The impressive agenda of workshops, teach-ins and actions put on by civil society groups, students, unions and activists at last weekend’s (June 18-20) People’s Summit at Ryerson U was both an inspirational kick in the ass and a solid kick to the groin.
On the one hand, watching a new generation of wide-eyed activists is quite a rush. Even the diverse racial mix, which included reps from Europe, Africa and Latin America, was also exquisitely multi-generational.
But the gathering did expose a weakness in the web of progressive movements: of the 1,200 participants, most were educated, middle- to upper-middle-class, talking to each other about the needs of those living in poverty who happened, for the most part, not to be present.
Don’t get me wrong, activists connecting with each other needs to happen. But I’m unconvinced, even after such an inspiring weekend, that we’re really developing a relationship with those most affected by neo-liberalism, especially here at home.
At the PS, nuanced debate around the tar sands, the green economy, the Robin Hood tax and pricing carbon not to mention food security and public transit, made it easy for participants to stay inside intellectual and class comfort zones.
The top-of-the-charts issue, climate change, was a case in point. I listened to some shocking accounts of the results of global climate change today. One woman from India reported that over 100,000 farmers in that country have committed suicide because their farms can no longer produce crops.
There was loads of discussion about ways to reduce our carbon footprint, from going vegetarian to planting trees. It’s positive stuff, but I couldn’t help feeling a disconnect.
After knocking on a lot of doors along Toronto’s west-end rail corridor in the federal riding I’m contesting, I can’t recall a single person bringing up climate change as an issue of concern.
These are for the most part working-class, ethnically diverse neighbourhoods where folks work long days or spend long hours looking for work. They’ve got concerns – the diesel train expansion proposed right next to them is one – and while it is a global climate change issue, people view on the ground view it as a local, environmental issue.
I wonder sometimes if activists want folks like these in the movement – people who feel pretty left out of the political process already and who are rarely consulted, considered or consoled by government.
If we do want them, are we seriously hoping to draw them in by asking these folks to respond to drought in Tanzania?
“Social justice organizers need to make a really careful effort to make issues like this more accessible,” says People’s Summit coordinator Marya Folinsbee.
She says she didn’t spend the last six months of her life on the PS just to let all that work wash away. “I’m really interested in our learning from this experience how to become more effective organizers.”
There were grassroots innovations in evidence, though. I particularly enjoyed the Results Canada workshop. Since the letters page is the most-read section of any newspaper, Results Canada trains volunteers in effective writing as a way to influence public opinion, for instance on the issue of extreme poverty in the global South.
Team leaders walked the 40 people at the session through the basics of good letter-writing and then got them to craft one of their own.
Results also trains volunteers on “laser talk” – short, well-formulated lines that can be used with neighbours in casual discussion.
“What drew me to the group was its results focus,” says volunteer Nile Séguin. “They get you involved right out of the gate and push your comfort zone. I like to feel like I’m working toward something,” he says.
An often-published letter writer, Séguin says Results helps people overcome a certain “learned helplessness.”
“Things feel a little diffused in the activist community. People don’t seem to know what to do, even if they know something must be done.”
Heather Thompson, a social work student and an immigrant to Canada, was also looking for an effective direction. Having a cousin who comes here from Jamaica every year to work as a farm labourer, she knows the raw deal they’re met with.
“My cousin and those like him are abused when they come here. So the Health For All workshop on migrant workers was very motivating for me,” she says.
“Ordinary people need to do something productive and effective.”