The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: neighbourhoods

Poverty in Canada Has a Woman’s Face

woman misery

FOUR YEARS AGO I ATTENDED AN INTERNATIONAL poverty forum with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  We had been cooperating on an initiative for helping African girls to stay in school and he was a forceful proponent for equal opportunities in that continent for men and women.

At one point he was asked what would be the one thing that he could do, if he had it in his power, to get rid of African poverty.  It was a big question, but his answer was bigger: “Invest in the women of every African country.”  The silence following that response was deafening because everyone in that room was seasoned in international development and Blair’s solution was almost breathtaking in its simplicity and scope.

It’s easy to talk about poverty among women on other continents – the stats confront of us everyday and are daunting.  When we close our eyes and think about the desperately poor it is inevitable that the image of a woman and her child come to mind.

What image do we envision when we think of the increasing poverty problem in Canada?  I asked four people that question yesterday and nothing particular came to mind.  Somehow we have delinked low-income existences with women and as a result Canadian poverty remains somewhat ethereal to us all.  Consider some of these stats:

  • With the recent economic crisis, some 4.8 millions Canadians are poor.  Of that number
  • 36% of Aboriginal women are mired in poverty
  • 35% of visible minority women are poor
  • 26% of the poor are women with disabilities
  • 21% are single parent mothers (7% of single parent fathers are poor)
  • Of senior single women 14% have fallen into poverty

Canada’s poverty rate ranks us 20th out of 31 OECD countries.  When you consider the data on women in poverty the numbers are even worse.  We continue to hear how Canada came out of the economic downturn better off that other developed nations, but when seen through the lens of women in challenging situations, that’s a bit difficult to accept.  Some intrepid women economists continually remind world leaders that economic inequality between men and women reached it highest points in 1929 and 2007, directly preceding the two worst financial meltdowns in the past 100 years.  When we increasingly get equality wrong, it’s inevitable that we’ll be in a world of hurt as a nation.

Following the London Food Bank’s announcement last week that it was researching closing its doors in order to find better solutions within neighbourhoods where families could get better care, there were numerous responses – most, I’m happy to say, were highly positive.  The fiercest critic was a London woman who has had a good life and who feels it shouldn’t be too much to ask for people to travel across town to the food bank.  She gracefully listened to some key points in return.

  • 80% of all lone parent families are headed by women (over 1 millions families)
  • Single moms have a net worth of roughly $17,000, while for single dads it’s around $80,000
  • The vast majority of children living in poverty are cared for by their mother, so if it’s true that kids who are poor suffer from higher rates of asthma, diabetes, mental health issues, and even heart disease, then it stands to reason that the chief burden bearer of all these ills is the mother.  The load is staggering.
  • Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they had stayed with that partner
  • 70% of part-time workers and 66% of minimum wager earners are women
  • Women who were in similar job situations receive only 71% of what a man makes
  • Women spend almost twice as much time doing unpaid work as men

Look, I’m not trying to pile it on here, but numbers like these are compelling enough to cause us to make some economic changes.  That’s what happened to this woman I was speaking with.  When I got to the part about a single mom’s net worth being only $17,000, she broke down, telling me that her daughter was in just such a predicament.  Three hours later the same woman knocked at our front door, handed me a box of baby formula, and signed a generous cheque to the food bank. 

What changed her mind?  Not my words, for sure.  It was just the sheer numbers, the weight of acquired evidence, that reminded her that millions of women like her actually weren’t really like her at all.  They had little opportunity, precious few resources, limitations on access, and, ironically, little time to pass judgments on others.  They are just trying to survive.

When these women approach us at the food bank, telling us of the massive challenges they face each day, are we destined to just sit there, nod, and remind them that they can always come to us for assistance?  Given the weight of such evidence, is it not our responsibility to permit them to face challenges in their own neighbourhoods, where their children play and go to school, and a broader range of supports are available?

The London Food Bank’s announcement of last week is little less than taking the war on women’s poverty seriously, even calling for community change.  Our city can no longer accept families facing a system-wide poverty when better ways can be researched, discovered, and enabled.

Tony Blair’s response that day should leave us just as speechless.  If we’re serious about poverty, then we’d be better prepare ourselves to fight for a woman’s right to a better world.  They are already in the trenches and we must meet them where they live.

Cheers For Fears


PARDON THE CHANGE OF WORDING REGARDING the famous new wave band Tears for Fears, but somehow it seemed suitable over these past few days.

Last week was like few others for those of us associated with the London Food Bank.  Following 28 years of service to our community, we decided the time was right to consider a new way of doing things, of helping those we traditionally assist to find a more dignified way of getting food than lining up at a food bank.

We had known this key moment would be coming for the past couple of years, but now that it had arrived we wondered how our community would react.  Some of it we already knew, through detailed discussions over the last two years with various agencies and institutions who, like us, felt there had to be a better way.  What if we could actually establish cheaper food venues (markets, co-ops, etc.) where our clients, instead of acquiring some $400 of food over the average year, could actually save thousands of dollars by accessing cheaper foodstuffs through these new locations closer to where they lived?  It was an intriguing question.  We would always keep the warehousing part of the operation going, along with food drives and donations, to collect food for the 25 other social agencies we consistently help, but the direct service part of what we were doing would slowly be moved out closer to where those struggling in poverty actually lived.  It made sense to a lot of groups, especially since London has recently launched a food charter designed specifically to bring about such changes.

But what of the broader public, or those businesses that have faithfully supported us over the years?  Would they be offended and perhaps stop giving?  The best way to find that out is to launch the initiative, provide information for the rationale, and wait to see the result.

We didn’t have to wait long.  No sooner had the media published the news than texts, emails, and phone calls began pouring in.  That very afternoon we attended a business venue where former Prime Minister Paul Martin was speaking.  We wondered what to expect.  Almost immediately we were met with handshakes and congratulations for attempting to break the cycle of poverty and for innovating in a time when our city feels stuck in ambivalence and negativity.

Now, a few days later, we have come to understand that our city is looking for change.  Across so many different sectors, leaders have opted to bypass our political dysfunction and take matters into their own hands.  Much grassroots work has been done in recent years and these individuals feel the time is right to grow our community from within instead of waiting for some ultimate, and perhaps impossible, political solution.  The steps we have just taken as a food bank have to be seen in that larger context – the desire for change is popping up everywhere.

In our 28 years of operation we have never experienced such a strong and positive response to any of our other announcements or initiatives.  Instinctively, local citizens know that for food banks, which were supposed to be temporary, to take on a growing role each and every year, was to give a kind of subtle admission that we couldn’t change our own fate, that poverty, and those living in it, were doomed to be an escalating sector in our city.  This they could not bring themselves to accept, and so they have opted to support those initiatives designed to give a sense of independence, dignity, and a sense of equal citizenship.  It has perhaps been the most heartening response we could have expected.

I’ve been our food bank co-director for the entire duration of the organization.  I have grown, been humbled, and learned during all those years.  But I am also getting older, so much so that I have come to expect pain and a sense of loss as I age.  And yet every so often I find myself delightfully surprised by those small miracles that make community living so worthwhile.  I was surprised and overcome in these past few days by a city that doesn’t quit and that believes to collaborate for the sake of those struggling to make ends meet is perhaps the highest civic honour.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote: “Do something every day that scares you.”  Well, after almost three decades we decided to take on a whopper and it left us biting our nails.  But when our community gathered around in encouragement, fear gave way to thankfulness and expectation.

I have always been moved by the sentiment expressed by poet and mystic Rumi: “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”  We have always loved this major undertaking of our lives at the food bank.  But this past week we have discovered anew that we are not alone in that love, but that it is a citizen right and responsibility shared by a deeply compassionate community.  So, yes, any fears we may have entertained concerning how Londoners would respond to this food bank change have been allayed by a sense of collective cheer when we acknowledge that we are our own solution and will write our own story that will include everyone. 

Identity – Romancing the Community

communityIt’s Valentine’s Day. Many things to many people, it nevertheless finds a certain commonality in that romance can be as universal as it is secluded and intimate. I’m taking Jane to our favourite restaurant for lunch and then we’re going for a walk through the neighbourhood we love – just the two of us. I feel a certain thrill about it, even hours before our special date.

I hope it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that people can possess such feelings about their community, their neighbours, their place in the land.  Some are just wired this way. They can’t build a life around themselves for the simple reason that they desire a world greater than themselves.  Put simply: they love the place wherein they live.  For all its flaws and drawbacks, such things can’t seem to still the desire to make it a better place.

In a very real and motivated sense they have a romantic relationship with their community, so much so that it forms a part of their identity.  Just like in all romance, attraction is not an option. Just as our eyes fall on that special someone we desire to spend time with, others view their community through a hue of desire and promise.

The essence of romance isn’t about getting something for yourself, but that of abandon – the giving of oneself because it simply can’t be helped.  It’s very much as Jane Austen wrote in Love and Friendship: “The very first moment I beheld him, my heart was irrevocably gone.” Some view their community in just this way. They grow comfortable in its familiarity and disturbed at its shortcomings. They “ask not” what their community can possibly do for them, but how they might dedicate themselves to better where they live – just as John Kennedy said. Their heart belongs in their community.

In remains true that every community, every city, town, grouping of small farms, possesses an identity greater than the sum total of its parts.  It is from this that intention, action, and social development flow.  Identity isn’t just about who we are, but what is it within us that can make us even better.  Far too much of our individual existences are about what we eat, where we go, whom we date, care for family, love of institutions.  Such things compel us to turn aside and take notice. But when all these have had their influence on us there is yet a broader calling that tugs at our minds and reminds us of our place in the larger context.

As with any relationship, being romantic is arduous work. We have to be willing to fight if a love story is to last.  Many citizens pour their hearts into things that matter to them only to lose the impulse over time due to distraction, lack of response, or just the fatigue of living. Many marriages end up this way.  The relationship between a community and its members can too.  Citizenship is about toil, not just celebration. Collective self-discipline is about dedication, not just delight.  Ultimately our communities must be about passion and not just patterns or habits of living.

In the end, our professions of love for our respective communities will be proved by our actions of compassion, of justice, cooperation and sacrifice.  Should we seek success for ourselves but in the process forget about the progress of our community then our passionate ardour is suspect.  If our goals for ourselves don’t include the aspirations and needs of others in the regions where we live then romance cannot survive.  “The citizen at his or her essence can’t really progress until there is a rising above the narrow confines if individuality to the broader concerns of all humanity.”  Know who said that?  Martin Luther King Jr., and he knew something about fighting for the Dream.

So on this, Valentine’s Day, let’s see if our hearts are big enough to look beyond our romantic inclinations, beyond those closest to us.  C. S. Lewis used to say that romantic love is about looking in at one another whereas friendship is about looking out in the same direction, together.  Do we possess that capacity?  For if we do, love and romance for community will find their proper place in our personal lives.  Must we always give precedence to financial gain and an odd sense of market determinism over the welfare of our neighbours and our broad public values?  This is a political question as much as it is a personal one.

In so many senses we are what we are passionate about.  Romance should ultimately expand our reach – people deeply in love often draw others into their joy.  So here’s to our communities on Valentine’s Day and their ability to enamour us, challenge us, and in the end pull us out of our limited surroundings to a public place of broader passion.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

Identity – If You Eat, You’re In

jpp1168bCommon vernacular says we are “what” we eat. There’s truth in that, but it’s actually how we organize ourselves in the pursuit of food, which all of us require, that can surely set us apart as a community with a unique identity. This isn’t about supporting your local food bank. Instead, it’s about how we’ve permitted our collective identity to be decided for us by a modern food system that is inefficient, dangerous to our health, expensive, and ultimately alienating. How we change that paradigm as a community will largely determine who we are as a people. For if we are citizens blithely transporting ourselves to food stores on the periphery of our city, buying the same products, looking at the endless array of packaging, then ultimately transporting all that packaging to our landfills, we have become automatons – following where we are led.

This seems to be the standard pattern in my city of London, Ontario, but actually it isn’t. Citizens are realizing that how we eat is of equal importance to what we digest. They are figuring out that community gardens are a means of acquiring needed and healthy foodstuffs. Local farmers permit citizens to use land to grow produce for those in need. Londoners are using their influence as consumers to begin supporting local markets that sell local products. And what they are all discovering in the process is that this new food system is actually bringing them together, just as food always has from the beginning.

Consider the town of Tadmorden, England. It had many concerns about the modern food system, just as we do, but they also understood that their community was growing apart, vulnerable to global forces that seemed like a juggernaut. Some citizens got together, traveled through the town, and made plans to turn it into a moveable feast. They used parkways beside streets to plant produce gardens. They even turned the land in front of their police station into part of the local food supply chain. They altered the curriculum of the local high school to include new ideas of food sourcing and school land to make it work.

You can see all this in the video below, but what is so remarkable about it is that local citizens didn’t ask for a study plan, research project, or city funds – they just did it. They didn’t ask for permission; instead, they got local institutions onside and today the village of Tadmorden looks more like a living, breathing orchard than a concrete or asphalt jungle.

This is what citizens do when they grow weary of others telling them how they must order their lives. They live in communities for a reason, visit with neighbours for a reason, and adjust their kids to their environs for a reason.  Our communities are ours to grow and develop, or waste and neglect – it’s up to us.

In the last few weeks I have met some remarkable people who are attempting to bring the miracles of places like Tadmorden about in London, Ontario.  There is only one problem: the establishment isn’t interested – not really. We are surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world but have somehow permitted cement to become our land of choice. We are asphalting over farmland at the same time as our citizens are breaking up parking lots to make room for community growing plots. It’s all a kind of insanity that reflects poorly on all of us.

Jim Rutten is a new friend of mine. He not only designed a sustainable food security system for a community, he built it and made it work in Cape Breton. Now back on the family farm outside of London, he is attempting to find new ways to bring citizens back into the natural food chain.  Hundreds of other engaged citizens are involved in similar efforts around whole food systems.  I have met apartment dwellers growing produce on their balconies, and building owners growing gardens on their roofs. I have discovered farmers desirous of bring healthier food into the city and citizens willing to travel to those farms to help with the effort. I have enjoyed breakfast at a local market on Saturday mornings with my daughter only to discover hundreds of families doing the same thing in fresh food markets throughout the city.

London, Ontario has a food charter, a food network, and a fertile food base. But the components remain largely separate from one another. Many have waited for the City to bring it all together, giving it resources and profile. They wait in vain. This isn’t about funding; it’s about food. It’s about healthy produce and meats and their ability to draw communities back together in ways that are not only meaningful but which help us to define a new generation of citizens.

Throughout the city I have found people standing at the ready – already leaps ahead of established leaders in innovating around a local food system. It’s time we just started by supporting these champions. Should we coordinate our efforts of how we eat, we will discover that food is the great gatherer, the great empowerer of any community in transition. Look at the video below and tell me it can’t be done. You can’t. It doesn’t require City Hall or government funding. It only needs us, and our ability to remake ourselves, and our identity, as a community.

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