Category Archives: Social Innovations

Toronto’s Real Potential – Innovation as Our Culture and Strength

Pico Iyer, in his book The Global Soul, hits upon the global cultural phenomena that Toronto itself is fully in the midst of.  As Iyer points out, there is a real loss and disintegration of national and cultural boundaries taking place around the world.  The globalization of people not just goods is seeing individual identities merge into a broader and more dispersed global sense of self.   This global merging is however, paradoxically and simultaneously leading to an increasing sense of fragmentation within the individual which more often than not leaves one feeling lost, disconnected and afloat in a sea of many cultures with no one place or people to fully feel apart of.

In few other places can this be seen or felt more than in Toronto where our emerging multicultural make up is global but dissconnected from a larger fabric, leaving our identity open to all things and no one at the same time. Toronto, in its relative infancy is fertile soil for a multicultural people to shape and grow and global identity rooted in the local given the peaceful and harmonious conditions we benefit from.  Iyers himself sees Toronto as an ideal global city with the potential to both imagine and create an urban, pluralistic, civil, and peaceful global heaven on earth.  I believe we’ve begun to do just that but not in the way we may think or doing all we can to support. On the dance floor of a salsa practice however, (the Toronto Salsa Practice), we are doing just that. As a model for what we could be doing city wide, our differences are being transcended and we’re coming together in the places where our sameness exists and can be tapped into; our basic humanity, global soul or oneness. Its that hard to get to place where deep connection between different people, cultures and religions takes place and judgments and superficialities fall away.  Dance is brilliant at achieving this and its this kind of space that allows the best of our diversity to emerge.  The strength of Toronto is its vastly diverse people, but tapping into the potential we hold requires an integration that both penetrates our differences while also drawing strengths from them.  A contradiction and mission impossible it would seem but not so for Toronto, as we hold the right conditions to achieve just that.

The model for this level of integration be realized and along with it our innovative potential if we translated what’s taking shape in places like the TSP, elsewhere across areas the city.  Why do so?  Because the innovative potential we hold as a people is incredible, powerful and something not to be taken for granted.  Diversity when joined together in a way that transcends differences and then allows the individual a safe space and a means of expressing themself, leads to experimentation, failure, learning and eventually creativity and invention.  This is not only Toronto’s potential, it is our way of being and who are as a city and people when we embrace our diversity for what it truly is, an incredible muscle we need to learn to flex and an identit we need to learn to embrace.  In this sense our potential is not only innovation itself, it is the realization of innovation as a culture and our own uniquely developing way of being.

The conditions that exist here are unique in many ways in the world.   We are a young country with few historical reminants or strife to hold us back from designing our own way forward and a porous cultural identity which often times acts more like an open space to be filled instead of a strong and dominant culture to overcome.  In the space that remains other more strongly defined cultures of the world have found spence to exist here.  When shaped by the right conditions, our coming together can produce behaviours and ways of relating that are specific to Toronto.  In turn, these new ways of coming together are influencing our emerging identity and grounding it back at the local level. Whereas the globalization of identity instills a sense of connection to the everything and paradoxically comes at the cost of feeling apart of nothing, parts of Toronto are finding a means of connecting to the global oneness of our makeup while also beginning to plant roots back at the local level.  The collective experience of finding connection across our global make up and the behaviours we’re developing as a means of doing so, is creating bridge between the our global identity and our developing Torontonian identification.  This is why Toronto’s search for a superseding and uniting identity is so important, it makes room for our displacing differences and allows them space to exist in a united way because they have a place to call home.  It is also why embracing our innovative nature as this bridging identity and capacity holds the key to both our future in practical (economic, business and development) terms as well emotional and spiritual city terms as well.

The individual fragmentation Pico Iyer refers to does have a remedy and its one we are developing here and now.  In unsuspecting corners of the city, like the dance floor of a salsa practice, people are able to engage as distinct individuals and citizens of a global city collective, both as subjects and creators of.  In Toronto, one can be many things at the same time but the key is to balance the global with a uniting sense of local belonging and to do that we need look no further than examples such as the Toronto Salsa Practice for the inspiration and formula to follow.

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The Documentary Release – TSP: Model for a City in the Making

DOCUMENTARY RELEASE: TSP: MODEL FOR A CITY IN THE MAKING

The Toronto Salsa Practice: Model for a City in the Making, is the short story of a salsa practice that holds within it the story of a community transcending boundaries, immigrants finding belonging and diversity realizing its innovative and creative potential. All in all, it is the story of a city coming into its own, told not from hindsight but as its currently unfolding.

Toronto is a city of immense potential and in breaking down the model of the Toronto Salsa Practice (TSP), the documentary sheds light on how its magic could be applied to the city as a whole. It holds the key to realizing the globally rich and incredibly potent innovative power Toronoto holds and our best future forward.

*** WHAT ITS ALL ABOUT – The Documentary Breakdown ***      

FIRST WE START WITH – THE CITY

Toronto is a city of immense potential.  A young city, barely 200 yrs old, its a blank canvas free to be who and whatever it wants to be only it hasn’t quite figured out what that is.  As one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with over half the population born outside the country, Toronto’s diversity is its strength.  When you add the incredible wealth of resources, talent, space and stability to this diversity, what you get is a recipe for immense opportunity.  Problem is, we have yet to come together in ways that truly access and see this potential through.  What we risk in not doing so, is squandering the rare opportunity to create a city of our making and failing to become a model for global diversity the world over.  Such are the stakes!

NEXT IS – THE POTENTIAL

Many would argue we’ve made it, reached the pinnacle of our multicultural makeup with people from every part of the world living together in relative harmony. To call Toronto multicultural and stop there however, is to miss the point completely.  Multiculturalism is great as a concept, policy and first step towards pluralism, but our potential is about much more than any mosaic or tolerant form of co-existence. 

THEN – BEYOND MULTICULTURALISM

We are so much more than the sum of our parts and although the cultural festivals and ethnic restaurants in the city provide a sampling of our diversity, they’re passive in experience and only scratch the surface of our deeper potential. Our true potential lies in the creative and innovative power of our diversity which requires tapping into, deeply engaging and stepping across lines into the spaces that exist in between you and me, in order for the best of our differences to be brought out.  It requires going outside our comfort zone and connecting with something larger than ourselves.  Its not a process that respects the boundaries of political correctness, it steps right through them and challenges politeness with a genuine curiosity for what lies beyond.

Luckily for this city, there is a place where the true tolerance and potential of our diversity is being tested.  It is a salsa practice where the power of dance is combining with other key innovation ingredients to realize the potential our diversity holds.  In doing so its modelling a way forward to our best future.

THE TORONTO SALSA PRACTICE – MODEL FOR A CITY

What started out as a gathering of only 4 people coming together to practice a few salsa moves back in 2001, quickly grew into something much more than the organizers ever imagined.  From its humble beginnings, the Toronto Salsa Practice has since grown into a weekly event attracting hundreds of people from across the city, with over 10,000 admissions sold last year alone.  Known as the TSP for short, it is a relaxed, friendly place where a microcosm of Toronto’s diversity gathers every Saturday afternoon, for over 14yrs now, in a beautiful church, in the Annex, to dance to the Latin beat of salsa.

There in the middle of the dance floor bridges are being built, barriers broken and a community of incredibly diverse people is forming across race, religion and a myriad of other differences. Purely by accident, the TSP has given rise to the most critical and intangible pieces that make a city desirable; community, place and belonging.  A collective sense of self as a city is forming, something people can feel apart of.  This collective sense of self is fueling a complex identity of Toronto’s very own and one that’s critically important to us as a  city of  immigrants.  In fact, it can make all the difference between Toronto’s future as a transient city, a spot along the way to somewhere else for many, or a place to call home, invest in and help build.

TORONTO’S IDENTITY AND SYMBOLISM – IT MATTERS

A city’s identity forms a symbol for the people that call it home to look to and relate to.  Without this, people struggle to  navigate the culture and find their way into the collective, without which they can’t integrate or fully contribute.  In a city whose culture is open but also vague and unclear, Toronto’s symbolism and navigability is lacking and as such leaves new comes at a disadvantage.  Can it be overcome and are people not finding their way despite this?  Yes, however the process could be made much easier and result in far greater cohesive success if our symbolism better developed.  And that’s just what’s happening on the dance floor of the TSP.

Our global makeup is finding home in something new here on the dancefloor of the TSP.  Given this city’s newness and lack of otherwise strong carved out cultural identity , there’s space for a collective sense of self to emerge that spans our diversity while also incorporating, making room for and building upon our differences. Its a global identity that’s taking root in new behaviours and values emerging on the dancefloor of the TSP, adding back in a local dimension to our emerging identity.

How exactly is this taking place?  For these answers we have to look to the power of dance itself.

 THE DANCE – CULTURE AND IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT

The power of dance is something subtle but penetrating in its ability to raise us above ourselves and join us at the level of our common humanity.  In the case of salsa, its ability to transcend the differences that separate us and deeply engage us at our core is almost magical.  United here, there is space for our likeness and differences to co-exist, become one and yet still maintain the distinctiveness of our many parts. A united diversity is emerging, a collective sense of self that’s lending form and definition to who we are and could be as a people and a city.

Underlying all of this are the values and behaviours being cultivated and given form to on the dancefloor.  A culture of respect, open curiosity and bolder interactions are coming to define the collective at the TSP and Toronto’s differences are flowing more freely as a result.  There is a spirit alive at the TSP and it is our spirit as a city waking up to its own sense of self and its innovative potential.

THE RECIPE – ADDING INGREDIENTS TO THE MIX

When the elements of space, structure and safety are added to a diverse community that’s united by a deeply engaging and animating force such as dance, what you get is innovation and our city’s creative potential harnessed.  In the case of the TSP, the element of SPACE refers to the physical space itself.  For our diversity to come together as it does at the TSP, its takes an open, easy to access, functional as well as inspiring space to house the people forming the community.  Housed in a large, sun lit, high ceiling room, the TSP takes place in an inspiring, creative and community supportive space.  The fact that the location is easy to access, either by foot, subway, bicycle or car is key to its functionality as well.  The fact that admission to the Practice is highly affordability also contributes to its accessibility.  For the price of a fancy coffee, anyone can get in without income barriers standing in the way of their participation.

Once the space is in place, STRUCTURE kicks in.  There is a governing structure of simple rules, do’s and don’ts that keep things moving along smoothly and fairly.  These rules are underlined by a clear set of values that the LEADERSHIP, specifically Jim Gronau the TSP’s Director, embodies and consistently upholds.  Respect, kindness and equality are primary and can be found in everything from the simple greeting at the door to the basic etiquette policies that structure the practice.  As an example, Jim put an affirmative action policy in place to ensure women feel confident asking men to dance with the requirement that the men have to say yes to help tip the traditional scales back into balance. The VALUES of the TSP are critical to the strong structure its formed over the years and the Practice’s over 14yrs of success.  From the leadership, these values are translated by the community and carried onto the dance floor where they’re taking shape as an emerging and collective sense of self.

Next comes SAFETY. With a values based structure in place and an inspiring and functional space to come together in, the element of a safety comes into play.  At the TSP, people are free to come out and play, express themselves, mess up, have fun, learn and take risks without judgement or prejudice.   Within this play there’s a very important coming together taking place that’s giving rise to the mixing, mingling and meshing of our diverse strengths that’s realizing our city’s true potential.  Engaged at the level of our core and moved into deeper connection by the dance itself, safety then allows the best of who we are to emerge and meet itself as a collective in the protected space provided.

Its a collaboration and partnership expressed through salsa moves that takes us into a deeper experience of our diversity.  There on the dancefloor, we’re EXPERIMENTING, exploring and creating across boundaries and in this space, INNOVATION is taking place.  Each dance is a new experience, an improvisation that brings with it something slightly different. Sometimes the experiment goes far outside the box of the ordinary into new moves and developing personal styles and at other times its the collaboration itself an innovative experience.  On the dance floor, Toronto is tapping into and building upon what each individual brings to the dance floor and moving together from there.

AND FINALLY – THE TSP AS A MODEL 

These are the key ingredients that make the TSP a model for our city in the making. Whether it’s Toronto’s approach to building the city, the way in which we approach social challenges or encourage entrepreneurship, the TSP stands as model of how to take more risks, value play and embrace diversity more fully to realize our innovative potential as a city.  Our emerging identity and forming culture is one defined by both our sameness and differences to produce more than the sum of our parts and its here that our true potential lies and its here that the TSP has much learning to offer. 

In a world, not just a city, in need of more inventive and considerate ways forward, its high time we danced this model off the salsa floor and on to the streets of this city and others.  Toronto has the people, the space, the safety and little history to hold us back, all we’re missing is the desire and commitment to see this model and the potential it holds through.  Its starts with salsa but ends with a city of our own making if we take up the challenge.   Our economic, social and cultural future depends on it.  So what are we waiting for?  Its times we danced the model awake as the innovative means of achieving our city’s greatest potential.

If you have thoughts, ideas or comments to add – Please come and join the CONVERSATION here!  We’d love to hear from you.

See also: 

The TSP: Model for a City in the Making Trailer

Background to the Documentary

Further writing on Toronto’s Real Potential – Innovation as Our Culture and Identity

The TSP as a Microcosm of Toronto’s Diversity

More on the History of the TSP

More on the TSP’s Director – Leadership Embodied

 

 

History of the TSP – The Practice That Started It All

History of the Toronto Salsa Practice (TSP)

How It All Began – In January 2001, four people new to salsa decided to meet outside of class to practice in a space in Trinity St.Paul’s, a church in the Annex, in the heart of Toronto.  What started off as an idea to learn faster by way of helping each other out in an informal and friendly way soon became a favourite weekly event tha each found themselves looking forward to.  They continued meeting and practicing – and going out for coffee or dinner afterwards.  The cost of practicing was studio rent that they split four ways and each took turns bringing a boombox for the music.  Their salsa moves improved and soon, they started to attract attention.

Before long, people from other salsa schools were joining in and others came out until numbers started to push a hundred and the lineup to get wove down the hall and into the basement.  Within a couple of years, so many people were coming that a proper sound system had to be bought and the Toronto Salsa Practice (TSP) was formally created.  People from across the city, other parts of the province and even newcomers visiting from as far away as Israel, Holland, Germany and California, were showing up to dance.  What set this practice apart was the energy that everyone contributed to in those early days and the warmth and camaraderie that first brought people together.  In fact, its what still makes the TSP what it is today and keeps people coming back for more.

Even more to the story, the Toronto Salsa Practice was the first of its kind in the city and started a salsa movement that’s taken off in more ways than one.  Many salsa schools and salsa socials have the TSP to thank for their existence having taken inspiration from the practice itself.  Before the TSP, there were few places to dance salsa and of those most were clubs too intimidating for many to set foot in.  Learning was limited to an hour or two of salsa in a class setting each week, offered by only a number of existing salsa schools.

When the TSP entered the scene it filled the need many had for a space that bridged the gap between the dance club and the classroom with a safe place to stumble, fumble and get back up again, learning more and more salsa along the way. The number of people who now dance salsa across the city has flourished into the hundreds and while not all of salsa’s success in Toronto can be attributed to the TSP, it was precedent setting in terms of having created something new and needed in a practice and creation of  community for Torontonians and recent immigrants alike.  Since its inception, the TSP has been replicated many times over with practices taking place in almost every corner of the city and a club to dance in each night of the week.  The old Toronto is no longer without the latin flare of the South!

More on the Practice and what its achieved available here:

The Trailer 

The Documentary 

 The Toronto Salsa Practice

Part II – Toronto a City in the Making

The coming of age story of a city on the cusp of something big! DOCUMENTARY RELEASE DATEJanuary 24th, 2015.

After ruminating over the questions Michelle Dean’s letter to the city left me with; are we really passionless, dreamless and uninspiring the answer suddenly revealed itself to me on the middle of the salsa dance floor.  Right there before my eyes was the picture of who and what we could be as a city and the transformative city building process we’re in the midst. The missing pieces we’re not seeing are clear as can be and they are coming together to the rhythm of a Latin beat.

Its not that we don’t have heart, soul or a place to pull passion from, its that we’re looking for it all the wrong places.  Spaces that aren’t ours, ways and statues, structures and achievements that may belong to other great cities of the world, but not ours and looking externally will never hold our answer to our truth.  Unlike New York or the Londons and Paris`s of the world our energy and aliveness isn’t there to be seen in neon flashing lights, its not loud or obvious and we need to stop looking for it to be.  Instead its found in the most surprising of places like the middle of the salsa dance floor where our diversity is at its most alive, inventive and collaborative as well as the mix of creative spaces and community places where work is quietly taking place in new and city changing ways.  Its in these lesser known parts of the city that we and our Toronto are becoming who and what we truly are and the potential we could yet be is taking shape.

So who and or what is that?  Who we are is a city in development, a city on the cusp of adulthood trying to figure itself out.  We are new and full of possibility.  Only a couple hundred years old, we are a clean slate that each and every one of us has the chance to make their mark on and help sculpt and mold into whatever we want it to be.  How many other cities of the world can offer you that?  Sure there’s an excitement to being on the ground of some of the other great cities of the world, but what about being able to help create that excitement as opposed to merely being swept up by it?  Creating the wave instead of just riding it requires more effort for sure, but there’s the promise of greater reward as well!  Many of other cities of the world it could be argued are already built, too fully formed and saturated in identity and culture to be able to affect in any noticeable way, unless you already have the money and backing to make a splash .  Not however, our Toronto, there`s a lot of room here to be part of our shaping as well as a good deal of need for it.

Plus who we are is up to us to decide, not our history.  We’re not plagued by the shadow of our past, we haven’t suffered centuries of war, nor the kind of ongoing bloodshed that acts to segregate, deform and divide so many other cities of the world. Without these issues to contend with, its only possibility that we face when choosing who we want to be.  More on the responsibilities attached to this freedom and privilege to come, but for now let’s just say enormous opportunity lies in the clean slated-ness our limited history affords us; opportunity we need to recognize and value as our own and pull excitability from as part of our own particular makeup.

Next is the fact that we are full of space, we are free, open and stocked with plenty resources.  We are lucky enough to have for example the space and freedom to come together just as we are, distinct and individual, talented and with a breadth of different skills and experiences to experiment and create together in new and exciting ways.  These experiments plus our developing ways of coming together, visioning, working, building and dreaming, are who we are – they are our own developing way of being.  If we so choose to embrace them, they are ours for the taking and can become the underpinnings of our identity, our culture and the pieces we’ve been overlooking and undermining when turning elsewhere for the answers to our greatness.

Engaging these pieces on a broader scale, valuing them as critical resources and embracing them as our innovative fuel is critical to fulfilling our potential. This valuing is key to stirring up and motivating the kind of passion sought after and that same je ne sais quoi that each and every one of us is longing for on some deeper level.  We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to be part of something greater and that opportunity is here in our city, we just need to open our eyes to it and be willing to add to the dream with some passion and belief of our own.

And so how do we do that?  By looking to those pockets of the city where this is already taking place and using these example as models to build our city upon.  There is one particular place, where the who and what of this city’s potential is taking shape and its found on the dancefloor of a church. Although having nothing to do with religion, there is a real spirit and sense of city self developing. At this weekly salsa practice a highly integrated community has formed, an identity beyond multiculturalism is emerging and our incredible innovative potential is coming forth. The heart and soul we long for is alive and well as the Toronto Salsa Practice (TSP for short) and the how of expanding it is the subject of the documentary title, The Toronto Salsa Practice: A Model for a City in the Making.  We are a city with the rare ability to design our own future so let’s not waste it.  Michelle Dean’s letter to the city has an answer and its spinning about to the rhythm of salsa, just waiting for us to dance off the floor to the furthest reaches of our city!

Part I – Toronto A City In The Making

The coming of age story of a city on the cusp of something big! DOCUMENTARY RELEASE DATE: January 24th, 2015.

There’s an attitude in the air that’s burning a hole in this city and it goes a little something like this;  “Toronto is not a city for the world’s starry-eyed dreamers.  It’s one resigned to the demands of practicality”.  Stated in a goodbye letter to the city, author Michelle Dean explains her reasons for rejecting our more fair than fine city as a place contented with a lackluster and passionless existence.  Devoid of the drive and desire to make something more of itself, Toronto is cited as not only lacking in great expectation, it suffers from a historic inability to even inspire it.  Harsh words and ones that, despite having been written some time back and published in Toronto Life , still hang heavy, the points piercing and still unaddressed.  So, although slow in coming, its time we set the record straight and put a stop to the negative persona our city has taken on and clarify what seems to be going amiss for so many.

Why is it for example, that cities like New York and many lesser known outposts are happy to toot their own horn but we Torontonians can’t muster up enough city-pride to get behind ourselves in a similar way?  Are we truly the passionless, work obsessed and complacent ridden city we’re said to be?  And if so, why on earth are more of us not protesting on the streets?  Truth be told, our lack of outrage lends weight to the criticisms laid against.  Not all is done and said for however, there is still far more to our story and we owe to ourselves to get the little ditty straight.

What we stand for, our identity and our association to it matters.  How we feel and act towards our city has the power to impact the place we live for good or bad and works to shape our future fate as either the place of our dreams or just another stop on the road to somewhere else. The answers to the questions Ms. Dean’s letter raise is what in part sparked the making of a documentary examining a very special place that breaks the mold Ms. Dean criticizes and rejects us for.  The documentary is titled; The TSP: A Model for a City in the Making, and its a tale of a city coming of age and Part II of conversation follows here.