When Antonio Misaka tried to organize an event for his tech-based non-profit group with the city, he was met with a brick wall.
“Sometimes we don’t know how things work when it’s related to the city,” said the Britannia Heights resident who works as the system manager for CompuCorps, a technology training and mentorship charity that recycles electronic devices.
Misaka wanted to organize an e-waste drop-off in partnership with the city, but he had “no clue how to get information” from city hall.
Sarah Smythe, a community educator from Stittsville, works with children in Kanata and wants to teach them how to be more involved in their community.
Misaka and Smythe had very different reasons for wanting to engage in civic life when they decided to attend a trial workshop run by a new local organization called the Citizens Academy.
The idea for the academy sprung from founder Ken Victor’s experience observing a similar program in Syracuse, N.Y., last winter. Victor, a lead facilitator with Leadership Ottawa, quickly enlisted his colleague, Manjit Basi, to bring the model to Ottawa.
The idea is to bring citizens from all walks of life together with experts to spark a respectful discussion about the process of engaging with the city and fostering change.
“We came back and on our drive we were just going a mile a minute,” Basi said. “This is what dialogue and learning needs to look like.
“What inspired us was that maybe learning how your municipal government works, which is the level of government closest to you, can actually have citizens engage in a more meaningful and strategic way.”
The pair decided to craft an academy that reflects Ottawa’s unique character.
“Ottawa is full of people who care, who want to do things to make their community better and to make their city better, but sometimes they are overwhelmed,” Basi said. “They don’t know how, they don’t know the right people, they don’t have the networks and they don’t know the process. Sometimes they don’t even know their rights and how they can engage.”
Misaka and Smythe joined approximately 60 people packed into a basement room at the Hintonburg Community Centre on Nov. 15 for the second of two English-language classes. The academy also offered French courses and online sessions as part of a pilot project to test out their model.
The group plans to find additional funding and refine the courses in hopes of offering them in eight-week runs starting next fall. Basi is insistent the courses would always remain free for citizens, but offering sessions tailored to groups to businesses could be done for a fee to keep the organization afloat, she said.
The Nov. 15 session was intended to be about how to get involved in recreation decisions for their communities, who is responsible and how those decisions are made. But presenters and participants were keen to engage in a philosophical discussion about why and how the city offers recreation programs and facilities and who they are geared towards.
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, a sports management graduate and former city lifeguard, kicked off the discussion with a series of statements to get people thinking, including a question about whether the city is building health care or “sick care.” Recreation can be a preventative health measure or it can include an element of elite-level training. Fleury asked the audience to think about what kinds of goals the city is trying to reach when it develops recreation programs: access for all citizens or athletic training? What is the role of businesses and sports clubs and what is the threshold of the city’s responsibility for recreation, compared to program offered by those other sources?
The group also heard from Kelly Robertson, a West Carleton resident who is the city’s manager of recreation programs, who outlined how the outdoor rink program is a great example of delivering recreation programming through community partnerships. The city provides grants and infrastructure to community groups to run a free-access outdoor skating and hockey rink in neighbourhoods during the winter.
That topic of community partnerships dominated the discussion. Participants wanted to know how the city seeks to engage residents in planning the recreation offerings for their communities and why there aren’t more partnerships with schools and universities that already have facilities in which the city could run programs.
Mohamed Sofa, a community activist who works at the Pinecrest Queensway Community Health Resource Centre, was the last presenter. There were many nodding heads in the audience as he described a collaboration he and other groups set up in his neighbourhood called RecNet so they can get together and collectively determine what community needs are not being met.
But how those ideas can get traction at city hall is another matter and a question that was left somewhat unanswered during the session. Robertson indicated that an idea can start with just one citizen, but whether it will become a program offering is dependant on so many factors. Likewise, participants left with no solid vision for how to set up a community network like RecNet or how successful it would be.
But they did leave the session inspired by the discussion, which opened them up to new ways of thinking about recreational possibilities and priorities for their communities.
Ultimately, igniting activism is the point of the Citizens Academy. “We need citizens to talk about it,” Sofa said. “Until we feel (the need) in the city, nothing will happen.”