Volunteerism and activism build strong communities

Hamilton Spectator Dec 28,2015

As the year draws to a close, I am reflecting on all the good that has happened in this community to counter the not so good. Hamiltonians get volunteering; in a country that understands and values volunteering, Hamilton has one of the highest rates of volunteers in Canada (Vital Signs). We contribute our skills and time freely, and do our part to make things a bit better for the communities and interests we are concerned about.

What I find interesting is that with such high volunteer numbers, why aren’t we as politically motivated, why aren’t more of us pushing for solutions to root problems?

That is what makes volunteering (broadly understood as nonconfrontational civic engagement) palatable and activism (the more in-your-face, status-quo challenging sort) something to shun. And can we really get to a peaceful, habitable and just planet (Maurice Strong) without more of us putting ourselves out there and tackling what we know to be wrong?
It’s socially acceptable to serve the hungry in a soup kitchen, or plant a tree than it is to advocate for a sound food policy or for industrial emissions to be curbed. I suspect that part of the answer lies in a fear of upsetting the ruling powers. Confronting power is always uncomfortable, scary and in many places, dangerous.

Putting oneself out on the line, in the public eye, or going to extremes by risking arrest or being arrested — certainly not something even seasoned activists are lining up for. Famed climate activist, 350.org Bill Mckibben says: “Like most people, I am not an activist by nature. There’s not that many people whose greatest desire is to go out and fight the system. But it seems like it’s the thing that is required.” His theory of change was to write his books from the comfort of his desk and get results that way, but he quickly realized that this way wasn’t enough.

Then there’s the perception of activists that’s not particularly charming: Adversarial, up in arms. People tend not to want to associate themselves with angry.

“No justice no peace, no mushrooms no peas, no moustache, no fleas, no muttons no fleece, no custard no cheese.” This is a joke from an art piece by cartoonist Joe Ollmann (What Mike Harris hears). Chanting and shouting doesn’t appeal. It’s awkward. I’m an activist and I’ll admit that I avoid going to rallies and demonstrations. Nor am I a fan of cajoling. Who here eagerly looks forward to talking people into doing something they’d rather not? You nag, they resist, you persist, they ignore. That’s exactly how it feels trying to get people to take action on behalf of social justice or any number of advocacy causes.

Of course activism is only one part of change: there’s technology, education and so on. But activism works. Activism informs policy. Take, as a recent example, the rallies in Paris, with tens of thousands of demonstrators from all over, taking to the streets, demanding that world leaders act aggressively to curb climate impacts. The results? A new, significant global climate agreement.

Beyond demonstrating in the streets, activists can be found attending city hall meetings, organizing in their living rooms, collecting petitions, educating and raising awareness in the community, writing lessons to their politicians and so on. “Make me do it,” that’s what one politician told a group of activists. There is still a prevailing sense that our leaders know best, but really, leaders tend to follow. Activists pressure politicians for the change that is needed to better a community.

Activism need not be a dirty word.

So an activist is a person who takes volunteering to the next level, advocating for a cause, participating in political processes and working to make the changes necessary to benefit those impacted by unjust situations. It’s a good thing.

For those who still feel uncomfortable with the word activist, perhaps unpaid lobbyist might please — since what is a lobbyist other than a paid activist who is hired by business to win over politicians?

We need volunteers. But I think even more, we need volunteers to straddle the realm of activism. Volunteers offer compassion. Volunteers do what they do from a place of appreciation. Activism sometimes looses sight of these, being so tied up with the purpose of ripping down unjust systems. But both volunteering and activism can support each another; together, they can help build stronger communities.

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton.



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