Guest post: We can do better than tolerance

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Tolerance is more than the mere absence of oppression, discrimination, violence or exclusion. In fact, if we see tolerance as only the absence of the worst that we can do to one another, we’re setting the bar way too low. As a community, we can do so much better than that.

Tolerance is an attitude, value or belief. Each and every person carries an attitude or belief about tolerance and it is powerful enough to guide our behaviour and actions towards others, every day. These behaviours and actions have the power to include or exclude, accept or marginalize, support or degrade, welcome or dismiss.

At a recent workshop I attended, the facilitator, Nouman Ashraf used this image to illustrate a broader spectrum of attitudes ranging from intolerance to engagement. I think you can see where this is going…..

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Image from 2013 Workshop with Nouman Ashraf (Research Fellow, Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking, Rotman School of Management University of Toronto)

In it’s highest form, our attitudes toward one another looks a lot like engagement – meet one another where we’re at, listen to one another with interest and curiosity and seek first to understand rather than to be understood – then  we can’t help but move away from mere tolerance toward affirmation and engagement. It’s easy to say you accept all differences in others – that’s what we’re taught, right? However, it’s only when you engage directly with another person from outside your own personal experience that you find yourself being tripped up by your neatly packaged, ‘accepting-of-all’ attitudes.

Let me illustrate. I’m a community development worker. I’ve worked in communities and neighbourhoods for 20 years – locally, provincially and internationally. Despite my biases and judgements (we all have them!) I think I’m a pretty open and accepting person, striving toward engagement where ever my path intersects with others – although, maybe you disagree!

When a homeless man pitched a tent behind the shed at my neighbourhood community garden this summer, I, and my fellow neighbours were tripped up, falling head first over our notions of community, intolerance, tolerance, civility and engagement. We struggled to know how to respond but in the end, we chose to engage. Within a day of his tent appearing, many of us were on a first name basis. We talked. We shared stories. We learned histories. We shared food and water because it was a hot August, and, he was homeless. He began to feel responsible for watching over the garden at night. We learned how to help where we could. We found ways to contribute to each other’s well-being.

The story of our garden friend doesn’t have a perfect, happy ending, but the experience is one that kicks my psyche every day. Did I respond with whole-hearted engagement? Not always. Did I support the responses and actions of my fellow neighbours?  Not entirely.

But I did learn this: no matter how open, accepting or engaging I think I am, there is always more internal work to be done to make my actions and behaviour more consistent with my attitudes and beliefs.

In fact, I’m reminded of the Look Deeper campaign from the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, where I currently work in – what else – community engagement. We are more than our appearances, our current circumstances, or the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives.

And it’s up to me, and you, to change our own perceptions so that we can move beyond mere tolerance of our differences toward affirmation and engagement.

JUANITAworthy_Poster

Author: Juanita Metzger, Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council

A lifelong resident of Waterloo Region, Juanita lives in a vibrant Kitchener neighbourhood where residents are actively engaged in sustainability projects and education, neighbourhood parties and social events, urban agriculture and knit nights – a connected community indeed.

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