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How to build a successful citizen initiative: 2 tales from the front lines

They say you can't fight city hall, especially if you're working on your own. But if you can mobilize a whole movement of fellow citizens, then you may have a fighting chance.
We've seen recent examples of such successes. During the most recent provincial election, Mississauga residents were able to persuade premier Dalton McGuinty to pull the plug on a gas-fired power plant that had already begun construction.  Broadening opposition to a breed-specific provincial law on dog ownership means that law is about to be repealed. And wide-spread opposition persuaded Toronto city council to back off on cuts to libraries.
Preventing library closures is an example of a campaign that worked perfectly, says Winnie Ng, who holds the Chair in Social Justice and Democracy and is professor of public administration at Ryerson University, even if she admits was mostly spontaneous and sparked in large part by an attack on beloved writer Margaret Atwood.
"Those are campaigns that cut across all classes," says Ng. "They were able to enlist writers like Atwood, but there was also a groundswell of library users across the city. It's an example of how can we bring all these folks from different circles together and in a shared vision of Toronto."
For citizens who want to play a bigger role in shaping their city, there many approaches. Yonge Street decided to take a look at two groups to see what we could learn from their efforts. Their campaigns were fulled by a mix of organizing strategies, political happpenstance and luck.
Just like the library advocates, the Code Blue TO coalition—the group that aims to see the waterfront "revitalized in the most beautiful, ecologically sensitive, and financially astute ways possible"— was able to mobilize a wide swathe of Toronto's citizens in a matter of weeks. The trigger was councillor Doug Ford's plan to turn the Toronto waterfront into the home of a megamall and a giant Ferris wheel. Meanwhile, the Clean Train Coalition (CTC) has put years into organizing communities to fight for electric trains along the planned route of Metrolinx's Air Rail Link, connecting Pearson Airport to Union Station. They've had much more limited success: Those diesel trains are still scheduled to be rolling noisily by the time the Pan Am Games/Parapan Am Games take place in 2015.
So what distinguishes the two citizen initiatives?
Suri Weinberg-Linsky, a resident of Weston and CTC treasurer, says it hasn't been easy to get the many communities along the route involved. The CTC has been trying for years to get those many towns and neighbourhoods to understand how loud, disruptive and polluting diesel trains will be, and to mobilize enough support to force a change to quieter and more environmentally friendly electric trains.
"The Weston Community Coalition was already up and running for a number of years around the same issue," says Weinberg-Linsky. "We had begged communities along the track to listen to us. But when the pile driving started in the late part of 2008, to the point of house foundations cracking, the noise was incredible, they went 'Oh, my God' from Liberty Village all the way up to us."
The length of time it took for people to realize the scope of the issue made it harder to build momentum. It also took a toll on community leaders.
"There are people who are there for the long haul, there are people for whom life gets in the way," says Weinberg-Linsky. "It's hard to keep the same group of people together. People get bored if nothing is happening. But community groups are only as good as their membership and we still have a large membership."
Code Blue was able to move fast enough that time worked in its favour. Its entire campaign, from formation to having the Fords' plan rejected by council, took only three weeks. And the group was able to begin having an immediate impact on politicians even before it officially formed. Unlike the CTC—which even with an election was unable to attract much interest from politicians—Code Blue was able to reach out to municipal politicians who, even before the public outcry, were apprehensive of the Ferris wheel idea.
"A lot of stars aligned to aid the mobilization," says Cynthia Wilkey, the chair of the West Don Lands Committee.
Wilkey says that people like herself, who were already involved in community councils and organizations, had already started to contact city councillors before Code Blue was officially formed. The situation was tailor-made for citizen mobilization, Wilkey says, partly because of the people who were already involved.
"Most of our members had significant participation in the past on the waterfront. We had people who were very savvy about social media, who enabled us to get up a website and petition. The first thing we did was establish a hashtag and start getting things into the twittersphere…. The media just jumped on it. We were aided by the fact that people were just outraged. It couldn't have been worse: you had a single councillor out single-sourcing a plan with a megamall and giant Ferris wheel. There were people who just thought the idea stank."
Unlike Metrolinx, which was mostly planned by anonymous officials in quiet, well-organized meetings, Councillor Ford's initiative was very public. Wilkey says Code Blue tried to avoid demonizing the Fords, but their presence was unavoidable.
"We were so gobsmacked by the aggressiveness of the staff recommendation," she says. "It would have been very difficult for us if Doug Ford hadn't been out there talking every day about the megamall and Ferris wheel. He was our greatest asset."
Ng, however, suggests Code Blue's greatest asset may have been geography and social class. Ng says the residents of Toronto's waterfront tend to be very well connected, more so than the communities along the proposed train route. She points, for example, to the fact that Code Blue was able to enlist the support of Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor who has become enormously influential internationally for his theories on city and social planning.
"It's an expression of the residents and the elites coming together. Those who can afford to live on the waterfront come with a lot more clout," says Ng. She points out that Code Blue also occurred at a time when widespread dissatisfaction with the city administration was coming to the fore, and the waterfront provided a convenient focus for a lot of different groups.
"The campaign needs to have all the different elements: having advocates, intellectuals, help from all corners and strata of the city. That's where the sense of solidarity comes in."
And where Code Blue was able to forge those alliances with groups who had other issues with the Ford administration, Weinberg-Linsky says the alliances have been more difficult for the CTC: "Groups that support us, there's a quid pro quo that doesn't necessarily gel with what we're doing."
The bottom line, Wilkey says, is that Code Blue may simply have had an easier task.
"The Clean Train Coalition involves trying to move a public agency and a government in a direction that involves a significant expenditure of money," says Wilkey. "There isn't a completely ridiculous idea held up to ridicule."
The CTC is also in the final stages of its fight, Wilkey says, and Code Blue's is just beginning. The report on whether the waterfront plan should be sped up, as urged by council, is expected to be released later this month.
"The Code Blue mobilization was a battle, we didn't win a war. We're talking about a process. The Clean Train people are at the endgame," says Wilkey. "We may very well end up in the same place if this process doesn't work."
Although Weinberg-Linsky is disappointed by what CTC has achieved—"We've said everything we can, there is no schedule for electrification and no money allocated for it"—Ng says there is always value in community mobilization.
"As an organizer, I'm an eternal optimist," says Ng. "Whether the outcome is successful, the groundswell and capacity has been built. Even if success is not as immediate, it doesn't wipe out what people have done in terms of building capacity."

Krishna Rau is a Toronto writer and editor.
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