Urban activist and author Jane Farrow explains why she's not afraid to ruffle some political feathers.
Jane Farrow has never been afraid of starting difficult conversations. During her career the acclaimed author, journalist, facilitator, and community organizer has taken on polarizing development issues and free-speech battles, and advocated strongly on behalf of the LGBT community.
Her professional and civic CV is eclectic: she traces her roots to the queer cultural campus radio community; she was the founding executive director of Jane’s Walk, the urban pedestrian tours named after beloved urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs; in the 1990s, she wrote the delightfully titled column “Sonic Pantsuit” for the queer publication Xtra, which led to her decade-long employment at CBC radio producing segments for programs such as The Sunday Edition and This Morning. Farrow’s quick wit, community organizing skills, and passion for storytelling have won her much respect, particularly in Toronto’s progressive political community.
Yet this week, Farrow ruffled feathers by announcing she would run for the Ward 30 Toronto-Danforth city council seat, which is currently held by lefty representative Paula Fletcher. Many progressives have criticized Farrow right out of the gate for challenging a perceived ideological ally and giving right-leaning candidate Liz West, who lost narrowly to Fletcher in the 2010 campaign, a better shot at victory.
In an interview at her home near Broadview and Danforth yesterday, Farrow addressed fears that she and Fletcher might split the progressive vote. Her candidacy makes sense, Farrow argued, given Fletcher’s 25 per cent decline in votes and near defeat in the 2010 race. “I think the current councillor is going to lose the seat, and I felt it imperative to step forward and give people a progressive option,” Farrow said. “I don’t think that their other choice in Liz West is progressive. That’s not vote splitting—that’s vote getting.”
She wants to bring her listening and consensus-building skills to council. “I believe I’m a bridge-builder. At City Hall, there’s a hundred different ways to get things done, and it’s not all along party lines—in fact, that may be the least useful way to approach things,” said Farrow. (Fletcher has longstanding ties with the federal and provincial New Democratic Party.)
And many difficult conversations, she believes, will need to be initiated in Ward 30—including one about a potential Downtown Relief subway line that could run through the area. “That’s a hard conversation, but if we don’t have it, we’re not going to get it, or we’re going to get a version of it that we really don’t like or don’t understand,” Farrow warned.
But she feels her extensive experience in facilitation and community consultation—which includes the founding of the Active 18 residents association—would serve her well when confronting such challenging and critical issues. “What’s important is … constant contact with the people you represent,” said Farrow. “That kind of informal social connection that weaves you into the community—that’s what good representation is really based on.”
Farrow rejects the notion that extensive political experience is necessary for political success. Her brief stint working as executive assistant to Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York)—during which she helped develop the Toronto Urban Design Guidelines for Queen Street East—showed her how effective neophyte politicians can be. “Frankly, that’s the best and strongest protection that Queen Street East has ever had, and it was done by a rookie councillor, and rookie staff,” Farrow insisted. In reference to Fletcher, Farrow added, “This whole bogeyman that you have to be around for 10 years in order to deliver? Not true.”
She says her time in McMahon’s office also gave her insight into resident frustrations with City services. “People really do care, even though they’re irritated with the state of politics right now. Even the grumpiest person calling about their garbage that didn’t get picked up, underneath it you can hear that they really care, but that they don’t feel heard.”
At the same time, Farrow was critical of the notion that elected officials and their staff can and should personally address every resident concern. She chastised Mayor Rob Ford for encouraging residents to call him directly, instead of using the City’s 311 service, when they experience problems: “That philosophy is contributing to an illiteracy about how cities work,” Farrow said.
The seemingly fearless Farrow did admit she worries about the often polarizing nature of council votes. “On some issues, I know it’s gonna be really hard to reduce it all to a yes or no vote. The journalist in me says it’s never that easy.”
Nevertheless, she promised to approach the upcoming campaign with the same zeal and sense of humour that has endeared her to many Torontonians. “I have a bit of radical informality … I mean, I’m a mannish lesbian—that alone could freak out some people,” Farrow chuckled. “But I feel that humour is a way to say, ‘Let’s talk, but can we not make it all life or death? Let’s just be human.’”