Incredible things can happen when engaged citizens come together to make change. Women at the Regent Park Community Food Centre in Toronto, Ontario, come together to share a meal and organize.
Over the holidays I was talking with my 18-year-old son about the consequences of climate change. He stopped me in my tracks when he asked the deceptively simple question: “Why do we allow people and corporations to pollute? We should just tell them they can’t.” He said it so matter-of-factly that I felt as if he was pointing a finger directly at me. How did you allow the destruction of the planet to accelerate on your watch, Dad?
Gulp. And while I felt pretty exposed, the conversation ultimately made me hopeful. Maybe this simple reasoning will be the modus operandi of future generations, particularly when it comes to business: If you have to wreak havoc on the planet and/or exploit workers (my addition) in order to prosper, then you don’t have a viable approach and we won’t allow you to continue.
And yet the part of the story my son and I didn’t get into that day might just be the most important. Who exactly is this “we” he was referring to and how will we establish this new world order?
I believe we are engaged citizens who care not only about our own well-being, but that of the communities and people around us, as well as the health of the planet we share.
We act individually, through the choices we make and the things we support with our feet, our likes and shares and buying power. When it comes to the world of food, we are the growing group who make our food purchases with health, fair wages and the environment in mind. We’re willing to pay a price that better reflects the true cost of bringing a fairer product to market.
Of course, not everyone can afford to play in this better food economy. Far too many low-income Canadians are forced to buy the cheapest, unhealthiest food and must face the ugly consequences: diet-related illness and shortened lives. As food writer Mark Winne succinctly puts it: “the rich get organic, while the poor get diabetes.”
That’s where the other part of the “who are we?” question comes in. Engaged citizens do more than act individually. We come together to push for progressive social policy and make sure there’s a place for everyone at the table. We come together through the people we elect, and the policies, regulations and laws we push for to ensure that no one gets left behind.
And yet, as we know, this we is increasingly fragmented. People are disengaged or demoralized by the political process.
The Role of the NGO Sector
It’s here, I think, that the NGO sector has an important opportunity. In the part of the sector I know best, social services, we work with the most marginalized people in our country. Every day we see the struggles and challenges our community members face. We are at the coal face of many of society’s most intractable problems. And people know it. They believe we’re doing important work. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, NGOs, including social services, are the most trusted institutions in Canada.
It’s time we embrace the role we can play in making sure the voices and issues of our communities are heard on that larger stage—the place where so many of the decisions that affect them so negatively are made. Our front-line work and the stories and voices we surface are our strength. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak out with the people in our communities and push for our core values—like dignity, inclusion, respect and justice—to be articulated in policy and law.
But we have been afraid. The “charity chill” experienced under previous governments (which targeted organizations committing time and effort to advocacy) has had a genuine impact on the sector as a whole. This, despite the fact that most charitable organizations in Canada never got anywhere close to using the 10 per cent maximum of their resources for suchpurposes.
We’ve also been busy. Front-line work is difficult and demanding and the people who work in our organizations can be swamped by the pressing needs of the communities they serve.
Pushing for Change in the Public Realm
But if there was ever a time to find ways to marry our grassroots experience with pushing for change in the public realm, it is now. We have a federal government that seems willing to listen. And Canadian citizens are ready. According to recent NANOS research, 84% of people say they have a concern about the gap between the rich and everyone else.
We have authentic voices deeply rooted in the needs and concerns of our most vulnerable citizens, and we need to use them.
We can start by building the goals of social change into the DNA of our organizations. That means including it in our mission statements and visioning, making sure pushing for policies and legislation that support our communities is at the core of who we are. Boards, of course, are critical. We must seek out people who reflect the diversity of our communities and who understand that their job is to push forward our vision of a more equitable, sustainable country through policy change.
On the staff front, we can create job descriptions that provide space for people to move beyond service delivery to become engaged in local and sector-wide coalitions and campaigns. At our Community Food Centres across the country, we’ve reserved resources for staff who are unencumbered by program delivery. These civic engagement coordinators support community members to surface, articulate and speak out around issues that affect them. They’ve had success working, for example, with people in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on increasing voter participation in elections and in Stratford, Ontario, on pushing the municipality to increase spending on social housing.
While devoting staff to this work is likely not possible in every organization, one small step in this direction could be to build in time at staff meetings so people can discuss the big picture concerns that arise in their front-line work and share what they’ve learned from others working on similar issues. It invigorates everyone when we can see that the work we do matters and is moving the dial on the things we care about.
Finally, and this may be the hardest part, we need to come together within our respective areas in the NGO sector, pooling resources and getting behind one another’s campaigns. Some you’ll lead, some you’ll support, but all of it will be pushing to build the kind of community and country we all want to see. Last fall, CFCC invited the well-known New York Times food writer and activist Mark Bittman to Toronto for a series of events, including a food activist meetup with people fighting for everything from school nutrition programs to farmworkers rights. It was an inspiring morning and I think most people left with a powerful sense that we are stronger together. Putting the idea of collaboration on key issues into action—when we’re all busy and understaffed and running a hundred kilometres an hour—is the hard part, but a goal absolutely worth striving for.
None of this, of course, is easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have been having that conversation about climate change with my teenage son at all. But now is the time for courage. We have the stories and voices that give credence and authority to calls for change. We have the passion, knowledge and experience. Of course it’s going to be hard. Politics is contested terrain. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that change happens when we fight for it. Let’s get fighting.
This article was originally published on the Lawson Foundation website.