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Strengthening democracy requires building community: A taste of Democracy XChange 2019

By: Teshini Harrison

On a cold January afternoon, a group of us young and old followed Chef Ashrafi down the hall of Toronto’s Regent Park Community Food Centre, where we were instructed to grab an apron, a hair net and wash our hands before being put to work in the kitchen. This was how my experience of the Democracy XChange 2019 (DXC19) began.

Founded by Open Democracy Project and the Ryerson Leadership Lab, DXC Summit is a two-day gathering that works to highlight activism and different levels of community and civic engagement, while encouraging participants to connect across spaces, place and viewpoints on a variety of issues. Organizers see it as an antidote to the “democratic recession” that seems to be touching all corners of the globe at the moment. This year speakers included journalists, academics, researchers, politicians, and local leaders from Canada and abroad.

Democracy is coming together

I attended the DXC19 Open Spaces pre-summit event, which was co-hosted by the University of Toronto’s Community Kitchen. This was an opportunity to see civic participation from the ground up. Which had me standing at a stainless steel counter with a large chef’s knife chopping onions putting my knife skills to work – and making the tears start to flow.

I learned more about Chef Ashrafi Ahmed, who is the Community Garden Coordinator at the food centre and is head chef of Bangar Saad Catering, a group of women cooking homemade Bengali dishes for their local community. I learned from Lydia Li, Student Life Officer, at the University of Toronto’s Health and Wellness Centre, about the Community Kitchen and how it supports students to do more than cooking.

It was through watching how to make a good chana dal that I recognized how important community is as a driver of change. Nonprofits like the Regent Park CFC can create opportunities for social enterprises such as Bangaar Saad to respond to community needs and be a part of developing solutions, giving us a taste of what democracy can be. In this case, food became the vehicle of exchange, of sharing, of learning, of listening, and of participation.

Together we are powerful

The next day, the summit began in full swing. Michael Champagne of Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO) reminded us that is important to ask “what words mean to us, (like) democracy, reconciliation,” and to consider who we are talking about when we use these words – and who is not in the room. Documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, who would be screening her documentary What is democracy? that evening, emphasized in her plenary that democracy is “our capacity to do things together,” but requires us to reflect, and listen and to challenge the conceptions of influence, “to put diverse people front and centre.”

A highlight of the day was the presentation by the youth leaders of Logan Square Neighborhood Association, a grassroots, community-based nonprofit in Chicago. In the session titled, “The Ghetto is Public Policy: Segregation and School Disinvestment,” they spoke to housing policy and the history of the racial and economic segregation in Chicago and how it affects the lives of youth, their education and the communities that reside there. Their story resonated because of the intense housing crisis we currently face across Ontario.
To resolve this, the association has created a youth program called Logan’s Students, which teaches students the history of housing policy and empowers them to develop a project, essentially training them to become advocates in their own right to drive systems change on issues such as zoning changes for the community.

Nonprofits are at the centre of democracy

Nonprofits engage and sustain democracy.  At every level, nonprofits have the role of convener and activator of the constituents and communities they serve. We do this while facing our own challenges, from frontline to system level. And we do this every day.

Democracy takes work. It requires broadening our understanding of each other, of our constituents, of different sectors such as foundations, media, and government. It means acknowledging gaps, reflecting on the voices in our networks and those we have yet to engage with, all the while evaluating our role as nonprofits in perpetuating and changing systems in order to strengthen our democracy. It’s not simply a matter of voting every few years.

As Astra’s documentary rolled that evening, there was a question that resonated from one of the people on screen: “If not us, then who?” I believe this is what DXC19 wanted us to think about. Ultimately, community – which is where nonprofits reside – shapes our democracy. Just like the Regent Park Community Food Centre, the UofT Community Kitchen, Logan’s Students, and Bangaar Saad, we see that truly effective democracy comes about through engaging each other, supporting the needs of others, and creating space for meaningful change.

Teshini Harrison has several years’ experience in government relations, policy analysis, research, nonprofit policy advocacy, project management, communications and event management. Teshini is the co-founder and former communications director of the Young Leaders Advisory Council (YLAC), an Ottawa nonprofit supporting racialized youth and communities through education and mentorship. Teshini holds an International Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a certificate in Law and Social Thought, as well as a bilingual Master’s in Public and International Affairs from York University’s Glendon Campus. She joined the ONN team in May 2018.


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