A few weeks ago, I floated a proposal for a new endeavour I’ve playfully been calling:
ô: omni practical pursuits
The name is provisional. I find it helps to give a thought a name, and imagine possibilities in relation to people, organizations and situations that actually exist.
The first post on this project explains that the intention is to undertake “explorations in the field of voluntary, purposeful association.” By voluntary, I mean non-governmental: Freely chosen association for an explicit purpose.
The ô project would serve as a lab, a studio, a matrix, an incubator; a channel, a resource, an agency, an institute.
Why am I doing this? I’m working for work. I’m hoping to make this my business.
Although I am confident in certain areas, I also know my limitations. If I had money, I could hire people to do what I can’t do alone. So I’m hoping to find associates interested in investing energy and/or resources to achieve similar, or at least compatible, objectives.
The kind of work I have in mind touches on the three fields of endeavour that I’ve been involved with during my working life, in each case on the margins:
1. the academic world; specifically, in the humanities;
2. the media, primarily local/regional print journalism, and
3. the local/regional arts, culture and heritage ecosystem.
I have also been engaged, mostly on a voluntary basis, with the civic sphere: with my city and city-region; it’s organizational infrastructure, governmental and non-governmental, and how the prevailing order, part rational structure and part culture, has come to be, and continues to evolve.
There are aspects of this concept that I’ve been thinking about for more than 25 years. As a result, I’m not ready with an executive summary or the five-minute elevator pitch. What I can do is offer some additional details about styles, preferences, ways, means, and about fields of endeavour that appear to be relatively open, and therefore ripe for action.
I’ll conclude with some thoughts about steps.
styles and preferences
ô is imagined as a civic endeavour, as distinct from a social enterprise. The emphasis is on engaged citizenship, on public service, on enlivening communities, and on enriching lives as lived in cities, towns and their various precincts.
I don’t mean any and all cities and towns — “local” in the generic sense — but actual places, with specific names — Kitchener, Preston, Elora, New Hamburg, Paris, Trenton, Bancroft, Chatham — each with their own history, character and circumstances, past and current; each with their own unique possibilities.
The preference for civic endeavour is not in opposition to what is called social enterprise, or as an alternative to private, for-profit enterprise, or to charity work as traditionally conceived. The emphasis is because the civic sphere looks like a less crowded field. There is work to be done here.
ô is conceived as a “for-purpose” enterprise. The mandate is the reason the organization exists. Serving the mandate will be the fundamental point of reference for all decision-making, planning, strategizing and investing, whether of time, energy or resources.
Again, this is not being proposed as an alternative way of doing things, or in opposition to privately owned, for-profit enterprise, or in relation to semi-private entities like guilds, unions, co-operatives, mutuals, clubs and congregations. The intent is to begin working towards creating a check and a balance to the prevailing currents of consolidation, externalization, privatization and demutualization.
This project is also influenced by an uneasiness with the dominant social engineering approach to relieving misfortune, remedying damage and healing affliction — doing things to people, for their benefit, guided by evidence-based on the human behavioural science approach to research, or by references to “self-evident” truths.
The open field of endeavour here is working towards achieving balance through humbler, more human, more personal and less deterministic ways of doing things. The emphasis on voluntary, purposeful association means looking for ways to do things with people rather than doing things to or for them.
The thinking behind this includes considering the proper role of individual initiative, calling, inspiration or will. But it also considers our right and the duty, when it serves the purpose, to do things in concert, all together as a city, a region, a province or as the people of a nation state, through the governments we elect to represent and serve us, and through non-governmental associations for civil, cultural, educational and social objectives.
Whereas the prevalent expectation is for things to continue to unfold through the workings of unseen forces beyond anyone’s control, ô begins with the assumption that the future will either be what we choose to make of it, individually and collectively, or what we allow to be done to us and for us by the powers and forces that be.
The “ô for omni” initiative is a “do-tank”: the aim is towards activation and actualization — getting work done; undertaking projects, large and small. Every project begins with agreement around what the objectives are, and a basic understanding of the parameters: Mission and principles come first, then the ways and means.
Personally, I would have difficulty working as part of an association that did not share a basic agreement on fundamentals such as:
- that the relationship between human beings and our earthly home needs to be drastically re-adjusted in the light of 21st century realities, including our conceptions of what progress and prosperity signify;
- that adjustments to the relationship between humans and the earth are intertwined, and interdependent on adjustments related to great historical injustices among peoples, nations and other large collectivities;
- that the role, both of individual initiative, calling, inspiration or will, and of doing things together through the governments we elect and associations we choose to become part of, are equally important, and not at odds;
- that the way of peaceful transition is best; and with it, there needs to be uncompromised respect for the lives of other humans;
- that there’s a shared preference for a friendly, welcoming, respectful and considerate approach to the community at large and everyone within it;
- and that the endeavour is progressive, i.e. that it is dedicated to the here and now, and forward looking, not based on a longing to restore or preserve an imagined ideal past.
ways and means
To repeat: There is no intention here to establish an “alternative” to existing norms and structures, or an opposition to any prevalent order.
The aim is to complete, not compete;
to complicate, not sort out or explain away;
to connect, not consolidate;
to deliberate, not contend or debate
to seek better balance, not correct or overturn;
to adapt, improve, fulfill, not destroy or replace.
Adopting a principle that was an important part of the City of Kitchener’s CulturePlan I, the resolve is, whenever possible, to build on, with and through what already exists.
The corollary is to demolish nothing, throw nothing away, and waste nothing that can be put to good continued use.
This enterprise is forward-looking: There is no longing to return to past glories, virtues or innocence. There is no rejection of modernity.
There is no denying, however, that change at every stage of development over the last 600+ years has also brought loss. Progress over the centuries has been ruthless, cruel and exceedingly wasteful. Having reached the point where dominant patterns of modernity have become a threat to life on this planet, this is a time for gleaning the fields for what the modernization process may have left behind.
This is a time to reconsider overlooked or discarded forms of wisdom and virtue.
This is a time to look for stones or beams or forms that builders have rejected that may yet serve good purposes.
At the current juncture, the most likely place to find satisfying, life-affirming work are fields of endeavour that are relatively open: where there are gaps and imbalances; where the landscape is strewn with the abandoned, the rejected, the neglected.
ô is meant to serve as an incubator: When set in motion, it will be people joining forces to cook up project possibilities out of whatever ingredients may be on hand or readily gathered. When a prospect begins to make sense and starts attracting engagement, it is time to launch the enterprise and get to work.
Each project will be embedded in the place from which it emerges, and where it is meant to be of service. The intent is to build, maintain and utilize lateral relationships — standing on the same ground, face to face, shoulder to shoulder, person to person, in proximity — without an upper tier, and with no ladder to climb or descend, no colonizing mother polis, no centralized command, no head office.
This is not pitching for a more egalitarian and libertarian approach vis-à-vis hierarchies of every sort. Again, it’s that the tiered, top down, remote control approach to organizational structure is the standard everywhere, including among our governments, our representative bodies, the business world, for-purpose and for-profit, as well as in the military and the religious spheres. And it’s that all that winnowing down in search of excellence, all that centralization, consolidation and stratification in search of efficiencies are so wasteful of talents, energies and lives.
The situation is especially out of balance on the ground, in actual places, where increasingly, everything that matters is designed, organized, controlled and owned from somewhere else.
Doing things laterally, in proximity, and for purposes beyond private profit still requires order: Assigned authority, rules, regulations, procedures for decision making, and scrupulous record keeping are equally if not more important for a voluntary, mandate-centred enterprise. But in a voluntary, for-purpose endeavour, it becomes order as service, to the mandate, to the community, to the associates, and to the customers, clients, subscribers or members.
This is the kind of authority that a conductor wields when hired by a choir to lead it to performance excellence, or that a traffic police officer holds when guiding vehicles coming from all directions in taking their turn to proceed through an intersection. With a lateral approach, authority is practical, and never extends beyond the task or office at hand, in place, on the ground. It exists to get things done, not to put everyone in their place.
The emphasis on actual, tangible results — on doing, rather than theorizing, influencing and persuading — makes it possible to take a decidedly omni-partisan approach from the outset. If the purpose is, say, to build a thousand affordable houses, or plant a billion trees, or restore and maintain an architectural heritage treasure, or save a language that is close the extinction, the beliefs, creeds, convictions, predilections and even the prejudices of those doing the building, planting, teaching, restoring and the maintenance are, for the most part, irrelevant.
The emphasis on association comes from an awareness of how little anyone can achieve entirely on their own. Association is also a logical objective when the call for participation is directed first to those of us who are not fortunate enough to have access to significant amounts of working capital, whose working lives are less than satisfactory, who are or would like to be engaged with their community, and who care about more than just their own interests and ambitions.
Consequently, the preference is for bootstrap, pay-as-you-go operations that respond to circumstances as they arise, and that are improvised rather than predetermined.
Revenue generation and monetary investment are as important as they are in any for private profit enterprise, but only in relation to serving the mandate or purpose. Any and all proceeds are judiciously folded back into the enterprise, rather than divided up among the various shareholders.
Debt can lead to loss of the freedom to serve a mandate. The preference, therefore, is towards a picayune style of earning revenue, a penny or a bit at a time. This is a model that goes back to the invention of the penny post and the penny daily newspaper, and currently looks like a field that is ripe for innovation and experimentation.
The preference is also towards relatively level remuneration rates. If the endeavour is dependent on work that is done without or with minimal remuneration, a for purpose structure that no one owns, no one extracts profit from, and that can operate without a highly paid management structure is almost a necessity.
The ultimate purpose, however, is to find ways that people can earn a living in fields where things appear out of balance. The purpose is fuller, more satisfying, more meaningful employment, not replacing adequately paid work with unpaid or minimally paid workers.
fields that appear open, hence ripe
The academic world appears vulnerable: Sooner or later, the disruptive practices of the for-profit corporate world will turn on institutions of higher learning.
Meanwhile, academia is a closed, exquisitely chaptered and layered, guild-dominated field of endeavour that has been able to withstand most threats to its prestige, privilege and power. That’s especially true for the STEM disciplines, and for systems for the acquisition and protection of professional credentials in prestigious and lucrative fields. In terms of power and influence, the social and human sciences, including health sciences, economics, political science, business administration and communication, don’t do so badly either.
It’s the humanities that are overlooked, neglected, left behind. The only sustained interest in their intrinsic value is from an older, classically oriented, regressive kind of conservatism.
There is a tendency for what remains of the arts and humanities to get cannibalized by the stronger fields of learning, for example, the arts squeezed into the applied science and technology spectrum to add a soupçon of “creativity”: from STEM to STEaM.
The trend towards transforming arts practitioners into social workers, place makers, community builders or political activists is comparable. We see the same dynamic at play in the trend towards reducing the role of museums and galleries, which, like libraries and archives, are fundamentally places of learning and study, to “cultural attractions” that bring in tourists, or to help with employee retention in fields that really matter.
In the world of high modern business, of work, of productivity, and among all the exchanges that constitute an economy, artistic pursuits tend to be regarded as peripheral, except in the higher echelons of “cultural industries” operating at a national or global scale.
So the arts, broadly conceived, are another wide-open field. In this case, however, it is one that is on the rise rather than in decline.
A foundational premise of this endeavour is that the arts are the original human work beyond achieving subsistence. In all times, and all places, once food and shelter is secured, and there is no enemy or plague at hand, this is what people do: they tell stories, remember, sing, dance, decorate, celebrate, make pictures, fashion images, make special, beautify, build things, and contemplate their existence.
In terms of the kind of work that we can do for one another to achieve a kind of prosperity that will not destroy the planet, artistic pursuits are ideal because they are relatively clean, and because the people who follow them tend to find them meaningful and fulfilling.
Journalism is an arts pursuit rooted in such elemental human activities, but it is also a prototypically modern field of endeavour that has claimed and been assigned a critical role in the civic sphere, as a trusted source of information, a “watchdog” on authority, and as a forum for the kind of discussion that is essential for democracies to function.
Legacy media, especially the city daily and the town weekly, have been in steady decline for decades. Broadcasting media, especially at the local and near regional level, are not far behind. The metropolitan owners of our daily newspaper took advantage of the disruptions of the pandemic to quietly abandon their physical presence, including their newsroom, in the 10th largest urban centre in Canada. Our local, always a decidedly provincial private television station once produced a hundred or more regular programs at any given time. Now they can’t even manage to keep the yard tidy.
Radio, and audio communication and presentation in general, has been a relatively neglected field since the advent of national network television, but with the rise of podcasts and audiobooks, sound media are on the ascendent.
It is interesting to see, not just knowledge and information, but also the exchange of ideas claimed as part of the purpose and function of libraries, galleries, even choirs and drama groups. Meanwhile, the newspaper is conceived as a kind of learning institution. It is possible to imagine a local/regional news, information, ideas, deliberation, chronicling and storytelling ecosystem that encompasses traditional media, arts and humanities educational structures and civic learning institutions, broadly conceived.
Open enterprise, multiple ownership, unmanaged legacy business districts, and with them, the appreciation, preservation and adaptive reuse of architectural and other cultural heritage assets, are also long overlooked fields that are ripe for attention.
Small and mid-sized urban centres in themselves have lost their purpose and function in relation to their hinterlands or service areas. Provincial, non-metropolitan centres are wide open fields of endeavour, along with their current, but mostly former, hinterlands: “flyover” country, they call it in the U.S..
The entire area known as the “Rust Belt”, which Laurentian Ontario is an extension of, was the very centre of North American cultural, political and economic life from the late 19th century until well into the 20th. Today, it has been largely abandoned, rejected, outmoded, and therefore ripe for fresh, imaginative, purposeful endeavour.
All forms of enterprise other than the private, for profit norm are undervalued, and poorly understood, including mandate-based enterprises, mutuals and cooperatives, faith groups, and even public or civic service structures.
Voluntary associations of all kinds appear under threat: service clubs, lodges, orders, friendly societies, representative associations, along with the traditional religious associations out of which most of our educational, health, social service and purely social infrastructure originally emerged. I read somewhere that even the rock band is no longer as common a form as it once was.
The odds are also stacked against all original, local/regional, innovative, independent and freely associated enterprises, whether civic or private; for purpose or for profit.
The talents and energies of older people tend to be wasted. So are the days, years and energies of young people whose career paths are delayed, diverted or blocked because of the vagaries of an economy where discord and disruption are the norm, and the constant winnowing of a placeless, ruthless dedication to efficiency.
This is one of the reasons why this project begins with an intergenerational focus. On the one hand, the aim is to balance the dominant pattern of segregating age groups, and setting them against one another. But life is finite, and unfolds in stages, from infancy, childhood and youth to maturity and old age. Because of the contrasting needs and capacities of the younger in relation to the older, and their shared relative freedom, the combination of the youngest and the oldest adults among us carries boundless potential for associating, and getting things done.
And, of course, the legions of people of all ages, backgrounds and identities all over the world who are unemployed, sporadically employed, underemployed, misemployed, or miserably employed, together constitute a vast pool of wasted potential.
The fully employed — the workers of the world, as they used to say — might be wise to unite, with a view towards breaking their dependence on the power and the will of their employers, and getting a better deal. But the workers of the world are a relatively fortunate, privileged minority.
It’s the billions of us that live on the edges of full, meaningful employment who have the most to gain by exercising our right to assembly and association.
Compared to other rights and freedoms that are cherished and defended, the rights of assembly and association are in themselves a neglected field of opportunity and concern.
At this juncture, in Canada and all over the liberal democratic world, the political party is close to bankruptcy as a means towards the form’s original functions and purposes: as movements that bring people of divergent interests together, and as channels for democratic engagement at the broader, extra-civic and inter-civic scale. There is boundless opportunity for innovative approaches to associated citizenship related to democratic forms and practices.
The traditional, and still close to universal left versus right political spectrum, calibrated along the fault lines created by the various revolutions set in motion by upheaval in the British and French empires in the late 18th century, is long overdue for a reset more in line with 21st century challenges and opportunities.
As I’ve tried to explain in some of my CultKW and Here & Now | Now & Then posts over the last year, I think the Canadas; Ontario Nation; all original village, town and city areas (any area built up contiguously before the mid-20th century suburban boom); watersheds and sub-watersheds, and all non-metropolitan local/regional news, information, ideas, deliberation, chronicling and storytelling ecosystems are wide open fields, are ripe for sowing, planting and cultivating.
Step 1: Write and Talk About It
The first step is to talk and write about what I have in mind. That’s really all that is in my power to do at this point.
The next chapter will be some examples of the kinds of projects I’m imagining.
Step 2: Carry on With Current Engagements
Meanwhile, I’ll carry on with what I’ve been doing since the pandemic hit:
— a fortnightly post for CultKW;
— occasional posts on my own Here & Now | Now & Then;
— edit and host Promenade, a weekly “community radio magazine” that airs over CKWR 98.5, Canada’s first community radio station Tuesday evenings at 6;
— organize the bundle of intergenerational and interdisciplinary shared learning programs I helped develop at the Commons Studio as an autonomous entity tentatively called the “Home [on the] Range Story Kitchen”, working in partnership with the Commons Studio at its new home with KPL Central, Inter Arts Matrix, CKWR / Wired World Inc and other community partners.
— do social media posts for myself; the Story Kitchen; WR Arts Reboot / Arts Together.
— serve on a few boards and committees: Inter Arts Matrix; 98.5 CKWR Wired World Inc; Bread & Roses Housing Co-operative; Arts Network for Children & Youth / Participate Community Arts / Creative Roots.
And with this, I’m adding refining the ô concept, developing project ideas, and outlining plans to my day in, day out job description.
I can happily keep on doing these things as long as I can keep body and soul together.
The steps towards actualizing any of this — moving from talk to action, to work — will depend on attracting engagement, articulating understandings, and developing mechanisms for associated endeavour.
Step 3: seek and find engagement
a. develop basic understandings
b. create structure and board
c. begin undertaking projects as part of the ô initiative.