talking politics

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I went last night to a wonderful event put on by a grassroots media collective. They wanted to encourage local writers and local activists. There was lots of good conversations. It was helpful for me as a younger person to hear the stories of activists who have been involved for multiple decades and to see that the struggles have been ongoing. There was some frusturation and despair expressed at times as people talked about how people feel so powerless and how young people today are faced with bleak futures. There was acknowledgement that we are seeing the slow effects of long time problems such as underfunding of youth programs. Yet there was also hopeful talk. It was also inspiring to think about the multiple ways in which people are working to create change.

I was one of six guest speakers, and the following is the basis of what I said (expanded a bit to include ideas brought up in the conversations.)

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Figuring out what to say for tonight hasn’t been easy for me, because I was told to speak on values that I think we need more of here in Sudbury, and every time I think of what I could say I think also of some person or organization acting out those values. Sudbury is a great community. There are lots of very active caring people here. But there are a few things I’d like to talk about. I’d like to talk about the need to get more people talking politics, and at the same time, the need to expand people’s understandings of politics.

Politics isn’t just about political parties, its about how society is organized, how resources are distributed and how we understand our social contract with one another. Politics is about whether we see social assistance as a drain on our public finances or whether we see it as a social safety net for everyone, ourselves always potentially included. It is about whether we see ourselves as consumers who may want longer shopping hours or whether we stand in solidarity with employees who don’t want to have to be finding late night childcare while on irregular schedules.It is about whether we prioritize the quick car-based schedules many of us are used to or whether we recognize that we need to be preparing the infrastructure for more sustainable lifestyles.

I think those types of things could and should be talked about. We need it talked about, and acted upon even by those who in organizations scared of losing their funding. Otherwise we as a community lose the knowledge and insight they could be bringing to the table. While these groups cannot be partisan, they can hopefully continue to promote the ideological foundations we need. Here in Sudbury I know there is a health centre that takes a wide view of what health is, acknowledging that the economic and social situations people are in is a major determinate of health. We need more groups like that.

Probably the topics that are municipally based are easier to see as non-political, and able to be talked about, because municipal politics doesn’t have political parties, but we need to talk more about the underlying values of provincial and federal issues too. There’s a saying, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist” and we need to challenge that and get people talking about the big issues, even if it feels daring and political to do so.

We need bravery. We need bravery to be willing to be identified with groups of people – like the poor – who are often criticized in the public media. As long as society embraces the mistaken idea that poverty is the individual’s fault – the result of of the individuals own choices –  people will be hesitant to fight for the rights of the poor, for fear of being identified with it. Being active also means being in public eye, at least to some extent, and that means drawing criticism to oneself. We need courage to risk that and we need courage to change the rhetoric so people are talking more about the structural causes of poverty.

We need solidarity. We are all in the same boat. If social assistance cannot function as a safety net providing a livable social wage, the large corporations will be able to offer us unlivable wages. Just as unions improve the conditions for non-unionized workers, raising the conditions for those on social assistance helps to improve the working conditions of those employed. Sudbury is a union town and good at recognizing the importance of unions, but we need to recognize the importance to of those who cannot work or cannot find work.

I love seeing so many familiar faces at activities in Sudbury, but I’d like to see more different people getting involved in the pursuit for a more just, sustainable society and I wonder what we need to do to address the concerns that hold people back. One of the things I heard too much of in Occupy Sudbury was an assumption that if everyone didn’t agree completely they were “not aware of what is going on” or worse yet “sheeple,” a combination of sheep and people. We need to banish that type of language form our vocabularies and accept that people are at different places.

We need respectful persuasion, and at times agreement to disagree on specific things rather than attempt to draw boundaries around who is aware of what is going on in the world and who isn’t. Speaking now to those identifying as activists, we have to make space within activist communities for people who want in some ways to still be mainstream. We need concrete actions they can take, since taking action allows a person to feel invested in something and will encourage them to think and talk about it more. We can’t see ourselves as right and everyone else as wrong and just leave it that way, sink or swim we’re in it together and we have to value others and try to pull them along with us, listening to their concerns and learning from them too.

But this is about values, so I want to put this in terms of values. I think we need to value and appreciate the wisdom all people bring to the table. We need to be a community constantly learning from one another, listening and challenging one another to think about things differently. Accepting differences of opinions doesn’t mean accepting misinformation or rumors spread about as fact. We do need to challenge one another. We need to value political questions and the time spent questioning the assumptions underlying our political ideals. We need to talk politics and do politics, bravely and determinedly.

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