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.


When I was 11 I ran away from home and walked around downtown Guelph until after dark. This was pretty radical and I was sure I would get in trouble but it seems like no one noticed. Go figure, seven kids.

When I was fifteen I used to run away from home and sleep on the rocks at the Beach. No one noticed I was gone and though I spent the nights worrying about bugs and drunks and high tides I was pretty well hidden and enjoyed being alone.

When I was 28 and felt like I’d been looking after other people too long I took great big pieces of chalk and wrote all over the walls “How come nobody ever feeds ME?” I’m not sure this accomplished anything, though it may have spawned the chalk mural that became a feature of the apartment.

Last Thursday when I was uptomyeyeballs in unsolvable problems and ready to snap I left the cafe in the care of the neighbourhood and ran away again. I didn’t get far actually but I enjoyed being alone and able to think and sleep and relax and get a few things done. And I came back with some clarity and some direction that might lead to solutions.

And in my absence neighbours looked after the cafe and cleaned and shopped and entertained each other. We may not have a lot of staff, but we have a really big team. And somehow this feels like progress.

Morning Moms

Often, around 9:15 the cafe fills up with what I call the Morning Moms. Having dropped the kids at school they rendez-vous here for coffee or breakfast. They are all Beanerjunkies. Today both Josh and Gino are behind the counter and the Morning Moms are gobbling up Gino’s fresh baked cookies faster than he can bake them. Kathleen listens to their laughter and observes that we should all be so happy in the morning.

Andrea comes up from downstairs to announce that both toilets at the cafe are plugged. Celeste says to call Rosie’s husband who says that if it’s both of them it is probably the sewer pipes and not something a plunger will fix. Cindy goes down to try the plunger anyway. This is the kind of situation where I bang my head against the wall, knowing that the landlord couldn’t give a crap and this is going to be one more unexpected expense in a long list of space-related nuisances.

The morning moms are laughing again and I see that Cindy has succeeded where Rebeccas fear to tread. The washrooms are good to go, another batch of cookies is ready and Shelley Adams is still on repeat, which happily, no one but me has noticed.

Life is best approached collaboratively…

We’re all elected

or not. Daily.

In the Theatre there is an understanding that every performance is an audition for your next gig; you never know who might be in the audience; you never know which of your colleagues might be doing the hiring down the road; you never know who might write about you.

I think this is only a more acute version of what goes on in any business, or indeed, in life. We are all elected by our friends, our customers, our stakeholders. When they stop coming, we’ve lost the election.

I use this as a barometer in the cafe. Though there is a slight increase each month in the revenue, I ask myself about the returning customers: Do the people I respect and admire come back?

It works in reverse too. Not only can we all vote in a political election, we can vote by supporting businesses, programs and ideas we value. Most of us do this unconsciously, even in the political arena – when it seems like it matters, we take action.

I have this idea that in politics, the folks who are elected serve at the pleasure of the people. They are not there to wield power or gain status but to serve. I think maybe we all expect that. But why don’t we expect it of ourselves in our own roles as bus drivers and cashiers and Board of Education executives? What would happen if we considered ourselves to be in service to the people and act accordingly?

Would we find ourselves elected? Or not?

New-School Business Model

The new-school business model that is emerging is evolving a different set of values than the old-school businessmen possess. I can see a clear line between the old-school way of doing things and the path that certain new entrepreneurs are forging. I think the new-school way could be summed up as “creating value for others” a notion I first came across through the literature of Dan Sullivan, the Strategic Coach.

Here are some of my observations on how new-school works:

  • These entrepreneurs have communities, not markets
  • They are building relationships, not looking for transactions
  • Because these relationships are sincere, they don’t need weird gimmicks to get people to come back
  • They are looking for win-win-win opportunities, for instance between me, my suppliers and my customers
  • They take pride in what they are selling and value the patronage of their customers

I come into contact with old-school business people who would never eat the food they sell, don’t respect the people who buy it and think that scamming someone makes them a good businessman. When I meet them, all I can think of is how fast can I get away from this influence.

I think new-school is the way of the future and though we have not reached a critical mass, we will.

And along the way we have quality food and good company to sustain us.

South Sherman Pioneer Village

About ten years ago I had this dream:

Something happened; a bomb or a war or some sort of disaster and everyone fled. I fled to some place that I knew the rest of my family would go to as well, and they did. So did many other people, friends and strangers alike. After a time of huddling in fear and wondering, we needed to make space for everyone and sort out who goes where, and then who could cook and what there was to eat. And then who could look after all the kids and when it became clear that this was going to be a long term arrangement, who could teach all the kids. Soon we had a list of everyone’s skills and how they could be useful. Everyone pitched in and a sort of pioneer village sprang up and before long no one was left huddling in fear and wondering. There was an incident with a message from another collection of people and to determine if we could collaborate with them, one question was sent to them, “What is important?” And the answer that came back? “People, people are important.”

This past Saturday the South Sherman Community Planning Team held an IMAGINE session where we got together with neighbours to imagine and describe what our neighbourhood would be like three generations from now after all of our dreams had been realized. And we ended the day with the fifty-cent question: “What are the priorities that we need to focus on now to make all of this possible later?” And the people who had come out, had given up their Saturday to help envision the future together, said that people were the priority: relationships, communication, engagement.

And today I realized that we are in the dream. That the disaster was a slow and poisonous one that sapped people’s self confidence and trust; it was an invisible, intangible disaster that left desolation in its wake instead of devastation. Devastation is so much easier to deal with than desolation.

And yet, here we are; believing that people are important, getting to know each other, finding out what each of us is good at and pitching in to make a difference. To make our own pioneer village.