The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: community

Want to Defeat Poverty? Take Time.

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ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.

We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.

It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.

And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.

Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.

It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.

We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.

Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.

Keeping a Community’s Soul Intact

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FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, LIBRARIES WERE LIKE CASTLES of private knowledge. Even then they contained thoughts and ideas that could be dangerous, forming part of the justification for invading armies to ransack and burn them to the ground. The reasoning was simple: destroy a culture’s collected memory and you can wipe out the culture itself.

Except it didn’t work that way. Memories and acquired wisdom are dynamic things that, when called upon, still empower a citizenry even when their books are taken away. And almost immediately they begin building places of knowledge again.

For that very reason libraries have to be permeable, fluid things. Civilizations ebb and flow, and as long as enlightenment and knowledge are essential to progress libraries will be found at the centre of community life – not because they house books, but because they house our collective spirit, assisting us to adapt.

Libraries have manifested themselves in public and private life in thousands of ways. I recall when former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told me of a remarkable library compiled and operated by the children of Auschwitz, recently mentioned in a New York Times article. Made up of only eight volumes, the books were hidden at night only to be distributed the next day – a moving story giving credence to Joan Bauer’s sage observation, “When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.” As long as those volumes lived, so did hope and enlightenment.

There are the lending libraries increasingly displayed in neighbourhood front yards, or those slowly built and donated by book clubs. All of these are just further indications that libraries of all sizes and forms are built to adapt to however knowledge is transmitted.

None of this is lost on London, Ontario’s civic council and administration as they work their way through budget deliberations. In greater numbers, citizens have been pulling together for causes. In neighbourhoods that gradual awakening has taken to our public libraries in search of ideas, conversation, engagement, and a convenient place to gather. In the past year alone formal gatherings have moved through the central and branch library buildings to discuss our relationship with the Thames River, to collect citizen input on issues like poverty and the environment, as a gathering place for the faith community to speak about financial equity and social justice, and for countless discussions on neighbourhood issues.

Far from receding into the shadows of their bookshelves, London’s libraries have emerged even further into public life as pivotal intersections of local democracy. At a time when financially strapped governments often respond to fiscal challenges by cutting funds for culture, libraries, perhaps London’s especially, remind us that when culture itself is mobilizing, citizens require publicly funded places to gather, talk, and learn more than ever. If we wish to strengthen our cities, libraries will stand at the core of that public work.

Our libraries aren’t mere structures, but experiments in community living that can never be truly completed because how people live together is ever in a state of flux. In the process, citizens themselves are evolving. One librarian put it years ago that when she entered the building first thing in the morning that she got the sense its shelves and atmosphere were breathing. That was because it reflected the growing dynamics of the community in which it found itself.

Author Toby Forward noted that, “Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down.” London’s libraries have flourished in part because they have not only caught the wave of civic renewal but have induced it. In so doing they have kept our city’s soul intact. Supporting our libraries still remains a revolutionary act – a direct signal to those in power that dynamic civic life requires energized citizens, and enlightened places in which they can gather. Libraries will remain as strong as citizens are engaged, and right now they are teeming.

The Shelter of Each Other

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THIS CONUNDRUM OF HOMELESSNESS IN CANADA has become an exquisitely painful exercise. Over a number of decades we watched from a distance as it first emerged in our larger cities, then became something of an embarrassment to civic, provincial, and federal leaders. It is a part of the Canadian landscape that we understand doesn’t match our worldwide appeal or our domestic ideals.

At crucial moments during that journey (an excruciating trek for those who are actually homeless) the subtle compromise was reached that it was a problem that needed to be managed as opposed to solved – a subtle admission that the distance between our compassionate ideals and our desire for an affluent life was unbridgeable.

For those living without a secure place for shelter the disillusionment has grown from sad to historic. Almost three decades of promises from all sorts of special commissions, anti-poverty plans, and budget reallocations only resulted in a sense of hopelessness as such plans fell away into failure. Author Craig Stone poignantly expressed the irony in his The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness: “I want to avoid people because there’s only one thing worse than being homeless, and that’s people who are not, knowing that you are.”

But maybe things are changing. The understanding that the decision to manage homelessness through the use of transitional housing or shelter only resulted in a growing problem is growing in local communities. And a sense of collective failure has grown evident in the knowledge that homeless people themselves are required to jump through endless hoops, checks, program requirements, and interviews.

In London, Ontario, along with many other communities across the world, there is emerging the understanding that leaving people homeless and isolated has merely left them hopeless and insecure. In many of these communities it is now common practice to not only collaborate to find secure housing, but to also provide wraparound services that can be somewhat tailored to the needs and challenges of the person.

It all really comes down to relationships – those between the homeless themselves and those seeking to assist. And it’s a mobile relationship, traveling with the person so as the work through their many challenges on the way to secure and safe housing – an absolutely essential ingredient for those struggling under mental illness and addictions.

It’s vital in all this to understand that such action moves from managing homelessness to actually providing housing – secure environments where individuals, perhaps even with their families, can begin the ongoing process of rebuilding their lives, one step at a time. Peer reviewed studies in the United States have revealed that when the right supports are put in place, nine out of ten clients eventually don’t return to their previous homeless state. This isn’t mere experimentation, but a proven model for sincere change that is more affordable than what presently exists.

But it’s more than that. It’s about entire communities taking back their future in the desire of including every citizen on the way. Many sincere advocates press for at least getting people off the streets and into temporary shelters in the hopes of ending homelessness. It is a process that doesn’t provide a home, but also leaves the individuals without needed supports.

The proper place for those struggling on our streets is not in shelters but in the community by means of secure and supportive housing. It’s this kind of community welcome that can help a homeless individual know that we understand that they require something more than mere walls and a roof. They need a community that enfolds them into its midst by means of integrated programs that care for the entire person. It is time to begin living out the old Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other than the people live.”

Setting Folks a-Twitter

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TWITTER IS FEELING THE PAIN, and it’s not a conclusion based on mere conjecture. Three years ago everyone seemed to be migrating in its direction – the BIG THING. For a time it was the creative public space that its founders designed it to be and people found a voice for their opinions and ideas.

Yesterday we learned that the company has fallen from a worth of $40 billion (US) to $10 billion (US), in just three years. Twitter wasn’t just a good platform for communicating; it attracted investors, too. But that’s changing, as both money and opinions seem to be moving off in other directions.

In dedicated fashion Twitter is trying to reverse the slide, with its main response being shifting tweets from linear to an algorithmic feed. That means moving entries from a sequential and timeline flow to one in which the new algorithm will attempt to figure out what you’re interested in and put them on your screen, oftentimes out of sequential order, like Facebook does. It’s a change that could come as early next week, but it runs the risk of alienating users even faster if it doesn’t take. We wish them well in such a competitive environment.

But there is another reality that forms the company’s greatest present threat, and if they refuse to effectively deal with it the slide will continue. Specifically it’s about their management of abuse, the kind that dehumanizes people, especially women, and seeks to make everything personal and degrading. In frequent conversation with Twitter users in these past few weeks, this grievance more than any other – exponentially more – has been what is getting folks to consider leaving the app altogether, as many we know have already done.

It has taken time for the company to come to grips with the fact that there’s no point in defending free speech if people are already leaving the public space because of the hatred – a kind of democracy without people.

It’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t all Twitter’s fault. We, the users, the contributors, gave the haters a wide berth and they ran with it, poisoning the well in the process. Tom Goodwin, senior vice president of Havas Media and someone who knows the industry well, called us out on our lack of diligence this past week when he wrote:

“If content is king, we need a revolt and someone needs to kill him. We are currently drowning in excess information and have decided to let it drown us. We don’t have time to appreciate that we’re swamped with crap we don’t want. When we decided that the internet needed to be funded with our eyeballs and not money, when we gave every person a camera, told them they were gifted, when we made publishing easier, when we invited everyone to participate, when every brand thought it had a story to tell, we created the greatest depository of absolute crap the world has ever known, the internet in 2016.”

These words are hard to receive specifically because within them is a strong measure of truth. Twitter provided us the opportunity to inform one another, but in our belief in tolerance we let people in the door that actually demeaned other human beings in ways that are not only tragic, but immoral. And then we grew disillusioned with the company because of the toxic environment that was being created. Yet Twitter was supposed to be about us and our ability to interact effectively and responsibly online. It was our tool, our potential, our way ahead for refining ourselves – individually and collectively.  It is citizens themselves who can save Twitter since it was ultimately our medium to begin with.  We permitted its degrading; we can cooperate in its renaissance.

In it all there is a lesson on human nature: hatred and dehumanization aren’t merely the opposite of love and respect, but are the natural byproducts of a lack of diligence in the public space, just as in politics. It is better to be mindful of our thoughts and opinions than to tolerate online words that sacrifice our self-respect and that of others.

I’m pulling for Twitter to recalibrate itself because it still can enable the best in us. But until it treats online abuse seriously and we, its users, learn to effectively guard our own actions and words, the continued decline is inevitable.

Election 2015 and the One-Percent

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IT WAS ONLY A WEEK AGO THAT PUNDITS were arguing if “change” was really a factor in the campaign. Things weren’t shaking up much and parties appeared to be in a kind of holding pattern. Not anymore. Movement is showing up in the polling numbers and a sense of new life is emerging in this long campaign season. Voter sentiment is getting aroused and now media coverage is talking about change in its stories.

Will it be enough to set us in a new direction as a country? If you asked someone like American activist Ralph Nader you might be encouraged by his answer. Honoured by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century, Nader thinks that citizens really have to think this moment through.

“It all comes down to this question: Are enough people going to take the reins of a democratic society, move it right into the electoral arena, and then reflect sensible majority public opinion, which already exists, despite party propaganda.”

Nader figures that if just 1% of citizens who weren’t mere political robots but people interested in finding common ground would join forces and tell candidates and leaders what kind of country they wanted that the political momentum would swing in favour of a consensus. That seems impossible, yet he conducted a large study in 2012 that provided that 1% figure – “even less than 1% could do it,” he maintains.

He reasons that candidates themselves don’t know how to handle such a development. “They are very used to controlling the process, trivializing it, turning people off. They don’t care if they turn people off if it’s in the form of cynicism, because cynicism means withdrawal. In that sense, we then leave the control to the political power players and nothing changes.”

Nader believes that two key activities are required by those seeking to find commonalities across party lines: 1) if 1% of the people become very engaged in civic life; and 2) if this same group gathered together and publicly reflected on the areas of what he calls “public sentiment.”

To support that premise, he points out that at least 24 issues are supported by “heavy majorities” of people from the Left and the Right. They include challenges such as electoral reform, climate change, a higher minimum wage, even action on poverty that are supported by some 70-80% of citizens, not politicians. Why, then, can’t we put a civil coalition of something like that together that would effectively challenge the political class, moving it closer to compromise? It’s actually an action plan that could have some serious effect, but the reality is that citizens don’t know how to go about it.

Nader throws cold water on the sentiment that politics is no longer where the real action is. “But that is where the action’s at. Why are the lobbyists all over Congress if they believe politics is ineffective?” He’s right. If a lawful country can have its history altered by powerful interests that fight to alter legislation in their favour, then it makes sense that such forces would get as close to the place of lawmaking as possible.

And there’s the rub. Citizens don’t make laws; their elected representatives do. But if citizens and voters don’t remain in contact with the political process, it is inevitable that other powerful interests will fill in the vacuum left by their absence. If Nader is even close to right about the 1% number, we are far closer to renewing democracy than we realize and we could cast a long shadow.  But it will take citizens who search for a place of compromise as opposed to a partisanship of contention. It’s there, right in front of us. Only 350,000 collaborative citizens (1% of our population, or the size of London, Ontario) could get it done.

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