and sorting out what their intentions were,” Peter says.
“There were dedicated people that stayed with it for a long time. It’s not something that happened in an evening or an afternoon.”
This is something to keep in mind for the community dialogue process overall and what community cultivation can look like. “The long conversation works and it’s necessary for it to work,” Peter says.
Dissolving the Walls Between Citizens and City Staff
While Peterborough Pollinators illuminates the possibilities for citizenship, Peterborough’s decision to embrace participatory budgeting as a pilot project this year sparked hope for how local government and citizenry might work together differently. City council allotted $20,000 of its discretionary budget to each of the city’s five wards, inviting citizens to participate in deciding how those funds would be spent.
|“Participatory budgeting created links and new avenues to form relationships with city staff and gave staff the chance to get to understand the community more.”
— Cheryl Lyon
“I’ve always held strong belief that ordinary citizens have not taken up their full role in local democracy, don’t have good means of participation in our own governance, aren’t meaningfully consulted,” says Cheryl Lyon, an active community leader who played a key part in seeding the idea of participatory budgeting.
“Participatory budgeting is one small start on the road to fuller citizen participation in municipal decision making.”
The municipality is the nearest, most accessible form of the three levels of government. It’s non-partisan (no official political parties behind councillors.)
One segment of Peterborough’s municipal government, however, has been less accessible — city staff, Cheryl says.
“Participatory budgeting created links and new avenues to form relationships with city staff and gave staff the chance to get to understand the community more.
“That can only mean better governance for Peterborough, I think, in terms of accountability, better inputs for policy making, more realistic understanding of what’s going on out there beyond the windows of city hall.”
Cheryl’s hope is that the experience of dealing with staff assigned to assist participatory budgeting projects has dissolved citizens’ fears or reticence to approach staff and councillors — and vice versa.
‘The Main Adaptive Response Will be Our Coming Together as Communities’
Peterborough Pollinators saw an opportunity to spread and bloom its vision through the city’s participatory budgeting process.
The group worked together to propose pollinator garden projects for participatory budgeting in all five wards in Peterborough. When these projects passed the criteria to become eligible participatory budgeting projects, the group spread the word to encourage community votes.
In the end, pollinator garden projects were at the top of the list in each of the three wards where community voting occurred. (Pollinator gardens won by default in the remaining two wards, as they were either the only projects submitted, eligible and/or within the $20,000 earmarked for the participatory budget in each ward).
|“I believe that participatory budgeting gives us, over time – and arising out of our relationships – an experience of arriving at collective understanding of this city, a common idea of what a city is and how it works, that add up to an expression of our future together here.”
— Cheryl Lyon
Cheryl is heartened that the pollinator gardens received such high support.
“This is, hopefully, an indication that Peterborough is waking up to climate change,” she says.
“When people take to heart our profound oneness with the natural world, think about the future of our very food, the next step is connecting such acts as these gardens with the resilience of our households and community.
“In the face of what is happening to our food, water, energy, health and life together in community as things change due to global climate warming toward the catastrophic two degrees, the main adaptive response will be our coming together as communities in mutually supporting relationships of trust,” Cheryl adds.
“Participatory budgeting gives us an early experience of that.”
Pending final approval, work on Peterborough’s new pollinator gardens is to begin in the fall.
“We hope to have as many people engaged in the process (of building the pollinator gardens),” Carlotta says. “There will be more than enough opportunities to learn how to build pollinator-friendly habitats for bees, butterflies, birds and beetles.”
With respect to the participatory budgeting project, the hope is that this first year portends ever-increasing citizen participation in civic life, Cheryl says.
“I hope this next year of evaluation yields indicators that participatory budgeting will become a permanent part of local governance.
“I believe that participatory budgeting gives us, over time — and arising out of our relationships — an experience of arriving at collective understanding of this city, a common idea of what a city is and how it works, that add up to an expression of our future together here.”
As for cultivating the conditions for life-giving, emergent citizen action to accelerate and bloom, the possibilities are ripe here in Peterborough and in other places. But that’s a whole other conversation.
This article was originally posted to peterboroughdialogues.media.
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An initiative of Axiom News, Peterborough Dialogues is a pioneering effort in Community-building, Learning, Media-making and Change.
Our calling questions are: “How Can We Create a Local Living Oasis in a Global Storm of Shifting Sands?” and "What if We Could Awaken Our Deepest Gifts and Possibilities to Cultivate a Resilient and Thriving Peterborough?"
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