Toronto Star

Young, ‘radical’ and a team player


“This is phase one.”

Councillor Joe Cressy is standing, arms open wide, in front of a fenced-in pile of dirt in Alexandra Park, located in the ward he represents and calls home.

What used to be community housing has been reduced to rubble in what is the start of a positive new beginning, explains Cressy, one of six new Toronto councillor­s elected in October.

The self-described “new kid on the block,” with his boy-band good looks, is, at 30, the youngest member of council in recent memory.

Raised by social activists Gordon Cressy and Joanne Campbell, both of whom served on council, Joe got his start in social justice work and is an entrenched member of the NDP. He intends to work on affordable housing and other antipovert­y files while lobbying for reinvestme­nt in one of the most complex wards in the city, extending from the waterfront to the Annex.

“We’re failing as a city and as a country on inequality and caring for each other and . . . the status quo doesn’t work.”

After his loss to former Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan in a federal by-election in June, Cressy said he needed just a few days to make his next move.

As he was officially sworn in to take Vaughan’s old seat at council, he promised to be “proudly progressiv­e and profoundly respectful.”

Whether the young politician, who counts Olivia Chow and fellow TrinitySpa­dina Councillor Mike Layton as close friends, can build coalitions on both sides of council has yet to be seen.

He says Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, an underlined copy of which was given to the teenage Joe by his father and has travelled with him to his city hall office, helped shape his outlook.

“I don’t think many people would refer to me as a s--- disturber. I was always a principled activist but one who managed to build coalitions .. There’s this notion that to be radical is to be confrontat­ional, and it’s not.”

Cressy grew up in the Annex, a neighbourh­ood he still lives in today in an apartment with his wife, Nina, who runs a women’s shelter. At 17, while completing high school, he left for South Africa, living with a family of British descent and a Zulu family, something he ssays was transforma­tive and politicizi­ng.

Though he enrolled in Carleton University’s public affairs and policy management program upon his return, Cressy says he spent most of his time on student council and as an activist, protesting in anti-war movements and for

environmen­tal causes.

“I was brought up in a household where . . . values around social justice and community were embedded in me from an early age.”

He’s worked in Ghana on HIV/AIDS issues in the LGBTQ community and at the Stephen Lewis Foundation in Toronto.

Since then, Cressy has cut his shaggy hair. He removed his piercings, and his tattoos are covered up. He acknowledg­es he comes from a place of white privilege on a council that has yet to reflect the diversity of the city — something he says he struggled with in his decision to run.

On a recent Friday morning, Cressy easily navigates the maze of low-rise buildings slated for demolition in Alexandra Park, just south of Dundas St., as he outlines the problem of enclosed architectu­re, poor lighting and lack of community supports.

He credits Adam Vaughan with the progress that has been made on revitaliza­tion.

Vaughan says from what he knows of Cressy, he is a “good communicat­or” who is “very ambitious” and has private aspiration­s to be the mayor some day — something Cressy insists is not his goal.

“Someone said to me, when I was running federally, ‘What’s your longterm plan? Do you want to be the prime minister in 20 years?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a long-term plan.’ My goal is to have impact, to be part of a great team, to learn.”


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