Graphic designer Rowan Caister wants to help Torontonians learn to be better citizens with an illustrated handbook.
For some Torontonians, civic engagement means checking off a ballot in a cardboard booth every four years. But to Rowan Caister, a graphic designer and volunteer with the #TOPoli WTF series, it’s the time in between those ballots that matters.
So this Sunday, he’s hosting a workshop as part of his effort to create a Toronto Civic Handbook—a document designed to outline need-to-know information on how to become more active in community events, and even how to start your own. Anyone with experience or advice to share is invited to join in the free event. Caister hopes the results will eventually inspire more Torontonians to host block parties, form business improvement areas, or give deputations.
We spoke with Caister about the project.
Torontoist: What inspired this idea?
Rowan Caister: I’ve been on the fringes of a lot of different community projects. Sometimes I’ll choose to get involved and sometimes I’ll sit back and appreciate the work that other people do… It’s sometimes daunting to get involved, and it’s certainly daunting if you want to do your own thing. Seeing so many good projects, there’s always a question of how to do it yourself. So what I hope to do with this project is answer a lot of those how-to questions.
Every four years we seem to have a conversation about voter apathy, but it’s my position that that may be apathy towards voting, but it’s certainly not apathy towards engagement or community projects. There’s always something going on. It’s just, how do these communities go out and do it? And if there’s an opportunity such as this one, where we can get together and share our experience, we can combine them.
Why do you think Torontonians will be more responsive to a handbook like this than they are to the relatively simple act of going out and voting?
That common discussion of voter apathy is quite separate from our day-to-day lives. You really like your neighbours, you say “hi” as you walk down the street. That’s community. There are obviously many examples of communities coming together to address their needs that are quite different than other groups. So, what strategies do they have for bringing in new people? What resources do they draw on? And what lessons do they have based on what they’ve done so far? It’s a tall order, but I think it’s important to be open to people’s imaginations about what we can achieve with this.
What kind of topics do you plan on covering in the handbook?
The content I’m leaving quite open. I’ve heard a lot already about what people are thinking as I’ve spoken to people individually. Running for city councilor seems like a very daunting thing. How complicated is that? How much does it cost to run a campaign? The guide will hopefully tackle not just the steps you have to go through, but a little bit about the context as well.
Sometimes it’s a matter of not knowing what you can contribute. Everyone has a skill set, but sometimes they can’t see how they can be useful to a community group as well. Each entry might not represent the work of one community, each entry might represent one of the tools that a community uses. So by understanding the tools to engage people or address their needs, perhaps you can understand how you can contribute to any number of endeavours.
What do you mean by “tools”?
One of the things I’ve noticed is that it’s hard just finding a space to hold an event. Space is a tool. If you cannot meet, you cannot engage.
The deadline as to what gets in will be left up to the people who choose to get involved. I’m leaving it open-ended right now, and I’ll let people with more experience than I have help to shape this project. The priorities are just that it’s accessible, covers a handful of useful topics, and answers those how-tos. That it’s a handbook.
Speaking of keeping it accessible: how important will the visuals be in the handbook?
I do have a design background, but I’ve heard that the challenge in reaching a lot of people with an accessible document is keeping the language simple. And quite honestly, keeping it to a minimum.
Who else are you working with on the Toronto Civic Handbook?
I’ve had people come forward. People emailed me just after I put up the event posting and went on Twitter. I’ve contacted Claire McWatt of the Toronto Youth Cabinet, and Dave Meslin, of everything. We’ll meet in person to make presentations, to lead discussions, and give people an example of the direction this project will start going in.
We’ll be looking at the way the city already communicates as far as civic engagement, and we’ll also look at other cities that have produced similar documents. We’ll be having round-table discussions, producing as much as we can.
Spots are still available for this Sunday’s Toronto Civic Handbook workshop, and those unable to attend can sign up for the mailing list.
This post originally said, incorrectly, that Rowan Caister is a volunteer with the Toronto Public Space Initiative. In fact, he was a volunteer with Streets to Screens, an initiative of the former Toronto Public Space Committee.