kike_roach.jpg

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

What are we talking about with organizing, then? We’re talking about sharing power. That’s at the root of people being able to live freely, being able to live joyously, being able to do what they want in life. What does this mean within our own organizations? We have to start with ourselves because we can’t manifest something that we are not practicing. Who are the people we have around the table when we’re talking about a problem? Is it the people who are most affected by the issue? Is it people with a diversity of views? Diversity comes in many different forms. It’s not just men and women and people with disabilities and trans-gendered people and same-sex and heterosexual and immigrant and people who have lived here a long time, it’s also people who think differently. A lot of that is informed by the way we live our lives but it’s also by having a committee, having a meeting, where people are encouraged to raise their voices and where we’re encouraging honest, frank discussions about the realities that we’re facing. We can’t sit in a room and come up with a bunch of talking points that sound good and think we’ve analyzed the problem. Did we go out and talk to people living this day to day? It’s not going to work if we haven’t. We’re not going to be able to ask the community for support if the decision makers are hiding behind closed doors. People will say “I don’t feel that this represents me.” If we don’t energize people and get people involved and engaged because we’re talking about things that go on in their lives every day, our movements will stagnate.

Another challenge of organizing is staying optimistic and hopeful we will succeed. When I was a kid, one of the first times I went to a funeral parlour was to see a man named Albert Johnson. He was shot and killed in his own home in front of his family by the police. He was unarmed. That galvanized the Black community in Toronto and it had a lasting impact on my life. I thought, “This is so wrong; this is so unjust. How could this happen? How could this happen in this man’s home, in front of his wife, in front of his daughter?” I remember feeling very vulnerable as I walked with my parents. But when I saw people coming together, all kinds of people that I’d never seen before, walking in the streets saying that it was wrong, protesting loudly and demanding change, something changed for me. That’s a moment when I realized that we do have power. I decided I was going to try to use my voice to speak up for people who have had their rights taken away.

IZ: If someone didn’t know where to start and asked you to outline five steps to organizing in your community, what would you tell them?

KR: Organizing starts with the individual. I remember reading a quote from Harriet Tubman: “I freed 1,000 slaves; I could have freed 1,000 more if only they had known they were slaves.” And I think what she meant was you’ve got to start from the place of realizing what’s wrong and deciding you’re not going to accept it. Step number one is: what is the issue you want to change? What is it you want to organize around? From there you go to examining the problem: how did it get created, who is affected, who’s involved in continuing to make this situation exist as it is? And that leads you to talk with a lot of people. The third step is creating positive dialogue that leads to the fourth step that asks: what are the solutions? A lot of the time we go out into the streets or to control our own bodies, the right to decide for ourselves when we want to become pregnant, the right to birth control, the right to healthy and safe abortion, the right to same sex marriage and broad acceptance that being a lesbian or gay person or a trans-gendered person is not abnormal or a mental illness. All these changes came about because people were organizing. And there are more: the ability of people of colour to enter politics and hold office or take jobs where we were previously banned, to go wherever we want. There have been so many changes if we think about the work that unions have done – pay equity, maternity leave, the right to have breaks at work. We’ve seen increased diversity in our public services, so different than when I was a kid. There’s been a major sea change in terms of the issue of violence against women. At one point, women were left on their own in the face of abusive relationships. Women mobilized and organized and created rape crisis centres, shelters. We changed the way society thinks about violence against women and we changed the culture so that violence is not acceptable, even though it still happens.

There are a lot of issues we still need to grapple with. As we reflect on Canada turning 150, we need to address residential schools and the history of colonialism in this country and what it has done to Indigenous people. We are seeing people living in dire situations, under boil water advisories, and we’re seeing suicides of young, Indigenous people. We need to raise awareness, raise the consciousness of people and shed light on the issue so that we can take steps to put an end to it. All change is a result of people organizing and saying, “Wait a minute. Something’s not right here. We can do better.” And then making it happen.

IZ: If you were advising a group of elementary teachers in the community trying to build support for public education, what would you say?

KR: Don’t wait for a crisis to start that work. Start to build relationships now because it’s so much easier to work with friends, people that you know, whose life circumstances you know about. If you want support from the community, know the community and be supportive of the community. Know about your students’ lives outside of the school, know about their parents’ lives, their family’s lives. We learn about these things by talking to people and bringing them in. Maybe there are new creative ways the school, outside of classroom time, can be used by the community. If you want solidarity, create it. It’s so much easier to build trust between two groups of people when there is mutual support. Some of these battles, some of these issues, can be tough; they can take a long time. We will have a lot of meetings and the meetings may be contentious. People will argue and disagree. But when we know who is in the room, when we open the dialogue and friendships start, that’s when trust builds, and we discover at the end of the day that we all have the same goal.

RELATED STORIES

volunteers standing outside of Women’s Literacy Program in Durham

You know you are doing something right when your students beat you into the classroom!

Natasha Henry standing in front of lockers

I recently participated in a curriculum workshop for teachers hosted by Natasha Henry.