“Accidental activist” Meagan Ross brings people together in her small city

Meagan Ross with Jack (l) and Charlie (r.) “If I wanted [my kids] to have certain experiences, then I realized I was going to have to step in and help create them.”

Meagan Ross left her hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, when she was 18. She moved back — with her husband and their two young sons — at 40.

Even though she’d grown up in Northwestern Ontario, the move back was a bit of a culture shock. In the two years since returning, Meagan’s found herself taking on the unexpected role of community activist and organizer. She’s organized a fundraiser for Isthmus, a local organization that provides weekend meals to elementary-school kids who would otherwise go hungry. She’s joined the board of Roots to Harvest, a local organization that works with at-risk youth, engaging them with local agriculture and employment opportunities. She’s working with city government, school boards, police, and local schools to promote active transportation — kids walking or cycling to school — in a city dominated by car culture. (“What do you do when there are no sidewalks on the cross streets?”). And, she has organized The Pumpkin Parade, a post-Halloween community event that brings together neighbourhood residents to display, and then compost, their Halloween pumpkins.

That’s all on top of her day job in the nonprofit sector, and raising Charlie, six, and Jack, eight.

“It’s a bit uncomfortable for me,” says Meagan, now 42, of her newfound activism. “I don’t love the spotlight. But moving here has ignited a bit of a fire under me. If I were still living in Toronto, this stuff wouldn’t be on my radar — other people would’ve done it for me. But moving here, you have to take initiative if you want things to change.”

In a smaller community, notes Meagan, some problems — like child hunger — are much more apparent. “And I hated the thought of kids going hungry, so I stepped up to do something.”

The Pumpkin Parade was an import from Toronto. Every November 1, in her east-end neighbourhood, recalls Meagan, “people would bring their Halloween pumpkins to the park, volunteers would light them, and you could wander around and see the handiwork of your community members. And at the end of the evening, the pumpkins would be composted.”

“When I came here, there was nothing like that. And I really thought it would be nice for my kids to grow up with that tradition. So I thought I’d start a Pumpkin Parade here and it would be easy-peasy.”

It wasn’t easy. The city government took a while to wrap its head around the idea. They wouldn’t close off the neighbourhood park to cars for the event, and Meagan had to find sponsors to cover permits and insurance. Some locals worried about walking or wondered if there would be food trucks or entertainment. “But no, it was just a nice, quiet, low-key community event,” she says.

Boo! Thunder Bay’s inaugural Pumpkin Parade. (Photos by Chondon Photography)

It was also magical — and a huge success. More than 1000 people arrived on foot at Hillcrest Park in the city’s North end, to showcase 300 glowing jack-o’-lanterns. Sponsors covered the costs. EcoSuperior, a local environmental organization, supplied compost bins. Volunteers helped light, then extinguish the candles. “Everybody loved it. It was a way to bring people together for something free, fun, and earth-friendly.”

Meagan hopes to expand the event to two locations this November.

Her kids, she says, were the primary inspiration for getting involved in her community. “If I wanted them to have certain experiences, then I realized I was going to have to step in and help create them.”

And now? She can’t imagine stopping. “I never considered myself an activist, but once you l realize the possibility of what could be versus what is, it’s inspiring.”

 


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to be able to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

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