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Lessons From The Frontline Of Change

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Nick Saul delivered convocation remarks at the Ryerson University Faculty of Community Services' Convocation on June 9, 2016 where he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his work as a community organizer and food activist. This is a truncated version of his remarks.

Good afternoon everyone.

Given my neighbourhood organizing background, I'm particularly proud to be part of a convocation linked to the Faculty of Community Services, a faculty that's all about putting people first, shedding light on issues that too often get ignored, and working to create a more inclusive society.

All of which is to say, you are my people. I believe that we share the conviction that each of us has a responsibility to one another, and that we're better for our connection. As alumni of this faculty, you've made a commitment to lifting up the common good, to building systems and networks and relationships that benefit not just the few, but the many.

I'm sorry to say that we are not in the majority. The cult of the individual reigns supreme at this
particular political and social moment. It's an ethos that posits that getting ahead justifies any cost -- whether it's personal, familial, environmental or societal. Our society venerates the bottom line -- profit and power, the Kevin O'Learys and Donald Trumps.

But that's what makes our collective work -- yours and mine and that of many, many others
today -- so very important.

It also makes our work in the community sector deeply political, because it is fundamentally about disrupting the status quo. A status quo that has kept far too many of our fellow citizens trapped on the sidelines. In a time marked by so much strife and discord triggered by race, class, religion and income, we desperately need more of you out in the world: people who will speak out for the rights of children, the differently abled, the poor, and the marginalized.

My committed colleagues and I at Community Food Centres Canada do our speaking out through the lens of food.

Food, of course, is the ultimate connector: we all eat, all cultures celebrate with it, and there's no better way to start a conversation among friends or strangers than over a meal.

But food also divides us - think of the 4 million Canadians who struggle to put food on their table; think of those with means enjoying fresh organic produce while the poor get fat, sugar and salt-laden foods, with all their attendant health problems; think of the many exploited migrant labourers who grow our food or, internationally, consider the small-scale farmers who are losing their livelihoods due to land grabs by massive multinational corporations.

This food divide was in clear sight when I began working in a small food bank in Toronto's west-end in the late 1990s. The fridges and cupboards of the people coming to our door were empty. And what we had on offer -- donations from neighbours emptying their cupboards and corporate castoffs -- was pretty awful. But the problem really crystallized for me during an encounter I had one day with a long-time volunteer. A few times a week this well-meaning gentleman would arrive at the food bank loaded with donated hampers full of over-ripe tomatoes and mushy bananas he'd picked up from grocers in his upscale neighbourhood.

I watched this ritual play out for several months before I finally worked up the courage to tell him that the food was of such poor quality we were no longer going to give it out. Needless to say he wasn't happy to hear this news. He felt people should be grateful to receive anything -- no matter the quality.

Beggars, in his view, can't be choosers.

But we held firm. We felt strongly that it was tough enough for people to come to our door and admit they needed help. To then be handed wilted lettuce, droopy carrots, freezer-burned chicken nuggets, was simply wrong.

It wasn't an easy conversation. Our volunteer was upset, a bit indignant. I'll never forget him jamming a box of food into my arms, saying to me he guessed he wasn't needed any more and driving off.

But this exchange was a defining moment for me and the organization as a whole. The decision to say "no more" was fuelled by the strong belief that everyone not only has the right to healthy food, we all have the right to be treated with dignity.

It's a belief that emerged out of a seemingly simple act: listening. We said "no more," because our community told us that they didn't want to eat unhealthy or rotting food. They didn't want to leave our food bank feeling smaller, humiliated by their experience.

And this listening set us on an incredible new journey -- a journey we're still on as we work with organizations in cities and neighbourhoods across the country to build vibrant community-based centres that put health and dignity in the foreground and use the power of food to nurture skills, connection, self-worth and social change.

I believe listening must always be at the heart of our work -- mine and yours. And I don't mean listening to businessmen, lawyers and politicians -- they already get plenty of air time -- but to the people, like many of those who come to our Community Food Centres in Toronto and Winnipeg and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, who are isolated in mould-infested basement apartments, who are working three jobs to stay even, who are missing meals so their kids can eat. It's these voices we need to lift up, to support so that the issues that matter to them are on our collective table.

And yet, this surfacing of voices and supporting them -- complicated as it sometimes can be -- is only part of our job. There's a tendency in the community sector to be satisfied with service delivery -- meals on tables, mats on floors, workshops delivered, referrals given. And it's true, the need is great and apparently never ending. But we can't allow ourselves to be contented with service. We can't allow ourselves to think that it's the end of our work with our communities. Because front-line programming is only the beginning.

My job -- our job -- is also to fight for the space to connect the experiences of marginalized people with the public realm. We all need to put at least part of our energy into forging systemic change -- change that gets at the root of the problems we see and experience in our work.

Of course, none of this is easy. Personal change is hard -- just ask anyone who's tried to quit smoking or get fit. Systemic political change is even harder. It's messy, nonlinear. There are bumps in the road, frustrating plateaus and obstacles. This is contested ground. We are fighting, as I said earlier, against a status quo that has a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.

You're going to get discouraged. You're going to find it hard to face the challenge. You've probably heard that burnout is a common story in the community sector. And I've seen lots of it. Good people get involved because they care, because they care deeply, and then because they care so deeply, they put everything they have into it. They may even stake their sense of their own goodness, righteousness, their success as a person on the fact that they have helped others. So when they are faced with the inevitable setbacks, the baby steps toward change, the retreats and backslides, they start to take it personally. They get demoralized and forget that this is about the long game. They forget that at its very heart this kind of change is about more than a single person, a bad day or week. That the alternative to this struggle is sitting on the sidelines, being passive, a bystander while our fellow citizens suffer, and I am here to tell you that that's no option at all.

Change rarely happens as fast as you want it to, but change is possible.

Don't forget that the minimum wage, the right to vote, and public health care weren't simply handed to us as gifts of citizenship. Quite the contrary, these important wins for greater equity and justice were victories fought for and won by people just like you and me who found the courage to say enough is enough -- "no more" -- and became part of a mobilizing effort aimed at forging a better way.

So know that you're not alone. You are on the right side of history when you fight for the rights of the disenfranchised. Find the thing that lights a fire in you. Be dogged in bringing attention to it, find others who share your passion. Listen to those most affected, and together make noise. Make lots of noise and celebrate even the smallest victories. And through this, you'll find a recipe for creating a world in which we all have a seat at the table.

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