Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part one


Today’s post is the first of three reflections on giving, the holidays, and the work that we do at House of Friendship. In this post I discuss how generous folks can support us doing our work today while also supporting our longer term vision of a community where all can belong and thrive: a community where nobody needs to use food banks. Part two in this series is a guest post, a meditation on being caught in the middle of donors and patrons. 

House of Friendship’s 12 Days for Good campaign is over and our annual Potato Blitz is well under way. Our 12 local “Do-Gooders” have shared their stories, and we hope you have been inspired by their hard work to ‘do good’ in 2015—so far 457 folks have signed on to do good this year. In a way, then, 12 Days for Good is still going.

I know that many people, especially during the holiday season, want to “do good.” But how? If they’re anything like me, this is when things get complicated, when wondering about the ‘how’ turns into basic existential worrying that becomes, sometimes, paralyzing.

Walking in solidarity

At House of Friendship we talk regularly about “walking with” members of our community so that all can “belong and thrive.” This idea excites me because it implies solidarity. “Solidarity is not the same as support,” says feminist writer bell hooks. “To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood.” On the other hand, “Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.”


This is a tall order, and some argue it still doesn’t go far enough.

Nonetheless, I think solidarity is a good place to start, and is a useful guiding principle as we think about doing good—and supporting organizations like HOF whose mission is to do good.

So what am I talking about?

As hooks puts it, “to experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite.” Doing good from this perspective means taking a deeper or longer term view of the problem at hand. It means recognizing that we’re all in this together, that our fates are intertwined. It’s not as simple as “I could be you, and you could be me,” because there are certain experiences (like driving while black) I just won’t have as a white guy with lots of education. But it might be as simple as recognizing that many of us are food insecure, and many more of us are close.

It is my right!?

So food security represents an opportunity for solidarity. We all have a right to food, and we all want to be food secure. Nobody should die young or develop a chronic illness because they don’t have access to real, nutritious food. So far, so good?


In Canada, we do not have a legal right to food, exactly. As Canadians we are committed to the idea in some obvious situations while avoiding responsibility in many others. We support the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Your basic human rights are enshrined in our constitution and are protected by courts and our government. But if you find yourself out of work, or homeless or otherwise in a difficult situation, you cannot go to court to make sure your right to food is respected in the same way you can to make sure your freedom of expression or opinion or the security of your person is.  You can get some basic help through programs like social assistance (Ontario Works in this province) but often, unless you are extremely resourceful, once you have paid your rent, there is very little left over to cover essential things like food.

False choices

By choosing as a society to keep social assistance rates so low we create a situation where families must choose between good food and other major human needs like housing, and even things like medicine, which is obviously not a real choice at all.  In doing so, we continue to say–to our neighbours–that we do not think they have a right to food. Their life choices (to drop out of high school for example) and sheer random chance (a car accident, or being born into a low income household) forfeits their right to food.

I work at an emergency food hamper program. We provide emergency food to members of our community living on a low income. We started–like food banks everywhere started–as a temporary band-aid response to an economic recession. We are still a band-aid solution, but charitable food assistance programs  are now firmly entrenched “as an adjunct to publicly funded social assistance programs.” Many of our program patrons are referred here by their Ontario Works (a.k.a. “welfare”) or Disability Support Program case workers, who know that social assistance rates are not enough to live on.

Maybe this is controversial, but to me the only responsible way for us to think about the work we are doing is that we should be working ourselves out of business. Here I’m assuming that, all other things equal, communities that don’t need food banks are preferable to communities that do. I’m also assuming you agree.

So how can you effectively support non-profits like ours who want to put themselves out of business?

I’m not saying we don’t need your help, because we do, or that we don’t appreciate the overwhelming generosity that enables us to ‘do good,’ because, again, we do.

But we are not equipped to end poverty, which is the real reason people need our help. As Iglika Ivanova put it, you don’t fix a leaky roof by mopping up the puddles. Rather, we should be thinking upstream:

In her article “Socks are not enough: Social justice lies upstream from charity,” the street nurse Cathy Crowe explains how she responds to folks who ask her how they can help, or ‘do good.’ Her response is simple, formulaic, and “based on the notion that social justice involves more than charity. Socks are not enough.”

Her “equation is … one-third plus one-third plus one-third and it’s a formula for social justice not charity.

It’s a framework that can help you think about your personal response to any social justice issue. You can use this equation if you work on the local, national or global level on homelessness, hunger, climate change, violence against women — you name it.”

As she puts it, “the formula ingredients could be your time, your energy, your passion, your creativity, your letter writing or some other skill, your donations including your money.”

So, “one-third of those ingredients to the downstream solutions that are the services and programs that directly help homeless people, one-third to the upstream solutions that include affordable housing, and last but not least allocate one-third to the advocacy efforts for immediate and long-term solutions.”

We are a downstream solution. So is a place like St. John’s Kitchen. Each day we meet people who need something to eat, so we need your help.  What would help today? Fresh food, peanut butter, baby items, and other nutritionally rich foods. It never hurts to ask what we need on a particular day.

Further upstream you will find affordable housing advocacy groups like the Housing and Homelessness Umbrella Group, and organizations like Mennohomes. We need more affordable housing in the Region because “people are better able to move forward with their lives if they are first housed.” You could volunteer with the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable, or attend one of their meetings to join their efforts to address some of the bigger medium term issues of access to food and sustainable food systems where producers and consumers benefit.

Living Wage Waterloo Region is another upstream organization doing great work to address some of the immediate needs people have in the long term. Since November they’ve recognized ten organizations committed to paying a living wage, and are every day growing a movement that is rebuilding our labour market, making sure working people don’t need food banks or homeless shelters.

You could also support advocacy groups which are in a spectrum from places like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which is a direct-action anti-poverty organization based in Toronto, or the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, which is a broadly based advocacy group that seeks to mobilize people and share the experiences of people living in poverty with decision makers.

Send your voice up that river!

Finally, write a letter, or two, or three! Find your provincial representative, and send them a letter explaining your support for upstream solutions to poverty. Mention, if you’d like, that we save money when we focus on treating the social determinants of health, and that equal societies are better for everyone.  Remind your MPP of Provincial commitments to poverty reduction strategies, and ‘ending homelessness’ in the province. Thank them for making those commitments, which, you might further mention, means something like “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause.”

Cathy Crowe’s conclusion is a good one, and worth re-iterating: “If you apply your effort to the three thirds, not just the downstream piece, you can be part of the real solution, a just solution.”

Check in with us next week for another perspective on giving. Our guest blogger Luke discusses his own frustrating experiences of being caught in the middle of charitable giving without relationship, or solidarity. 


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One Response to “Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part one”

  1. Shut Up and Take My Money, part three! (Or, why cash transfers aren’t a silver bullet for food banks) | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] ask us to dismantle those systems. I am simplifying here (I’ve talked more about this elsewhere), and my point is not to dissuade the donors who make our work possible. Rather, I think we can and […]

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