I Belong Downtown

by Heather Pearce

By 7:30 AM on Monday, November 6, 2017, approximately 40 eager Londoners gathered at Innovation Works on King Street in downtown London to partake in an event entitled “I Belong Downtown”. There was no mincing thought or word with the opening question: What does belonging mean to you? Undeniably, the need to belong is a human characteristic and therefore the need to belong in communities is a necessity. Belonging in inclusive communities brings peace, and downtowns have meaning because human life is of real value.

Three artists blessed us with their gifts and experiences. Opening the morning was Heenal Rajani, a spoken-word poet affirming that LOVE is louder than hate. He referenced the recent political demonstrations near London’s City Hall involving a small group of about 20 far-right extremists protesting immigration and Muslims vs. the 500+ counter-protesters advocating for the beauty and strength of diversity. We don’t need more barriers to separate people. Love is indeed louder. Watch his performance.

The second artist to speak was Melanie Schambach. She shared her feelings of belonging nowhere but everywhere; of not quite feeling accepted for who she truly is yet having the drive to change that. In a way, it reminded me of Downtown by Petulia Clark: “When you’re alone, and life is making you feel lonely, You can always go Downtown….” Downtown can be both a destination with a purpose and a destination for no plans at all. 

The third artist to speak was Lyric Bressette, from the Original Peoples. One story she shared was the racism she experienced in downtown London while wearing a medicine wheel t-shirt this past Canada Day 150. Obviously this is not right but her message went further: people are beautiful in their diversity.

Next came the distribution of colorful postcards with the thought directive to reflect on how the images relate to our work and person, and what is our shared responsibility to create a more inclusive downtown. I was blessed to have a great conversation with Maria Luisa Contursi, Director of Impact & Storytelling at Pillar Nonprofit Network, who shared some personal perspectives and spoke about the importance of breaking misconceptions that create barriers (about a lot of things including mental health, homelessness and addiction). We agreed that having clear public safety policies would make the downtown core feel safer.

I left Innovation Works feeling…less alone. The individuals present in the workspace that morning, as well as the crowd-sourced narratives from the short video arranged by James Shelley with University of Western Ontario, indicate that London is open to change. Just as we now enjoy liberties unheard of in the past, it is possible to create a more inclusive future. There is a common good and we all share in the responsibility to change the society we live in. As an example, Pillar Nonprofit Network has evolved from traditional volunteerism towards volunteerism based on social responsibility and collective purpose. In closing, Lore Wainwright, Director of Pillar Nonprofit Network, reminded our group that it starts with each of us to create a safer downtown, one block at a time. 

“I Belong Downtown” is a national project of the Canadian Urban Institute. Please share your downtown story. The “best” story wins $500.00 and submissions are due November 30, 2017.

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