“Public engagement is risky business and it takes enormous courage. When you open up the door to a conversation, it can end up being about anything, and an organization ñ and elected officials too – need to be fully prepared for that. That means not reacting when the loudest, most organized or those with influence and the ear of some elected officials speak loudly. It means hearing all voices, and staying with that conversation with courage and compassion and leadership. It means committing to the conversation ñ no matter what happens. Reacting to a few loud voices doesn’t serve community as a whole ñ it serves sound bites, spin and dividing and conquering a community into factions.” ~Dialogue Partners
This is just a single paragraph from the latest statement/parting swipe from Dialogue Partners, the Ottawa-based PR firm that had sought to bring Hamiltonians together to discuss the future direction of the city, but managed instead to be run out on a rail for a few seemingly minor missteps at the beginning of the public opening of the ‘Our Voice, Our Hamilton’ public engagement project.
Now, let’s make something clear: I LIKE Stephani. She’s got moxie, and she stood up for her company even as she admitted error in front of our City Council. There were moments when I was convinced she was going to break into tears at the callousness of some of the Councillors’ questions. I didn’t want to see her publicly humiliated, so I’m glad that she managed to keep her chin up and maintained a sense of humour and deep humility throughout the proceedings, which was all I could have asked for.
I don’t know who worded this release statement, but it wasn’t precisely the same person who spoke to City Council back in January. It may have been Stephani, but it was a Stephani who was attempting to spin gold out of straw, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. She has her company’s public image to salvage, so I don’t begrudge her that.
But let’s make a few things clear here: Hamilton’s rough treatment of Dialogue Partners wasn’t about an anonymous group of bullies on Twitter and Facebook deciding to kick DP while they were down; It was a clear statement, amidst the confusion that has been Hamilton’s political landscape; Hamiltonians will no longer allow our actual voices to be misrepresented, or be condescended to.
The concept of the Our Voices, Our Hamilton project is a sound one in principle. However, if City Council thought it was a clever idea to get an unbiased observer on the subject by farming the job to out-of-towners, they were sorely deluded. Our anger wasn’t about not hiring locally. The idea of hiring out-of-towners is galling, but not nearly as much as giving hundreds of thousands of non-existent (or so we’re regularly told) tax dollars to a company that failed to perform a series of simple tasks on the inaugural day of ‘going public’. You failed to grasp the Hamiltonian mentality, our humour, our temperament.
We’re all only human. We all make mistakes. Hamiltonians know this. We celebrate it regularly. We champion underdogs and quote Bob and Doug MacKenzie verbatim (for those of us old enough to remember Bob & Doug; I suppose every generation has its’ Bob and Doug analog).
But you can’t expect us to buy into the idea that we’re going to be heard and treated fairly in the process if the referee behaves like an entitled whiner, writing ad hoc press releases that make it sound like the real culprits are the Hamiltonians, who were unfair and mean to you.
It wasn’t the mistakes online in the first day that made us angry; That just amused us. It was the back-peddling and the failure to appreciate the enormity of the risk we were all taking by trying to engage with you in this grand conversation. It was your backhanded sniveling about how we didn’t respect you or each other. It was your tone. You got up our noses. You lied, spinning and spinning to recover your dignity when we already knew you were full of it. You tried to use puppy training on us to get us to calm down and let you do your job. You could have said sorry, but you made excuses. You could have apologized, but you accused. You couldn’t just admit you were wrong; you had to score points on us even as you were losing our respect. And in so doing, you lost it entirely.
Now, ask yourselves this, everyone: what’s the single biggest problem facing ALL Hamiltonians today? Simple question, tricky answer, but the basic truth is, we’re afraid for the future of this city, and ourselves in it. The jobs we allowed ourselves (foolishly, perhaps) to believe would always be there are all but gone. The jobs that have risen up in their place offer no easy ins for those of us who too long catered to the whims of the management who ran the shops that swallowed up and spat out the resources we made a living processing. We were a manufacturing mecca, and we got used to it. We took the snide slights for being a crude, grubby industrial city with poor manners and questionable hygiene. We took it all, because we knew we were important, in the grand scheme of things. We built our identities around servicing the world, and we developed a servant’s snobbery towards our employers, mocking the masters while we served their coffee. We smiled as we served steel and soap and appliances and recycled materials to our customer on a platter, and then went home and had a beer. That was how we coped. That was who we were. That is how many, too many of us still are (except that many of us are out of work, and can’t afford the beer).
Those days are gone. And it’s a reality that many of us are hard-pressed to come to grips with. None of us wants to see Hamilton turn into a ghost town, or an unemployment wasteland, the way it has been for the better part of the last twenty years. None of us wants to think we failed. But as well, many of us are having trouble imagining a new future for Hamilton, based on the first steps of our Health Sciences and Arts and Entertainment sectors. Many of us who aren’t office administrators, medical professionals, or artists, musicians, actors and writers. We’re having trouble finding our place in this new world, and as such, we are dismissive of these efforts to revive our city. Can it be called a renaissance if there’s no place for all of us in it? Is it really a victory if many of us wind up on the losing end?
That’s what’s at the crux of Hamilton’s temperament. The industrial sector and the service sectors that proudly serviced them are struggling to find their parts in this next act. Anger is inevitable. Derision and dismissal is only to be expected. We all get that. There’s a wedge driven deep in the heart of this city, as warring factions, old enemies, watch as the pendulum of influence in this city swings away from its traditional benefactors, the labourers.
I’ve been in both camps, and still feel disenfranchised by this city, and have for many years. I don’t begrudge steel workers and machine operators their mistrust and apprehension at this new turn of events. If I were still working in a factory, I’d be nauseous with anxiety over wondering how I was going to pay my bills next week, next month, next year. My self-esteem was never tied to my position in the companies I worked for, but I was proud of my ability to do a good job and Get Things Done. I was also proud of being able to pay my way. Today, I’m trying to figure out how to make my rent.
That’s the Hamiltonian mindset in a nutshell. Disenfranchisement in this city takes on an ugly hue, because it involves discarding your pride and calling the whole work ethic of the city we grew up BS. It’s not a healthy place to be. And that’s where many proud workers are: collecting dwindling EI cheques or being broken and receiving ODSP for having tried too hard to hold on to jobs that weren’t worth keeping. They feel cheated, and claims that ‘Art is the New Steel’ just feel like a slap in the face to those of us who were told repeatedly as students that we could never make a living as an artist or singer or actor, and that we should make sure we had ‘something to fall back on’.
We can’t believe anything good or useful can come from a thriving arts sector we’ve been conditioned to believe, in our worker’s culture, is useless, frivolous nonsense. Artists don’t make anything we actually need, right? That’s what we’re all taught. Too many of us can’t see past that notion to see that growth in any field is better than none at all. Artists improve their surroundings, and make wastelands habitable again. That’s the real benefit of supporting the arts, but it’s hard to appreciate that when we’re having trouble putting food on the table. We forget that most artists have day jobs, too.
And we certainly feel no ties to the Health Sciences industry, which requires reeducation and jockeying for the few jobs that are available cleaning hospitals and turning down beds. We aren’t all doctors. We aren’t all nurses. We aren’t all lawyers or insurance adjusters or journalists. We aren’t office administrators, dental hygienists or phlebotomists. We are labourers, and our world is eroding before our eyes.
That, Stephani, is what it was all really about. That’s the powder keg you blithely blundered into. You made a few missteps. We chuckled. You got defensive, tried to bluster your way through an explanation that you were merely testing us, cleverly trying to salvage your bruised dignity instead of copping a plea, which we would have respected. Many of us can’t speak Latin, but we all understand the principle of Mea Culpa. All we ask of anyone is that you own your mistakes and move on. You failed our little test. Sorry about that. Our reaction only got harsh when you repeatedly tried to put the blame on those of us who called you out; our teeth only came out when you tried to spin your way out of the web you’d gotten yourself stuck in. You lied. We went for the jugular. When you think about it, really, that was the only reaction such a tightly wound, fractured, bruised and battered society such as ours could muster. We’ve been lied to and misrepresented just a little too long. Can you blame us?
That’s the real reason this partnership had to be severed. You failed to grasp the thorn of the problem you had stumbled upon, and you failed to treat it appropriately when you were finally confronted by it. You might think us savage and cruel, but your misunderstanding of the issues in this city beforehand are what cost you the job. It was your incompetence in this situation, not our impoliteness or hostility, that is to blame.
For what it’s worth, we wish you the best in your future endeavours. But we’ll just be leaving this little rebuttal up here on the world wide web, for anyone else who finds themselves in a similar argument with you or other ‘public engagement experts’ in the future. Consider it a learning experience. Own your mistakes. Move on.
Lee Edward McIlmoyle,
Somewhere in Hamilton,
Tuesday, February 5th, 2013
And now, a brief swipe at Peter Mercanti, senior owner of The Carmen’s Group, who yesterday was quoted by Emma Reilly at the Spectator as being shocked that average Hamiltonians who don’t own a third rate hotel business should have the temerity to think they speak for average Hamiltonians. Perhaps Peter should check his calendar and see what century he’s living in, because he clearly thinks he’s living in the 19th Century, when such classist snobbery was de rigueur. Sorry, Peter. Welcome to the future. Jet packs and space suits will be handed out shortly. Hope you enjoy our brand of democracy in action.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Please stop by our souvenir shop on your way out.