Posts Tagged ‘advocacy with purpose’

Something To Chew On This Thanksgiving

October 12, 2015

House of Friendship thinks you should vote for the community you want to seeOne of the first volunteer jobs I had in Kitchener Waterloo was doing non partisan outreach to encourage people to vote. One of my tasks involved standing on a corner, down the street from St. John’s Kitchen (back before it moved to it’s new location on Victoria Street) and handing out material to the men and women who were going in and out of the building to get a hot meal.

I saw a lot of people that day, and not all of them were thrilled to talk to me about why they should vote. While some were enthusiastic, I would say the majority of them expressed indifference, and occasionally, a fair degree of hostility to the political process, in which they felt they had no say, or representation.

Fair enough, the last thing you want to do is stand around with a stranger and talk about the how and why of voting when all you want is something to eat.

Which raises a big question: how can you engage with the political process when you have more immediate concerns in front of you, namely, no food, or even, no place to call a home? (more…)

Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part three

February 12, 2015

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: 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.


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.


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!


Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part two

February 5, 2015

Today’s post is the second in a three part series about the complicated relationships between charitable giving and the work of charitable organizations, especially during the holiday season. 

Our guest blogger Luke discusses below his own frustrating experiences of being caught in the middle of charitable giving without relationship, and other ways in which charitable work makes real solidarity difficult to realize.

The holiday season is now behind us. This is too bad, because for many of us November and December are the months when we donate to those in need, when we seem especially aware of injustice, pain, and suffering in our communities. It’s also an occasion to reflect on the relationships between giving, justice, and the ways we contribute—or don’t—to unequal societies.

I was fortunate enough to work as a truck driver for an organization that supports street-involved youth in one of Canada’s biggest cities. My job at this time of year was busy, but extremely rewarding. Food, clothing, toys and furniture were donated en masse. Our organization, and, more importantly, the street-youth we supported, depended on the generosity of the community–the Christmas rush. And, every so often, the “Christmas rush” created opportunities for interactions between rich and poor.


Charity, Solidarity, and the Holiday Season, part one

January 30, 2015

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.” (more…)

Filling in the Blanks – Advocacy With Purpose

June 10, 2014

House of Friendship Advocates With Purpose For a Poverty Free Ontario

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” – Edmond Burke

Ontario residents vote for their provincial representatives tomorrow, June 12th. (Here’s how, by the way!) The idea of representing another person’s (or group’s) interests is tricky at the best of times, and it’s easy to be cynical: do our leaders really want to act in our best interests? Could they, even if they wanted to? Aren’t there just too many interests in the first place?

We could throw in the towel and leave politics to the politicians. This seems to be what Edmond Burke was getting at (see above quotation), arguing that his role as a politician was to do his job without accountability to the wealthy landowning men who elected him. However, many of the hardworking men and women who make up our government today would tell you that Mr. Burke was dead wrong.

Yes, we live in an incredibly diverse community, and no, we don’t all see eye to eye, sometimes on very basic questions. (And yes, it’s probably also true that there are some politicians with questionable intentions.) But today’s politicians are people who have decided to dedicate a huge part of their life to public service. They have a genuine interest and passion for listening to people and trying to plot a course to a better future for all of us. That is to say, they try to respond to their constituents and to public opinion.

Who Will Listen?

The problem is not that politicians never listen, but maybe, rather, that they are most likely to listen to the loudest voices. The loudest (and, relatedly, most persuasive) voices typically belong to the most privileged members of our community. We cannot buy full page ads in the Globe and Mail, or commercial time during the Stanley Cup, but my experience is that we should not discount the power of an email, phone call or letter as a means to shape political debate. By putting our views out there in letters to the editor, radio call in shows, impromptu debates around the kitchen table over dinner, letters and calls to your local politician, newspaper articles, things we post to our Facebook pages and other social media (if you are so inclined) we all get a bigger piece of the picture and take one step closer to a better community for all of us.

Filling in the Blanks

One way we have been trying to engage with people at the Food Hamper Program for the upcoming election is to provide a platform for them to share their experiences and discuss how they overlap with government services and programs.  We supplied our patrons with cards with four sentences on them, encouraged them to fill them out and committed to sharing the results with all of the candidates in the two electoral districts we serve hampers to: Kitchener-Centre and Kitchener-Waterloo (which we have already done).

Here are the four sentences:

  1. Living on Ontario Works (OW) or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)* is…
  2. Every day I struggle with…
  3. If elected, please remember…
  4. I want to say…

A few people respectfully declined to fill out the card. One woman shared that she doesn’t vote, because she feels ignored and undervalued, and didn’t believe that a project like this made any difference. Following her comments, another woman, relatively new to Canada, took and filled out her card. “It’s small, but who knows, we should do it.” For the most part, patrons responded enthusiastically. Their comments provide a brief glimpse into the struggles that people face every day in our communities. See below for a sample of their responses. (more…)