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Kiké Roach posing in a hallway
Photo by Kathryn Gaitens
Feature

Community Organizing to Make Change: Izida Zorde in Conversation with Ryerson University’s Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy Kiké Roach

Izida Zorde

Izida Zorde: You have been a community organizer and civil rights lawyer and were recently appointed Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy. What does organizing mean to you and why is it particularly important in this moment?

Kiké Roach: Organizing means so many things to me. The freedoms and benefits I enjoy, the way I live my life today, have been a product of people struggling, people organizing, coming together, speaking out for social justice. I’m a Black woman who is a lesbian, who practices law in Canada, and while I take them for granted now, if we think about all the things that had to happen for me to be able to live my life the way I do, it all goes back to people coming together to fight discrimination, to make a better life. So, organizing for me means creating a better life. It means creating the kind of community I want to live in. It means coming together with different people so we can make the kinds of things we want to see and enjoy in our lives a reality. We’ve had to struggle and fight against a lot of different forces – sexism, homophobia, racism, all the “isms”, basically – that have created a dynamic in society where some people benefit and others struggle. A lot has changed but I think it’s important for us to keep going because we still haven’t gotten to where we need to be. I enjoy a lot of privilege, but looking around me I can see that we live in a world where a lot of people don’t have the same benefits I enjoy every day. I think it was Alice Walker who said, “Activism is the price I pay to live in this world.” I think what she meant was that as long as there are people in distress, people who are facing discrimination or facing difficult situations, we have to do something. We have to come together and try to change those dynamics.

IZ: We’ve talked before about how the election of Donald Trump and the rise in popularity of extreme right wing points of view have caused a lot of despair. How does getting involved in your community provide an antidote to the anxiety and fear people are feeling?

KR: Somebody spray painted a slogan on a wall that said, “no matter who you elect the government always gets in.” We have to be more active, we have to make our presence felt. We cannot rely on a restricted definition of democracy. We are often sold a bill of goods that says democracy is voting on a certain day, but that’s just a very tiny part of it. I think with the forces we’re seeing now in the United States and here, we’re reminded that democracy is something that happens in between elections, when people make their voices heard, when people make their presence felt, when people organize and come together and say no to what we don’t want, but also when we fashion the solutions we do want to see happen. We’re increasingly moving into a time when we are going to have to say no strongly and clearly, whether it’s no to pipelines or to the mismanagement of public monies. I think about the many people I know who are struggling just to find decent affordable childcare and I think about reports in the media about sexual assault and violence against women. I don’t see politicians talking about those issues on a day-to-day basis. I don’t see our representatives talking about, or being in touch with, how much work we still need to do on these issues.

Sometimes a problem seems really far from us, or so huge we can’t get our arms around it. But when we become aware of an issue and when we start to ask ourselves, “What power do we actually have?” when we start coming together with a common purpose to make change, it is possible. There is something exciting to me when I’m gathered with thousands of people and we’re all there for the same purpose. Those are the moments when I’ve felt most that change is just around the corner.

IZ: You’ve talked about your involvement in the women’s movement. How has feminism and the women’s movement informed your organizing? How do we ensure that our movements are inclusive and intersectional?

KR: I have been fortunate to work with women who had a certain humility toward the work. This is not to say there were never personality clashes or differences of opinion. There were, but in feminist groups I saw people working tough decisions out together, trying to achieve consensus. I saw women who reflected on their positions and had the courage to admit when they were wrong and change course. For a while after I became a civil rights lawyer, I thought I wasn’t doing feminist work because I went into a male dominated field and spent a lot of time examining policing and incarceration issues. But I came to see that what I was doing was trying to chip away at the very patriarchal systems, with built-in hierarchies, that resort to violence and punishment to solve problems. I wanted to be part of showing there is another way. Feminist thinking has helped me see things through a more holistic lens and to ask deeper questions that get at why things are set up the way they are, to ask questions about root causes and systems, to go beyond individual circumstance. The feminist phrase, “the personal is political,” means a lot to me. Ensuring our movements are inclusive takes being vigilant, making a constant effort to have as wide a cross-section of different backgrounds and life experiences around the table as possible when decisions are being made and striving to keep the voices of those who are most affected by the issue at the centre of our collective deliberations.

IZ: Can you talk about your work as a civil rights lawyer and how you fought together with communities to ensure that their rights and freedoms were protected?

KR: Becoming a lawyer changed my activism. I still protested in the streets every so often but I moved from organizing in community to representing collective interests and causes in court. I worked on cases to win compensation for people who were wronged by the state and I tried to bring about systemic changes to policing through inquests. I represented family members whose loved ones were killed by the police. I represented people who were in detention and being denied adequate healthcare. I represented people with psychiatric disabilities who were poor and/or racialized, discriminated against and having difficulty getting their basic rights respected. Working in this way gave me a real sense of purpose but, over time, I came to see how deeply entrenched inequality is and to understand there are no quick fixes. We have to work on a whole range of different fronts to dismantle systems that don’t work for everyday people.

IZ: What were some of the challenges of organizing? What are some important lessons you have learned over the years?

KR: There are many challenges to organizing. We all come from different backgrounds with different perspectives, different life experiences; that can pose a challenge. We don’t always approach a situation or a problem from the same vantage point and we don’t always have the same idea in mind about how the change should happen. So, for example, in the women’s movement, I’ve been in situations where women from different racial backgrounds were working together and there were times when we had difficult conversations and when there was tension in the room. I think those are the moments we’re not prepared for. As a society, there’s nowhere we can talk about the things that historically have divided us. We don’t always have the language or tools for talking about racial or other differences we might experience in our lives. We’re living with a disability, or in a same-sex relationship, or we’re transgendered, or we’re coming from all these diversities. We don’t all have the same educational background and we don’t grow up with the same economic security. I’ve experienced situations where people took something that was said personally and it created a disruption and took a long time to work through. Sometimes it didn’t work out. Sometimes people were just at loggerheads. But what was important was that we recognized those moments and tried to sit down and analyze them and say, “What went wrong there? What could we have done differently?” We’re making a lot of this up as we go along. We’re trying to figure out how to work well together as a group of people who come from different backgrounds and different experiences.

IZ: What are some of the tactics you’ve used to get over those kinds of divisions? What do you do when those moments happen but you still have to keep organizing together?

KR: One of the things that we came to understand was that we needed to set a framework for the discussion and make it explicit that we’re not all coming from the same experience. We have this diversity of opinion and life experience and we need to keep that at the forefront of our minds. We also need to practice listening to each other better. We have to acknowledge that, while we can be well-intentioned and think of ourselves as progressive people, we’ve nevertheless all been raised in a society that has actively or subconsciously practised systemic discrimination against different people. Sometimes it means dividing up and having people meet in subgroups to talk about those things. I’ve also been in a situation as a spokesperson that posed a challenge to me. I had a woman with disabilities come and say to me, “That was a great speech but you didn’t say anything about women with disabilities.” I had to stop and reflect and not be defensive, but listen. One of the challenges when you’re a spokesperson is to keep in mind that a single issue might affect different people differently. It challenges us to examine our notion of what leadership means. Maybe one person can’t speak for everybody; we need people who have had different experiences to come forward and have a voice. If we want to create a society of equality, we’ve got to start with ourselves, our own groups. What do they look like? Have we taken into account all of the members of the community?

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