Thursday, January 04, 2018

Sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters

I am visiting Sudbury, Ontario, at the moment. I lived here for about a decade, and moved away two and not-quite-a-half years ago. This is my first visit back in more than a year. As such, my mind is turning to questions of sameness and difference and to cold, dangerous winters.

I am very conscious that I could tell a story about my life between when we moved and today that shows that my life is essentially the same, and I could tell another story about my life between when we moved and today that shows my life is very different.

Both would be true.

Sameness, in brief: The people in my life are much the same, even if I'm physically farther from some and closer to others; the work I do is much the same – Talking Radical Radio is still my biggest ongoing project, and a book emerging (in a broad sense) from the work on the show is still a central (if intermittent) commitment, and social movements are still at the heart of what I do; and, I am still involved in grassroots political work in the community – not as intensively as when I was 25, certainly, but to the extent that I can be, I'm still engaged with collective efforts to push for change.

Difference, in brief: Materially, other than my primary partner and my kid, who I actually spend time with and how that time is organized is quite different than before we moved, and I've met many new people, plus three (of not-many) older Neigh relatives have died in that time; the show is the same, but the book project emerging from it has changed drastically, and I'm also involved in something new, the Red Hill Stories of Struggle project; and in terms of my political involvement, I no longer do grassroots media organizing (as opposed to grassroots media making, of which I still do plenty) but I am now involved in climate justice work.

If I did that over three pages each rather than one short paragraph each, I could turn these differently emphasized data points into narratives that feel much more dramatically different. But both true.

That's the key: We make different stories out of the same complex situation by choosing which facts to include, which to emphasize, which to downplay, which to omit. That can be done responsibly (e.g. grassroots journalism centering the voices of ordinary people who are most directly affected by an issue, while not knowingly leaving anything major out) or irresponsibly, but it is inevitable when making narratives about the world.

And I know that what I did above for a life can also be done for a place. So as I visit and chat and sip tea, I'm on the lookout for ways that Sudbury is the same, and different, over the last two-and-a-bit years. I honestly haven't been able to identify much. But I do know one major difference is that for much of the time I lived here, there was an active direct action anti-poverty group, often but not always called the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP), and now there is not. The story of why it no longer exists is one that makes me sad, but it isn't mine to tell. Instead of thinking about the causes of its absence, though, I've been thinking about the consequences.

I feel very aware of its absence because of the messages coming out in Toronto this last week about the dangerously inadequate shelter system in that city in the middle of a sustained cold snap, which is putting lives at risk. We've seen the city administration in Toronto working very hard to keep the inadequacy of the shelter system there as one of those facts that just doesn't get mentioned in narratives of 'Toronto,' that isn't present in mainstream/middle-class consciousness of the city. And we've seen action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, street nurse Cathy Crowe, and a lot of other people refusing to let that happen – insisting that a shelter system so inadequate as to be life-threatening *is* part of Toronto's story.

When S-CAP existed, its presence and loudness and persistence similarly forced the mainstream media, city hall, and middle-class people in Sudbury to bring into their narratives of this place aspects of the complex social whole that they would otherwise have ignored. Their work also pushed other progressive groups in the city to take up and talk about poverty issues, social assistance, and homelessness in new and more vigorous ways. They didn't bring the revolution, sure, but they forced real improvements in the systems that keep marginalized people alive, and they did it in a movement-building way aimed at building capacity to win bigger and potentially more transformative fights in the future.

So as I think about sameness, difference, and cold dangerous winters, I'm thinking about what we don't notice because there isn't a persistently loud collective forcing us to notice. We've heard lots about how the shelter system in Toronto is inadequate. But what about in Sudbury? What about in Hamilton, where I now live? What about in other cities that do not currently have a militant anti-poverty group? And, yes, these cities have lots of people concerned about and working on poverty, some of whom I know, and many of whom do wonderful work. Some of these folks are, no doubt, saying what needs to be said. But that's not the same as having a collective (like S-CAP, OCAP, or something else) that will make these uncomfortable but vital facts unavoidable – that amplifies voices in a way that the powers-that-be and the comfortably-not-knowing cannot ignore, cannot leave out of their narratives, however much they would like to.

And it makes me wonder: What else about how I'm perceiving sameness and difference – between places, across time – is missing the mark because of the absence of groups able to make a fuss to bring harmful, oppressive realities unavoidably into our collective narratives?

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