Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Citizen Edmonton

interVivos is an organization that seeks to mentor young leaders and professionals. In doing so, it holds a number of events on various topics of relevance to the NextGen age group (usually considered to be under 40).

I was invited to be a panelist at interVivos' event on June 18 at The Common. Citizen Edmonton examined different kinds of citizen engagement. My official title for the event as stated in my bio was "Social Activist":

Paula is a freelance communications professional, musician, and activist. She was born and raised in Edmonton where she has a special interest in community and independent media. Paula is the editor and a volunteer coordinator with Boyle McCauley News, and inner city community newspaper, and also works with numerous non-profits, NGOs, and small businesses to provide for their communications needs including writing, editing, photography, videography, and social media. In addition, she is an organizer in the local peace community, performs original songs about social justice at a number of festivals and events, and has been independently documenting Edmonton's activist scene since 2005 at her website

We got started with each of us telling a little about ourselves, and then answering one question from the event's MC. We then did small group speed networking, where the panelists rotated between tables for five minutes each, until we had visited all of the tables. It was a great way to meet a lot of different people and answer their questions in a smaller setting, but those five minutes really flew by!

I found taking part in this even to be very valuable because it was such as a different group of people than normally to which I speak or perform. As a result, I was asked a lot of really excellent questions about who I am and what I do and how others can be more engaged in terms of their involvements with non-profits and activism.

What are some challenges you have faced in activism?
Probably getting the word out there about events and especially getting the media involved. From a personal perspective, I think that my politics often overshadow my persona, in that people who have never met me in real life and only know me from the photos and videos I post, from promoting events, or from standpoints I have taken, expect me to be some kind of crazy, left-wing, granola crunching, tree hugging, hippy. Which is why being invited to an event like Citizen Edmonton was so important to me - because I got a chance to reach out to a different crowd and perhaps dispel some myths about activists. Here are some questions that really stood out for me.

What are some of the issues that tend to attract protests and protesters?
It really depends what current events are hot topics. We've seen recently lots of protests concerning education, cuts to programs for PDD, and the huge March Against Monsanto. People are more likely to attend a protest if they feel a personal connection to the issue, which is why we often see larger attendance at rallies that deal with civic or provincial issues. So, a way to attract people to events is to try to highlight that connection; how an issue affects all of us, even if it is something having to do with Canada's foreign policy or something else seemingly more detached from our daily lives.

How can people protect themselves legally at protests?
Carry a phone that can record photos and video, and be prepared to use it if you see something going on that does not seem right. Be aware of your surroundings, and if someone else appears to be acting strangely or being an instigator, disassociate from them immediately.

How can you tell if you are being effective through your efforts?
This can be measured in different ways. Attendance is one. Getting the message out there is another. Protests seek to attract attention about a topic, so whatever way you can get the message out increases that efficacy. And this is a large reason why I started Radical Citizen Media: to make sure that when protests happen, that they are documented properly so that people can see for themselves what was said, how many people were there, and what the issue is really about - all things that the mainstream media often do not cover in depth.

What role does the media play? How do you connect with the media?
Press releases are often sent out to media outlets prior to a protest, at least in my experience. What happens next is often out of our hands. Mainstream media is often run by advertising, so hands are tied when a protest involves a sponsor or advertiser. Independent media, like Radical Citizen Media, does not have those constraints, but we also don't have the resources, so it can be a Catch-22. However, we do have an effect on the media, because in situations where, for example, attendance is under-reported, we use our photos and videos to show what actually happened, and this has resulted in retractions.

What are the three biggest obstacles in the activist community?
Communication, or the lack thereof - misunderstandings and other inter-personal situations often result in certain groups of people or organizations not speaking to each other or preventing them from working together effectively.
Organizers being disorganized - making sure people know what they are responsible for doing and seeing that it gets done.
Becoming activist elitists - only hanging out with other activist, only going to activist events, cutting ourselves off from the rest of society where we seek to effect change: this is very counter-productive.

I am going to whip out my chequebook and write three cheques. Where are the biggest needs?
I could not answer that effectively without knowing the financial situation of ever non-profit in Edmonton, but I would encourage someone to contribute to whatever organizations they are passionate about rather than just seeking out non-profits based on financial need. That being said, there are also many organizations that have needs beyond money - inner city organizations like Bissell Centre or The Mustard Seed often need practical items.

I was far too busy to take photos or video at Citizen Edmonton, but several professionals were there to take care of that. I'll post them when they become available.

On a final note, interVivos made an announcement that it now has a forest in Manning, Alberta. The trees will be named for the people who speak at event, and the seven of us who were panelists last night are the first seven seedlings. I hope to get out there one day to visit my tree! Maybe I will even hug it.

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