On a warm Friday evening in November I packed my bag with drawing supplies and cycled through the Financial District to attend a rather unconventional meeting of minds. Tim Gilbert, Chair of The Design Exchange was hosting a talk regarding the Occupy Toronto Movement mere days after the protesters were evicted from St James Park. A lawyer from downtown Toronto engaging with a room full of activists? I packed extra pens for this one.
Several months ago I spent time drawing at City Hall in the heat of Mayor Ford's infamous deputation marathon and left feeling deflated and unheard. Hours spent in tight quarters under the nauseating glow of fluorescent light fixtures does nothing to advance civil public discourse.
Ascending the Vale-Inco Grand Staircase at The DX, I overheard a snip of muffled sarcasm exchanged between two smug security guards. I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
But this place was different. Rounding the corner I entered a gorgeous art-deco style room that looked more like a banquet hall than a rally site. There were dozens of circular tables draped in black linen surrounded by nine chairs. Placed on each was a set of pens, a giant pad of paper and a vase that held either a pink or yellow flower.
There was no assigned seating so I chose a spot close to the front with a 3/4 view of the stage. Within minutes others had joined me carrying cookies and coffee from the complimentary snack bar. The remarkable thing was how quickly everyone started chatting, as if we were seated at a table of old school friends.
Some people were really into the Twitter too. For this event everyone had agreed on a hashtag (#OccuCon) to keep track of the comments and project them on a giant screen in realtime. As one rather astute fellow pointed out, "We are in the former Toronto Stock Exchange. This is a very different stock we're trading now."
In the Occupy Movement there is no leader, but remarkably, that's what makes this style of conversation so effective. When Tim Gilbert got up to address the crowd he was fully aware of that fact. As his introductory speech ran past ten minutes the restless audience signaled their impatience through a series of coordinated hand gestures. Consensus was that we were using the time inefficiently and so everyone agreed it was time to move on. Polite and effective.
Next, journalist Matt Gurney from the National Post stood up to rock the boat a tad.
"Well we are here to talk about where we go next, and even though I’m probably not politically aligned with most of the occupiers, I actually wish you all the best for the simple reason that I find you interesting, and that I’d like to see it continue for no other reason than my own curiosity."
This to me is the key purpose of the Occupy Movement. To begin an intelligent dialogue within a diverse community.
Of course opinions do clash. At a certain point in his speech Matt suggested that the Occupy Movement should look to the Tea Party as a model to emulate moving forward. Although his points were valid, the tone in which he delivered them came across as a little too strong and irritated some people. Within seconds the crowd erupted in anger and a member of the audience rushed onto the stage.
"Mike check! Mike check!"
The room fell silent. With a trembling voice a young man addressed the fuming crowd.
"I understand that a lot of you guys have some contempt for any establishment, including him. I am part of the movement, I've been down there. I will tell you this. Any time, under any form that you guys choose to shut someone out because their opinion is different than yours, you are letting someone else win."
Just as quickly, the tension was extinguished.
After some further remarks from Matt and a few housekeeping announcements from the Facilitators we moved into the roundtable discussions.
The main question was how Occupy can bring this conversation into the community. I really didn't feel qualified to answer that since I'm in the business of making cartoons for a living. But that's where I was wrong.
First we had each member of our table identify the issue that was most important to him or her. Already, this whole evening had turned out to be way more interactive than I had anticipated. I was so nervous about sounding like a giant dork that I hardly said a word for the first 15 minutes (completely out of character, by the way). When it finally came time to speak I found it came quite easily, a testament to the power of the roundtable model. Everyone was equal and, as citizens of this planet, we all had something of value to contribute.
In an hour we covered a whole range of issues, writing each one in marker on a giant slab of newsprint.
"How do we get the middle class involved?"
"How can Artists work to engage communities?"
"People feel uncomfortable if they don't know what they're supporting."
At the end of the session we took a little break for pizza and reconvened for a presentation of the ideas, led by OCAD University President Sara Diamond.
A representitive from each table got up for a little over a minute to summarize the key points in their discussion.
The ideas and solutions were as diverse as the crowd. One person expressed a need for the participation of children within the movement. Another described how urban farming could be a way to alleviate hunger amongst the less fortunate. Others felt strongly about the power of the web to inform positive change.
At the end of the night, Misha, one of the Facilitators, came on stage to summarize a key element of the movement:
"And so many times during this occupation somebody has come up to me said 'I have this great idea, YOU should do it.' And what I really want to say right now is that these are amazing ideas and it's time for YOU GUYS to do them!"
The Design Exchange Chair's Forum Presents
Friday November 25th, 2011
The Design Exchange, 234 Bay Street