In Search of the Public Sphere

I want to live in a community where youth and elders gather to discuss the ideas and issues of the day. I imagine rustic ‘city gates’ or the middle of a bustling ‘town square’: places enshrined in common thought as the epicentres of public discourse. Yes, nostalgic as it may be, I want to live in a community that has an identifiable public sphere: a community where the question, ‘Where can I go to discuss ideas with other people?’ has a clear and definable answer. I want to know where people who only seem to share differences go to break bread together.

And yes, I mean a place: a geographic location. And in this place, class, status, and rank have no bearing on the legitimacy of one’s right to hold a view on public opinion. We all show up as nothing more or less than human. This venue is not a virtual parallel or a digital portal. No, this is a place where we discuss issues as mortal beings, face-to-face, not as typists or as brand/identity managers lurking behind our avatars and usernames. This is live theatre for live deliberation.

It seems to me that such a place for public discourse must be ‘held’ together by a community of learners. These ‘practitioners’ are cognizant of the responsibility they have assumed: establishing a truly public physical arena for sharing knowledge and ideas is a task that must be taken up by us, the people, not by the state or corporate actors. The only way we can access such a space is if we create it, and the only way we can maintain such a space is if we protect it. Therefore, this is not a religious community in a spiritual or mythical sense, but it is a ‘creedal’ community in a certain manner of speaking — it is a community that finds common identity in its collective commitment to sharing knowledge and opening discourse.

Where does this community meet? Where are the ‘city gates’ or ‘town square’ in my city? Where is the ‘public sphere of ideas’ made manifest?

I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, but I’m afraid that I am obsessed with these questions. To the best of my ability, I want to contribute to the creation of such spaces. Therefore — iterating on an earlier initiative launched with my local library in February — I am highly invested in a project that kicks into gear this Monday. It is called Curious Public at Central Library.

We’re describing Curious Public at Central Library as ‘a weekly learning party for inquisitive minds and critical thinkers.’ The group convenes every Monday, in open space at the London Public Library. The format for the front half of each session is flexible — panel discussions, interviews, debates, storytellers, public lectures, etc. — but the agenda always lands back on community conversation.

Looking around the world today, I get the sense that we desperately need localized answers to the question, ‘Where is the public space in this city where anybody can go to learn and talk with one another in real-time, every week?’ Curious Public at Central Library surely doesn’t present a ‘solution’ to any of the pressing problems in the world, but it is just another humble attempt to open space to talk about them constructively. In fact, as a ‘program,’ Curious Public is surely flawed on many levels. It has its own blind spots. It doubtlessly requires further critique, tweaking, and iteration. It is not a panacea, nor even an exclusive or unique idea. But everyone is welcome to participate in this mess of becoming. Join us. Come and contribute to the development of a weekly, diverse, public, and curious learning community in our city.

These kinds of places will only exist to the extent that we create them.

Monday, September 11, 2017: A Critique of Multiculturalism – What are the negative or unintended consequences of multiculturalism?

Monday, September 18, 2017: Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? – A primer and discussion about structural violence and discrimination.

Monday, September 25, 2017: My Rights vs. Your Rights – What happens when one person’s human rights seems to violate or compete with another person’s human rights?

Monday, October 2, 2017: How Did Work Become the Point of Life? – Who convinced us all that having a ‘career’ is such a good idea?

Monday, October 16, 2017: Should We Quit Social Media? – When we weight all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

See all upcoming topics at curiouspublic.com.

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Human Trafficking: Definitions, Interventions, and Politics

In this podcast episode, Mia Biondi, Caroline Pugh-Roberts, and AnnaLise Trudell discuss the different ways that we as a community are trying to define and respond to human trafficking in our region. We explore some of the debates surrounding the definition of sex trafficking (should all sex work and prostitution be defined as trafficking?) and the resulting differences in approaches to intervention and political advocacy (should sex work be decriminalized and regulated or rather policed more heavily?). Despite the differences to approaching the issue, what do all ‘sides’ of the discussion agree on?

Mia Biondi is a Registered Nurse with a special interest in increasing healthcare provider awareness and knowledge on human trafficking issues in Canada, as well as organizational readiness to identify, and provide aftercare for trafficked persons. Before beginning a career in nursing she completed a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology studying HIV drug resistance, and post-doctoral fellowships in viral hepatitis and emerging viruses. Following her BScN, Mia worked as the Clinical Coordinator at All Saints Church-Community Centre in Toronto providing comprehensive trauma-informed care for trafficked youth, and drop-in health services for street-involved persons. During this time she led training for city staff, police services, and specialized health teams. She also has clinical experience in public and sexual health, severe and persistent mental health, and pediatrics. In 2015, in collaboration with the Middlesex-London Chapter, Mia submitted a Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario resolution to advocate for increased prevention, identification, and aftercare of trafficked persons. Mia is now completing the Primary Health Care Nurse Practitioner Certificate at Western University, and is an active member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.

Caroline Pugh-Roberts is a survivor of eight years of sex trafficking through strip clubs in Ontario and along the 401 corridor. As an executive member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee, she focuses on advocacy and educating others. She has spoken publicly to thousands of people Canada-wide, including advocacy groups and front-line providers. She speaks at John School, a court-mandated program for men who are arrested for buying sex services; and at the other end of the spectrum, runs a sex-worker drop-in at safe space for women in London, ON. She has also been an advisor on training packages for front-line providers for the provinces of both Ontario and British Columbia. She is the recipient of a Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work in this area, and currently a social work student at Fanshawe College. Caroline was recently invited to partake in The First Canadian Experiential Women’s Summit, in Toronto, for survivors of human trafficking who have shared their story with the public. She aspires to pursue a career providing care for women in the sex trade and trafficked persons.

AnnaLise Trudell (@annatrudell) is Manager of Education, Training & Research at Anova (formerly Women’s Community House & Sexual Assault Centre London). She brings extensive analysis of sexual violence and gender dynamics through her research at Western University, and is a seasoned public educator and facilitator with over 500 presentations engaging youth, professionals & post-secondary students through public education. She supports a staff team of 8 individuals who run dozens of youth violence prevention discussion-based groups every year. In her role as Postdoctoral Fellow at Western University, she seeks to amplify the voices of sex workers, offering a harm reduction sex positive approach to looking at the ways in which digital literacy can foster social inclusion and health for sex workers.

Episode notes:

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The Heuristic of Hate: Dissecting Islamophobia

In this podcast episode, Rifat Hussain and Tristan Johnson reflect on the history of Islamophobia and the impact that it has on the lives of Muslims today.

Rifat Hussain is the manager of Orientation Services for Newcomers at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre, and she has played an integral role in helping settle hundreds of refugees and newcomers in the city. She is also the chair of London’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Oppression Advisory Committee. Rifat’s family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom when she was very young. She has degrees in Criminology and International Politics. Rifat is deeply invested in efforts to support cross cultural communication, cultural diversity, anti-bullying, and interfaith dialogue.

In 2014, Tristan Johnson was working on a Masters in American Cultural Studies and researched the experiences of American Muslims after the September 11th attacks. Digging through the statistics, he charted the way Islamophobia morphed from anxiety and fear in 2001, to a more generalized hatred by 2014, complete with attribution to anyone who looks or dresses like someone from Turkey, the Middle-East, North Africa, or South Asia. Now working on his PhD, Tristan is revisiting his 2014 research, investigating the impact of ISIS on Islamophobia and examining the way that Islamophobic attitudes have spread in Canada and Europe.

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Seeing the Present in the Past: Immigration in North America

Our contemporary policies and attitudes about immigration in North America did not materialize in a vacuum. They have long histories, which shape and hue many of the perspectives we inherit today. In this conversation, we explore the ‘backstory’ to the present.

Stephanie Bangarth is an Associate Professor in History at King’s University College, at the University of Western Ontario. She is also an Adjunct Teaching Professor in the Department of History at Western and a Faculty Research Associate with the Collaborative Graduate Program in Migration and Ethnic Studies (MER) at Western. Her research interests also include Canadian immigration policy, social movements in Canada, and political history.

Shamiram Zendo, born in Aleppo Syria to an Assyrian family, moved to Canada in 1999. She is currently completing her Phd at Western University in the Health Information Science Program. She has worked extensively with the settlement of privately sponsored Syrian/Assyrian newcomers in the city of London.

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