Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ryerson course in activism named after Jack Layton

Calling all up and coming social activists.

If protesting is in your future, Ryerson University has just the course for you.

To honour the late Jack Layton, who started his early political career at Ryerson, the university will offer for the very first time this summer the Jack Layton School for Social Activists.

The professor behind it, long-time Ryerson politics professor Myer Siemiatycki — who was also named to the inaugural Jack Layton chair 1 1/2 years ago — told me in a lengthy interview late last week that the summer school, and several other activities in Layton’s honour, grew out of a recognition of the “life-long connection” the former federal NDP leader had with Ryerson.

Layton not only was a permanent tenured professor at the university from the mid-70s until the late ’80s, but he felt a “very strong bond and attachment to Ryerson” long into his political career, said Siemiatycki.

The politics professor, who co-taught with Layton in the 1970s and saw the “impact” he had on students, thought the summer school was a “no brainer” — especially after hearing the letter Layton penned to Canadians just before his August 2011 death.

In that letter, Layton expressed his confidence that young people would rise to the challenge of making their city, country and the world a better place.

Siemiatycki said he hopes the one-week intensive course — which will be offered sometime at the end of June or in July — will attract participants from 18-29 years of age who have already demonstrated a commitment to or possess experience in activism around a cause or issue.

“We want somebody who’s working to make their community a better place,” he said, noting they will likely partner with various non-profit organizations and get them to recommend young people for the program.

“We will try to give them (those who participate) a meaningful week of learning and I trust they will take that in whatever direction is best value for their communities,” he added.

While the curriculum itself hasn’t been fully fleshed out, Siemiatycki said it will be a combination of courses geared to understanding the political process, public finance and economics 101 and depending on the make-up of the group, environmentalism and aboriginal issues.

They will also teach the 20-odd students accepted such skills as how best to get their message out to the media, how to use social media, how to run and mount a successful campaign and even how to make signs about their cause(s).

On the issue of teaching students how to properly protest, he said they will cover the many ways of getting a “message of concern” out to a broader audience.

Considering that Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow — now a candidate for mayor — was front and centre at more than one protest while at City Hall and subsequently as an NDP MP, I also asked if she’d be contributing to the course.

After all, she did an excellent job of trying to interfere in that violent OCAP protest at Queen’s Park in 2000, a move that cost her a position on the police services board. She also led a demonstration on the day Porter took off from the Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport in 2006, trying to block passengers from accessing flights.

Siemiatycki said Chow would not be teaching during this summer’s pilot.

But street nurse Cathy Crowe, who attended many a homeless protest at City Hall back during Mayor David Miller’s era, is now a Distinguished Visiting Practitioner at Ryerson and is helping him to develop the course.

He said the course is non-credit and those students accepted will not be paying for it. Siemiatycki said he doesn’t think it will be a very expensive undertaking and he doesn’t plan to ask Ryerson for extra money to do it.

He added that for the first six months after the Jack Layton chair was first launched in 2012, they did a “modest fundraising appeal” to the Friends of Jack — and they have money from that.

As the inaugural Jack Layton chair, the politics professor has also hosted two annual lectures (in September 2012 and 2013) in the late NDP leader’s honour and created a Jack Layton Book Club at the university.

The latter effort, he said, arose from the 1,500 books Chow donated to the university from Layton’s personal collection — some of which, along with Jack Layton memorabilia, are displayed in the university’s archives.

During last month’s book club series, Crowe talked about Layton’s book on homelessness (Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis) and his activism in that area. Two other professors spoke about books on the AIDS epidemic and on poverty.
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