Rally for Code Red

What happens when our attitudes become unionized? What happens when fighting the good fight becomes more important than the outcome?

I was at the Hamilton Spectator for the Code Red 2.0 presentation on Wednesday. I was very moved by many of the speakers, by their understanding and compassion and willingness to take an unpopular stand, find answers, forge a new path.

I noticed that it wasn’t a recap of any sort. No one said “Here’s what we’ve done in the last year,” (which is plenty) and I’m ok with that, cause lots of people work tirelessly all the time.  I noticed that no one said “Here’s what we’re going to do now,” and I’m ok with that cause I think the work involves all of us, and is not about “them” fixing “us”. So while I was emotionally affected by the evening and came away feeling as if Hamilton was in good hands, my mind kept asking, “What was this?”

And I realized, this was what it needed to be: another step toward building consensus among all of our leaders and all of us that these issues are priorities and need to be addressed. It was a call for help to you and me to make sure our representatives at every level know that we care, that the health of our communities matters and that broken systems need to be fixed. And I was ok with that, because the alternative might be more of the same solutions, and more of the same problems.

On my way out, someone remarked at the irony of a panel of privileged, white, men who were addressing an issue that is, by the numbers, about women, about minorities. “And don’t you think we need to have an alternate meeting with appropriate representation?”

No. No I don’t. I think this WAS the alternate meeting. I think that sometimes we fight the good fight so long, we don’t know help when we see it. We get caught up in the how and loose sight of the goals. This IS the beginning of the future we’ve been talking about, for all of us. It is collaborative. It is caring. We don’t need to fight each other; we need to join forces and spread the word to stop this terrible trend of tragedies, no matter who is suffering them. No matter who gets credit.

I am confident that Hamilton is in good hands; yours, mine and ours.


Creative Industries

When I opened the Heart of the Hammer it was to provide a space for the people involved in community-building in the neihgoburhood to meet casually, to get projects started and off the ground, to be comfortable and welcome and the enjoy some of the finer foods and beverage available to us.

I had no money and thought that I didn’t need any. (long explanation about THAT deleted) In the end I borrowed about 30K in start-up funding alone. If I had tried to borrow the money outright, people would have said “show me a business plan”. If I had shown them a business plan, it would have demonstrated that there was insufficient density/volume/revenue to support a cafe in our neighbourhood. It would not have been a wise investment. And yet, it was our neighbourhood that needed it.

As it happened I borrowed the money in incremental amounts as it was needed over the first six months, and it was invested not by people looking for financial gain, but by people who saw what was happening and believed in the necessity and the benefit of it. After a year and a half we have begun to pay back the loans and now find that there is a sustainable model emerging with new unforeseen benefits.

A lady from India went abroad to study and work and then returned to her village with the desire to preserve and share her cultural heritage. The area had no money and no industry, nothing but talent and skill and a rich community culture. So she asked some of the people to make paper and they made it from whatever grows there. She asked the story keepers to tell the stories and asked others to write the stories and they did so in wonderfully beautiful calligraphy. (I am envisioning reed pens and home-made ink.) She asked other people to illustrate the stories and they did with vibrant colours made from local resources.

As you can imagine, this took a long time. When the first book was only half finished, a publisher (Canadian?) was known to be in the big city and the woman knew that she could not pass up this opportunity. She took the half-finished prototype to a meeting with the publisher and asked if they would publish it? The publisher was so captivated with the work that she said she would take ten thousand copies (10,000!). The woman was thrilled but embarrassed to admit that she didn’t have the money for the printer and so must ask if she could have an advance. The publisher said, “You misunderstand me. I don’t want to print the book, I want ten thousand hand made books, hand illustrated and hand written.” And instead of royalties from books printed in the big city, the village became employed at using their talents and skills to share their stories with the world. They have made many books since that first one in the same way. (This is a true -as I remember it- story and the books are real. I forget the details.)

I believe that we are in the same position here in Hamilton; we need to leverage our art/talent/skill and merge it with our vision/energy/passion to share it with the world and see what new industries emerge. It needs to come from the ground up and if we build it, the benefits will come and the investments will follow.

We need to transform our creative art into creative industries. As they say at The Print Studio: Art is the New Steel.

Social Innovation Emergence

The climate for Social Innovation Emergence is all around us in Hamilton. Seems to me the climate is created by three things we have in abundance: Assets, Need and Opportunity.

As has been documented, working artists tend to flock to communities where living/working expenses are low, as they don’t tend to make a big living from the art. What is often overlooked in conversations about this is that the working artists are entrepreneurs. While their market may be elsewhere, (somewhere where cost of living is higher but people are predisposed to spend money on art) they need to be able to live and work somewhere that they can afford. This migration brings some essential diversity of thought into an area.

Once there is a critical mass of artists supporting each other, it creates and energy that is like fuel for the industry, and attracts the small-business entrepreneurs. The risk is that the cost of buy-in for the small-business entrepreneurs is lower BEFORE there is actually sufficient market for their products. This tends to attract dreamers and visionaries rather than established commercial outfits who do their market research ahead of time.

The artists-entrepreneurs and small-business entrepreneurs are part of the innovation equation that is created by the OPPORTUNITIES to be found in low-cost environments, or depressed markets. Another part of the equation are the ASSETS and this is why I single out the depressed market. Though we have such frontier energy going on here, if we were really on the frontier, we wouldn’t have so many civic buildings available for our use, well-established organizations and infrastructure, to say nothing of abandoned and gorgeous architecture. This kind of environment has a flip-side, that of having to clean up much of what was abandoned, but one man’s garbage, is another person’s opportunity.

This brings us to the NEED. There is so much need here in Hamilton, besides the need to clean up abandoned toxic industrial lands. Talk on the street is that surrounding affluent municipalities consciously don’t provide for many of the raw human needs, so people with those needs, be it special care for medial reasons, drug use, homelessness, orphanages, aging without money or low-income housing, are sent to Hamilton. This creates a situation where everyone is in the same boat, and there are too many people in the boat, and the boat is sinking – as brought to the attention of readers in the Spec’s Code Red articles.

But as it sinks, there are opportunities for us to use the assets around us to help fulfill the needs. I have never seen more people anywhere so consciously helping each other, so conscientiously sharing. Social entrepreneur David Derbyshire works to develop Hamilton’s resident-led Community Planning Teams in the neighbourhood Hubs, empowering individuals in the cultivation of community assets, encouraging us to help ourselves and each other to thrive and flourish and recognize that we are part of the asset base of the city. Hamilton’s unique Hub system is a tremendous confluence of assets, needs and opportunities that is changing the way the governments and agencies interact with the communities they serve; creating a community of social innovators.

Social Innovators come in all different stripes, most of them unaware that you might call them that. Take Gail McGinnis for instance, who in less than nine months has initiated a community garden at Gage Park, a skate-borrowing room at Scott Park Arena, a beading and crafts group to help connect residents, a growing cat-rescue program and is now assembling an artist cooperative. All this in addition to her own work in photography and jewellery making. And all of it without fan-fare or recognition. Like many others, Gail just does what she does.

I remember the skate thing. I remember being daunted by even the idea of it, but there it is; over fifty pairs of donated skates for people to borrow. That brings me to the glue that binds the Assets, Opportunities and Needs into the breeding ground for Social Innovation Emergence: collaboration. Many hands make light work. Two heads are better than one. None of us needs to go it alone.

Indeed, none of us can.

Broke Bank Mountain

I’m coming around to the idea that this may be my job for the foreseeable future.

Go ahead Geoffrey, say “I told you so.” My little brother Geoffrey who has a lot of wisdom about these things lent me some money for equipment to start-up but declined the invitation to come and tend bar. “Every story I’ve ever heard about opening a bar starts with five years of no sleep.” “Fooey on that,” was my answer. And luckily, for if I had believed him or any of the other people who said so I wouldn’t have opened the cafe. And I’m really glad I did since I am learning so much. And who needs sleep anyway?

The thing I like best about it is jazzing with all the people who come in. Oh, well, and feeding them too. So I found it odd when the bank manager kept trying to find solutions for me that involved not dealing with people. I had gone in to talk to him about a few specific problems that I was having with the bank.

To raise some money for the rest of the liquor license, we offered pre-paid tabs for food and beverage and merchandise, sort of a pay-now, eat-later deal. And it worked; between that and some loans we got the money together. So the day I had to ship the documents to the AGCO I ran over to the bank with an uncharacteristically large pile of money and cheques, popped my card into the teller’s reader and counted out the money into $100 stacks.

“Do you have a book?” the teller asked.

“I don’t know,” says I, “I don’t think so.” She looks at me blankly so I fumble onward, “Nobody ever gave me a book, or asked me for one before,”

“You don’t have a book?” The rolled eyeballs, exasperated sigh. She trurns to her colleague, “Aren’t they supposed to have a book?” Now I’m a ‘they’. At this point I wonder if we’re speaking the same language.

“If there’s something you want me to do, just let me know,” I offer “Nobody ever asked me for a book before.” She grabs up all my piles of money and says,

“How much are you depositing?” Of course, with all this drama I can no longer recall.

“I forget,” I tell her. Big sigh, shoulders slump. More rolling of the eyeballs to the colleague. She sits looking at the money. So what if I’m an idiot, doesn’t she have a job to do?

“Are you not going to count it?” I ask her.

“We count it,” she says, “but we don’t add it up.”

What the hell does that mean? I just look on, puzzled, not knowing what to do next, my joyful moment of success shattered because I don’t have a book. She starts banging furiously on a little keypad, lets out another sound of exasperation using the word receipt like a curse.

“I usually get a receipt,” I interject.

“Yeah, YOU get one,” she spits, “but I don’t.”

And this is my fault?

So I get back to the cafe and fire off a note to the manager saying that the teller who just served me was really rude and if this is what I can look forward to I’m not really interested. Can we meet to discuss whether my business fits with his?

The next day we meet bright and early. When I tell my story, the manager replies,

“I’m not going to apologize for her cause she was just doing her job.”

“The thing is, I’m not complaining about her, I’m complaining about her job. It should be customer service, but instead it is about serving her. It should be – What do you need and how can we help?”

“The problem is you didn’t have your book.”

“What book!?!”

“When you opened the account, I told you that you need it and you said you didn’t want it.”

“You mean that kit for $140 with a fancy cheque book cover and a company seal?”


“Well I’m not buying it. None of that brings in business. I don’t need any of that. I am behind on wages and utilities and only two days ahead on stock. I have more important things to spend $140 on.”

“You need the book for your records.”

“My records are on excel and in my bank account.”

“Well we need it for our records.”

“Then you pay for it.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“Well then it has to change. I get it that we’re talking about a bank-wide system, but the world is changing. All this fancy stuff has gone the way of the dodo. If it doesn’t get me business I’m not spending money on it. If it’s something you need me to do, then you supply it. What I’m saying is let’s work together to find a way to change this system. It has to be changed.”

“It’s always been this way.”

“I believe you. But listen, when I order my chocolates from Beanermunky, she provided me with white cotton chocolate gloves for handling the chocolates cause that’s what she wants to have happen. She didn’t say, “Hey, you have to go buy gloves.” Angela’s Cakes brought a beautiful Biscotti jar and my soups from Chef Danielle and my coffee from Detour come in storage containers, they don’t tell me to go out and find special storage containers that fit their warehouse. If you need some fancy book and you want me to fill it out for you, you have to provide it.”

“What you’re talking about is barter system. It’s used all over the world but it isn’t used in big business.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I pay my suppliers, and Campbells Soup provides the pots for Locke Street Bagel to serve their soups in at no charge. And Campbells are big business.”

“Look, if you want, you can make your deposits in the machine and then you don’t need a deposit book.”

“What’s the turnaround time if I deposit cash to the machine?”

“Six days.”

“I don’t have six days worth of money. Every day I pay somebody for something with whatever comes in that day. At the end of the month I’m scrambling to get the rent money into the account five minutes before the landlord gets here to cash the rent cheque. I don’t have six days. This is where the customer service thing comes in. I’m the customer and you say – How can we make this work for a new small business in our neighbourhood?”

“If you use the machine, you don’t have to deal with the people.”

“I like the people, it’s the system that needs to change. All of my suppliers are real people. They do their thing, I do mine. We figure out what works for each other. Each time I pay one of them, I know exactly what value I am getting for the money I give them. But here, I opened a business account to keep the money separate, I’m paying you $15 per month and I’m not clear what I’m getting for that, especially if she wont even count the money.”

“It’s important to keep the money separate.”

“Sure, except right now I don’t have any money. I pay the rent by cheque and I pay my PST. I can do both of those things from my personal account. I anticipate making cash deposits daily once we get up to speed, but if I have to go through this then I’ll have to do it somewhere else.”

“Don’t I recall from when you opened your account that you had some credit issues…”

The credit bomb. What this means is don’t you dare ask for things, just do what you’re told. Take what you get. Even if you’re not looking for credit.

Recently somebody suggested to me that a small handful of people control the world economy. This was momentarily depressing but then I thought, who cares? Whether or not this is true, I say so what? A small handful control space, another handful control the internet, another handful control Royal Marriages. Unless you’re playing in those arenas, trying to marry a prince, build space shuttles or control virtual real estate, it doesn’t really matter. Money is fiction, so is economy. It’s a set of rules in somebody’s game. It may be true that if you play the game, you have to play by the rules, but who says we have to play the game?

You’re real. I’m real. Whatever we’re building is real. We need to start a new game. A new economy. A people economy. Cause our banks are broken.

Not sure how, and it might be a mountain of work, but I think if we play together it could be fun.

Landing in “Lower Hamilton”

I didn’t know that I lived in “Lower Hamilton”. None of the people who live here with me call it that.

I thought I moved here because of the beautiful architecture, affordable houses, greenery and of course the lake, which I missed so much in Montreal. I thought I stayed because of the front-porch culture, the friendly neighbours, the opportunity all around.

But suddenly, I feel like I fell off the end of the earth and landed here. Like no one else would take me.

There is no line between helping and needing help, at least not here in Hamilton. I thought I was helping with the South Sherman Hub and the South Stipeley Neighbourhood Association, the bike project and the business round table. I thought I was helping with the cafe, but really the neighbourhood is helping me. When I read the descriptors in the Spec’s Code Red series, too many of them are about me…

As a kid we lived in the country. We started out with a sort of Sound of Music upbringing with things like meal times and bed times and checking-that-you-brushed-your-teeth times. Then we moved to Guelph when I was about ten and that was the first time I went to the dentist: straight A’s.

But the second time we went to the dentist I had a mouth full of cavities, and the third time we went I had more. At first I went along with things like fillings, but then I started to get the idea that going to the dentist was causing them. Eventually, I really believed this and have concocted elaborate theories of corruption to explain it.

My theories didn’t included the ways that malnutrition and starvation can affect your health – and your teeth. And somehow these articles about the effects of poverty on health, about the effects of poverty on mental health (like concocting kooky theories) are all about me.

And maybe I am trying to get out. Maybe where I want to be is somewhere where people are all eating healthily, where differences are based on personality or temperament and not on opportunity or resources. Somewhere where people can’t pull rank because of credit rating.

And it made me really really mad to be accused of wanting something better, as if that was bad. Brought up fourty years of rage against the system and made me want to spend the next 60 years of my life devoting it to making one person’s life miserable. I am told that this fellow is truly a prince among men, that he stands up to superficial social climbers and that it must have been a case of mistaken identity between he and I. I hope so. It made me crazy that someone would try to cut my aspirations out from under me, cause I wasn’t planning to do it at the expense of everyone else.

I was planning to do it with them.

I didn’t cry for Code Red

I didn’t cry when I read the Code Red series in the Hamilton Spectator. I live here, I see the people.

I didn’t cry when I saw the comparisons; Sub-Saharan Africa is in crisis with 15% of babies being born underweight with few prospects for improvement over their lifetime; in some of our Hamilton neighbourhoods it’s 47%.

I didn’t cry when you belittled me at the table, even though you invited me to this meeting of the Hamilton Collaboratives. Invited me to represent the people in question.

I didn’t cry when you mocked my efforts to help as self-serving, said that I was there to get connected so that I could “get out”, meanwhile you kept telling the room all about what you had done in the past, what you would do in the future. Grandstanding while small children go hungry.

I didn’t cry when you ignored me, left the table while I was talking.

I didn’t cry when I realized that all this rudeness wasn’t about me, it was about you.

But when I realized that this whole day, this whole effort, the energy of all these people was also about you and your self-interest, that there never is going to be a plan to save the lives of the people in my neighbourhood, that in all likelihood this is just a platform for your campaign, then I cried. Cause who else will all these smart, capable people turn to in directing their resources? Who else will take the lead to get us working together if not you? You’re like a tin man, good at your job but missing a heart.

I cried then and I can’t seem to stop cause I realize I was expecting too much from you. And you’re just a person. And there isn’t anybody else. And that was news to me. News I didn’t want to know.

I wanted to believe that smart people everywhere really were trying to help.

Hungry Heart

Being hungry would be a lot less painful if it wasn’t a secret.

Homeless and Hungry came up on Homeless Man Speaks. Apparently there are still people who think that we don’t have poor or hungry people here in Canada.

For a while when I was 10-11 we lived in Guelph, in the student housing at the university. There were seven of us kids by then. First there was no money. And then there was no food. I went to 3 schools during that time, the last of which was College Ave and it was a short walk from home to school. You can only show up without a lunch so many times before nobody believes the forgetful bit so I started going home for “lunch”.

First it was the good food that disappeared. Then the easy food. The all the stuff at the back of the cupboard. At 11 it wasn’t really about hungry belly, it was somehow about justice. But having so many younger brothers and sisters, I could see plainly that sometimes it is about hungry belly.

I remember coming home one day, probably from the creek where I played with Merrie J, and finding my mother socially catatonic, the baby screaming, the youngest talker going “but why? why isn’t there any food?”

I remember coming home one day and seeing two of them fighting over the last piece of bread in a bag and I thought – “We had BREAD!?” Isn’t there some sort of unspoken rule in times of crisis that you divide it up evenly? or ration it? or share it? But what if the crisis becomes normal?

We eventually got evicted so that tells you how long our rent must have been overdue. And for how long the cupboards were bare. I remember trying to cash a cheque from an uncle. I was the banker in those days. Maybe we all were. I stood bawling at the counter, sent back three times to get CASH from the clerk who wanted to hold the cheque. “But it says GUARANTEED CERTIFIED!” She grilled me on what I was going to do with the money and when she understood that I was buying groceries gave me half of it.

I also remember going to Leaside High School in Toronto for grade eleven and twelve. Somehow the geography curriculum which I loved was hijacked in those days by a course about current events in which we learned that there are no poor people in Canada. I hated that class. How do you participate in something so stupid? And what’s the point?

Now at fourty-almost-two I can say that the only thing I truly suffer from is my own imagination, and that being hungry or broke is sometimes the consequence of the choices that I am making, like running my own business(es) instead of leveraging my letters for a stable (?) corporate job. But is that true when you’re a kid?

I wish I could find a way to say it loud and clear, once and for all; yes, there are hungry people even in Canada. Heaven help the people who think there aren’t. In my experience, you get an idea like that into your head and you learn the hard way that you’re wrong.

I’m not an expert on poverty or child hunger – it took me thirty years to get where I am now from the doorway of the townhouse full of wilted children draped over furniture like an Edvard Munch nightmare. Where I am now financially would make most people blush and send the mother-in-law into an apoplectic fit, but where I am now is in a place where my stability is not based on money, it’s based on a foundation of relationships that I can count on.

Like one neighbour, Julie, holding the fort at the cafe so I can run to the bank, and another, Deb, coming in to cafe-sit so I can do the shopping. Just this morning a brand new customer came into the cafe and within two minutes of talking he took it upon himself to password our WiFi. Thanks Alex! Welcome to the Heart of the Hammer! Where do these people come from?

Maybe you and I can’t feed everybody. Maybe the best what we can do is to not judge. But the least we can do is not silence the hungry voices by denying they exist.