Drawing Inspiration From The Front Line


Where do you work and what do you do?

I work for House of Friendship’s Emergency Food Hamper Program. My job title is “volunteer coordinator—intake worker,” and so a lot of the work I do is coordinating volunteers and doing intake with our program ‘patrons.’ I also write for, and help to coordinate HOF’s blog.

What keeps you motivated?
Is anyone always motivated? I think it’s only natural that some days are overwhelming and disheartening, the world being the way it is—global warming! The Economy! ISIS!—and doing the kind of work we do. And I try not to feel despair about feeling despair, if that makes sense. I like the idea that “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” You need to be a functioning person in the world, but maladjustment or anxiety or whatever can also be a sign that you are paying attention to what’s wrong around you. MLK has also made this point, in his singularly eloquent way: “through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

So yeah, I try to keep that in mind on harder days: it should not be too easy, and it is a good thing to keep one’s self sensitive to injustice. (I recently read that “a tendency to feel morally anxious in the face of a difficult decision is an essential element of good moral character.” Yay!)

Realistically, though, I can only maintain that kind of relationship with suffering when I feel part of a larger community of support. Being around folks with similar commitments keeps me grounded, reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing, and inspires me to keep doing it.

Finally, and most importantly, I blame my parents, who made me this way, to care about injustice and to recognize that my privilege involves a responsibility to work for justice.

The work we do is not always easy. What book, movie or song (Blog or other online media) inspires or influences your work?

These days I read news, in addition to obvious places, at rabble.ca, Jacobin and n+1. They all offer good critical analysis that shapes how I think about our work and the world (while gently reinforcing my worldview, most likely).

We work with a lot of folks, many of them employed, who cannot afford groceries. Because I work every day with people who are not benefitting from socio-economic relations in their current forms, I tend to think about injustice in economic terms. That being the case, Mr. Karl Marx is one of my basic intellectual influences. He got a lot wrong, but some of Marx’s basic insights into how capitalism tends to function—and exploit—remain relevant today. The French economist Thomas Piketty recently tested some of Karl’s key hypotheses, which became his excellent book Capital in the 21st Century. (There are lots of online resources if you are not keen to read the whole thing.)

But ‘injustice’ is not just about economics (capitalism?). Canadians suck at talking about race, myself very much included. We are quite good, on other hand, at ignoring (or worse) the many indigenous communities who experience the Canadian state as a colonial occupier. So I’m trying to learn more about those things, starting with some basic stuff about white privilege, and how seemingly innocuous aspects of organizations perpetuate structures of white supremacy.

So yes, I tend to focus on, and try to understand what’s wrong with the world. But there is a method to my madness, borrowed from another author who influences the way I think about the world. The heavy stuff motivates and even inspires me because I agree with Michel Foucault: “where there is power, there is resistance.”  I cannot do Foucault justice, but his basic point is that we cannot live without power relations, but we can reorganize power to our collective benefit. Wherever some exercise power, others resist.

That being the case, I am moved by Hayden King talking about centuries of indigenous resistance; Harshia Walia discussing how people like me (and you?) can be allies in “Decolonizing together;” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s autobiography, which totally blew me away—so powerful and eloquent and committed.

Plus there’s so much beauty and wonder in the world, when I take the time to look. It’s like this Sufjan Stevens song, where he explains “the reasons he continues at all,” and it’s simple moments of beauty, like sea lion caves in the dark (he’s from Oregon). The Grapes of Wrath and even just the photos in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are beautiful statements about a specific historical moment, but are no less relevant today—especially in my work context. Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor make beautiful music and beautiful statements, and divisive though he may be, so does Kanye West. Leonard Cohen is doing his best to keep the world safe from democracy.
If you can, what book, movie or song would you recommend to someone who wants to understand a bit about what you, or the people you work with, experience each day?

All of the above!

And, while it’s not about food security exactly, I recommend (to basically everyone) an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom called “The Logic of Stupid Poor People.” If it’s not obvious, her tone is sarcastic, and she incisively picks apart a lot of the silly arguments we hear (from people with money) about living in poverty. Here’s an excerpt: “Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on.” (She has other excellent essays as well.)

George Saunder’s fiction is amazing! He writes short stories that hilariously capture much of what is absurd about life in North America, but in a way that is beautifully and unusually optimistic. I think. “The Falls” is one of my favourites, and despite many re-readings I’m not sure how to think about it.

Put Food in the Budget is a useful collection of writing about food security and anti-poverty work in Ontario. I also encourage folks to check out the “Upstream Institute,” a group of folks committed to creating “a movement to create a healthy society through evidence-based, people-centred ideas. [They] work to reframe public discourse around addressing the social determinants of health in order to build a healthier society.” Here’s their introductory video:

I must also shamelessly plug our blog, and some of the stuff I’ve written about food security: ‘Poor People Can’t Cook,’ and Other Myths; Growing up Organically; Mo’ KD, Mo’ Problems; and a two part interview about living wages with Greg deGroot-Maggetti.


2 Responses to “Drawing Inspiration From The Front Line”

  1. Ron Flaming Says:

    what book helps to understand what motivates me: I and Thou by Martin Buber. quote “all actual life is encounter”. The meaning of our life is found in the relationships we enter with everyone we encounter. True relationships are reciprocal encounters.

  2. jessedcb Says:

    I like the idea that true relationships are reciprocal relationships, Ron, thanks for sharing. I don’t know Buber (I think I’ve read a couple pages of that book, years ago), but I wonder what a reciprocal relationship looks like, according to him (and you!); and whether and how to be in relationship with people who are also ‘patrons’ or ‘program participants,’ i.e. people who seem to be in a situation of fairly extreme deprivation, and who might not be interested in relationship or reciprocity. This is something I struggle with.

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