Political activist Dave Meslin on how “elections are overrated” and why “it takes two to Tango” with community groups

Dave Meslin poses as a democracy apothecarist for his forthcoming book (originally called 100 Remedies for Broken Democracy, new title pending), set to be published by Penguin in 2018 (Photo credit: Mitchel Raphael)

Q & A with Dave Meslin about tango.to – a website and interactive map of local residents organizations around Toronto

Oct. 27, 2017

By Arianne Robinson

Dave Meslin is an author, activist, and known for his work on ranked ballots at Toronto City Hall. In addition to writing his forthcoming book (originally called 100 Remedies for Broken Democracy, new title pending) Meslin is coordinating 123Ontario, which is related to his site, Unlock Democracy – both ongoing campaigns to promote the use of ranked ballots in elections in Ontario. (He says he is looking forward to spending time on the London election in 2018, which is the first in Canada to use ranked ballots according to CBC News). His company, PigeonHat, is also part of the Dazzling Notice Awards (he’s accepting nominations for 2017). Meslin can often be found involved in community mural projects. Lately, he’s been working on building a full-size replica of the BatPod for his son for Halloween.

Tell me about tango.to! The website says Dave Topping created it in 2011 and you are now maintaining it.

Topping created this webpage in 2011. I whipped together the new site and new name, and I’ve taken over maintenance of the map.

Why are you doing this?

Participation begins at home. Without engaged neighbourhoods, we’ll never be able to build a culture of broader political participation.

Don’t you have rewrites for your book you should be working on?

I delivered a 140,000 word draft, and am now trying to cut it down to about 90,000. So that’s gonna take a while. (We’re cutting a THIRD of the book!). I’m trying to focus on that project, but I also need breaks and distractions. More importantly, I think it’s important that I continue to do some amount of community organizing while I’m writing the book, just to keep me grounded and remind myself why I’m writing it in the first place.

Can anyone get their group on the atlas? Do you have submission criteria?

There is no criteria right now. But that’s something I think Toronto, as a city, should be looking at. Can six people simply declare themselves to be a “residents association”? If they claim to represent an entire community, what expectations should exist in regards to transparency, outreach, and democratic participation? For example, do “ratepayer” groups include the tenants who live in the neighbourhood?

For those that aren’t really involved or know what a residents association is, how would you define them? What are they like?

Residents groups come in all shapes and sizes. The main variables are: size of membership, size of active volunteers, outreach activities, democratic principles, budget and legal structure. Many groups on the map are dormant, while others are very active and participatory.

Residents organizations often come and advocate at city hall. Do you think residents organizations are always a good thing?

Resident groups create an opportunity for community collaboration and empowerment for neighbours of all backgrounds. When done properly, they help give a voice to ordinary people who aren’t part of the usual suspects at City Hall. That said, any kind of group can over time become insular, reactionary and oppositional – rather than being a force for constructive partnership. I try to focus on the potential of what they can offer, and the great examples we have across the city of vibrant neighbourhood groups.

What role would you ideally like TANGO to play in the next municipal election?

Elections are overrated. The real important organizing, advocacy, and community-building is what happens in-between elections. In a way, our obsession with elections distracts us from the more important political work that needs to be done.

It looks like there are some pretty big areas of the city that don’t have any residents organizations. Why is that?

The TANGO map reveals large geographic gaps when it comes to neighbourhood engagement. Part of my goal with TANGO is to use that data visualisation as an incentive to find ways to fill those voids. Every neighbourhood should have a residents association, and each of those groups should be open, accessible, inclusive, sustainable, and fun. I’ve written an entire chapter on this topic in my book. Before we can dream of repairing our broken democracy, we need to take a look at opportunities for democratic participation in our daily lives: in our schools, our workplaces, our homes and our neighbourhoods.

An image of the TANGO website.
An image of the TANGO website.

What is the most interesting thing about this project that I haven’t asked you?

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been travelling around North America and looking for remedies for our disengaged culture. When it comes [to] engaged neighbourhoods, I found two really interesting models that I’d love to see in Toronto. First, I spent some time in Los Angeles learning about their Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment, which is a municipal office that supports 90 elected Neighbourhood Councils. It was incredible to see. We have nothing like this in Toronto. Second, I visited Edmonton a few times to learn about their Community League model, and the Federation of Community Leagues. Again, we have no parallel in Toronto.

I’m starting with an online map, but my goal is to turn TANGO into a city-wide network of residents associations! I’m hoping to organize a TANGO summit some time in May or June.  Stay tuned for more details!

FYI: The name TANGO is a convenient acronym [Toronto Atlas of Neighbourhood Groups and Organisations], but it’s also an appropriate title for the project. After all, neighbourhood groups are all about creating spaces for neighbours to get to know each other and collaborate, transforming shared goals into collective action. And, as they say, it takes two to Tango.

Any chance of Meslin for mayor in 2018?

Not my scene.

 

This Q & A was conducted over email.