The Practical Radical

Lost in Translation b/w Canada and USA

April 29, 2010
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April 29, 2010 – 11:10 AM

In compliance with the “Timely Notice” provisions of the Federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1998, the Auraria Higher Education Center located in Downtown Denver is issuing notice of a violent crime that occurred on the Auraria Campus.

REPORTED OFFENSE: At approximately 10:13 a.m. today (Thursday, April 29, 2010), a handgun was discharged in one of the South Classroom Building’s women’s restrooms. The discharge is believed to have been accidental and no one was injured from the handgun. Auraria Police advise that there is no ongoing threat to the campus community.  The handgun was discharged from a stall in the women’s restroom, approximately four inches above the floor and the bullet lodged itself into the drywall.

I do admit that I often find myself culturally confused, both between Canadian and the US culture, but as well trying to get a handle on Coloradan culture.

Case in point re Canada/US – accidental firearm discharges are not something I have found or heard about commonly on Canadian campuses (not to say there is no violence – Ecole Polytechnique is one example), nor does it happen often in women’s bathroom stalls.

As for Colorado — between the liberal “laws” on marijuana (read my previous post on this) and the conservative gun laws … well, one gets whiplash just trying to keep up. Even for one such as myself who revels in “paradox”.

Signing off … a confused Canadian.

Images may appear blurry from far away … Pot and the USA

April 21, 2010
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Actually, images are blurry close up as well, especially when you try and figure out the US in regards to marijuana.

One would assume that the US, barring a few aberrations like Berkley, is a pretty conservative place. Or at least, the conservative voices hold huge sway within the country. So, in regards to anything to do with the legalization of marijuana, you would think that there is no way this would happen.

Well, you think wrong.

Case in point – Colorado. Seems today was a “pot smokers” holiday in the US. At the University of Colorado in Boulder there was a smoke in – which meant lots of people buying, selling smoking and wearing anything and everything with pot leaf images on them – from t-shirts to frisbees to mardi gras like necklaces.

And there were police – everywhere. Last time I saw that many police was at the Olympics.

So, nothing new here, right? Kids smoking dope at school – been happening since the 60s. What is new is the laws that have gone into place which have basically legalized pot here – this happened in Colorado in 2000 – even though it is still a federal offense to posses and traffic pot. Now you can apply to dispense – as in like a pharmacy dispensary – medicinal pot. So, not a few hundred meters from the police, who were watching over those rowdy pot smokers, was a dispensary.

The Dr. dispensary

So, is it easy to apply to be a dispensary? It is dead simple. Basically you have to what any small business would do – apply for a business license, tax number, etc. Then you find customers and sell.

Are there a lot of dispensaries and users? Well, within a 5 mile radius of where I am staying there are 21 dispensaries according to – click here to see the map. Denver has some 250  and Boulder more than 100. In regards to users, more than 66,000 people have applied and are allowed to purchase medical pot, and currently there’s a six-month waiting period.

All you have to do to use medical marijuana is have a doctor approve your need to use it – basically phone the number on this lovely little brochure I was given, go in for a check-up and that is it.

So whether your close up, or far away, it’s pretty blurry all round. Maybe there something I can take for that ..

I am not an environmentalist …

April 14, 2010
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Ok, admittedly a rather dramatic statement from someone who was a senior manager of an environmental agency for 17 years. I often used it as a opening statement in speeches and presentations – it got peoples attention – and in meetings – it pissed people off.

I first noticed this affliction when I did my first real environmental activity and went on a “wilderness trip” to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii) with a number of young environmentalists in kayaks. To make a long story short, i was often miles behind them, and almost didn’t make it across a stormy Hecate Strait (I remember the waves as 5′ – that might have been exhaustion though.) My try at being an “urban” environmentalist met with a similar fate – composting the heritage strawberries  brought about my ban from working in the community gardens. These two experiences (and there are many more)  made it clear to me that if I was  going to make it in this movement I was going to have to find my own niche.

Kayaking Haida Gwaii (me taking photo from behind)

A relaxing moment …

I found my answer through focusing on the “people” more than the “green” part of the environment agenda. What jazzed me was less what physical environment needed saving, but more a question of who did not have access to a healthy environment, and what were the social and economic conditions that kept them from that environment. In Vancouver, where my agency was based, the answer became obvious – it was those on the other side of the tracks in East Vancouver, or in a more global sense, those on the proverbial other side of the tracks in the developing world. They were the ones who did not have access to a healthy environment, an environment that no amount of kayak trips would give them.

So, with this expanded focus, I and EYA slowly and sometimes painfully changed how and what we worked on (see my Master’s thesis The Environmental Youth Alliance: An Exploration of Complexity Science to be understand how this changed happened in EYA). We moved from the richer Westside to the poorer Eastside of Vancouver; we partnered with marginalized communities such as aboriginal, gay and lesbian, immigrant, and street youth, and asked them what they needed for a healthy environment.  We began to expand our focus from the developed world to the developing world. We also committed to working where our new partners lived – the urban environment, and not the remote or rural areas.

Along the way our friends changed.  We gravitated away from traditional environmental agencies, and made links to social justice/human rights groups, urban environment groups, etc. This is not to say I or EYA left our environmental roots – there were many in the agency who were true environmentalists – we just assured that whatever we did was seen through a lens of social justice.

Much has changed in the 19 years since I started with EYA. Environmentalism has grown from being defined by the saving of wilderness areas, to incorporating social justice and economic issues. There is a growing realization that the phrase”urban environment” is not an oxymoron. I would argue that cities, which now house over half of the worlds population and growing, have an environment just as important and as diverse as any rainforest.

So, am I an environmentalist? Guess it’s all in how you define it.

Of Graffiti, Space and Youth

April 4, 2010
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Rio is a gorgeous city – stunning really. The city is up against both the mountains and the ocean. The people are vibrant. The music amazing.

Yet one thing that I missed that my 12 years old son, Liam, noticed immediately was the graffiti. It was everywhere. The last time I noticed graffiti was in Rome, where I found the incongruence between the ancient monuments such as the Coliseum with the proliferation of graffiti everywhere quite striking. The graffiti in Rome struck me as a way that youth were trying to take back a city they did not feel part of. The graffiti had an angry, gritty feel to it. The young against the old – an urban inter-generational argument of sorts.

Graffiti in a Rome Subway

What was different with the graffiti in Rio was that though there was seemingly an equal amount of it, the graffiti was, according to Liam, “#$%^ awesome”. These were truly graffiti artists, a cut above the scrawl that I saw in Rome. At Liam’s behest we took a quick urban safari and took photos of the different graffiti, some pictured here. From this safari I learned a lot about graffiti culture such as what “toying” is  (“toying” or writing over someones graffiti is a way to show  disrespect for inferior work); that EVERYONE has a tag, dad; and that you have to be careful not to toy or copy a gang’s tag. Complicated, illuminating and yet another thing I as parent had to get a handle on.

In stepping back and reflecting, there were are two things struck me about the graffiti. First, on my two experiences with graffiti – the angst filled graffiti of Rome vs the graffiti art of Rio – I think the difference between the two cities has a lot to do with the demographic context within which the graffiti was being done. Italy, as is most of Europe and the developed world, is demographically much older; compared to Rio where, like in much of the developing world, there is a much larger percentage of the population which is youthful. You can see this in the age pyramids below, where the bulge for Brazil is from 0-25 years old, and Italy where the bulge is between 30 and 50.

My experience in some developing country cities is that though youth often face oppression, there is also a growing realization that they are the majority, and, if the country is moving in a positive direction and they are able to engage meaningfully in everyday life, they are the ones to benefit first and their is a sense of hope.[1] In the developed world youth make up a much smaller percentage of the population and  they have a level of say in their city equal to their numbers. This lack of power and influence can breed discontent and often leads to violence. We have seen  some of this urban violence in Europe in the last few years, often  by youth from immigrant communities who are in the majority, but have little power within in their society. See an excellent article done by Jackie Amsden on the violence in France in 2005 – Fires, Festivals and Franchise – Youth Citizenship in France.

Second, it strikes me that graffiti is an important way for youth to claim their space within their respective cities. Research has shown that cities are not an inviting or engaging space for youth – in fact planners often design cities to “manage” the youth “problem”. Urban design is often focused on assuring youth activities such as skateboarding, biking, or hanging out are discouraged. Often recreation space and services for youth are in short supply. Through graffiti youth are able to symbolically claim their space and mark their territory so to speak. It is  important to note that some cities and international agencies recognize that space for youth is in short supply, and so are working to create space which can  engage their burgeoning youth populations. For example, UN-HABITAT and local governments have  developed programs such as the One Stop Youth Resource Centres, which are youth led and initiated, and focus on providing a safe and generative space for youth to work.

So, in the end, I come back to where I started – Rio is a beautiful city. What is less obvious but arguably more important for the long-term sustainability of the city, is that it is the cities youth who in large part are responsible for bringing about this beauty. They are its principal inhabitants, and through public demonstrations such as graffiti we can see both what they are capable of today and what promise they can bring for tomorrow.

[1] Having said this, if the country is not going in a positive direction, then youth can as well be the ones who bring violence to the streets. The violence following the Kenyan elections is an example of this.

* this post can as well be found on the Sustainable Cities blog

The Practical Radical

March 30, 2010
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The origin of this blog has been a 20 year idea in the making of a practical radical. A little of my brief personal history might help this make more sense.

I left my highschool years a conservative politically – my parents were conservative, and i didn’t have much time for any flighty lefty ideas. My first political involvement in grade 12 was to protest the then “solidarity” movement in British Columbia led by the unions against the government of the time. I never completely left my conservative ideology – this i would consider to be the “practical” side of me.

University — well — it was initially a bust. I ended up failing out in three semesters straight – mostly due to dating, friends and card playing. I as well did a stint in Europe (Strasbourg) where I was to go to school and learn french. Well, I found love, partying, and failed out of school there as well. In the words of an old girlfriend “I really didn’t think you were going to make much of yourself”. No kidding.

My “turning point” was an experience in the developing world through a program called Canada World Youth. I initially wanted to go to Thailand – better food – but ended up in Ecuador. This  opened my eyes to what was going on in the world – I found my passion. I came back from Ecuador determined and energized. This would be the start of my “radical” side – – fighting the good fight – social justice and all

I met a guy – Jeff Gibbs – after reading about his new organization the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) at University, (which I went back to and finished 10 years after starting). Within 6 months I was working/volunteering at EYA, and there is where I found my path for the next 17 years. This is where i learned to be a “practical radical” or “pradical”.

As all people who work for small NGOs  know, you never really have one job, but 10, from administrator to programmer to janitor to confidant. I worked with budgets from $50,000 when i first started, run out of a shoebox under Jeff’s bed, to 1.5 million in my last years running the youth program for the World Urban Forum. I loved and hated my job, reveled in the chaos, worked insane hours, got paid little at first, met life long friends, made life long enemies, and affected change. I never could answer “so what do you REALLY do?”, but nor did i care. I loved what I was doing.

Along the way I met my wife, who worked (initially) with an NGO, and we found common focus that has kept us together for now 15 years: social justice, “experiences” over “things” (especially travel), and kids (2 boys). We as well prove the adage “opposites attract” – which is what in the end keeps us together – we are NEVER bored.

I continued my schooling – I decided that I need a practical degree to drive my radical direction – so got a Masters in Management. It is there i learned more about chaos as applied to management and immersed myself in “complexity theory”. Following the World Urban Forum, I began working with UN-HABITAT, the agency within the UN focused on cities. It is from that point on that I left EYA, and I re-focused my work internationally. I have had the honor of working with youth from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Rio de Janeiro – much of our focus has been on how we can meaningfully engage youth in cities and slums. This work has led to another facet of my life – academia – where I have received a fellowship from the University of Colorado to do a PhD in urban planning. I have discovered that space, specifically how youth and other groups live in urban space, fascinates me. I have found that how one defines, claims and names space in our urban wilderness is key to social change. More on these concepts in later blogs.

In the end, I am practical by nature, radical by design. I believe in patterns not lines; paradox not certainty; and the chaotic not the orderly. Systems are stories not boxes, people not positions, which change and grow at each retelling.  To succeed one must be tenacious, open to new ideas, and able to act decisively when the time is upon you. Humor is often the best form of communication, and kindness and belief in humanity is essential. I judge myself, and hoped to be judged, in the moment, and by my actions. My intent is unfinished business.

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