Josh Smee’s work and volunteerism complement each other. By day, he’s a project adviser for the Community Sector Council Newfoundland and Labrador, an umbrella organization for non-profits in the province, while in his spare time he’s the chairman of Happy City, a volunteer organization dedicated to promoting public dialogue about the development of St. John’s.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that people both know what’s happening in their city and know how they can influence what’s happening in their city, and are asking the right questions about where’s the city going,” he said. “I’m always really excited when a bunch of people gets together in some stuffy little room somewhere and hashes something out.”
What is your full name?
Joshua Paul Smee.
When and where were you born?
July 1985, in Kitchener, Ont.
Where is home today?
Downtown St. John’s. I’ve been living there a few years now. We’ve got a place right in the thick of it, up on Garrison Hill.
What is your educational background?
I did an undergrad degree in political science and economics. I’m going to do a master’s in political science, come the fall, to do some work for Happy City, some research that we’ve been interested in doing, so it’ll be back to that for me.
What do your jobs entail, both with the Community Sector Council, and
It’s always a bit hard to describe, working for non-profits, but I usually think about it as just bringing the right people together in the right place and giving them some resources to make these things happen, whether that means getting a meeting together of people who care about an issue, or getting information out to people about something that’s going on in their communities. That’s really the core, both of what I’m doing at CSC and, I think, what Happy City does.
What is the best part of your job?
A really big one is when something takes on a life of its own, when you have a chance to identify, when you see something in the community that needs changing, and you get to see something take on a life of its own. A bunch of excited people get together and they just run with it. Whenever you get people really thinking about the big stuff — obviously I’m a bit of a politics nerd, and so those conversations, they sometimes get bogged down in these little details. But every so often you get people in a room and they’ll just be dreaming for a second. And that’s always great. I always think that there’s more space for people to do that kind of thing.
What’s the most stressful part
of your job?
Doing this kind of community organizing, a whole bunch of things need to happen in the right places. There’s quite a bit of politics to it, and I think sometimes what’s frustrating is just the challenges of doing these things on a budget of zero. Happy City is a volunteer organization. We’re all trying to grab our spare time to do this. We’ve got summer students, which is great, but stringing a bunch of things together in your spare time is always a little bit stressful. You never feel you have quite enough time to answer that email, and you’re always sitting there, thinking, “Well, if I had a spare afternoon here I could make something really amazing happen.” I feel a bit spread thin from time to time, but it balances out.
What makes for a happy city for you?
My happy city is really one where people feel respected by the people who are making decisions about their city. When people feel like if they have something that they care about, if they have something that they want to see happen in the city, that they’re really going to be taken seriously. And that includes me — I really feel like I luck out because I’m involved in Happy City, and that’s amplified my voice as a citizen of St. John’s. It’s more about process for me. I want to see a city that listens to people. I’m always thinking that if the city does that, the other stuff will fall into place.
What was one act of rebellion
you committed as a youth?
There’s probably a fairly long list. I remember when I was in high school — and I think my principal’s safely retired now — I was maybe 14, I was very excited: I’d taken over the school newspaper. I was editing it. We had to run the paper by the principal every week for his approval, and if we tried to write anything a little bit critical — because we were 14, we were trying to push boundaries — it usually wouldn’t get past him. One day we’d had enough of this. We put together a little guerilla edition of the paper and snuck into school one morning and distributed it to all the classes. That was probably as close as I ever came to getting booted out of school. That’s probably a fairly mild one, but I’ll stick with that.
What is your greatest indulgence?
My schedule is totally packed all the time, but if it’s sunny I will do my absolute best to ditch it and you’ll usually find me outside as far as I possibly can be from my laptop, scrambling around some trail somewhere or jumping in a pond. I’m willing to sacrifice probably more of what I do in my life than I should for doing that, but that keeps me sane.
Do you have a favourite movie?
I haven’t thought about that in a while. I’m a total sci-fi nerd, so it would have to be somewhere in that scheme of things. I feel like for a favourite movie most people have to say an old one, but I’ll say probably “Children of Men,” which came out a few years ago. I think it’s classic.
What are you reading right now?
I always have about five or six books on the go that I leave in different spots, but I’m on vacation right now so I decided that I needed some vacation reading, so I’m reading a John Le Carré spy novel. I always feel a bit better about reading John Le Carré books because they’re not cheesy, grocery-store spy novels. I feel like I get a little bit more from them, so I’ve been parked out on the deck for the last little while. I just finished reading a really great book called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” which is a novel by a guy named Mohsin Hamid, about a fella’s transition into radicalism and all that. But most of the time I actually read non-fiction. I don’t know, for some reason I can’t quite seem to find the time for novels. I’m a sucker for those history-of-stuff books. People have been writing all these books lately, like “A History of Salt” or “A History of the Screw,” and for some reason I find them totally fascinating.
What bugs you?
Not a lot, to be honest. I’m known as a generally pretty cheerful guy. I suppose I’m a little bit of a stickler about time, and I’m always running around trying to schedule my life, and so lateness is my pet peeve in the world.
What are your best and worst qualities?
On the good side, I think I’m a pretty solid listener with people. I try not to be bossy, but I think I’m pretty good at dragging consensus out of a room of people, and that can be a pretty hard thing to do. On the bad side, I think I’m definitely a victim of trying to do everything, and so sometimes I find myself doing everything half as well instead of two things really, really well. That’s always been a push and pull for me.
Who inspires you?
Oh, so many people inspire me. There are people all the time, doing all these really cool community projects — I get really inspired by people doing things at the neighbourhood level who are getting really engaged with their own communities and know it well. In the Happy City world, there are people like Dave Meslin in Toronto — he put together this exhibit of different ways that cities could become better, more engaged places. This guy’s an activist, not a lot older than me. So there are a bunch of people like him working in places like that. Naheed Nenshi in Calgary I’ve always been really impressed by. One of the cool things that comes up when you’re doing municipal stuff is that politics, in the capital-P, left-right thing, doesn’t matter as much, and so I’ve been really impressed to see people from a traditionally conservative place come together around just having intelligent ideas and talking about them. That kind of approach, just trusting people to take issues seriously and think about them, I’m a total fanboy.
Do you have any hidden talents?
(Laughs) I’m a singer. Not by myself, but I’m in a couple choirs around town. I recently did the can-can on the stage of the Arts and Culture Centre, of which there is video somewhere, frighteningly enough. I’m a pretty mean cook, so that would be another one.
Do you have a personal motto?
I don’t think so. I always struggle with these one-sentence packages of ways to think, so I can’t really think of one that I live by.
Who is one person, living or deceased, who you’d like to have lunch with?
I’d totally pick a dead person, because I think if the person’s living, I don’t need any intervention to have lunch with them. I suppose if I were having lunch with one person, totally Jane Jacobs, 100 per cent. You’re asking for inspirations, it’s hard to find anyone who’s into community-building who hasn’t read up on Jane Jacobs. Right now, what we do is easy. Happy City is talking about a lot of things that are at the forefront of people’s minds: the idea that you want to get communities together, you want to get people talking, and you’re talking about things like mixed-use neighbourhoods, and heritage and all that stuff — we’re doing that now. She was doing that 40 years ago when everybody’s idea of development was to bulldoze a neighbourhood and build a freeway in it. She spent 40 years struggling against that, and as a woman, in a place where women’s voices weren’t taken really seriously. So I have so much respect for how much of an influence she’s had. I think a lot of our cities would be a lot worse off without her.
If you were premier of the province, what is one thing you’d try to do?
I’d let people vote on the budget. Or at least part of it. It sounds a bit blue-sky, but it’s being done all over the world. Participatory budgeting lets communities come up with their own priorities and how much to allocate for them. I’ve been reading up on it a lot, and it’s really interesting — not just the projects that are getting funded, but the process of getting people together to talk about it. When there’s real money on the table, that gets people into the room, and once they’re there, they’re talking about the future of their communities. I think that would be a pretty neat thing to see happen here.