Can Government be a Tool in the Hands of Active Citizens?

I was honoured recently to be invited on to Shawn LeVick’s, Niagara Graffiti podcast, to dialogue with him and the Mayor of the City of Niagara Falls, Robert Restaino. Niagara Falls is among the most beautiful places in the world:

You might imagine the residents of the City of Niagara Falls, are alive to the abundance of the assets that surround them. But in this stunningly beautiful place, there are also dilemmas and real challenges to be faced by citizens and city government alike.

This week’s blog pauses to listen to two united, yet different, perspectives on this place of beauty and sometimes of “blight”. We’ll hear from Shawn LeVick, an active citizen in the city and podcast host, and from the Mayor, Robert Restaino.

They both have a shared belief that there are two tools for social and economic change: social movements (in this case collective resident-led efforts in local neighbourhoods) and institutions working diligently at the neighbourhood scale to support. If you are curious about ways of shaping and framing an ABCD conversation at the political level, and what a constructive dialogue between citizens and local Politicians sounds like, you’ll enjoy this post.


Niagara Falls City Council Chairman Ken Tompkins, with Shawn’s son Jax and Mayor Robert Restaino, Mayor of Niagara Falls, cheering on Jax for creating a P-Patch community garden.


In this video Shawn, the Mayor of Niagara Falls and I, talk ABCD, economic development, power and optimal relations between citizens and local government. We tease out how ABCD as a perspective relates to real-world challenges and how ABCD efforts are playing out in neighbourhoods in Niagara Falls. This was a joy to be part of, and I hope you enjoy the conversation, as much as I did:



The conversation stayed with for days after. My “takeaways” are:

  1. Local government is like a tool in the hands of active citizens, extending their capacity and giving them leverage to do things they can’t do alone. If we don’t direct the hammer we can’t complain when it hits the wrong nail or does nothing at all.
  2. We can’t have a functioning government unless we have functional communities with active citizens including the gifts of all.
  3. That doesn’t mean it is all communities’ fault when things go wrong, it just means if we have any hope of things going right we need to see citizens at the centre of local democracy, not as passive pawns of the state, but as powerful producers of an alternative future.
  4. There are things that communities can do best and if they do not do them, they will not be done, and outside-in solutions are doomed to fail.
  5. Local government must protect, support and cheer on those civic efforts of Shawn and his son and their neighbour, their power is in the smallness and modesty of the efforts.
  6. Sometimes the city will need to be more proactive when, for example, absentee landlord lampoon their own communities, by neglecting their buildings. As Mayor Robert shared sometimes City will have to remove blighted buildings in order to clear the way for the rekindling of the neighbourhood.
  7. There will always be things communities need City Hall to do for them; that they cannot do themselves. The conversation between Mayor Robert and Shawn is about navigating those spaces, in a way that deepens local democracy and enhances city services.
  8. Even in one of the most beautiful places in the world if citizens don’t show up, the city slows down.
  9. I was honoured to discover that both Shawn and Mayor Robert had another thing in common, they both have read my book Rekindling Democracy: A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space and they even sent me a picture of my book on a day trip to Niagara Falls, here is a picture:

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