Social Justice Activism and the pursuit of low-hanging fruit

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An older picture of one of my sons at a political protest.

One of the questions that keeps popping up in my life is whether or not we should take the time for the low-hanging fruit or not. This comes up in activist issues. Do we spend time campaigning for something practical and possible like a $14 an hour minimum wage (giving Ontario workers 10% above the poverty line) or do we try to tackle the big problems like reforming capitalism? Do we worry about whether or not people on social assistance can pay their rent or do we try to stop the total transformation of the planet from global warming? What about worrying about increasing the amount of money someone on OW (social assistance) can earn before the money is “clawed back” in deductions from OW payments? How small a cause is too small to bother with?

Climate change is going to disrupt food supplies. It’s going to hurt those who have the least resources to fall back upon – those who cannot pick up and move to another location, pay higher prices for food or deal with the effects of the changing climate. So reducing climate change is an important thing to do, and I know some climate activists are motivated by their concern for those economically worse-off. I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t worry about the other little things like cuts to social assistance because none of that will matter if we don’t stop climate change, and that really bothers me. Yes, climate change might be the bigger scarier thing, but why dismiss the struggles of those on the brink of homelessness? Doesn’t the individual count for something?

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty won a victory over city-hall recently, with city hall agreeing to open more homeless shelters. (I think OCAP is amazing, and the one reason I’d love to live in Toronto would be to be a part of that group. Alas, I’m not there and can’t be.) In some ways this could be seen as “low hanging fruit” because it will provide barely adequate shelter to people rather than reforming the system so that people are not homeless. Yet it also brings to my mind the questions. Do we try to improve things because of our love for the people or because of our commitment to a dream-world, ideal? If we love the people and not our own vision then we have to recognize their lives can’t be put on hold for as long as it takes to reform everything. Efforts have to be made to grab the low hanging fruit and improve things now. At the same time everyone recognizes that the little improvements are never enough and we still have to keep those end goals in mind.

There are small battles that are winnable but that people will always wonder was it worth the cost? Are the little battles a distraction that keep us from working on changing the system behind it? Or do we need to fight the little battles anyway to:

  • encourage people to believe that success is possible
  • allow an accumulation of little battles to change the big picture
  • reaffirm the individuals whose lives are affected are worth something
  • keep those in power honest and accountable
  • prevent specific environmental damage being done

The big concern is with the small struggles is that they’re here just to keep us busy. Is it part of a game, so to speak, where those in power throw us small prizes to keep us struggling? The 42 million top up to the replacement for the Community Start-Up and Maintance Fund is a one-year only thing. That means we could fight all this year to try to get the same money for next year, or we could go on to some other struggle and the politicians can say they’ve solved the problem, that the one year top-up helped ease the transition and everything’s okay now. Winning a temporary victory can feel like a trap. Whether we put continued effort into having the victory extended or whether we stay quiet we cannot secure the victory and move onto other things.

How would we really change something? Can we get down to the core issues somehow and challenge the premises of austerity as the answer to the problems of our economic system?

Different people will have different passions and different people will be able to take actions in different ways, so in many cases I think people have to look for the cause where they personally can make a difference based on the type of action they can do. Some people can be busy growing gardens, establishing co-ops and supporting local farms. Some people can just sign petitions and write letters. Some can be out marching, or doing direct action. Some can be lobbying. Some goals are more amendable to different actions.

If you’re a petition or letter writing person from Ontario, I would encourage you to use the form at www.TogetherOntario.org, to send a message to our new Premier Kathleen Wynne. She was wearing an “I’m working for a poverty free Ontario” badge the other day, and she had said at some point she wants to be a Social Justice premier. We need to make sure she actually earns those and doesn’t just use the image to get re-elected. Also, April 8th – 15th is the province-wide week of action. I’ve linked to a page that has some good resources. If you can get out and attend an event in support please do, and if you can’t, please consider writing letters or making phone calls to your local politicians and to the provincial party leaders.

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