Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Dave Meslin

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Dave Meslin

If you look into Toronto's most interesting and encouraging political experiments, activities and publications, you'll usually find Dave Meslin. Dave is an activist and artist and, appropriately, one of the editors of Local Motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto (Coach House Books).

Dave talks to Open Book about putting together Local Motion, how Toronto did in 2011 and how he would spend his last day in Toronto.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Local Motion.

Dave Meslin:

I’ve always been a huge fan of the uTOpia series, published by Coach House. Those books provided Torontonians with a vision for where Toronto could go, and forced us to dream of a better city. Local Motion is the final book of the series, and the idea behind it was to create a road map and to shift from ‘what’ to ‘how’.

OB:

So how did Toronto do in 2011? Should we be looking into 2012 with excitement or apprehension?

DM:

Being a libra, I try to look at everything with both excitement and apprehension. 2011 was a fascinating year at City Hall. Because we don’t have political parties at the local level, things can get quite unpredictable and I often find myself describing City Hall as a soap opera: Lots of interesting characters, non-stop conflict, passion, dirty tricks, grudges and surprising plot twists. The most important vote of the year was the Operating Budget, where 23 Councillors essentially outvoted the mayor on his own budget cuts. It proved that democracy works and that citizens, when organized, do have a voice at City Hall.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you put this book together?

DM:

My concern with the uTOpia series was that Torontonians were getting increasingly optimistic about possibilities, but perhaps not sure how to actually implement new ideas at City Hall. So Local Motion is a ‘how to’ book that uses stories, case studies and illustrations to explain the intricate art of community organizing. The targeted audience, therefore, is those who have read the rest of the series. That said, anyone would gain from reading the book. We went out of our way to make the book accessible, and easy to read. It’s not an academic text (although it is being used as course material), and we avoided the use of political jargon or activist jargon, to make sure the book would appeal to any city-lover.

OB:

What advice do you have for readers who want to get involved municipally but are overwhelmed or unsure where to start?

DM:

It depends how much time they have. For those with little time to offer, I would suggest finding an existing group and offering to help out. First, of course, you have to identify your own passion. What do you want to change in Toronto? What motivates you? Food policy? Transportation issues? Energy conservation? Poverty? Discrimination? Once you’ve identified your passion, start attending events within that community. Meet people, and find out where you fit in.

Now, if you have a tonne of free time then you might want to start your own group or project. That’s what I like doing. I’m a compulsive group-starter. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, put it to work in Toronto. We need seed planters. And it’s ok if some of those seeds don’t sprout. It’s all trial and error.

OB:

If you had only one day left in Toronto, where would you go?

DM:

One day left? I suppose it depends on the context: Is the entire world coming to an end, or am I simply being deported? If we’re talking about the apocalypse (it is 2012, after all), I’d try and organize a gathering in the Rouge Valley. I haven’t been there before, and I’ve heard it’s beautiful. The Rouge is our largest park, and one of the largest urban green spaces in the world. A good place to end time. But if I’m just leaving Toronto, I’d probably spend the day at home and invite friends and family over for pizza and tears.

OB:

Who are some people who have influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?

DM:

Confession: I’m not much of a reader. My attention span is terribly short and my time-management skills are lacking. Another confession: To be honest, I haven’t done too much writing either. The strange thing about Local Motion is that my name is on the cover, even though I didn’t write much of the book. As a ‘Co-Editor,’ you get all the glory of being an author (name on the cover, book signings, interviews) without having to actually write the book. It’s a bit of a con, if you ask me. (No offence to my fellow co-editors, Alana Wilcox and Christina Palassio, who spent way more time on the book than I did.)

OB:

Is there a book you’ve read recently that knocked your socks off?

DM:

I mostly read newspapers. Christie Blatchford recently knocked my socks off, but for all the wrong reasons. As for books, I try to read a few every year, and I recently really enjoyed The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. My mom recommended it to me, and she’s usually right about things. I really got pulled into the story and had trouble putting the book down. I’m currently working my way through Urban Nation by Alan Broadbent, and Elizabeth May’s Losing Confidence.

OB:

What are you working on now?

DM:

My focus right now, is on a political exhibit that I’ve produced for the UrbanSpace Gallery, called ‘The Fourth Wall: Transforming City Hall’. The exhibit explores municipal politics in the context of citizen engagement and proposes 36 ideas to increase participation and make decision-making more accessible. The gallery space is beautiful, and the colourful exhibit panels (designed by Adam Zinzan-Harris ) look wonderful in the space. I’m really happy with how the exhibit has turned out. The volume of visitors has been fantastic and the response has been really positive — from both citizens and politicians. It’s just another piece of evidence that people do care about the city, and are willing to invest time and energy into making it better.


Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based artist and organizer who has instigated a variety of urban projects including Reclaim the Streets, the Toronto Public Space Committee, Spacing magazine, City Idol, Human River, Toronto Cyclist's Union, Dandyhorse magazine and Better Ballots.

For more information about Local Motion please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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