Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part three

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In the first part of this series I mentioned House of Friendship’s 12 Days for Good campaign. The 12 Days campaign is over, but hundreds of people pledged to do good this year as a result, their actions rippling outwards through our community. Part two was a guest post that asked a number of basic and difficult questions about the nature of charitable work in unequal and unjust societies: why do we donate and to what end? As our guest blogger Luke made clear, charity without solidarity is problematic at best, and at worst, seems only to perpetuate the status quo. So, illusions shattered, where to go with part three?

Today I want to try to answer some of his concerns, and return to some of the points I raised in part one about supporting charitable work and structural change.

Solidarity and doing good

To start, I want to recognize one of our 12 Days for Good “Do Gooders.”

Meaghan Coneybeare wrote aboutView More: http://clickphotography.pass.us/head-shots hope, specifically about Finding Hope in Pyjamas. After watching a documentary on human trafficking that resonated with her own life experiences, Meaghan started collecting pyjamas to share with women who had escaped similar circumstances. “15 years ago, as I was running down that snowy street away from an abusive and unstable home with just the clothes on my back, I had no idea I would be helping youth in care or victims of trafficking. But I do know I had a sense of hope, and with that anything is possible.”

Meaghan was moved by feelings of solidarity. She recognized some of her own experience in someone else’s–I was like you, once, or I could have been–and then did something about it.

Many people are moved to ‘do good’ by this impulse, and I think that this kind of solidaristic recognition inspires a more responsible or ethical kind of support. Treat others like you want to be treated, right? If I have used a food bank before, or have had experiences that lead me to understand I easily could, then I‘m probably going to understand the nature of emergency food assistance differently; and I might also think harder about the importance of addressing root causes of poverty, so as to make food banks obsolete. When feelings of solidarity move us to ‘do good,’ we do good, better.

Solidarity and the state of our economy

In our current historical moment, I think there are forces working upon us that make solidarity harder, and easier.

On the one hand, solidarity is harder, because Canadian communities are increasingly unequal. In Canada, “income disparities (expressed in 2011 constant dollars) rose between 1995 and 2011.” As incomes diverge, so to do our life experiences. Most of my friends are like me, and I don’t think I’m too unusual (at least in this regard). It’s hard to make friends with people who have led a different life than you. Have you ever travelled in a country with pervasive poverty? Did you make any lasting friendships there–the robust kind of friendships that require equal respect and power? Here I think of my own charmed life, and my experiences living and working internationally, in a country where most people were quite poor, and a few were quite rich. I made friends there, but if I’m honest with myself most of those friendships were limited in ways I’ll never fully understand.

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On the other hand, solidarity is easier, because Canadian communities are increasingly unequal. As the gap between the wealthy and not wealthy grows, there is a real, material sense in which our–not wealthy–fates are converging. Based on 42 years of research, University of Toronto faculty recently argued that “Toronto is transforming from a mostly middle-income city into an island of wealth surrounded by increasingly poor pockets of suburb.” A recent national payroll survey shows that increasingly numbers of Canadians are “living pay cheque to pay cheque, saving less, postponing retirement and feeling overwhelmed by debt.” Slightly over half the Canadians surveyed reported “that it would be difficult to meet their financial obligations if their pay cheque was delayed by a single week.” Other sources report that 90% of Canadians feel financially insecure. The way we we typically talk and read about poverty and charity–us with money, and them with none–makes less sense, the closer we look at the state of our economy.

Fewer of them, more of us?

The squeezing together of middle, working, and lower classes also shows up in this year’s Hunger Count, the comprehensive study of hunger food bank use in Canada.  According to the Hunger Count, the number of Canadians using food banks is 25% higher than it was in 2008: in 2014 about 840,000 Canadians used food banks each month. Our program shared nearly 30,000 hampers in 2014, with almost 9,000 families. Nearly one in five families we support report work income as their primary source of income. Many other folks come to our program to get food after their appointments at the Ontario Works office, referred here by staff who know that welfare is not enough. This is old news, and unsurprising to anyone who’s considered how much welfare pays and how much life costs, but our numbers and the Hunger Count clearly indicate that significant numbers of working Canadians are also regular food bank users.

In a gross way, there is a silver lining here: changes in the Canadian economy, like increasingly precarious work, mean more of us will naturally empathize with folks living on a low income because more of us will be living on a low income. (Or without benefits, or on a short term contract, or some combination of those things.) And if this is good, it’s probably only because democratic societies require empathy–not just sympathy. Empathy is the ability “to understand and share the feelings of another,” whereas sympathy means feeling badly for someone else’s misfortune.

Creating conditions for empathy

In radically unequal communities, I think we often do good because we are sympathetic. I don’t want to disparage this feeling. However, if we feel bad without trying to understand other people’s experiences, and, more importantly, why certain groups of people predictably and consistently experience worse health, or lower educational outcomes, or whatever, then we might not be trying hard enough.

As I’ve outlined above, there are forces at work in our communities that make it harder and easier for us to walk in our neighbour’s shoes. Some of us will have no choice in feeling solidarity with other low income members of our community. But for those of us on the wealthy side of the widening gap, how can we walk in someone else’s shoes? Are there practices that create opportunities for solidarity?

Voluntary poverty is one option. (Advocates of this approach include Jesus, Gandhi, and various luminaries in the Catholic Worker tradition, including at the Working Centre.) This option obviously demands a great deal, but it highlights an important point: for privileged folks like me, empathy will and should be unsettling, because it involves thinking about many Whys? Why do so many people choose between rent and good food? Why do government employees refer clients to us? Why are working people using food banks?

Another option is shared work–whether paid, or not. In the second part of this series Luke describes the friction between people on extreme ends of an economic spectrum. This is great, when friction turns into dialogue, and, ideally, understanding. In some ways House of Friendship creates spaces for friction, spaces that offer a bridge between life experiences, where empathy can grow through shared work. At our Christmas and Emergency Hamper Programs we have volunteers from all walks of life, and I know they enrich and challenge each other in myriad ways.

One such volunteer was also one of our 12 “Do Gooders” this year. Sandra O’Hagan wrote about a spontaneous bleed in her brain that left her unable to move her arms or walk or speak clearly. She also wrote about the community of support that helped her rehabilitate. “We often take our health for granted until we don’t have it. What a gift it is to have options and choices in caring for ourselves and staying well. Thousands in our community are not so blessed.” Sandra started her own personal training business three years ago, and remains a dedicated and generous supporter of the food hamper program.

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So we try to walk with people in difficult times, and create opportunities for shared work between different folks in our community. However we must always be aware of the ‘upstream’ and human causes of these ‘difficult times.’  Most so-called difficult times are in fact the product of human decisions.  People in our community do not typically walk in to the many different programs of the the House of Friendship because of an “act of God” or a natural disaster.  They do so because of individual and collective decisions: to freeze social assistance rates, or to build more prisons instead of affordable housing or daycares.

Finally, and more importantly still, we should be careful not to let our feelings of empathy harden into the conviction that we fully understand another person’s situation. Empathy is an ideal we should aim at, even though we will always fall short. We all exist in, and experience the world in our own special ways. Yes, I can walk in your shoes, but they will fit me differently.

And hey, whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together!

 

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

  1. What Chickens And Bowling Balls Can Teach You About Food Drives | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] scratch? This is a tricky thing—I’ve written elsewhere about the difficulties involved in ‘putting yourself in another’s shoes’—but it’s necessary. The truck load of crispy fried onions three months past the best before […]

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