Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Old-school activism built Gordon Bell field

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Two weeks ago, when they put the artificial turf on the new field at Gordon Bell High School, students and residents in the neighbourhood could really feel the dream coming alive. The artificial turf was like a green jewel in an area that used to be car lots and concrete.

The Gordon Bell field is an object lesson in how citizens can take action to make dreams come true.

Four years ago, the plan was for a Canada Post depot to rise on this site. But because of the devoted efforts of students and residents, the corner of Portage and Broadway is now taking shape as a bright green entrance to downtown and a much-needed recreational space.

It will serve 760 students in a school with one of Winnipeg's most transient and diverse student populations (48 per cent mobility rate, 57 different self-identified cultural groups).

The full story of how this happened is to be released Oct. 26 by the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. The report, Going Old School - Activism reborn in Winnipeg's Inner City is the first in a series being developed by the institute to provoke thought on urban issues from a variety of perspectives.

In this case, the perspective is clearly that of the citizens and students who spearheaded the campaign to create the field.

Their story began in September 2008, when alumnus Nancy Chippendale wrote an article for the Free Press, Dream of Fields. The article led to a meeting at the school in December, and shortly afterwards, Grade 12 student Morgan Hoogstraten offered to help. Chippendale identifies the emergence of Morgan as a student leader as the first of four critical points in the campaign to get the field.

Hoogstraten's involvement led to posters, petitions, rallies, marches to the legislature, media coverage and Facebook and email networks connecting supporters and urging one another on -- all the elements of an old-school activist campaign. An early ally was NDP MP Pat Martin, himself no stranger to old-school campaigns.

The report is an inside look at how the citizen campaign was organized and offers lessons that might be applied in other campaigns.

Hoogstraten expressed the passion that fuelled the campaign in a March 2009 Facebook posting replying to criticisms: "O yes Christina, WE KNOW!! But Gordon Bell DID NOT purchase it, Don't ask me why, if it had been my school I would have POUNCED on that opportunity. That is why We, the students, are working on getting it ourselves. If I could find Canada Post a new location, I WOULD HAVE a long time ago! Our rallies put the pressure on the people who CAN find Canada post an alternative location! That is the point of them and that it what they are doing! AND as a matter of fact, I DO expect this land to be "gifted" to Gordon Bell. The school and the kids who go there DESERVE this field and have been waiting for it for over FIFTY years!"

The campaign was a passionate, six-month effort ending at the school's June 2009 graduation ceremonies when Martin announced Canada Post had accepted an alternative site.

That announcement was not the end. The passion has continued at the school since then -- raising money, hiring architects and contractors and finally, last spring, beginning construction.

The school has had to raise almost half the project's $950,000 cost. There have been grant applications, appeals to corporations, alumni and individuals and three years of student activities raising money. So far, they've raised $412,000 of their $432,000 target.

"It's important for kids who often experience being marginalized to see that they can cause change," explains principal Arlene Skull. One example she shows is a big jar in the staff room where one Grade 7 student has put his pennies all year, for a total of $38.

"Their stories are inspiring," says Skull. "One boy told me that now his grandpa can come and see him play soccer. A girl told me she can't wait to be able to sit under a tree on the grass. I didn't understand that importance until I visited her family in their tiny apartment. This field means a lot to them."


Mike Maunder is the author of Going Old School -- Activism Reborn in Winnipeg's Inner City, to be released at the University of Winnipeg science school at noon on Oct. 26.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2012 A13

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