Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about building power for change

Published on 26/02/2020

Our cities are becoming increasingly unaffordable and income inequality is widening faster than ever before. People, communities, and an entire generation are being squeezed out. The decisions made in the halls of power can either take us down a more progressive path or deepen the divide. Unfortunately, many decision-makers are removed from the day-to-day experiences of the people they represent. So how can we influence and shape the decisions being made? What power do we have to create meaningful change and transform our cities? In this Five Good Ideas session, Michal Hay, founder of Progress Toronto, shares her experiences on building power, winning, and making change. She offers five good ideas for building democratic power to win.

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Five Good Ideas

  1. The power we have is people.
  2. Our power increases as our numbers increase, and for that to truly/deeply happen we need distributed leadership.
  3. Invest in building power. That means training people and giving them the opportunity to apply the skills and lead.
  4. Share your strategy, goals, and priorities with people to help train and motivate them.
  5. Every campaign is an opportunity build power and ideally to build on what was built before.


Organizing is a changing space, despite being based on the age-old principles. In addition to following what is happening in Canada, Michal Hay often looks to what is happening in other countries for inspiration. These are a few examples of training programs, organizations, and campaigns that she is trying to learn from.

  1. Movement School’s Campaign Fellows. This 10-week intensive campaign simulation cultivates leaders to run, and win, grassroots campaigns. Movement School is an initiative connected to Justice Democrats, a coalition working to elect more progressives in America.
  2. Our Revolution. This organization was formed after Bernie Sanders first presidential campaign in 2016. Outside of the presidential election they have run issue-based campaigns and supported candidates in local and state elections.
  3. Barcelona en Comú. In 2015, Ada Colau became the mayor of Barcelona from a historic campaign that involved as many people. Her organizing and leadership is changing the city.
  4. Make the Road New York. They focus on building the power of immigrant and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice. Check out their leadership development programs — and victories to be inspired.
  5. Push Buffalo. A locally based organization that believes deeply in people power by mobilizing residents to create strong neighbourhoods with affordable housing through efforts like expanding local hiring opportunities, and advancing economic and environmental justice.


Full session transcript

I’m here today to talk with you about how to build power to win change and I’d like to start with a few questions.

How many people think that the status quo is working? It’s kind of sad that we don’t have too much faith in the people who are elected right now to make change, so that really means that it’s up to us and that’s a big part of what I want to talk to you about. If we think about Toronto, what are some of the biggest problems that we’re facing, the biggest crises that we’re facing as a city? Housing, transit, affordability, income inequality, under housing. There would be homelessness and access to housing, poverty, people being pushed out of the city, climate change and what the city’s doing to deal with climate change in the province. Segregation, that’s a big part of the impact of inequality in the city.

We know that in Toronto and our communities, they’re becoming increasingly unaffordable, and income inequality is widening faster than ever before in the city. People, communities, and arguably an entire generation are being squeezed out of Toronto, pushed out of this city. It’s harder and harder to afford to live here. The cost of childcare, it’s hard to raise a family here. It’s hard to find a place to live, and yet, most of the people elected are out of touch with the day-to-day realities that people are facing in the city.

Even though sometimes they talk about the right thing, it might sound like they’re talking about the right thing, they seem to lack, at least in my opinion, a sense of urgency around dealing with these issues and a real clarity or vision about what we need to do as a city to actually fix it. And it is possible to fix.

We know that things need to change, but how do we make it happen? What power do we have to demand and win change to transform our cities? Where does our power come from?

The power that we have is people. That’s the first idea that I have for you today, and it’s the idea that all of the next ideas that I’m going to present stem from, a deep belief that the power that we have is people, or Democratic power.

Last spring, Doug Ford announced that he was going to cut public health divisions across Ontario and that he was changing the cost sharing between the province and municipalities across Ontario.

In Toronto, specifically because Toronto was being hardest hit with this cut, it meant a $1 billion being cut over 10 years. According to Toronto’s Board of Health, it meant that 602 schools were at risk of losing their breakfast and lunch programs for kids who were going to school hungry, trying to learn on empty stomachs.

It meant that over 1,000 day cares and over 85 long-term care homes were potentially going to lose their inspections, their health and safety inspections. It meant that 24 low income dental clinics might be closing in the city. And it meant that 800 schools might be losing their immunization programs that were run by public health. A terrible time to be losing immunization programs in the city.

I helped found an organization in April 2018, so less than two years ago, called Progress Toronto. At Progress Toronto, we have four streams to our work:

  1. Building power, which is focused on training and leadership development;
  2. Pushing power, which is our advocacy campaigns;
  3. Checking power, which is all about holding people accountable, elected people accountable for the decisions that they’re making; and
  4. What makes us unique as an organization is that when all of those three streams fail, we also focus on taking power.

We will run campaigns in elections to oppose or support candidates because we need to change who’s making decisions at City Hall specifically, and at the school board. When the public health cuts were announced, we very quickly launched a campaign alongside allies to stop the cuts.

Our campaign strategy was based on the belief that the power we have is people, and our deep belief in democratic power. This idea that power comes from people starts to shape the tactics that you use in campaigns. We wanted as many people as possible who lived in Conservative health ridings across Toronto, there are 11 of the 25 ridings in Toronto held by Conservatives, we wanted people who lived in those ridings to contact their MPPs and tell them to stop the cuts to public health.

We believed that if local MPPs felt this pressure coming from their constituents coupled with Doug Ford’s declining popularity, we could cause dissent within Doug Ford’s caucus, of his elected MPPs. Months later, this is exactly what we saw happen. It wasn’t just because of Progress Toronto’s campaign, it was because of all the campaigns that were being run across the province to stop Ford’s cuts. But his MPPs were getting scared that they were losing the support of their constituents and that they might not be able to be reelected and so they dissented internally.

In June of last year we heard stories of caucus members leaving meetings crying and there was a huge change in leadership within Doug Ford’s group, senior leadership, and then Doug Ford went quiet over the summer and rebranded.

We hosted door-to-door canvasses in Conservative-held ridings in polls in those ridings where people voted Conservative. We knocked on doors and asked people to call their MPP, to email their MPP, we made it easy for them to do this, and to sign our petitions.

We phoned landlines in all 11 Conservative ridings in Toronto. Phoning landlines means that we tend to be phoning homeowners in the city or older people who still have landlines in their homes and those people tend to vote and are seen as having more power. We were targeting a group of people who MPPs might listen to even more. We did that for three weeks. In a rolling way, we phoned through these ridings and we helped patch 5,000 people through to Conservative MPPs’ offices. It didn’t happen as one blast of phone calls that their MPP office was getting in one day, it was every single day, it was relentless for three weeks.

We also used an online email petition. You can edit the text of what you’re sending to the MPP or whomever you’re targeting with the email. And based on the postal code that you put in, it will send it directly to your elected representative. This means that elected reps have the opportunity to hear directly from their constituents, which is where we believe the power comes from to change what they’re doing.

Almost one month after the cuts were announced, Doug Ford took them back. We had won. And it was only one year into his term, so it was a huge success and, frankly, it was something we didn’t know was possible, but we had won. He announced he was significantly reducing the cuts, he was changing the cost-sharing ratio, and, for 2020, this budget year, he was giving cities one-time funding.

Now, we’re still fighting to stop the remaining cuts to public health. They’ll be in place for 2021. The biggest impact that they actually have is on infectious disease control programs in Toronto. It represents about $14 million a year that he’s cutting, which is a lot less than the $1 billion over 10 years that we were facing before, but we continued to use the same tactic, the same belief in people power, democratic people power, to fight these cuts.

If our power is from people, what does it mean to have more power? What does more power mean? Success. You get taken seriously. But what is more power, tangibly? It’s not more money. It’s more people. It means that our power increases as our numbers increase. With more people involved in our work, we can knock on more doors, we can make more phone calls, we can move more people to action. But if we’re working with thousands of people or even hundreds of people to help us win campaigns, we need to have distributed leadership to be able to manage people effectively.

The second idea I’ve submitted to you today is that our power increases as our numbers increase, but for that to happen, we need to turn to distributed leadership. If you have ever helped to run a campaign, issue-based or electoral of any kind, that involved hundreds of volunteers, you know that there are several challenges. Motivation over time and keeping people engaged, for example. Often, people in larger campaigns with hundreds of volunteers have trouble keeping them involved. And they also have too many people who demand their time at once and it’s very hard to keep up.

When working with volunteers, it’s a little bit hard to keep up, get them out the door, and get them moving fast enough. You can be overwhelmed by the amount of activities you’re supposed to do, the amount of work that you have to do. You end up working really late sometimes on these campaigns because you care so deeply and you probably put in more hours than you should. And there’s just so many people to manage and talk to and to keep up with.

Common challenges volunteers face are waiting for instructions, or waiting to be sent to a task. So you’ve committed three hours of your time, but you’ve already lost 20 minutes of your time just waiting. Sometimes it feels like the campaign or the organization keeps calling you to do the same thing, you’re not really sure why, it doesn’t really feel like you’re valued and you feel like you’re just being deployed. And you kind of know that when it’s over, you’re probably not going to get called again for a little while, you’re not necessarily feeling like you’re a part of something. You probably think you can do more in different tasks, but you’re not being asked, like you’re not being used to your full potential.

Are you a manager of a team in your workplace? There are a lot of studies that have been done about management ratios, and I think the optimal is something like eight in terms of being able to effectively manage people. Do you think that you could do a good job as a manager if I told you that you were responsible for managing over 100 people?

It’s the same thing when you’re managing campaigns or when you’re managing people like volunteers on campaigns. One to 100, one to 150, one to 50, those are bad management ratios. To efficiently and effectively manage more people, we need to turn to distributed leadership models. You might feel like the problem that you face is that you don’t have enough volunteers for what you want to accomplish. But with distributed leadership models and people feeling more valued, you will be able to recruit more people and you will be able to continue to increase your power.

In 2014, I was the field director on Olivia Chow’s mayoral campaign. Anyone who knows Olivia knows that she’s a people magnet. When she launched her campaign in March 2014, over 4,000 people signed up to volunteer within a week and, ultimately, by the end of the campaign, over 9,000 people had signed up to volunteer, but in the very beginning, I was alone.

The field team consisted of one, me, for the first month before we were able to fundraise and bring more people in. Our goal as the field team was to build a strong grassroots field campaign that would identify and persuade people to vote for Olivia Chow in the mayoral race in 2014. We wanted to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors and have face-to-face conversations with people across the city and, through the knocking on doors, deliver millions of pieces of literature as well about Olivia.

At the launch of the campaign, I knew I had to get back to people who just signed up as fast as I could because they were hot leads. As soon as you engage them, they’re more likely to be engaged and volunteer, but the management ratio of one to 4,000 was a really bad ratio. I knew that wasn’t going to work. We actually had no choice but to test this idea of building distributed leadership on Olivia’s campaign. We worked for months to build it and, by the fall, it was fully up and running and that’s when our volunteer base more than doubled to 9,000.

In the end, we had two field directors managing 11 organizers who managed 150 full-time and part-time fellows, who helped manage the work of over 300 leaders, like volunteers who had emerged as team leaders, as leaders in their neighbourhoods, who then helped to build teams and work with and manage the thousands of volunteers underneath them. That pyramid of distributed leadership was the only way that we could effectively move everybody. That meant that we knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and, some, more than once.

We had incredible people hosting canvasses out of their homes across the city, we trusted them to do that, and we were able to help build a sense of community among local teams. Olivia didn’t ultimately win the mayoralty unfortunately, I think we all know that, but we did effectively build power through that campaign.

But how do you build distributed leadership? There are often already-trained people, when you get involved on a campaign, there are often already trained people that, yes, you could probably throw into leadership positions right away and they do a good job, but that’s never enough and that’s not actually contributing to growth or building or helping people learn.

Instead, you need to make it a part of a campaign, part of a plan. It’s harder sometimes when we’re focused on the short-term outcome, but you need to make it a part of your plan to invest in developing people, to invest in building power, and invest in training.

That’s my third idea here for you today. Invest in building power, that means training people. And then it also means giving them the opportunity to apply their skills and to lead.

On Olivia’s campaign, we spent April and May hosting large training events across the city and then, in June, we held a full-day training conference that 1,000 people attended. This was a big investment for a mayoral campaign and I don’t think it was something that had been done before in Toronto. We were able to train over 2,500 of our volunteers through the different training events and the conference that we held. We also created an intense fellows program, where if somebody committed 20 hours a week of their time to volunteering with Olivia, 10 of those hours were spent in trainings that we built for them.

We actually built a 12-week curriculum that we tried to take people through and they were applying their skills and having the opportunity to build and turn into leaders over the course of the training program. All of the canvasses that we were running in April, May, and June were knocking on doors and talking to people about Olivia, but the way we saw it from the field perspective was we were giving people an opportunity to try.

The conversations you’re having in April and May and June don’t mean as much as the conversations you have in September, when you get closer to the election day, because people might change their minds. We wanted to have that chance to talk with people so that our volunteers could see what it was like to lead a canvas and make mistakes, and then go and apply those skills in September when it was crunch time. This allowed people to move into leadership positions and to help us work with even more people.

At Progress Toronto, we’re also deeply invested in building power, I mentioned it as one of our four streams of work. At all of our canvasses and all of our phone banks, we take extra time to train people and to debrief with them after. We also run a seasonal training series. We offer free, year-round training sessions for participants to learn anything from how to knock on doors, how to organize your own door canvas, to how City Hall works, how to meet with a local politician, and how to speak at a government committee.

We also have big dreams for investing in our training streams. We’re less than two years old and because we’re not charitable, funding is a bit more of a challenge for us. We rely on thousands of individual donors. Our average gift is $35, and our average monthly gift is $11, so it gives you a good idea of what we rely on. We also have sponsors who give to us when we host events.

We hope to launch our own fellows program, hopefully sometime this year or next. With that fellows program, we would like to compensate people for their time so that there’s no barrier to participation.

We also hope to host an annual conference, a training conference that we’ve already named called Organizing to Win. We believe deeply in investing in people’s leadership and growth so that we can bring more people in and move more people to action. We see it as the path to winning our campaigns and building a more equitable city. A big part of training people and investing in building their power is giving them the actual opportunity to go and lead.

Often, people in charge can’t let go of things. I’ve been there, I do that, I still do that. I try to check myself for that, but we need to give people the chance to actually take on these projects and these tasks, and lead and maybe even fail. That’s how we learn, through failing. If you want people to build their power, if you want people to build their skills, you have to give them that chance. It’s up to you to motivate them, encourage them, and let them know it’s okay to make a mistake and help them debrief afterwards and learn from their mistakes. We have to share the power that we hold so that our collective power can grow.

At Progress Toronto, for us, that means letting our volunteers lead and organize door canvasses and phone banks, giving them the skills first to do that of course so we’re not just throwing people in, but letting them do that, letting them take up that space.

A big part of motivating people to take on leadership and give their time is also sharing your strategy with them. That’s my fourth idea for you today. You have to share your strategy, your goals, and your priorities with people in order to motivate them and to train them.

Often on political campaigns, electoral campaigns, or issue-based campaigns, we seem to think that our strategy is some sort of secret, that it’s like a secret weapon that we have. But the truth is that most of the time, the people that we’re up against have more experience than us or have just as much experience as us and they could kind of guess what our strategy is.

There are things that they don’t have: they don’t have the determination that we have because we have a sense of injustice. They have a sense of holding on, but they probably know our strategy. If you’re using people power and democratic power in a strategic way, if you’re helping move thousands of people to action in key polls, in an MPP’s riding, polls you think that that MPP cares about most, they’re probably going to find out that that’s what you’re doing. They probably know that you’re knocking on doors in their riding. That’s the point.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re sharing that strategy with your volunteers beforehand. That MPP is going to find out. The MPP will know it soon enough because voters are saying something. Even if the MPP knows that he’s only getting these calls because you’re knocking on doors in his riding, he still has to listen to those voters, he still has to listen to those constituents if he’s concerned about his re-election.

Telling your volunteers, organizers, and people involved in your campaign what your strategy is, and what your goals are, will benefit you more than the risk that you might perceive. It will motivate them tremendously. It’s the difference between a volunteer showing up at an office, being thanked, and then sent out to canvas in the cold to go knock on doors and come back and hand back a clipboard and you say thank you, and that’s it.

A volunteer who comes in is shown a map of how many doors have been knocked on, is shown a clear gap or a hole on that map or what doors remain and what we need their help filling, that they’re told who that MPP is, and they’re told why this will convince the MPP to change their mind. You could even tell them that you have a goal of knocking on 1,500 doors in that MPP’s riding and those targeted polls and we’ve only knocked on 1,100 and we need to reach 400 more, and that we’re hoping that that volunteer will be the person who can deliver that 400, that will motivate that volunteer much more because they’re in on your strategy.

They’ll be motivated to finish that 400 so they can fill in the rest of that map because people want to help. Letting more people in on your strategy motivates them, it also motivates them to ask other people to help them. “I need to help deliver these 400 doors for this campaign, can you help me do that?” That’s how you start to grow your volunteer base, and that volunteer will be able to communicate to other people why that work is important and how it fits into the strategy, how it’s part of winning.

Of course, they will also gain insights into how to build campaigns and what’s strategically important so that hopefully one day they can run their own, because we want to invest in their power. This is important because even if we lose one particular vote, we win if we’ve invested in people and if we’ve built more power for the next campaign, which leads me to my final and fifth idea for today.

Every campaign is an opportunity to build power and ideally to build on what was built before. That’s the ideal. Before I was field director for Olivia Chow’s mayoral campaign, I worked at Toronto City Hall for Counsellor Mike Layton. It was wonderful working with Mike because he understood the importance, and he still understands the importance, of helping organizers and organizations navigate City Hall so that they could run their campaigns and advocate for change. He understood the importance of democratic power and helping people use it.

In 2012 and 2013, through my work in Mike’s office, I had the chance to work with an incredible group of women who were campaigning to stop a downtown mega casino in Toronto. When it was first proposed, the majority of the then 45 members of City Council, now we have 25 members of City Council, they were in favour of the casino. Only eight of the city counsellors were opposed, eight of 45, and it seemed like every single lobbyist in Toronto and Ontario had been hired to put pressure on all of the counsellors, on senior staff of the city, on the province to get them to support the casino.

But we knew the impacts of addiction, we knew the strain on the local economy, on local businesses that casinos would bring, we knew about the traffic, everything that would come with a downtown casino. We knew that it would be very bad for Toronto and we were determined to stop the casino. The “no casino” campaign was up against Paul Godfrey, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and almost every major casino company you could think of, MGM Grand, Tropicana, Caesar’s, and others.

David Rider from the Toronto Star described it as a David versus Goliath battle. They were spending millions of dollars buying up ads. In one week, they had spent something like $5 million on ad campaigns and, at that same time, the “no casino” campaign had spent a few hundred dollars buying a domain and building a website. We were definitely being outspent, but we believed in democratic power and we built a campaign around that.

We built a campaign that had hundreds of volunteers that focused in on the wards where we knew we could move and had to move city counsellors in order to get them to oppose the casino. For months, for an entire year through the winter, we knocked on doors, we called people, we built partnerships with residents associations and other groups across the city, and we helped make it easy for people to call and email and meet with their local counsellors to tell them to stop the casino.

After about a year of work, the counsellors had been flipped, we even forced the meeting on the casino. The mayor didn’t want to hold the meeting, so Mike Layton went around with a petition, because counsellors can sign petitions to call their own meetings. He got a majority of counsellors to call this meeting, and they voted 40 to four to oppose the casino.

It was great. In fact, Rob Ford had moved his own motion to stop the casino. That’s how far we took it, but out of spite, he then voted against the motion that was 40 to four that Mike Layton moved.

When the campaign was over though, everything we had built seemed to slip away. All of the people we trained, all of the infrastructure we built, it wasn’t available and used. The municipal election was right around the corner and I was going into Olivia’s campaign and it really felt like in many ways we were starting from scratch. But I had just spent two years working with people to build all of this infrastructure before.

I told you everything we built on Olivia’s campaign, the 2,500 volunteers we trained, the leadership we built within, but it was the same problem at the end of Olivia’s campaign. When it ended, it all seemed to slip away. We invested heavily in people’s leadership, we built teams, friendships, and a sense of community, and some of that I believe lived on organically. We don’t know all of the great change that meant for the city, but much of it also slipped away.

That’s a big reason why I founded Progress Toronto. It became clear to me that we needed a broad-based organization focused on the city that would sustainably build power inside and outside of elections, so that every time we work on an issue, which relates to this fifth idea, every time we run a campaign, the power we built, the people we invested in, they could continue their work with us if they wanted to for the next change that needed to be advocated for.

It’s all too easy for us to be caught up in the moment, and the campaign, and the vote that we see coming ahead of us, and not think about the long term, not think about people’s growth. We’re just focused on winning on that one issue, but we all need to re-frame and see each campaign as an opportunity to build, learn, and grow, to bring more people in, and to build that power. It’s our hope at Progress Toronto that we will be able to contribute to sustained and continual growth and people power through our work. With that, we can finally change who holds power in the city and the decisions that they’re making, and we believe that this is the way to building a more just city.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Michal Hay

Founding Executive Director, Progress Toronto

Michal Hay is the Founding Executive Director of Progress Toronto. Her focus in organizing, whether through an issue-based or electoral campaign, is bridging the gaps between people and the political power needed for progressive change. She hopes to create the space for people to advocate for the city they need.

Michal was 2017 Campaign Director for Jagmeet Singh’s successful NDP Leadership Campaign, and she was one of Chatelaine’s Top Women in Canada of 2017. She is on the Board of Directors of the Broadbent Institute and the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Michal was Chief of Staff to Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton for six years, and in 2014 she was Field Director for Olivia Chow’s Toronto Mayoral Campaign. Through her work and activism, she has had leading roles on a number of issue-based and electoral campaigns at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels across Canada.