Monday, March 17, 2014

Democracy and Marathons

Five years ago folks greeted the idea that I would run a marathon with polite disbelief.  Sometime during my 40s I started to say that I planned to run a marathon by my 50th year.   It was no idle goal: but it did feel rather insurmountable at the time.    I found lots of encouragement to maintain the status quo.  Things seemed okay so why bother changing? Our society makes the consumption of health destroying foods easy.  Our workplaces provide very little real opportunity to remain active.  For those of us who are parents we become so immersed in the fine details of parenting that we often neglect our own needs.  Yet, the idea remained alive.

Today I have the modest total of three full marathons (42.2km), 6 half marathons (21.1km), plus several 10km and 5km races. I set no Olympic records, but as a 50s decade runner I am not doing so bad accumulating personal bests as my training and strength continues to build. I run most every day, when I don’t I either bike, walk or swim. I’ve changed my food consumption too.  But this isn’t a story about my personal accomplishments, it’s tale about the capacity to set one’s sights on goals and achieve them. 

I set out to make a change in my life, my health, and my behaviour.  I faced obstacles along the way. I encountered folks with good intentions, but a dim view of my goal.  “Don’t make a radical change,” I would be told, “you’ll just bounce back bigger and heavier.”  “Won’t running hurt your knees?” While the naysayers were distressing and even depressing, it was the support of my family, friends and colleagues who provided encouragement to keep going. 

The same can be said about our community and the need for real, effective democracy.  The health of our community is at risk if we don’t make changes.  We can’t always rely upon the good graces of those with power.  It is important to take charge of our own lives and communities.  It isn’t easy.  The temptation is to focus on the short term and if things seem okay to ignore the important long term outcomes of our choices.  There are many people who want a healthy democratic community and those are the voices we need to listen to. Like taking the path to better personal health we start with changing small things and then move on to bigger more effective changes. 

Through the UNA we have a modicum of representation.  We have an agreement with UBC that gives us access, for a fee, to amenities and certain on campus services.  That’s a good first step.  It’s time to step up to the next level of democratic change.

Today the UNA and UBC are stuck in the “lets walk 20 minutes each day and skip every other brownie” mode of democratic life change.  This period of stagnation arrives in all great transformations. We have hit a plateau. It’s hard to move to the next level of democratic activity, but it is not impossible.  

 For starters UBC could allocate 50% of the development permit board membership to the UNA for developments that occur in the UNA area.  The UNA should be able to select our representatives on the development permit board.   

We pay a large sum of money to UBC athletics.  Athletics tries hard to meet our needs.  More can be done.  The UNA should have a direct decision making role in the activities of UBC Athletics.  If we were a municipality we would be running our own athletics; lets go halfway there and bring the UNA into decision making in UBC Athletics. 

These are two, simple, easy changes that would move us to a new level of democratic action in our relationship with UBC.  But why stop here?

Within the UNA we too should be making democratic changes.  We need to expand the role and strength of elected resident directors.  We need to move more our processes into the public domain – no more closed-door meetings!  Too many things that the UNA does is locked behind closed doors and in off the book meetings. That’s like sneaking a brownie when no one is looking!

Just as I managed to take control over my life to become a marathon runner so too can we become an active democratic community.  Of course it will be hard work.  But the rewards are real, achievable, and tangible.  On my blog,, I have outlined a series of short, medium, and longterm goals to achieve real democratic governance in our community.  I invite you to add your ideas as we work together to bring real democracy to our community in the university town. 

[Originally published in the Campus Resident, March 18, 2014. Charles Menzies is a professor in the department of anthropology at UBC, a resident west of Blanca since 1996, and an elected UNA Director.  This is his opinion and does not represent the official position of the UNA in any way, shape, or form.

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