On Saturday morning I was honoured to participate with Barb Desjardins and Cairine Green in a women and politics panel at Weaving Connections: Leadership, Creativity & Social Change, organized by the friends of St. Ann’s Academy. The panel was a welcome reprieve from the campaign trail and an opportunity for sharing ideas and experiences about the challenges and opportunities of being women in leadership positions.

With one week left to go in a very heated campaign for City of Victoria mayor, I chose to focus my talk on whole-hearted politics. While spoken talks don’t always translate well into the written word, I think the remarks are well worth sharing for the many of us interested in transforming politics from a blood sport to a collaborative whole-hearted practice. Local politics is an ideal place to start this transformation.

Competition and Collaboration
If the 20th century was the century of competition, the 21st century is the century of collaboration.  The 20th century saw many large-scale wars. It saw the rise of mass consumerism, with companies competing viciously with each other for your every dollar. It saw the race to extract natural resources as quickly and ‘cheaply’ as possible without considering the consequences. And, in the latter years of the 20th century, the globalization of everything ramped up this spirit of competition far beyond national borders.

The 21st century is already shaping up to be different. It’s the century of collaboration. We see this in the private sector where the companies that are great places to work, are also the most profitable – they share data, resources and ideas with their competitors, raising the bar for everyone. We see this in the non-profit sector with organizations co-locating, sharing resources, working together to serve their communities. We see this globally and locally with people developing local solutions to climate change, poverty prevention, economic development, to name a few, and sharing these solutions globally.

But we don’t yet see this collaborative spirit in politics. There are many reasons that politics remains entirely competitive, separating elected officials from each other and from the people we are elected to represent.

First, at higher levels of government, party politics and the system of government creates a climate where people are expected to serve their party first and the people second. The very nature of the words ‘government versus opposition’ prevent collaboration. Rather than focusing on shared goals to improve the lives of residents and opportunities for business, the government and its opposition most often level spirited attacks against each other, pointing out flaws and weaknesses.

Second, the media pits elected officials against each other, and sometimes we get drawn in. At yesterday’s panel, during the audience discussion, a journalism student stood up and said she’d been taught that competition, conflict and controversy are what sells. This happens especially at election time.

Third, the very nature of elections and the electoral process is adversarial. Those of us trying to get elected need to spend months in self-promotion mode, telling everyone who will listen why we are ‘better’ than everyone else running and why our competitors are ‘worse.’ We must separate ourselves from each other. We must try to stand above each other.

Humanness and Vulnerability
As people running for, or elected to, public office we can begin to change this. We can bring our vulnerability, our humanness, deep understanding, compassion and even love and open-heartedness from outside the political arena smack dab into the centre of it.

We can understand that all of us running for office are fully human and therefore vulnerable. When attacks are leveled against us on the campaign trail we can look with compassion and deep understanding at those leveling the attacks. We can understand that the attacks come from a place of them too feeling vulnerable and exposed.

After we’re elected to public office, we can continually look for points of connection between ourselves and others. We don’t need to ‘put our differences aside’; we need to use our differences, to greet diversity and difference of opinion with curiosity, generosity and compassion. Coming together across difference is what creates stronger more resilient decisions.

Whole Hearted Politics
Finally, both when running for office and once elected, we need to remain open-hearted. Stop reading for a moment and clench your fist really tightly, as tight as you can. Then, let your hand fully relax. What feels better?

I’ve felt my heart slam shut a few times in the past week, especially after the Fernwood mayor’s debate where attacks were leveled against me for the first time. And that’s taken a lot of energy, feeling defensive, clenching my heart shut so that all those comments can bounce off.

There is strength in whole-hearted and loving politics. When our hearts remain open, any negative comments that come our way can filter through and wash away. When we do this on the campaign trail, and once elected, it can clear away our defensiveness and ready us for clear-headed decision making. Surely this clear-headedness is what we want of all of our elected officials.

My final words to the crowd gathered at St. Ann’s Academy on Saturday morning. “My project for the next week? To love Ida Chong, Dean Fortin, and Stephen Andrew with an open heart.”

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