Friday, March 17, 2006

OPIRG Memories

The first social change organization I connected with back when I was a university student was the McMaster University chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group. It is a student funded, student run group for promoting social change. The exact issues and kinds of action taken vary from campus to campus and year to year based on what students themselves want to do. It's a structure that has limitations, as every structure does, but its role as a provider of infrastructure to allow groups of students to pursue whatever issues happen to interest them has always struck me as a model with a lot to recommend it. (And for U.S.-base readers, I think the PIRGs in Canada tend to be less focused on lobbying and legislation and more focused on grassroots activism than the PIRGs in the U.S.)

I went on to do other kinds of political stuff with one of the staff there after I graduated, and he and I still keep in sporadic touch. (He's also a regular reader of this blog -- Hi Randy!) He asked me to write some brief reminiscences about my time involved with OPIRG McMaster for them to put up on their web site. The idea is partly to promote the organization, and partly to provide a broader picture of what social change can and does mean by getting former OPIRG activists to talk about their experiences. What I wrote is longer than he wants, so I may end up having to change it before it goes up on their site, but I thought I'd post this draft here...I haven't exactly been diligent about producing original writing for the ol' blog in the last week or two, and this was quite fun to write, so I thought I'd share it.

I first met OPIRG when OPIRG first returned to McMaster, and we got along famously from day one. My very first "activist" meeting of any kind was filled with tired, happy people overjoyed at just having won funding to bring OPIRG to campus and strategizing about what to do next. It was the end of my second year of a biochemistry co-op degree, and I had been doing some reading and thinking and decided I wanted to see what this whole social change thing was about. Somehow, a few meetings later, I was on the committee charged with hiring OPIRG McMaster's first staff over the coming summer.

At the beginning of the next school year, still very new and unsure of how I wanted to be involved, I signed my name to a list for the Waste Reduction Working Group. A few weeks went by. I dropped by the OPIRG office to see if maybe my name had somehow dropped off the list and I wasn't getting the emails that had surely been circulating about the meetings that had surely been held. It turned out that nothing at all had happened yet. By the time I left the office -- completely unsure about how introverted, neophyte me had been convinced that this was a good idea -- I had a list of contact information in my hand and had committed to doing what I could to make sure things got rolling. I was heavily involved in Waste Reduction for the next three years.

I also have very fond memories from that first autumn of the weekly Get Up, Stand Up! Film Festival -- every week I helped out with it; every week I was rewarded by some fascinating and new-to-me blast of information and ideas; and every week I had the pleasure of walking part of the way home beside someone a little older and a little more experienced, and getting to mutually process what we had just seen. I also plunged into the print resources that the OPIRG office provides, and in my two-year term on the Board of Directors took great delight in overseeing the spending of money to broaden and deepen the collection. I got involved in other working groups, in doing other tasks, and when I graduated and drifted from a geographical identity centred around "McMaster" to one grounded in "Hamilton," I stayed in touch.

University can be a time when some of us who didn't grow up facing them in our daily lives are first confronted by ideas and writing about the brutal realities of our society. These realities get named in lots of partial ways, but they add up to interlocking hierarchies of privilege and oppression based on class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, and more, in a political economy that depends on death and suffering not only to enrich the most powerful elites but to reward those of us who have more mundane forms of privilege as well. For me, OPIRG provided some tools to start learning about bits and pieces of that, and opportunities to start taking action around those corners of the beast that I was starting to see. OPIRG is just one organization, just one set of tools, and many folk might find other choices that would better suit their consciousness, their experiences of oppression, their desires to act. For me, however, OPIRG McMaster was an important ingredient in kicking off an ongoing journey of consciousness and action.

That journey has taken me lots of other places, of course, and all of them have shaped me further, but having OPIRG available when I was in a crucial stage of questioning and searching was an important catalyst. I'm still not sure how well I understand much of anything, and make no great claims for the decisions I make about acting in the world, but my journey of political consciousness informs how I function as a parent, as a partner, as a person. It is a major part of my work as a writer, both in my informal personal/political ramblings on my blog, and in my central project based on oral history interviews with fifty long-time Canadian activists. And it still takes me to meetings -- thanks in part to learnings begun with OPIRG, at last night's direct action anti-poverty group meeting I think I was a little less clueless, a little more sure of myself and my role, a little more able to contribute, than so many years ago.

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