Disrupting journalism

Desmond Cole

Desmond Cole is a journalist and activist, who has published articles with the Toronto Star, Torontoist, Toronto Life and other publications, and whose documentary “The Skin We’re In,” aired on CBC in 2017.

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations. In this episode, I sit down with journalist and activist Desmond Cole. We explore how Desmond views his craft of journalism as an essential part of the innovation process. Growing up, Desmond dreamed of being a musician, a doctor, and an athlete.

Cole: I had a lot of different dreams when I was kid. None of them involved what I’m doing now.  

What he’s doing now is changing the way society, especially Canadians, think about race and discrimination. The way he does this is through telling stories, through engaging people, and through expressing his ideas in writing.  

Cole: The thing that I think was constant from the time I was a little kid was that I was always liked writing. It just was something that came very naturally to me. What I would do when I was a little kid is that, from the time I was seven or something, I’d get these lined bound notebooks and I would keep a journal from a very young age. So that was something that started as a kid and never really stopped, no matter what else I was doing in life. I moved to Toronto in my early twenties. I was just floating, didn’t really know what I wanted, had dropped out of university at Queen’s. Like a lot of people in that day, I heard about blogging, and Internet made it so easy to just put stuff out there. At first, I didn’t really care about who was reading it. It was for me.  

I would blog, I would wait until something was really on my mind or really fired me up, and I would write about it and put it online. And what happened one day was, I remember, this is about ten years ago now, there was a conversation in Toronto about putting police officers in our high schools. Which I think today is something that’s just become normal, but back then it was a new idea and I was very much against it. Of course, I still am. Right? But this was a conversation that was being had in the city, and I was like: “This is madness. How do I talk about the fact that this is really not good?” 

… the reason we have instability, the reason we have crime, the reason we have social dysfunction is because often of a lack of opportunity for people, and a lack of social support for people.

What I did was, I wrote a piece for my blog, comparing a school to a bank. Because my thing was, you can walk into any big bank, in this city, in downtown Toronto, the largest city in the country, and you will not see a person with a gun protecting the bank. All the security guards are there and they have a presence, but they don’t have weapons. That’s because, in the bank, you don’t want to make that feeling of fear in people when they walk into your business. You want them to feel comfortable, and you want them to feel happy and safe, and you don’t do that by having a person with a gun there. Plus, in the worst-case scenario that somebody actually had to use a gun, or felt they had to use a gun inside of a bank, that would be horrible for the atmosphere and for the public relations and everything. So, yeah, there’s lots of money in there but it’s not worth somebody getting shot. The money is insured. Let the person take their money and run away, and hopefully you catch them. That’s the idea.  

So, if we can say that for a bank, if we can say it’s too dangerous to have a gun inside of a bank, why on earth would we ever allow anyone to bring a gun inside a school? Anybody, even a police officer?  

So that was the way I rolled out that argument. And, there was a publication called Torontoist, and I knew some of the people who were writing there and editing there, and I published this thing on my blog and they contacted me. They said, “We’re really interested in this piece that you wrote. We’d actually like to reprint it at Torontoist”. I was very surprised, because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my writing at all, and no one had ever asked me to really do anything like that before, so I was happy and I said sure. To see my work being published by somebody else, at age 24, when that was never really my plan — it was really alluring to me. I’d only ever been published at my local newspaper,  you know, when you write a letter to the newspaper. One time in university, I wrote a smart-ass letter to the Globe & Mail and they published it. This feeling of being published — I really liked it.

My idea of social innovation is that you have to be interested in taking something conventional and flipping it, and really dramatically altering it — altering the way that we look at the world. In my case, altering the way that we look at journalism — and trying to do journalism in a way that is really bold and unique. These days, I call myself a journalist and an activist, and people say, “How can you be both of those things at the same time?” That’s where my idea of social innovation comes into it. We’re living in a world right now where the conventions of journalism are being seriously challenged. And often, we talk about that from the perspective of the business. How do journalists and newspapers and the like — especially newspapers these days — how do they make money? That’s where our conversation around the changes in journalism take place. But for me, I’m always more interested in how we do our job as a journalist, right? And that has to change. I never went to journalism school. I didn’t learn that formal way. I learned by doing. But something that that experience has taught me over the years is that there is something deeply flawed with the way that we’re training people how to be journalists and have been training them. It’s not keeping pace with the needs of journalism today. That’s where the innovation part comes in.   

Journalism has become stale. Journalism has become very unable to respond to the environment that journalists have to work in every day. I think that if we take our job as journalists really seriously —if we see ourselves not just as some objective camera lens, or objective microfilm that is simply recording things that are happening — we can’t do our job. It is our job to have an analysis of the things that we’re covering and to bring that analysis directly into the way that we do our work. And so I am an activist, but that’s because I see my journalism as a medium for real change in the world. I don’t want to tell the story and let you decide. I’ve already decided. I’m trying to push that out in a way that I hope is being beneficial and contributing to positive social change. So I throw out the idea of objectivity and neutrality in journalism partly because I don’t think that ever existed. I don’t believe in these ideals of objectivity and neutrality. All of us have our biases. We bring those biases to work with us every day. I just think it’s very important to be honest about what your biases are so that when you put your work out, people can read what you’re doing, listen to, consume what you’re doing through your lens. And there’s nothing wrong with that.  

I can’t go out here and pretend that I am a robot, and that I don’t have an analysis of the world. I think that that’s the thing that’s irresponsible, not bringing my analysis. If I’m open with you about what my analysis is, you have a brain, you have experiences, you can figure it out. But I will give you my filter and push the world through that. Now, I still have a responsibility within that to be fair. I have a responsibility to be accurate. I have to do my job properly as a journalist. That part of journalism has not changed. But I hope that we’re starting to see as journalists, that this very detached idea, this very Western, patriarchal, colonial idea that you think about ideas objectively and from a very detached perspective, we’ve got to let that go. That’s not going to solve the problems that we have in the world right now that really need to be solved. 

It’s easy to think of innovation as a new product or a new process. But Desmond takes this a step further by looking at changing the way we think about problems and radically changing ourselves first to rethink why things seem a certain way.  

Cole: Abandoning assumptions. Abandoning things that comfort you and that reinforce the positions that you already have — that confirm the biases that you already have. Just saying: I’m throwing that out. And then you take away another layer, right? Because that involves as a person being able to do that work on yourself first — before you start trying to solve other people’s problems. So, overall, I think social innovation is about changes in philosophy because we have design philosophy, we have policing philosophy, we have education philosophy, and we use some basic assumptions to guide the way that we do something in the world. I believe that social innovation is about saying: “What if we challenged the very heart of why we’re doing this? What if we looked at policing?” I did a talk recently where I framed policing in the following way: I said if we really think about what policing is, you ask anybody, most people will tell you “Well, policing is about keeping people safe.” Ultimately, I agree. But there is a problem. There is a fundamental problem with the philosophy of policing in North America, and a lot of western countries. And that philosophy is that in order to keep people safe, you have to be able to hurt people. That is an underlying philosophy that you have to be able to, in some cases, kill people to create safety. I’ve got to tell you, I fundamentally disagree with that premise. And it’s necessary that we challenge something like that if we’re going to make progress.  

I think that one of my biggest responsibilities as a journalist and an activist is to say to people: “The way that you conceive of the world might be completely wrong, and that you have to be willing to face that.” I don’t want to comfort people with my work. So it’s true: I am very direct. I am extremely challenging. People would call that controversial. I certainly hope I’m controversial. One of the reasons why this is so important and valuable for me particularly is because I talk a lot about identity. Specifically, as a black man, I talk about anti-black racism and white supremacy in Canada. Just me saying that in and of itself is extremely challenging to people. What do you mean, “white supremacy?” What do you mean, “anti-black racism?” What do you mean, “violence?” And are you really serious when you say that those things are factors in our everyday life in Canada? You know what I mean, like, how can you say that?  

… if you couldn’t always get out of a difficult conversation about your own country, by starting to talk about the United States and just dismissing everything that goes on here, what would your Canada look like? 

I think it is my responsibility to say: “Well if you’re willing to listen, I will explain it all that to you. And you will have to challenge a lot of things that you have come to accept about your country. Things that you were taught from the time that you were small. Ideals that have been put into you that make you think that, you know what, for better or worse, Canada is a pretty good place to be.” 

You know what, for better or worse, Canada is definitely better than those people down in the United States. That’s really the founding mythology of our country. It’s always a comparison to those other folks down south. And I’m saying, well, if you didn’t have that really easy dodge all the time, if you couldn’t always get out of a difficult conversation about your own country, by starting to talk about the United States and just dismissing everything that goes on here, what would your Canada look like? 

We just passed the budget at the city of Toronto yesterday, and we live in a city that spends one out of every ten dollars of its budget on the police. Now technically, the city of Toronto is a corporation. I don’t know any corporation in the world that spends 10% of its budget on security.  That is actually madness. But in the city of Toronto, it’s the status quo. So in a city where we’re always arguing about how do we fund housing, how do we fund childcare spaces, how do we fund public transit, how do we make our city safe, accessible, how do we make it a place that people want to live, and that people can live in a peaceful, and safe, and productive way? Well, I think that if we want to do that in the future we can’t spend 10% of our budget on policing. But there’s a lot of controversy around that. There is a lot of controversy around altering the structure of policing that exists today.  

I never shy away from using the micro to get to the macro. In my case that means really focusing on blackness, really focusing on anti-black racism and white supremacy and how these things affect me as a human being, and affect people in my community…

I think that fundamentally changing the way that we do policing in Toronto, and in Canada, would be a huge social innovation. It would free up a lot of money for things that we truly need and it would actually make us safer, because the reason we have instability, the reason we have crime, the reason we have social dysfunction is because often of a lack of opportunity for people, and a lack of social support for people. And when you try to solve that problem by putting all your money into force, in the form of policing, you don’t have anything left over for everybody else. So, what I really want my journalism to do is to do a lot of the tough, tough, background work of convincing people that the philosophy of policing is flawed. That the very philosophy that if you have problems in a society, you spend 10% of everything on armed patrolmen who have the right to go around and harm individuals, and even kill those individuals if they think it’s necessary, and that that’s how you’re going to keep safety and order, I think that that philosophy is bankrupt. But that’s not the prevailing idea.  

We’re talking about a paradigm shift here. If you want to get that 10% budget down to something more reasonable and redistribute those resources, you first have to convince people that the philosophy of spending all those resources is not working. How do we do that? In my view, we do it by showing the really harmful effects and counterproductive effects of the way we’re policing right now. That means going to the people, going to the neighbourhoods that are the most negatively affected by how policing works today and say: “Tell me your story. Tell me your family’s story. Tell me why you don’t feel safe to call the police when something bad goes down.” But it also means asking some really kind of basic, I think, common sense questions. When you have two neighbours who are living next to each other, and one neighbour thinks that the other neighbour’s music is too loud, is sending somebody who makes 90, 000 dollars a year with a gun and a taser and a baton the way to solve a dispute between those two individuals? I mean, if I just say it like that, it sounds ludicrous. But we have thousands of noise complaints in this big city every year, and that’s the person that we send to solve them. So, in a common sense way, if we send someone else, for less money, and with less possibility of catastrophic negative consequences, where could we put the extra resources? Where could we put the extra money? And how much safer would we all feel, and better would we all feel, if force is not needed to solve all these problems? Right? So, you’re starting from a perspective where you’re saying, “Man, our city is not working the way we need it to. Why is that?” Well, partly it’s because you’re spending all this money on policing and policing can be an incredibly violent and destructive practice. And the hard work needs to be to convince people of what I’ve just said so that they will start looking at alternatives. People will start to look for alternatives, once you make the case to them that what’s happening now is detrimental.  

I never shy away from using the micro to get to the macro. In my case that means really focusing on blackness, really focusing on anti-black racism and white supremacy and how these things affect me as a human being, and affect people in my community — affect people of African descent all across this country. Because if you improve safety for us, if you improve outcomes for us who are really struggling, who are often the ones who are getting stopped by police, who are getting arrested, who are getting beaten, who are going to jail, who are getting kicked out of school — if you improve outcomes for us (and we’re experiencing that a lot more than anybody else) — well, overall you’re really making an impact now right? You go to the places where there’s the most challenge and you work from there. We don’t like that in Canada because it makes us feel bad. It makes us feel bad to have to admit that one specific, very identifiable group of people are being treated in unfair and negative ways. But we will never solve the problem if we don’t do that. So I make sure in my work that I don’t apologize for really focusing in on blackness, because making life in Canada better for black people makes everyone’s life better. And I’m not ashamed to say that. 

Sometimes it seems clear that revolutionary change is necessary. But full-scale political overhaul can seem impractical. Social innovation instead proposes launching experiments from within an existing order. In your opinion, do you think that these experiments can be revolutionary? And how do you personally manage the tension between what is practical and what is sufficient? 

Cole: I think fundamentally, and I always like to go back to how we are as people, we like stability. It’s kind of scary to think about rapid change, and for good reason. When we look at the word revolution and we think about what that means to people, often the term revolution conjures up images of violence. Things are changing because there is huge social disruption that involves violence. And that doesn’t help us. Having change happen so quickly that it doesn’t involve people’s consent, that it doesn’t involve careful planning — this is not what we want, right? That said, I tend to be far more on the revolutionary side of things when we think about this. And I’ll tell you why. 

There is always a place for changes within the current system. Always. Because while you’re thinking about “How do we make things better over the long-term?” you have opportunities to make people’s lives better in the day-to-day. And you have to take those. And that means working within the system that is already there. I have no problem with that. I believe in working on that level of incremental change. But I think the other thing that you’re exposing here is that it’s never enough. The problems that we face as human beings are actually so significant that we will not get where we need to be quickly enough if all we do is chip, and chip, and chip, and chip away. Sometimes we need to do far more than that. And that’s what I’m really interested in. So, what I would say is, while we live in a country like Canada which, and here I will give credit, we are relatively speaking a peaceful country; we are relatively speaking, it’s fair to say, one of the wealthiest nations in the world with the best standard of living, with the best healthcare, with the best life expectancy. These are things not to be taken for granted. Right? We have that, and that’s good. But when are we going to have the courage to go that extra? To say, “It’s good and we’re still not satisfied”? That is always the most necessary to me when we’re dealing with situations that destroy human life, that destroy human quality of life and human existence.  

What I’m saying is that there are places where it is very, very important to be of a revolutionary mindset and those places are the places where human beings are suffering the most. That is why my work focuses so heavily on things like policing. We know that, in any country in the world, when you get into trouble with the police, this is one of the worst things that can happen to you. It’s one of the most detrimental things to your quality of life. So I do not accept incremental approaches when it comes to policing. It’s just too serious. I do not accept incremental approaches when it comes to our criminal justice system. In cases where failure means death, or human devastation, now is the time for radicalism. Now is the time to forget incrementalism and focus on what is necessary to keep the average human being safe and comfortable and having an opportunity for a future. 

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit mcconnellfoundation.ca