Beyond the call of duty

Ten activists who proved we can all make a difference


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DAVE MESLIN (MEZ)

OK, you’re an urban environmentalist and you’ve been fighting City Hall over the Adams Mine dump plan for years. You’ve pretty well lost, since Toronto city council has already approved the plan and is soon going to ratify the contract. You know you’ve got to fight the suits and the suckers again, but in that quiet part of your heart (the part that some say is bleeding) you aren’t up for it.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, this kid you’ve never seen before shows up at a meeting. He comes with a whack of enthusiasm and a box of anti-dump T-shirts. He says he’s going to organize a rally.

You don’t think anyone will come. The kid is sure. Five hundred people show up, e-mail addresses and phone numbers are taken, and within days a mass movement of citizens is mobilized to dump the dump, jamming city council for four days straight — the biggest citizen turnout for an issue in megacity history.

Anarchist, billboard liberationist and campaign organizer for Tooker Gomberg, Mez has a confession to make. He once owned a car. But on the 100th anniversary of the first pedestrian killed by an automobile he dug a big hole and buried it.

“We rolled it into the hole, but the front end went down first so it looked like it was standing on its head.” He had to call a tow truck to come and take it away.

“Until I moved downtown, I thought activism was giving to Greenpeace,” says the North York refugee. What happened? “My high school library had Adbusters on the shelf, that changed everything.”

ALLAN BROADBENT

For a decade we’ve been conned by the likes of the Fraser Institute and the Conrad Black press into thinking that government is bad and all things American are good. They say cut taxes and watch the pent-up philanthropic desires of the monied class, stifled for generations by the welfare state, gush forth to fill the gap left by government cutbacks. Allan Broadbent thinks that kind of math is all wrong.

“No amount of private philanthropy could ever make more than a dent in replacing government services,” says the soft-spoken financier.

He should know, considering he’s kicked in $25 million of his own to fund the Maytree Foundation, which since 1982 has doled out about $1 million yearly to organizations and think tanks committed to progressive social causes and strengthening the role of government.

“Government is the most important agent of social change,” says Broadbent, who declines to comment on his net value or how he came by his fortune, except to say he’s a “venture capitalist.” “What’s needed,” he says, “is strong public policy.”

Broadbent is an invisible man. You don’t really see him in the public eye.

Yet his fingerprints can be found on some crucial files. He’s been instrumental in organizing the Toronto Region Charter, a movement advocating an increased voice and more power for Canadian cities at the constitutional table.

And by funding alternative social policy think tank the Polaris Institute, he gives the right-wing windbags a run for their money. Jeez, he must drink alone at the Toronto Club. “No, I don’t really hang out with the corporate elite,” he chuckles. Yeah, no kidding.

ELAN OHAYEN

After sleeping in Allan Gardens every Friday night for a year as part of a protest against homelessness, you’re arrested in your sleeping bag and your sorry ass gets dragged to the cop shop. You’re told you can walk as long as you don’t set foot in the park again. You say, “Forget that,” and your ass, which is now getting sorrier, is hauled off to that nightmare inferno of warehoused humanity the Don Jail, where it sits in a cell with two others for three weeks.

This is a long way from your PhD studies in neuroscience or your seat on the Governors Council at U of T next to bankers and CEOs. Come to think of it, Elan, just what’s up with you?

“Initially, I got into this because university tuition was skyrocketing. Then I noticed that the people on the governing council at school who push to limit access to university are the same people wanting to cut social services to the poor, speed up the process of globalization and accept the exploding levels of homelessness here,” he says. “It’s all connected.”

Ohayen is a guy who makes hard things sound easy. Witness: the crown drops the bail conditions and he’s free to go. But oh, no, he gets released on a Friday, so what does he do? He heads back to Allan Gardens for an overnight on the grass.

“Yeah, that was a drag. But, wow, did I have a great sleep on Saturday night,” he laughs.

WILL CHANG

The first time Will Chang went before the TV cameras to argue for allowing raves to continue on city-owned property, he was shitting bricks.By the time he’d organized iDance, one of the biggest events ever held at Nathan Phillips Square, he had mobilized and politicized 20,000 kids, outmanoeuvred His Melness, out-argued chief Fantino and won over the mainstream media that was all set to swallow whole Fantino’s myth linking raves with guns and mayhem.

For a previously apolitical 26-year-old corporate lawyer who believed that the police and politicians never lie (Lastman son Dale was his prof at law school), Chang learned fast.

“These parties are supposed to be an escape. We never thought we’d ever be political, but that’s exactly what’s happened,” he says.

If the police thought they had an easy target on their hands, they were mistaken. Even Chang’s family in Scarborough wondered why he was making such a big deal out of this when he could work on more pressing social problems.

“I told them, hey, this is about target policing — exactly the same kind of harassment that the homeless and the gay communities fight.”

Now he’s planning an annual iDance outside city council. “It will be a large and extravagant party, but it will also be a show of strength, so that when people try to target us again they’ll think twice,” he says.

So just remember, kids — you’ve got to fight for the right to party!

MARJORIE NICHOL

If you see Marjorie Nichol out on King Street with a clipboard and a stopwatch timing the frequency of the 504 streetcar and wonder what on earth she’s doing, well, that’s exactly what she’s doing. She’s a transit-hugger.She became one after sitting in one too many traffic jams in her minivan with her three kids. “I love spending time with them, but we were spending it all in the car,” she says.

As a member of the Rocket Riders, a sort of automobile association for TTC riders, Nichol can often be found outside subway stations asking riders to signs letters demanding the city put more money into public transit.

A bundle of positive energy, Nichol got hooked on transit issues after quitting her cool TV-producer job and taking environmental studies at York.

“Look, the only way we’re going to solve the pollution problem in the city is to make public transit competitive with cars,” she says.

Nichol’s suburban home is a mile away from the nearest subway, and there’s no bus route servicing her neighbourhood — so, yeah, she still owns the minivan.

“If you’re relying solely on transit in this city,” she says, “you are clearly at a disadvantage. You simply don’t have access to your city. This is a social justice issue as well.”

She figures with over a million fares collected daily, TTC riders are a group just waiting to be organized.

And if the 504 is running late? Nichol doesn’t miss TTC public meetings — and she brings the clipboard.

PATTY BARRERA

Go figure. International trade agreements are sexy these days, and Patty Barrera couldn’t be more turned on. She’s been involved in resisting global trade since her days in student politics at Ottawa U in the 80s, when the only people who knew what GATT or FTA meant were policy wonks and lawyers.As co-chair of the People’s Summit, the citizens’ street protest planned to coincide with the Quebec City FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) summit, Barrera is in the eye of the global trade hurricane.

In her paid job at Common Frontiers (a union-supported group working for global equity), she helped coordinate the anti-globalization work of various NGOs and community groups that last year made the names Washington, Seattle and Windsor resonate in the media the way Berkeley and Greenwich Village did for a previous generation.

And what does she do in her spare time, for kicks? She organizes buses for the above demos and teaches other activists useful things like how to climb a fence and hang a banner so it stays up at street protests.

“Social justice is what I learned at the kitchen table,” says the daughter of Chilean parents who left Chile rather than tangle with the Pinochet regime. “The neo-liberal model was copied from an example set by Chile under Pinochet,” she says.

This is deep in the bone for her. “I always knew I’d be doing this kind of work,” she says. “I never, ever imagined I’d actually be paid to do it.”

CARLYLE JANSEN

Imagine a world where no one ever has an orgasm. Carlyle Jansen doesn’t need to imagine it. Honey, up until her late 20s, she lived it.”Trying to describe what an orgasm is like to someone who has never had one is like trying to describe chocolate to someone who’s never tasted it,” says the proprietor of “celebration of sex” store Good for Her.

No one needs to try to describe an orgasm to her now — she’s got firsthand knowledge. And for the last several years, she’s been helping other women, no matter how or with whom they’re having sex, find and enjoy their sexual selves.

So when talk started up a couple of years ago about organizing the first women’s bathhouse in Toronto, Pussy Palace, Jansen was a natural to get involved.

She had the trust of a lot of women for whom the idea was intriguing and altogether frightening. “We tried to make this as safe and inviting for all women as possible,” she says. But it also proved inviting to the police, who in September sent five intrusive male cops into the bathhouse and arrested organizers on liquor-licence charges.

Since then, Jansen and her Pussy Palace committee members have been working overtime to raise 50,000 bucks for their defence. Plans are on hold for another bathhouse, but Jansen remains undaunted.

“Women’s sexuality is still a very threatening thing in this culture,” she says. “But what it all comes down to is that pleasure is good.” OK, girls — start your vibrators.

PAUL GREEN

Paul Green’s got instant cred with high-school kids. It’s not just that he’s a former GTA high-school sports star who went off to a U.S. college on a basketball scholarship or that he’s now a teacher who is also part of his students’ hiphop culture. It’s that Green’s got an important message and has figured out a way to get it to the kids. It’s called “edutainment.”

“Things are pretty bad when 50 per cent of our black youth don’t finish high school,” he says. “You’ve got to reach them through the things that are important to them.” That’s why his organization, the Universal Black Students Association, holds music events and basketball games in high schools where, in between the action, kids listen to hard content from guest speakers.

Green’s been organizing black youth ever since he was a kid working part-time jobs in community centres. But his stay down south really opened his eyes. “In the States there is such a strong awareness of black culture and history,” he says. “Up here there is almost none.”

Green’s message to black youth is straight up: stay in school and learn about where you hail from.

But it doesn’t stop there. Over the course of last year’s municipal and federal elections, Green organized Rush The Vote events that tried to get kids hooked on casting their ballots before they reach voting age.

“I want to help make sure these kids understand why it’s important to vote,” he says. “So when Mike Harris calls the next election they’ll be ready and waiting for him.”

JONI SHAWANA

Joni Shawana doesn’t think of herself as an activist. Hell, she’s only just learning how to fill out funding applications. But if you are a native kid living downtown, chances are you know Shawana and don’t give a damn about her grant-getting prowess.An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 native people live in Toronto. Fifty per cent are under the age of 25, and for many of them Shawana is a bridge to their traditional culture.

Through her work over the last few years as a youth coordinator, she has become a trusted ally and advocate for young people, who are drawn to her as much for her humour as for her compassion and generosity.

Stories abound of Shawana helping this kid go back to school, that kid find housing or talking another out of committing suicide.

Her message to First Nations youth is “Be proud of who you are.” She learned that early, going to a Catholic high school in Scarborough. There, she got the teacher to ditch a world religions textbook on native spirituality, arguing that it was ill informed and culturally biased.

“What I do boils down to promoting a positive lifestyle and outlook for our youth,” she says. Shawana, who is one of just a few native women recognized in her community as a traditional singer and drummer, also sits on the board of the Anishnabe Health Centre and works as a freelance journalist.

“Native youth need to be much more involved in the media,” she says. “We have almost no presence there, and that’s a big problem.”

KHADIJA ABDI

Khadija Abdi has one of those voices that, when she speaks, you have to listen. It’s called moral authority. When the Somali community in Regent Park grew anxious last year about changes at Central Neighbourhood House that appeared to threaten important youth and women’s programs for Regent Park’s East African community, Abdi stepped up not only as the voice of concerned Somalis but as a voice of reason.”Somalis aren’t sure where to go to get the things they need because services for our community are scattered throughout the downtown,” says the mother of seven. “Central Neighbourhood has become a very important place for us.”

Not only did Abdi risk her paid job at the House (she helps run both the East African women’s and youth programs) by speaking out on behalf of concerned members, but she also played a lead role in healing the wounds that resulted from the controversy.

At Central Neighbourhood’s raucous AGM last year, Abdi stood at a microphone in the sweltering gym for over two hours translating the proceedings into Somali.

Whether it’s helping new immigrants find their way through the welfare system, teaching women computer skills or sitting on the board of the Regent Park Youth Committee, Abdi packs 50 hours of work into a 24-hour day.

“It is difficult being a Muslim, black woman in Canada advocating for women,” she says matter-of-factly. “In our community a woman’s voice isn’t considered much.”

But by the sound of Abdi’s voice, that’s starting to change. *

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