Karen Farbridge talks about her experiences as a mayor of Guelph.
As a youth Karen Farbridge announced she would be studying big carnivorous cats in Africa. Instead, she went from studying toxic salmon in polluted streams in her home province to studying toxic carnivorous characters in local politics! In fact, she tamed both citizens and city councillors using careful strategies of listening, humility, understanding priorities and setting goals where all could prosper.
Farbridge, former mayor of Guelph, was guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Bruce Peninsula Environment Group in Lion’s Head on Aug. 1. Her topic: How local government and community can work together to preserve the environment. Guelph activists inspired Farbridge, who has a doctorate in biology, to leave the research lab in 1993 and work on local issues. When she approached city council with an allotted five-minute presentation on conservation, she was met with a boisterous reprimand from one member of council who said she was wasting their time. This only strengthened her resolve. She was 10 years ahead of her time with her conservation plan, she reckons, but she could see that the slogan, Think Globally, Act Locally, was the right path for her and her city. Working with engaged citizens and community leaders on issues of social justice and sustainability, she quickly realized the status quo works very hard to “do it the way it has always been done” to protect its self interest.
She had to convince community leaders that water conservation, protecting farmland and groundwater, waste management through composting, protecting natural heritage sites, and other sustainability programs would benefit everyone. Having studied the issues she was proposing and having examples of communities that had involved themselves in these programs helped.
She noted that a local reporter came up with this line about her plans: “The government may have no business in your bedroom, but it does want to know what you do in the bathroom.” Dealing with libertarians, conservatives, evangelicals, tax fighters, contrarians, and others of various stripes is the stuff of city council meetings. Finding common ground is key. The city of Guelph managed to construct an eight-point plan for sustainability that would serve all of the people. Toilet and washing machine rebates, grey water systems, built-in rain water collection systems pitched to developers would mean more growth for their business if the taxes remained reasonable to new home builders. Leaving streams open for enjoyment instead of enclosing them was an ecological as well as economical move.
With four political campaigns and three terms as mayor, her advice, “Be clear about your values, be humble about what you don’t know, listen with empathy, and be open to change.” She believes a democracy should reflect a balance of gender and ethnic diversity on all government levels.
Copyright (c) Bruce Peninsula Environment Group, 2018