August 08, 2023

Suburban Organizing with Jennifer Alexander

For those who don’t know Toronto politics, Councillor Stephen Holyday – who represented Ward 2 (Etobicoke Centre) since 2014 – has consistently been Council’s harshest opponent to safe streets for walking and cycling. However, not all Etobicoke residents share this backwards view. One resident in that ward – Jennifer Alexander – has been organizing there for the past six years and writes The Etobicoke Voice. I spoke with her on July 26, 2023 to understand her efforts and suburban organizing in general.

RZ: What prompted you to start organizing?
JA: My kids at Bloordale Middle School couldn’t cross Renforth Road which is an arterial road, while other families wouldn’t allow their kids to walk to school. As a parent council chair, I tried to get Holyday to put a crosswalk in, but am still on it after six years. I worked with other parent council chairs and looked at Twitter for inspiration.

RZ: What lead to the creation of Walk Safe Etobicoke?
JA: So many other intersections have the same issue and there is a need to get to the root of the problem. There are lots of cars at school, parents not paying attention, and four connected schools in the Markland Wood area. I tried to get the Toronto District School Board involved which lead to more red tape.

RZ: What were your conversations like with other parent councils?
JA: Everyone is angry and wants change, but nobody is political about it. I talked to other moms and parents, as well as got principals involved. I was the first one to speak up which is OK to do so.

RZ: Tell me more about Walk Safe Etobicoke’s work.
JA: Walk Safe Etobicoke is very informal in which I have been working with six other moms including on a report. I may boost communication later this fall. Given how hard it is to do community building in Etobicoke, I created The Etobicoke Voice to help make connections and get more voices who have similar issues involved.

RZ: How different is organizing in Etobicoke compared to downtown and what were some of the barriers you have faced?
JA: In Etobicoke, it’s harder to find people, time to speak up, and connect due to the lack of a central hub and Etobicoke being more spread out. Since not that many people are focused on the same thing, I reached out to Robin Richardson, you, and others on Twitter.

Etobicoke suffers from a lack of communication in which all they hear about bike lanes is from Holyday saying how bad they are, while many residents need to take care of their kids and don’t have time to do research. Etobicoke – like other suburbs – tend to be older with many 70-80 year olds being resistant to change. There is a lot of distrust in downtown with Holyday blaming downtown councillors and a false perception that safe streets mean making driving worse.

RZ: What was your experience running for TDSB Trustee in 2018?
JA: Chris Glover left Etobicoke to become MPP for Spadina-Fort York, which meant an open ward at the time. I had been involved for about a year by then; fighting the school board with issues regarding special needs and diabetes. However, Doug Ford’s council cuts meant I needed to re-register and I had to withdraw due to my daughter Megan having too many needs. The current TDSB trustee – Dan MacLean – has become a strong advocate for road safety, but the catholic trustee – Markus De Domenico – opposed the Bloor bike lanes.

RZ: Why did you expand your focus to cycling?
JA: Through Twitter, I learned from everyone about the need for complete streets and get infrastructure figured out for everyone. There is lots of education on my part, but it’s fascinating.

RZ: What do you have planned for The Etobicoke Voice later this year?
JA: The Etobicoke Voice will start focusing on what’s happening at City Hall including a proper session in October. A course will be coming up for paid subscribers with a focus on the inside view of City Hall. It will be four weeks via Google classroom with the use of workbooks.

RZ: Tell me about the current civics education in schools.
JA: Grade 10 students need to do a half semester course (9 weeks) which my daughter just had. It focused on provincial and federal party politics, left vs right, and different systems in different countries. There was nothing on municipal politics and why it’s important, though there was some discussion thanks to the mayoral by-election. There is no real continuation to do anything else as students get to Grades 11 and 12, and eventually to voting age. There is a need for outlets for youth to get involved.

Toronto used to have a program pre-pandemic, but it was expensive and there is no free programs available. Maybe it’s possible to run civics programs through libraries?

RZ: One of your recent articles discussed Councillor Amber Morley’s fireworks town hall. What did you learn from that meeting in terms of civic engagement?
JA: It was the first time in over ten years that Etobicoke had a consultation on an issue that wasn’t required (e.g. budget, development) and not done by consultants. The fireworks issue was one Councillor Morley inherited from Mark Grimes in which many people couldn’t sleep near the beach due to fireworks at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. The meeting was hosted by Morley with some experts, focused on listening to everyone, and keeping the balance without tolerating bad behaviour. In contrast, Holyday’s consultations usually had consultants and he would only speak briefly.

Councillors need to take it on themselves to consult on issues that matter with residents freely speaking. The event was well advertised with 100 people registered and a full auditorium at Humber College Lake Shore Campus.

RZ: What final message do you have for Etobicoke residents?
JA: Speak up, speak to your neighbours, and get involved! 😊

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