If She Ran the Ward: Oni Joseph, the Haitian Sensation

If Oni The Haitian Sensation Ran The World, they would...GET ELECTED IN BAY WARD | OTTAWA, ONTARIO

“There are roughly 900,000 people living in Ottawa. A good five per cent are living in a marginalized way. It’s disgusting. It’s a shame. I love my city, I love Ottawa, but we can do better. We have to take care of that five per cent. And I would say three out of that five per cent live in my ward. I want to be Bay Ward’s voice at city hall.”

— Bay Ward Council Candidate Oni Joseph, profiled by Jen Lahey in Ottawa Magazine

Oni is Canada’s best-known slam poet, and her 2006 book Ghettosocracy was a The Globe and Mail Book of the Year.  Since then she’s worked on several political campaigns, advocated for Habitat for Humanity, and raised a huge amount of money for earthquake relief in Haiti.   Back in January, the incumbent council-member Alex Cullen decided to run for mayor, leaving the seat open.  With encouragement from Equal Voice, a multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada, Oni decided to throw her hat in the ring.

A lot of other candidates piled into the race as well — including Alex, who after supporting and mentoring her, dropped his mayoral bid to run against her.  Ouch.

So it’s a very crowded field: seven white guys and Oni.  Some of the other candidates have much bigger budgets.   Yeah, other candidates are passing out buttons that cost them $4 each and Oni’s giving out stickers that cost only nine cents.  In a time of tough budgets, who’s sending a better message to voters?  And one of the amazing things about politics today is how mobile phones and social network technologies give the underdogs a better chance.

oni's planI met Oni via If We Ran the World … well, more accurately, after I met Cindy Gallop of IWRTW via Twitter, and she introduced me Giovanna Mingarelli of Equal Voice (who I profiled in If She Ran The World She Would …), Giovanna connected me with Oni.  She’s using IWRTW very effectively to help organize her campaign and highlight her platform. And it helps get media attention too: she wound up on a national media panel, broadcast across Canada, talking about how she’s using crowdsourcing for her campaign.

Unsurprisingly she’s also very active on Twitter.   With only 140 characters in a tweet, every word counts, so it  a great medium for poets, where ever  When Alex decided to run against her, she tweeted about it.  “I had no idea how powerful it was,” she says.  “Reporters were following my feed.  I broadcast before him and broke the story.”

Of course, much as I love online activism, local elections are won and lost by face-to-face contact: meeting voters at events, going door to door, debates. Here’s where the power of mobile phones really helps, letting her keep in touch with what’s happening — and her three kids — while she’s out campaigning.  When I talked with Oni, she told me she was running her campaign from her Blackberry (almost exactly what Ariel Hampton had said to me about his California congressional primary bid in 2009).”Everybody thinks I’ve got a huge campaign and a lot of money,” she laughs.

Oni draped over an Vote Oni signWith only a week to go, the election’s heading into the home stretch. No matter how it comes out, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of Oni on the political scene — it wouldn’t surprise me if someday soon she is in fact running the world, or at least a good-sized piece of it.  And her story’s a really inspiring one for poets, activists, and anybody else looking at how they can leverage social networks to make an impact.

Sensational indeed!

Photo credit: Howard at the Ottawa Citizen via yfrog