Monday, June 18, 2012
Social justice doesn't need heroes
Early morning in good old YVR, where we arrived at 6 a.m. today to settle in for our five-hour wait until the next leg of the flight kicks in. Bad connection, but so it goes with points flights.
Had a wonderful but insanely busy eight days on the Island. Great to be back, but I'm still looking forward to the return to Honduras, and not just because it's about 15 degrees warmer than the Island right now. More on that later, but right now I'm posting (most) of the speech I gave at UVic on Friday as I accepted my honourary doctorate, which was a total thrill.
Speech at UVic, June 15:
They say that the thing that guides a life passion has its roots in your teen years, and certainly that was the case for me. While I wouldn’t have known to call it social justice at the time, I was 14 when a group of us at Lake Trail Junior High in Courtenay stood up for a young classmate – a girl we didn’t know at the time - who was being unfairly judged. I not only got a lifelong friendship out of that, I learned that even when you feel you’ve got zero power to affect change in any grand kind of way, you always have power over your own actions and choices. The world will go the way the world goes, but you don’t have to go along.
All the twists and turns of a life are preparation for the person you end up being. But some things do shape your path more than others.
For me, one was becoming a mother while I was still a child myself, which means that at the relatively young age of 55 I’ve now had 38 years to experience all the amazing things that motherhood teaches you - to love unconditionally, to be fair, to be respectful without being a complete pushover, to stand up for those who have yet to grow into their power.
Another was becoming a journalist, a perfect prep course for anyone who might someday be given to social activism. You can’t help but know this world is an unfair place when your job is to listen to what’s going on for people, across every possible spectrum.
I feel very lucky to have stumbled onto a profession that not only gave me the privilege to ask anybody questions about anything – and for some reason they would feel beholden to answer - but helped me develop the practical skills I needed to help people fight back.
And for 14 years, through six corporate owners and five managing editors, the Times Colonist gave me the freedom to write a column about whatever the heck I wanted, including one year – 2008 – when every column I wrote profiled the people living homeless in Victoria. It’s popular to say mean things about mainstream media, but much of the work I’ve done as a social activist would not have been possible were it not for the wonderful pulpit the so-called corporate media allowed me for all those years.
It took me a while to accept that I was becoming a social activist. Journalists are supposed to be dispassionate observers of the world, after all. But life just kept on pushing me in that direction, until one day I realized that I didn’t just want to write about the things that were going wrong for people, I wanted to do something about them. The shift came in 1996, the year I met an intense young woman named Cherry Kingsley who made me realize I had much to learn about the maligned, mistreated and profoundly judged people who work in the sex trade.
A year later, I spent an amazing two weeks travelling down the Island with the Tribal Journeys/Vision Quest paddlers and experienced an emotional transformation in my view of aboriginal culture.
In 2001, a group of impoverished people with severe addictions who called the Holiday Court Motel home welcomed me into their lives, and suddenly I started seeing human beings instead of “junkies.” In 2002, a two-month strike at the Times Colonist pushed me as close as I’ve ever come to a nervous breakdown, but at the same time showed me that I could live very comfortably on much less money - something that would ultimately free me up to make some very different decisions in my life.
In 2004, I came up to UVic on a whim to hear Stephen Lewis speak, and he asked the audience what WE were doing to make a difference. I thought, “What AM I doing?”
A few months later I quit my very comfortable, well-paid job as a full-time columnist and started work with PEERS Victoria, which led to three of the most powerful, enlightening, demanding, heartbreaking, character-building, hope-inducing, world-view-changing years of my life.
In 2007, I had the opportunity to work alongside people living on the edges of homelessness, and got to know some of the committed activists fighting to right one of the most shameful and unnecessary social wrongs in our country. This year, I finally made good on at least a decade of talking about cutting loose to wander the world, and moved to Honduras to experience a whole new set of profound social wrongs in need of righting. The gift of social justice work is that it opens your eyes, and once they’re open you’re going to experience life in any country in a very different way.
Every now and then people will kind of pat the back of my hand and say something along the lines of, “I could never do what you do.” They intend it as a compliment, but I have to tell you, I hear it as a copout. There’s nothing saintly or special about social justice – it’s just work. It’s just rolling up your sleeves and taking a little bit of the time you spend on your own pursuits to put toward the interests of somebody who needs an ally.
You don’t need any special training. So many of us underestimate the tremendous skill set we have just by way of growing up middle-class Canadians in loving families. You don’t need to be a miracle-worker. You just need to be the kind of person who shows up.
Social justice is the work of the collective – of hundreds, of thousands, of millions of people pushing a cause along in what might be heartbreakingly small increments over their lifetimes, recognizing that they could come to the end of their lives without ever knowing how the story ends. It’s not about heroes and saints, it’s about worker bees.
Change doesn’t come easily. Prejudice and judgment are quick to develop but incredibly difficult to eradicate. And nothing is harder than confronting your own stereotypes and prejudice, which is where it all begins.
Thank you to all the resisters out there who not only see a better way, but get that it’s up to us to help make it happen. Thank you so much for this tremendous honour. And now, back to work, because there’s still so much to do.