Civic engagement was the phrase on everyone’s lips at Our Place Initiative’s (OPI) second community action group meeting.
That was of course after the introductory song led by OPI field director Murray Foster.
“I started the last meeting with a song, I sang an old Stephen Foster song from the 1850s called ‘Hard Times’,” he said.
The first line of Hard Times is, “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears.”
“I realized halfway through it was the totally wrong song to sing,” said Foster, who’s “other job” is playing bass in the band Great Big Sea.
This time Foster led the group of about 35 Etobicoke residents in an acoustic version of ‘Everything is Awesome,’ a song from The Lego Movie.
Our Place Initiative is an organization aimed at building engagement in the community.
“Instead of people sitting at home watching Netflix, we want them to come out to our meetings get involved and work with their neighbours to build a better Etobicoke,” said Foster.
Foster has been a member of OPI’s steering committee for several years. After the last field director left, Foster was asked to fill the role.
A brief set of presentations from representatives of Live Green Toronto, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, the Etobicoke Youth Network, and Parks People followed Foster’s song.
“In our first meeting on Feb. 26, everyone in the room split into groups and made sort of the big list of the problems facing Etobicoke,” he said.
Foster said OPI categorized these problems into four groups. These formed the basis for the four subcommittees: transit, summer events, environment and youth and community spaces.
Foster described OPI as a “big tent concept.”
“We’re like an aggregator, a structural support, a platform for Etobicoke residents to go out and do amazing things,” said Foster.
Irene Borecky, an advocate for safer spaces for the feral cat population in Toronto, said she wanted to become involved in the community spaces subcommittee.
She said she was hoping to be involved in a community garden project proving feral cats and gardeners could co-exist.
“As an activist, this was a natural draw,” she said.
Our Place Initiative gained attention in the fall of 2014 after hosting a mayoral debate in Etobicoke focused on transit issues.
“There is no history of civic engagement in the suburbs,” said journalist Daren Foster, no relation to Murray, who also runs a blog titled “All Fired Up in the Big Smoke.”
“People don’t realize that they can have their voices heard,” said Daren.
He said small victories like building a community garden are key for Our Place Initiative to build on.
“You have to start with smaller things that don’t cost the city money,” he said.
Paisley Rae, a social media consultant and member of OPI’s community action group said it was important to have a desire-based organization. She said this makes the community’s voice easier for policymakers to hear.
Rae said it was important to frame needs as “I want this rather than I don’t want these 18 things.”
She also stressed the importance of completing small projects to build momentum for the action group.
“Success is addictive,” she said.
Murray Foster said OPI’s big vision was to establish a self-sustaining community action group in Etobicoke.
He said his dream scenario would be to build a strong action group. Once the group was self-sustaining, OPI would then attempt to recreate their success in a community with low engagement.
That plan will have to wait however.
“Barring you or me winning the lottery and giving a million dollars to OPI I think it’s going to be Etobicoke for the near future,” he said.
Etobicoke has a number of problems that need to be addressed, and a strong and unified voice in the community is a step in the right direction.
Just like the song says, “Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team.”