For the nonprofit sector, "Jack" was a terrific model

publication date: Aug 28, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
With the passing of Jack Layton August 22, Canada lost a political leader so remarkable that he was honoured with a state funeral - a distinction usually reserved for current and former prime ministers and governors-general, and current cabinet members.

Official comments and spontaneous tributes rightly emphasize his contributions as a professor, city councillor, Member of Parliament and party leader.

But for those in the nonprofit sector, "Jack," as he was so often called, embodied the ideals that drive us all.

Legacy letter

"We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly," he wrote in a legacy letter to Canadians penned two days before his death. "We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world's environment....

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."

He spoke our language

Changing the world is audacious language. I can't think of another Canadian politician in recent years who aimed that high.

But among readers of this newsletter, it's part of our DNA. For the most part, we aren't allowed the bold, sweeping statements that Layton was unafraid to utter. Precise mission statements and impact measurements force us to specify what parts of the world, what slivers of injustice, inequality or ugliness we intend to change.

Yet the common element - working with others to change what isn't working for others - is there, whether we're called to address it at a micro or macro level.

Small steps to a great vision

Layton did more than talk, of course. He lived the bold, sweeping vision he proclaimed. As a Toronto city councillor, he took on homelessness, AIDS, the environment, violence against women, and public health.

He knew how to work incrementally, if necessary, to achieve great ideals. As chair of the city's public health board, he outlawed smoking in elevators. It was a modest, achievable beginning, but it escalated. Eventually, Toronto became the first Canadian city with comprehensive anti-smoking by-laws for public places.

Rose above setbacks to lead success

Undaunted by two federal electoral losses in the 1990s, Layton ran for the leadership of the federal NDP and won in 2004. As head of the NDP, then one of the smallest parties in Parliament, he played a key role in developing the government's apology to aboriginals for the residential school system.

Finally, in the May 2011 election, he led the most diverse collection of candidates ever elected to the role of Official Opposition. Youth, women, francophones and immigrants joined the more predictable politicos in the NDP's new role.

In Toronto, a spontaneous array of tributes appeared on the wall of the ramp into City Hall. When that was full, the messages overflowed onto the paving stones in front of the building.

One note in particular summed up both Layton's life and his lasting lesson for the nonprofit sector: "Let's live by Jack's example. Don't agonize. Organize."

You don't have to be a card-carrying NDP member to get on board with that.

Contact Janet Gadeski

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