Friday, July 30, 2010

Thoughts and Ideas, July 29th, 2010, from the Toronto People's Assembly on Climate Justice Organizing Circle

Brainstorming some thoughts on Thursday afternoon before the People's Assembly organizing meeting, I jotted down this brief vision and definition: "A permanent popular space powered by consensus and participatory practices, as a channel of ongoing dialogue on solidarity and movement building."

Observations from the first People's Assembly of June 23rd. Observations, comments, positives and negatives, and things we could change or keep the same varied, but in general the group agreed that for our first effort the turnout and product was very positive, and the assembly a success. As a general analysis I observed that since it was our first assembly, it is difficult to say what we need to change and what we need to keep the same. As we come together the process will create itself.

The first interesting discussion of substance of the evening was one on consensus. The circle put a variety of similar definitions on the table, and roughly what emerged in agreement was this. I wrote down "Stress consensus, while telling people not to feel inhibited with using blocks, with blocks as an active and important part of the process, to lead to more dialogue, agreed upon changes, and a collective resolution of the issues. And, a 75% majority vote as a very last resort if the group can really not move forward." Some synonyms of consensus are unity, harmony, and unison. We must always keep this at the core of every consensus process.

Personally, my politics, and my instincts tell me that I would have liked to go straight into our second Assembly next time, but I realize, and also with the discussion from last night, that we need a few more organizing meetings before moving ahead to the next big show.

I talked about either doing one more, or more organizing meetings to iron out the format and functioning of the assembly, or going straight into the second Assembly next time. I also floated the idea of doing an assembly/organizing meeting, which would be a larger organizing meeting much like the one we had last night, only with more people involved to open up the process horizontally, and to make the organizing and planning phase as inclusive as possible. Again, the organizing phase should be only to iron out and decide on the format of the assembly, and on logistics to make the next Assembly happen. Specifics and strategy are for the Assembly to decide, not the organizing team.

I realize the idea of a larger assemblyesque organizing meeting, or an organizing Assembly to formulate the format of the Second official Assembly was confusing to some. I realize that and apologize for that, I know it is an unusual hybrid concept, but that is essentially what last night's July 29th meeting was intended to be, as emails for participation were sent out before the meeting to all 180 people who signed up for the mailing list at the first People's Assembly on June 23rd. And, that is essentially also what was decided at the end of last night's meeting, that we scheduled another organizing meeting for two weeks from now, with invitations to be sent out for more people to participate, to grow the organizing core that has come together. So we've decided on another organizing meeting scheduled for two weeks from now to continue las night's discussion, and I am in complete agreement and harmony with that, I just wanted to try to clarify on this ambiguous issue that emerged last night.

The reason why I raised the question of exactly what our next move should be in the organizing/construction process, is because I worried that more organizing might not be as horizontal and inclusive as we want it to be. But, I realize and acknowledge with everybody that we are not ready to go straight into a second Assembly. I wasn't in favour of either way, I just wanted to put the question out there for the group to create debate, which it did.

In my view, our People's Assembly needs to be a permanent space, and a regular reoccurring bimonthly gathering, and I specify bimonthly as in every two months, because apparently there is some ambiguity around this terminology, so, once every two months. It is essential to hold the Assembly regularly because we want to retain momentum, we want to keep the new faces committed, and the public engaged. And, an important point to outline, something a companera pointed out to me which I had overlooked, is that the Assembly can be set to convene on a regular schedule but not limited to that. We do not want to place any limitations or restrictions on the Assembly, it is an entity of the people for the people, a mechanism or a vehicle for communication and dialogue that can be called upon by anyone, at anytime, whenever needed.

In terms of timing and deadlines for the Second Assembly, many people were floating around October or even November as a possible date, but perhaps a late September target would be more vigilant. There are two reasons why our next Assembly needs to happen as fast as reasonably possible, well organized and promoted of course, but sooner rather than later. First, because it appeals to so many different constituencies, Climate Justice at the moment is a unifying force, and an asset for movement building. In Toronto, the first report back from Cochabamba, on May 7th of this year, featuring several summit participants, attracted a lot of unexpected attention, drawing in over 250 people. Then on june 23rd of course was our first People's Assembly on Climate Justice which was very successful and also produced a turnout of around 250 people. There was very positive energy coming out of the Assembly. So in general, Climate Justice in this city is currently building on momentum. Second, the reaction to the G20 in Toronto has presented us with a golden opportunity. The G20 invasion affected not only activists and protesters, but impacted people from almost all walks of life. The projection of repression was manifest all over the downtown core and certain other areas, and the absurdity produced many self-declared converts to the cause. And, with Stephen Harper and the Consevatives' track record on environmental issues, this was obviously good news for the Climate Justice Movement in Toronto. Throw the Toxic Tour into the mix, which was CJ's very creative and well orchestrated cross-pollination, and it almost seems like G20 week and the Climate Justice Movement were a match made in heaven. At the moment we have momentum and new faces on our side, we should not take that opportunity for granted.

Different Visions, Possibilities, and Possible Formats for the People's Assembly:

Should we operate with working groups, or with some other structure as a format for the Assembly? Or a combination of?

In terms of the working groups, we will have to decide whether a smaller or greater number of groups will be appropriate, effective, and efficient for our process in Toronto. In Cochabamba (The World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth) there were 17 different working groups. That proved to have some pros and some cons. On the one hand, it allowed for a lot of creativity and specifics on particular topics, projects, and issues. On the other hand there was a lot of cross-over of themes amongst the different working groups, and a lot of duplication and repetition in the declarations. I think that probably for our Toronto Assembly, for a smaller group, we will need to stick with somewhere between 5 and 10 working groups, if working groups are the format we choose.

Is the People's Assembly in Toronto a product of a spontaneous, vacuum situation? Or is it a planned and orchestrated effort? Probably a little bit of both.

At least in small part, the decision to build a People's Assembly in Toronto was probably an organic response to something the CJEJ community felt was needed. At the moment Climate Justice has a broad and pertinent appeal that spans internationally over most spectrums of the left, it is the 'hot' issue, if you will. And, in Canada, we have the TSX where more than 70% of global mining capital is headquartered, we have the Tar Sands, and we have a government which is completely indifferent to Indigenous rights and environmental devastation, and doesn't recognize water as a human right. So in Toronto, as in the rest of the country, we certainly have a strong case, and a need for increased and improved Climate Justice Solidarity. In part, the energy for the People's Assembly is an expression of that.

On the other side of things, Cochabamba is the reason why the idea of putting together a People's Assembly in Toronto came to life, and the call to begin the creation of a worldwide Climate Justice Movement was emanating from Bolivia even before the Cochabamba summit. So the initiative and the inspiration for our People's Assembly definitely stemmed from Cochabamba, but there are plenty of other organic reasons why it is now underway in Toronto.

Our Toronto process is not Cochabamba. With the Cochabamba summit, the working groups were actively debating and developing content months ahead of time, so of course it was very open and inclusive. As for the format, 35,000 people attended the summit so the format had to be pre-planned; this is not at all a criticism of the Cochabamba process, simply an observation and a comparison. The pre-planned format was 17 different working groups. A few people from our organizing meeting were talking about the working groups, referring back to Cochabamba, and it is imperative that we look back at past creations and examples of People's Assemblies from across the world, but we are dealing with a unique situation here in Toronto, and a whole new set of attributes and particularities, and we don't know yet if the working group format will work for us. The final product of our assembly might be very similar to a working group format, or it might look drastically different. Basically, we don't know what our assembly will look like, we are starting from scratch. We have to let the process create, with as many people involved as possible.

Here is an example of what a different format might look like:

Again, should we or should we not have working groups. Take for example the working groups that were formed during the first Assembly; Tar Sands Resistance, Indigenous Rights, and cap and trade to name just a few. It doesn't make sense in terms of efficiency and effectiveness to start these newly formed groups with individuals who may or may not know a lot about the issues pertaining to their working groups, and who are starting from nothing, from scratch, and to charge them with the great task of building up solidarity around the issue in the city of Toronto. There are already dozens of groups and organizations in the city, experts and veterans who have been working and campaigning around specific issues for months and years. It would be more effective to communicate with all these groups, and to have them come be an integral part of the Assembly process, thereby providing all Assembly participants with already-existing resources, knowledge, capacity, and experience, and to allow them to choose where they would best fit in, for them to identify which patch on the community solidarity quilt is best suited for their interests and abilities. Working groups might end up being the appropriate format for the Toronto People's Assembly, only time will tell, but if so, I think those experienced affinity groups and organizations should be incorporated into them not as the lead, but in the middle actively working with the people in a nexus support role. The Assembly needs to be a horizontal space to facilitate the consolidating and organizing of solidarity. It will also be a place for exchange and education.

The following echos, and is very similar to earlier attempted definitions I put down, and there is some repetition, but I'm just throwing everything out there to try and describe as best as possible what the process might look like.

"Groups, organizations, and people from all spectrums of Climate Justice, come together in a city-wide Assembly as a mechanism of solidarity and movement building, to really start to define and to shape the Movement. An open horizontal space fueled by popular power, a participatory process, and consensus, as a vehicle for an ongoing dialogue of solidarity building, sharing, and collective community decision-making."

"An open space of solidarity for the Climate Justice community. A body of different groups and organizations to come together and report, share tactics, strategy, and campaigns. A structure, or format is needed, but no control; a completely open and unleashed process set free. A little bit of chaos is good, it allows some of the originality and creativity to organically come out."

In Closing

I think that if the Movement at large, not just Climate Justice, but all spectrums of social and climate justice all together, if that Movement has a chance to grow and to really become a relevant, and effective, and powerful force here in Toronto and across the country, I think the People's Assembly is the vehicle that can make that happen.

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