“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.”― Aristotle
Most of my work experience has been in the nonprofit sector.
When I started working at a charity right after undergrad, I didn’t realize how profoundly that would alter the trajectory of my career. Fast-forward 7 years later, I now spend my days at a legal aid clinic empowering unorganized, low-income workers who have been wrongfully fired for raising their employment rights at work.
Some of the employers I’ve sued include multinational car manufacturers, academic institutions, medical facilities, restaurants, and retail stores. There is no specific industry, size of company, or geographical region (we represent workers throughout Ontario) that nefariously suppresses the rights of workers. From my experience, it happens everywhere.
As someone who has committed herself to working towards positive social change, it’s understandable that I often feel the power — rooted in money and inadequate laws — of large corporations, right-wing politicians, and neoliberals are an insurmountable force that cannot be stopped. After all, progressives raise issues that plague those primarily living on the margins of society. We want to help others, but the question is how?
Not only are many progressive organizations cash-strapped, but those who seek to work in these positions are now personally struggling with the weight of crushing debt. How many times have you heard from friends that they wish they could work in such a mission but they’ve got bills to pay?
The consequence is that progressives lack role models.
Yes, we have a plethora of academics, politicians, and policy wonks to admire, but we struggle to find leaders in our community who have chosen this path. Why? Because our path is less traveled. The risk does not guarantee reward. The critics are loud. The bills stack up in our mailbox while the balance in our bank account goes down.
I saw first-hand how easy it would be to forget this life: In law school, career services practically groomed us for Bay Street. An etiquette coach came in for us future lady lawyers: wear no bright colours, watch your intonation, skirts are to be no shorter than three fingers above the knee.
If Big Law hires you as an articling student, devote every waking moment to them for the next ten months. When you return as a first-year associate, devote every waking moment to them for the next 8–10 years. Eventually, someone will throw you a bone and you’ll achieve partnership.
In law, the path to becoming partner is as formulaic as the education system:
First, elementary school,
Then middle school,
Then high school,
Finally college or university.
This is simply not the case for progressives.
We have no idea how to achieve our unified goal, let alone how we are going to save enough money in hopes to buy a home someday. A commitment to progressive change requires grappling with an unparalleled sense of emotional and financial insecurity. We are forced to be creative, strategic, and resourceful. To challenge the status quo, we must take initiative.
In order to be successful, we must rely on more than hope. Hope is wonderful, and we have more than enough, but we also need practical tactics that are efficient and cost-effective. Here are five things to consider implementing:
(1) Use the library. Commit to self-education.
What divides progressives is often the solution to the problem. Consider the racial wealth gap. Do we advocate repatriation? Free education? A universal basic income program? Eradication of mandatory minimum sentences? Of course, all of those things in tandem would be the most effective — but which do we prioritize?
Learning about history, economics, and political theory fosters meaningful — and more importantly: effective — conversations about how to proceed. When progressives are more informed and open-minded about different solutions, especially policies and strategies that have previously succeeded or failed, we’re less likely to repeat mistakes. For example, I thought that certain robust welfare policies from Denmark and Finland might be the best solution to address the racial wealth gap. But after reading Ta-Nehisi’s cautionary perspective on such strategies, I’m not so sure.
Public libraries are a fundamental instrument of democracy, not to mention one of the last remaining inclusive public spaces that not only enable, but encourage people from all walks of life to get comfy, use their resources, and stay awhile. We should use them to educate, inspire, and empower.
(2) Organize Your Community
The sheer number of participants involved in a cause is powerful. Most importantly: it’s free. Often, disenfranchised individuals experience isolation. The solution is to meet them where they are and explain to them that the battles they face are not their problem alone. Progressives believe in empowering the people who are actually affected, rather than let a bunch of intellectuals speak on their behalf. The beauty of community organizing is that it does just that.
Every year, my work participates in a rally/protest on Injured Workers’ Day. The morning often starts at Queen’s Park with a line of speakers. Homemade signs are held. Union flags are waved. Politicians come out in support. Labour activists consisting of lawyers, community advocates, grassroots organizers, and, of course, injured workers, attend. There are no specific numbers, but I suspect the turnout exceeds 500 people. It shuts down one of the main streets in downtown Toronto. Passersby stop to take photos that they post on social media. Major news outlets pick up the story. It renews a conversation that gets pushed to the wayside during the other 364 days of the year.
(3) Adopt Guerrilla Marketing Tactics
When I spoke with Zach Risinger, Senior Social Media Strategist at PETA, we talked about how PETA has a fraction of the advertising budget that major corporations have, yet they are still able to cut through the noise with their compelling campaigns. Zach used the example of Maggie Q, an actress known for the Divergent Series and the tv show Nikita, who lead a demonstration at Canada Goose’s headquarters by placing her leg, covered in blood, in a fur trap. PETA’s been able to rangle other big names like Morrissey, Paul McCartney, and Alec Baldwin.
Aside from celebrities, PETA’s recent success of shutting down Ringling Bros. was due to the organization’s ability to consistently publish videos, often made undercover, of the elephants that Ringling Bros. were using. In addition to PETA’s ability to leverage social media and put out content that snags free press, they've also worked with other organizations to file lawsuits against Ringling Bros, as well as staged several protests/demonstrations. There was no single moment of defeat, but rather a slow and steady process of altering public opinion. “Thirty-six years of PETA protests, of documenting animals left to die, beaten animals, and much more, has reduced attendance to the point of no return.”
For Black Lives Matter Toronto, it was the decision to halt the Toronto Pride Parade for 30 minutes, unwilling to resume the flow of the parade until Pride Toronto’s executive director signed a document agreeing to their demands, one of which included prohibiting police floats in the parade. This stunt, although harmless in nature, caused considerable controversy and sparked an important dialogue about the presence of police during pride celebrations.
But, if anything, this was a testament as to the effectiveness of BLMTO’s sit-in, which captured the attention of Torontonians and led to the achievement of their objective (which was for Pride Toronto to agree to their list of demands that essentially consisted of guaranteed inclusivity of queer people of colour). It cost BLMTO nothing and they achieved everything they set out to do.
(4) Leverage Your Platform
I don’t care how large your email list is, we all have a platform. Think about all your loved ones, colleagues, and clients. How many people trust what you say? How many people seek your advice? How many people are open to your opinions, even if they might disagree? Use that to your advantage.
Sometimes loved ones rope me in to attend community events with them. Would I have gone there if they hadn’t asked me to go with them? No. But it’s about exposure and being open-minded. Undoubtedly, I always leave with a new perspective, especially after interacting with people from communities that I rarely cross paths with.
On the internet, there are lots of us who have some sort of readership. Whether it’s fifty people or fifty thousand, our words are read by people from all around the world. What a privilege! In that respect, it's entirely your responsibility to be authentic and as truthful as possible about where you stand on things that matter.
As like attracts like, those with similar interests will slowly connect with you and a small, virtual village of like-minded progressives will form.
(5) Keep Your Lifestyle In Check
Minimalism may not work for everyone, but it feels right to me.
No, I don’t count how much stuff I own or have a problem with how many books are on my bookshelf. Rather than obsess over the rules laid out by famous advocates of minimalism, I incorporate what works for me. I’m attracted to a pragmatic minimalist lifestyle because I’ve made a commitment to myself to earn money through helping others, in whatever way possible, which doesn’t tend to come with a big paycheque. I have to manage my spending, my inclination towards dinners out, and the security of my family and our future. But it’s all a trade-off that I’ve willingly made. My own reminder that I am not the things I own. By opting out as much as possible, I’m able to ignore the shiny objects that detract from the real things in life, like transformative justice and socioeconomic equality.
What grounds me are what I hold in my heart and mind, not in my closet or garage. I am not advocating being impoverished, but rather being honest with yourself as to what you really need to be comfortable.
There’s a lot of other useful tools, but these are my main five. If you have any to add, I’d love to hear them. I’ll leave you with a quote from someone much braver, smarter, and more courageous than me:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”― Frederick Douglass
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